If you read my posts, you might think that I am obsessed with food, and honestly, cooking is one of my passions and has been for years. I’ve had my failures (mackerel casserole…don’t ask, and more recently, an absolutely inedible chili mole), but I have come to believe that cooking well is largely a matter of care and thoughtful repetition combined with a sense of proportion. While I own a large collection of cookbooks that I love to flip through for ideas, I find that more and more often these days I don’t cook following a recipe. Technique and flavor balance actually interest me more than specific ingredients and ease or difficulty of preparation. My thinking is that once you master certain methods of cooking and combining flavors you should be able to prepare just about any dish that you like. I have found a number of resources at DCPL that have helped me in this quest.
First up is the Pam Anderson’s well-regarded How to Cook Without a Book. The author presents a particular technique, such as stir frying or omelet making, followed by variations on the basic form. While the information in this book might be a little too basic for those of us who have been cooking for a long time, this would make a good resource for kitchen beginners who want to cook more at home but are unsure of how or where to start.
Another terrific resource is Cooking Know How by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarborough. The authors present 65 basic dishes and explain the steps and techniques involved with putting the dish together. Then they provide a chart which gives several variations of the basic dish by merely varying the ingredients. For example the potato gratin recipe discusses what a potato gratin is (a layered casserole), what type of potato is best (russets) and how to slice the vegetable (as thinly as possible). Following this is a very detailed, yet easy to follow, description of each step in constructing the dish accompanied by photographs which provide invaluable visual assistance. The chart which follows the potato gratin instructions provides 5 variations on the basic theme and include potato and leek, potato and cabbage, potato and brussels sprouts, curried potato, cauliflower, and peas, and garden vegetables. You can hardly go wrong using this book even if you’ve never cooked anything. By the way, I recommend the black bean burgers…delicious!
One of my favorite books is Ratio: the simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking by Michael Ruhlman. This is not a cookbook in the usual sense of the word. Ruhlman’s premise is that if one knows the ratio of ingredients in a particular type of food, then one can always successfully prepare it without having to consult a recipe. The book is divided into five parts – doughs, stocks, sausages, sauces, and custards with variations on each of the themes (pasta and biscuits in dough, mayonnaise and vinaigrette under sauces). Though Ruhlman provides a few suggestions on how to use each preparation, his promise is that following the ratios will provide you with successful results every time. Your creative spin on the basics is icing on the cake…so to speak. This book is a treasure and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Right now, my absolute favorite kitchen reference is The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg. The book is basically an exhaustive list of ingredients and cuisines arranged alphabetically. Under each main heading you will find the flavors that compliment it successfully. Some of these might surprise you. For example, you might already know that sugar enhances dark chocolate, but did you know that lemon and mint are also chocolate’s flavor affinities? My grandmother was a really good cook who, to my knowledge, never owned a cookbook. She cooked by taste and by knowing what was in season when. If that’s the sort of cooking that you aspire to (I do!) then this reference will prove invaluable.
Finally, you could could learn everything you need to know about cooking by picking up a copy of Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and cooking your way through it. Far from being merely a collection of recipes, Joy of Cooking, in all of its many editions, has always been focused on kitchen techniques. You have to trust a cookbook writer who begins a section on heat and cooking methods with the phrase “Stand facing the stove.”
What are your favorite cooking references?