Lifestyle expert and media personality Hope Fox had shelves filled with cookbooks by restaurant chefs, whose dishes she savored and hoped to replicate.
Usually, however, she found herself frustrated by recipes with long lists of hard-to-find ingredients and instructions she often did not understand.
Not one to avoid a challenge, Fox spent five years collecting recipes and advice from 100 of the country's top restaurants and chefs, 10 from each of 10 major cities known for destination dining.
The result, Impress for Less! Finally . . . Terrific Recipes from the Finest Restaurants You Can Really Make at Home (John Wiley), shows home cooks how they, too, can prepare these signature dishes for family and friends.
Working with the chefs' advice and consent, Fox adapted the recipes, re-creating them at home with ingredients readily available in most supermarkets, using shortcut cooking methods to trim prep time and labor.
The adapted recipes, presented with simple, straightforward instructions, give the cook the option of using the modified version or following the chef's original. The entree on today's menu, for instance, can be made with Muscovy duck breasts, as in chef Martin Hamann's original recipe, or with chicken, in Fox's less-costly version.
Each recipe comes with explanations and a guide to finding unusual or regional ingredients. There are notes on substitutions, and recommendations for wines or other beverages (one economical, one more extravagant) to serve with each dish.
But that prompts the question: How did Fox get 100 top chefs to cooperate on a cookbook?
Well, she started by asking nicely. And having her television credits - more than 10 years' hawking products from cookware to cosmetics on QVC - might have helped some, but, she said, not all that much.
"Chefs don't give out their recipes that readily, and I wasn't in the food business - they didn't know me," she said, reflecting on the task that she described as the hardest thing she'd ever done.
"I had to wear them down with passion, persistence and integrity. Sometimes I'd have to call at 3 a.m. when they finished in the kitchen."
Still, when Fox turns up her high-voltage charm, her enthusiasm is contagious.
Anyone who has seen the ebullient Fox on the West Chester-based shopping channel will understand how persuasive a saleswoman she can be.
It's hard to say no. And few chefs did, especially after she scored a major coup by getting two famed New York chefs to participate.
"Once I got Daniel [Boulud] and Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] to agree, it was a lot easier to get others on board," Fox recalled.
Ultimately, however, it was agreement with her concept that brought many chefs into the fold.
"I couldn't believe how often chefs would say, 'I get your idea, because I can't work out of other chefs' cookbooks, either.' "
Now chefs are asking to be included in Fox's next planned book - which will include some of her own recipes.
It's a project she'll begin this spring, juggling it with negotiations to host her own lifestyle TV show built on the Impress for Less theme, and a newsletter and Web site (www.impressforless.com) already in place for her fans.
As for the current book, Fox's recipe selections and adaptations reflect the easy elegance she favors for entertaining.
Anyone with a slow cooker can earn praise as a host with the slow-cooked lamb shanks, a specialty of chef Jonathan Wright at the Windsor Court in New Orleans. Along with the chef's note to sear the meat first to caramelize the outside, giving it extra color and flavor, Fox suggests using shoulder cut shanks, which are more tender and flavorful than leg shanks.
Along with elegant dishes from the menus of renowned restaurants like Jean-Georges and Daniel in New York, Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, and Chef Allen's in North Miami, there are specialties as varied as potato tacos with avocado salsa from Norman's in Coral Gables, Fla.; smoked salmon cheesecake from Roaring Fork in Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Vietnamese "shaking beef" (bo luc lac) from the Slanted Door in San Francisco.
The holiday dinner-party menu and recipes that follow came together easily from some of the popular Philadelphia restaurants featured:
Spice-Rubbed Crostini with Warm Boursin Mousse (Dilworthtown Inn)
Crab Seviche (Alma de Cuba)
Wilted Tuscan Salad (Vetri)
Roasted Orange Chicken Breast with Wild Rice Pancakes (Fountain Restaurant, the Four Seasons Hotel)
Hope Fox will be signing her cookbook and talking with fans this week at these area stores:
10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Beethoven Wraps
126 Lancaster Ave., Wayne
Noon to 5 p.m.
Barnes & Noble
200 W. Route 70, Marlton
Saturday and Sunday
11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
250 Wayne Towne Center, Wayne, N.J.
With cooking demonstrations.
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
1210 Bethlehem Pike, North Wales
Makes 10 servings
8 ounces Brillat-Savarin (triple-cream), Boursin or similar cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
Freshly ground white pepper
9 large eggs
3 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives
1 loaf French bread
1/2 cup clarified (melted and strained) unsalted butter
Coarse salt, to taste
2 tablespoons Mesa Rosa rub or Grill Mates Montreal
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter 10 (6-ounce) ovenproof ramekins. Have ready a roasting pan to hold them.
2. In a food processor, mix 2/3 of the cheese, the cream cheese and pepper, to taste, until smooth. Add the eggs, 1 cup of the cream and half the chives. Pulse to blend.
3. Divide the mixture in the ramekins. Put them in the large pan. Add boiling water to half the ramekin depth. Bake until set, about 15 minutes. (A knife inserted in center comes out clean.) Cool slightly before serving.
4. Meanwhile, cut the bread in thin slices. Heat the butter in a saute pan. In batches, fry the bread, turning once to brown both sides, 4 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle seasoning and thyme on hot bread.
5. For the sauce, in a small pan, simmer remaining 2 cups cream on medium heat to reduce by half, about 10 minutes. Add salt, pepper and the remaining chives.
6. To unmold custards, run a small knife around the inside of each ramekin and invert onto serving plates. Drizzle with warm sauce. Serve with toasted crostini (the fried bread), spread lightly with reserved cheese.
Note: For lighter appetizers or hors d'oeuvres use 3-ounce ramekins or mini-tart trays coated with baking spray.
Per serving: 654 calories, 14 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 56 grams fat, 358 milligrams cholesterol, 545 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons heavy cream
11/2 tablespoons Dijon
1/2 teaspoon horseradish
Dash of Tabasco
1 pound jumbo lump crab meat, picked through to remove shell or cartilage
1/2 bunch scallions, thinly sliced on the bias
Leaves of 1/2 bunch cilantro
1/2 bunch chives, thinly sliced
1/2 yellow or red tomato, diced
Coarse salt, to taste
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the lime juice, orange juice, cream, mustard, horseradish and Tabasco. Add the crab meat, scallions, cilantro, chives and tomato.
2. Mix gently, folding until blended. Season with salt to taste. Chill at least 1 hour. Serve in chilled stemware.
Per serving: 146 calories, 22 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, 99 milligrams cholesterol, 477 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup orange juice
Zest of 1 orange
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 (6.2 ounce) package wild rice mix (or a long-grain and wild rice mix)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1 (12-ounce) can Mandarin orange segments, drained
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake pecans on a sheet pan, stirring once or twice, until lightly toasted and fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Set aside.
2. In a small saucepan, mix the chicken stock, orange juice and zest and bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Simmer until reduced by half, about 10 minutes.
3. In a cup, blend the cornstarch and water until smooth. Whisk the cornstarch slurry into the boiling stock-juice mixture. Cook, stirring until thickened, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste; set aside.
4. Meanwhile, prepare rice as directed on box. In a large bowl, cool slightly, stir in eggs and crumbs. Form 8 patties.
5. In a saute pan, heat 1 tablespoon each oil and butter medium hot. In two batches, cook the pancakes to golden on each side, about 4 minutes per batch. Keep warm.
6. Wipe pan, return to heat with remaining olive oil and butter. Season chicken with salt and pepper and cook on medium-high heat until chicken starts to brown and is cooked through, about 10 minutes.
7. To serve, reheat the sauce if needed. Slice the chicken breasts on the bias into 6 to 8 slices each. Put 2 rice cakes on each of 4 plates. Arrange chicken on top. Ladle sauce on each. Garnish each plate with orange segments and pecans.
Per serving: 730 calories, 51 grams protein, 67 grams carbohydrates, 21 grams sugar, 29 grams fat, 221 milligrams cholesterol, 1,367 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
1/4 cup thinly sliced pancetta or bacon (see Note)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups mixed lettuces
1 tablespoon each: balsamic and sherry vinegars
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 to 3 large eggs, lightly beaten, to taste (see Note)
1. In a small pan over medium heat, cook the pancetta in the butter until crisp, about 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, toss the lettuces, vinegars, salt and pepper to taste.
3. When the pancetta is crisp, add the eggs to the pan and stir until softly scrambled but still a bit runny. Scrape egg mixture into the bowl with greens. Toss and serve.
Note: It is important not to cook the eggs too much. They should be runny to blend with the oil and vinegar (messy, but tasty). If you substitute American bacon for unsmoked pancetta, blanch it in boiling water for 1 to 2 minutes. You can also use prosciutto.
Per serving: 163 calories, 3 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 72 milligrams cholesterol, 93 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.