Before I get to the books (and magazine), a thought or two on last week’s Top Chef: All-Stars.
First, I found it interesting that no chef stood up for Jamie and even indicated that they understood, let alone approved of, her decision to leave for stitches on her thumb. If that’s the ethic of the kitchen, I feel like I should defer to that. And Tony Bourdain had no sympathy either. (Hat tip to Dave Cameron for pointing me to Bourdain’s blog.) Plus the stakes are even higher in this competition than they are in a restaurant kitchen.
But more importantly, how did no one ding her on bad cutting technique? Where the hell was her thumb that she ran her knife directly into it? I hate the parallel-to-the-board cut anyway because it’s dangerous, but when I must do it, my main priority is ensuring that if the knife moves forward faster than I expect, it will do nothing but slice the food I’m cutting. Fingers up. Thumbs up. Wrist angled up and sharply away from the food. If you don’t want to send Jamie home for malingering, send her home for poor knife skills.
Also, I tweeted a link earlier to the Chicago Tribune‘s interview with week 1′s unconditionally-released chef, Elia, in which she completely loses her mind and goes after Tom Colicchio. Tom’s response, while clearly dripping with disrespect, stays on point in an impressive manner – he answers the charges while keeping the deprecation subtle. It’s a model of angry writing. And as he and Bourdain and others have said, raw fish is raw fish. If it’s not meant to be raw, and it’s raw, you can’t pin that on the judges.
I was asked on Twitter today to suggest some cookbooks or magazines, and I haven’t updated my old list of recommendations in a while so I figured I’d throw a new post together. I tend toward more specialized cookbooks now because I’m more interested in ideas than in techniques, but I’ll start with the staples to which I keep returning even though I’ve owned some of them for years.
Joy of Cooking. The gray lady of the kitchen – still reliable if somewhat staid, with a level of completeness that few rivals can approach. If you need a recipe for a basic or common dish, it’s probably here, with clear instructions and lots of information on ingredients. I learned to cook from two sources above all others: Alton Brown and Joy. I’m partial to the 1997 edition myself, as I understand the last revision (for the book’s 75th anniversary) introduced some best-forgotten sections on semi-homemade meals while removing some of the professionally-written material that makes the ’97 version so indispensable. The new revision does include cocktail recipes, but I have The Official Harvard Student Agencies Bartending Course for that.
Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. You cook, and you don’t own Ratio? I don’t think I’ve added any cookbook to my collection that changed my thinking on food as much as Michael Ruhlman did in his concise, almost engineering-like book that reduces recipes to their master formulas. From biscuits to pâte à choux to stocks to custards, Ruhlman gives you the framework and lets you build up from there. If you’re like me and cook better when you understand what’s happening in the bowl or pot, you must own Ratio. And it’s just $10 on amazon.
Baking Illustrated. The one book that I can say has truly supplanted Joy, at least in its niche; if you can get past the cloying prose and descriptions of the strange substitutions they tried (“then we replaced the sour cream with motor oil … but that killed four of the testers”), the recipes are extremely reliable, and the lengthy prose does give you the insight you’ll need to know where you can tweak. Their pumpkin pie recipe remains the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever tried, and it worked perfectly the first time I made it.
Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Whole Grain Breads, and Artisan Breads Every Day. I love bread, real bread, just baked, best eaten in a day or two after which you bake some more. Reinhart helped me crack the code of good bread, and his books are tremendous references that cover many of the directions in which you might go as a baker. Artisan Breads Everyday is the beginner’s book of the collection, if you’re just getting started with the joys of autolysis and the overnight soak, while the other two books are still accessible but presume a little more skill – and they include the best pizza dough recipe I’ve ever used.
How To Cook Everything. I do not own this book, but the reviews from those of you who do have been uniformly positive, and it seems like a good companion to or – perish the thought – substitute for Joy. The author, Mark Bittman, is a longtime food writer for the New York Times who is often credited with bringing no-knead bread to the attention of the masses. (I still knead my bread, though. Even a minute of kneading makes a huge difference.)
Good Eats: The Early Years. The first of three books – I do not own the second one yet – has Alton going back through every episode of his seminal TV series and reworking recipes to address problems or user concerns, all while providing a lot of background information on each episode or the food it covers.
Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom. I do own a copy of the first part of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking … but it feels dated to me, and I’m never likely to do much classical French cooking at home. That’s just not how we eat on a day to day basis. Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom distills the core techniques and ideas from her experience in the kitchen into a slim, bright volume that I have always found far more relevant to what I might cook on a Wednesday evening. The book contains many recipes, but as with Brown, Reinhart, and Ruhlman, Child is pushing comprehension, not repetition. This was the book that pushed me to make more vinaigrettes.
For magazines, I’m partial to Fine Cooking, which takes that scientific approach of Good Eats and packs every issue full of recipes, with reference information on ingredients and tools, a card with nutrition data for every dish in that issue, and an emphasis on extensibility (such as the “nine cookies from three doughs” article from several years ago that was a staple of my Christmas cookie regimen). Of course, my subscription keeps lapsing because I’m disorganized, but this is the only cooking magazine to which I’ve subscribed since my daughter was born; I gave up on Bon Appetit because they repeated recipes and ideas, and I can’t deal with the writing in Cook’s Illustrated, which is even sillier than the writing in Baking Illustrated.