Friday Fun: Why we use cookbooks

I like to cook. I have a few standard, signature dishes where I more or less freestyle every time I make them — beef stew, chili, quesadillas, pasta sauce.

I also like to try new things. For example, I’ll probably be making Tyler Hamilton’s lamb shank Irish stew this weekend. So yeah, the first time I make something I usually follow the recipe pretty closely; and I find a lot of my recipes on the web.

But, at the same time I also own a fair number of cookbooks which I do like to use for their recipes and, more importantly, for a bit of immersion into a style or a philosophy or a technique. And I find cookbooks are still really great for that.

Interestingly, Adam Gopnik is thinking some of the same things in his recent New Yorker article, What’s the Recipe? Our hunger for cookbooks.

Another answer to the question “What good is the cookbook?” lies in what might be called the grammatical turn: the idea that what the cookbook should supply is the rules, the deep structure–a fixed, underlying grammar that enables you to use all the recipes you find. This grammatical turn is available in the popular “Best Recipe” series in Cook’s Illustrated, and in the “Cook’s Bible” of its editor, Christopher Kimball, in which recipes begin with a long disquisition on various approaches, ending with the best (and so brining was born); in Michael Ruhlman’s “The Elements of Cooking,” with its allusion to Strunk & White’s usage guide; and, most of all, in Mark Bittman’s indispensable new classic “How to Cook Everything,” which, though claiming “minimalism” of style, is maximalist in purpose–not a collection of recipes for all occasions but a set of techniques for all time.

If you love cookbooks, it’s a great read.

FWIW, the most recent cookbook I’ve purchased is Michael Smith‘s The Best of Chef at Home: Essential Recipes for Today’s Kitchen. I really like the way he sees his recipes as starting points for improvisation.

Comments

  1. #1 Doug Alder
    November 20, 2009

    I started out my working life back in the late 60′s training as a French chef – I love to cook, I particularly love to bake, but I found I did not like to do it for a living. No loss though I get to do this at home when I want and my wife is a fabulous cook too. We both love cookbooks and for the reasons you noted above and have several bookcases full of them (my treasure is one from 1911 Banquets of the Nations by Robert H. Christie – “Eighty-Six dinners – Characteristic and Typical Each of its Own Country”). fwiw Michael Smith is one of my favourite chefs.

  2. #2 GrayGaffer
    November 21, 2009

    You may be interested in a social thing we do with some friends of ours. We call it “International Dinners”. It goes like this”:

    1: 4 couples meet four times a year for home cooked dinner.

    2: Host role rotates; who does appetizers, side dishes, and desserts, is up for grabs. So each of us gets to host once a year.

    3: An ethnic theme (one never before visited) is picked at the end of each dinner for the next, by the next host.

    4: Everything everybody prepares must be something they have never made before. And, if possible, matching wines (which we are allowed to buy, of course).

    5: Everything must be brought to the dinner even if it failed. And no substitutes.

    We’ve been doing this for about 6 years now, and for me it has revealed a pretty good cook, if not actually a chef, that I never knew was in me. And I now have a modest repertoire of things I cook just for us. Yellow Thai Chicken Curry is one of our favorites now, the recipe is very short and quick to cook at <1hr, and very tasty.

    Rule 4 is the kicker. And four couples because that seems to be the maximum any of us can host.

  3. #3 GrayGaffer
    November 21, 2009

    Forgot to mention the on-topic part: this also means our library of cookbooks and recipe site URLs has grown considerably.

    But I still have a problem quantifying “pinches” of this and “dashes” of that and “season to taste” (the last because I killed my taste-buds with 42 years of smoking).

  4. #4 Doug Alder
    November 21, 2009

    GrayGaffer that sounds like a great idea – check out the book I linked to if you haven’t already – you’ll find some interesting recipes there that could be useful to your international themes. As for seasoning and taste buds – how’s your sense of smell (I know they are connected but one may be better than the other)? If you still have a sniffer substitute it for taste and work with your partner to check the seasoning then check the smell :)

  5. #5 John Dupuis
    November 21, 2009

    Thanks for the comments. GG, your cooking/hosting society seems like a really cool idea. I have to think about something like that! And I’d really like to see that chicken curry recipe too, if you have it online somewhere. It sounds like the kind of thing I’d like to make.

    Doug, thanks for the link to Banquets. I’ll have to take a look at it.

  6. #6 GrayGaffer
    November 21, 2009

    @Doug: taste is low sensitivity, so I tend to spicy. Smell has an equivalent to tinnitus which is annoying but mostly background, though it masks much. In particular, I cannot smell cat urine, so I get the litter-cleaning detail.

    @John et al:

    Yellow Thai Chicken Curry

    (no warranties of course!)

    Feeds 4 with revisits left over

    2 tbsp corn oil
    1 tsp crushed chili
    1/4 cup fish oil (optional)
    1/4 cup finely diced onion
    1/4 cup finely diced garlic
    3 tbsp curry powder
    2 tbsp sugar
    24 oz coconut milk
    1 to 1 1/2 lb chicken breast shredded or thinly sliced, bite sized pieces
    1 lb Russet potatoes cubed and parboiled
    1 lb sliced mushrooms

    Prep all food first and lay out in measuring cups beside stove ready for use. Have a cereal bowl ready to set aside the fried onion+garlic mix.

    Heat corn oil w/ chili in large frypan til hot. I have a trick here – add a pinch of the baby Indian style black peppercorns. They start popping when the oil reaches temperature.

    add onion and chili, keep oil hot, stir till onion starts to turn gold and set aside in bowl

    add coconut milk (carefully!) and bring to boil

    add chicken, bring back to boil, simmer with stirring for 3 minutes

    add the rest, including the onion+garlic that was set aside, bring back to boil, simmer with occasional stirring till ready to serve (at least 5 mins, check the chicken centers are white)

    Along the way I put 1 1/2 cups basmati rice into the rice cooker. Parallel the potato parboiling too, but keep testing – they should only just start to turn soft to a fork; you want them soft after the simmering but not falling apart!

    Have hot (chili hot) sauce to add to taste when served.

    This recipe is the first I ever made where I allowed myself to deviate from the original recipe, and it is always good. I’ve even made it with Tofu instead of chicken and still liked it.

  7. #7 GrayGaffer
    November 21, 2009

    oops! step 2, add onion + garlic – not chili!

  8. #8 John Dupuis
    November 23, 2009

    Thanks, GG, sounds great!

    I’m not much of a mushroom person, so I may just leave those out. Any suggestions for a substitution? Maybe another vegie?

  9. #9 GrayGaffer
    November 26, 2009

    Other than the chicken, anything else in the pan with it is whatever feels right at the time. I’ve seen carrots, broccoli, celery, … Some purists claim potato is a no-no, but really, anything goes. Actually, even chicken is optional. The core is the onions, garlic, curry powder, sugar, and coconut milk.

    Glad you like it, and keep us up with your dinners! And thanks for the book link, it will come in very useful.

  10. #10 WRG
    January 20, 2010

    OK, I’m waiting for the chicken curry, Mr. D.

  11. #11 John Dupuis
    January 20, 2010

    Ok. I think we’re going to have the roast chicken this weekend, then the request for the roasted tomato & pancetta pasta is next after that. That means chicken curry is a couple of weeks!

  12. #12 chezjake
    January 22, 2010

    John, I’d be tempted to use a 3 to 1 (volumetric) mix of cauliflower and sweet red pepper as a substitute for the mushrooms.

  13. #13 John Dupuis
    January 22, 2010

    Thanks, chezjake. I’ll probably use a mix of red peppers and zucchini. As it happens, as WRG will tell you, mushrooms and cauliflower are pretty well the only veggies that I really don’t like.

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