Cookbooks and Cooking

In today’s New York Times, Kim Severson writes that “Written Recipes Undergo a Makeover” which argues that in today’s modern cookbooks “instructions have shifted away from formulas toward deeper explanations of technique, offering context and lyricism in ways Fannie Farmer could not have imagined . . . they teach the reader to be a more intuitive cook, a cultural change that reflects a nation that is cooking better than it has in decades.”  (Editor’s Note, I will not embed any more links to New York Times articles, since readers inform me that you need to be a paid subscriber to open some of the links.)

While this is a well-balanced article – only if you read the entire article – the underlying proposition is that today’s modern cook requires and receives more information to help them become a “more intuitive chef.”  Indeed, Ms. Severson argues that today’s cookbooks are focused on stories that relate food to use and cooking techniques that allow home chefs to become more creative.

Does Ms. Severson’s proposition hold water?  Maybe, but observing popular cooking on TV or YouTube doesn’t make for inspired cooking anymore than learning the theory of brick-laying makes you a better bricklayer.   Consistently great cooking requires practice to refine techniques and to help the “inspired” chef think outside the box.

I’ll site just a few examples from my experience to illustrate the point:

  • I once watched Martha Stewart prepare a paella on one of her TV programs.  While I might call her preparation a fish and chicken rice stew, it lacked the subtlety of an authentic paella.    In short, it was a disaster and you didn’t need to taste it to know why.  Sure, there are hundreds of instructional videos on YouTube on how to make paella, but does anything taste like an authentic paella that Gwyneth Paltrow and Mario Batali had prepared at La Matandeta?:

  • I once watched an Iron Chef some years ago in which popular TV cooks, Giada De Laurentiis and Rachael Ray, were paired with Mario Batali and Bobby Flay.  To refer to Giada and Rachael as anymore than sous chefs in this exhibition would be an insult to most any serious chef.  And yet, these two  “inspired” chefs each have their own cooking program on TV and now teach technique to others.  Doesn’t make sense to me!
  • When I worked in the stationery industry, we would often buy “cookbooks” at the Gift Show in New York for resale at Christmas.  Sadly, we needed to judge the book by its cover (the title and sometimes the author), since the staged food photography and the recipes hadn’t yet been written.  And yet, these are the cookbooks from which future generations of chefs will draw their inspiration.  I think not!!

Having cooked for well over 50 years, I am not averse to inspiration but feel that every home chef that truly wants to feel more confident in the kitchen needs to practice, practice and practice.  Learning from “true” cooking experts is far better than watching popular TV programs.   For instance, my sister-in-law practiced making bread daily for well over 2 years, before she decided she had become proficient.  She insists that she is still learning.  Mind you, bread has only four ingredients:  flour, water, salt and a touch of yeast.

In any event, I have prepared a list of my 5 favorite cookbooks for those who want to jump-start the learning process.  For those interested in the “whys” of cooking, I would strongly recommend a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated.  (Editor’s Note:  Don’t bother with the cookbooks, but the bi-monthly magazine is very good!)

Salmon and Farro Salad

Aware that I am into the World Cup in a big way, Gourmay readers across the world are asking me what we serve guests during the game. It used to be that we would serve some antipasti and, perhaps, a little pasta to whet the appetites of our guests. Sadly, after the biting incident in the Italy-Uruguay match, we have had to reconsider our menu because Luis Suarez gives new meaning to the term “al dente” when dining Italian.

Suarez_Cone.jpg

Mind you, I am a refined carnivore and prefer my meat cooked rather than still on the hoof, but I can understand why some people might be attracted to someone’s shoulder if they haven’t been weaned properly as a child. In any event, we have now decided that a trio of salads would be better to keep nationalistic passions in check. Found below is a useful salmon and farro salad courtesy of Mamacita:

Poached Salmon and Farro Salad

Ingredients (Serves 4 to 6)

  • 1 1/4 lb salmon
  • 4 tsp of red wine
  • 4 to 5 sprigs of dill
  • 1/2 cup barley or farro
  • 3/4 cup chopped celery
  • 2 Tbs capers, chopped
  • 1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbs dill snipped
  • 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • Lemon juice
  • Olive oil

Preparation

  • Poach salmon in water with 4 tsp of red wine and 4 to sprigs of dill.  Cool and flake.
  • Cook barley or farro and then toss with 2 tsp of olive oil and let cool.
  • Combine vegetables with salmon, grain and Dijon.  Season with wine vinegar, lemon juice and salt and pepper.

A penitent Luis Suarez tells me that the salmon salad is best eaten at room temperature.

Barley and Spinach Salad with Tofu Dressing

This is a quite satisfying vegetarian diet meal that is served frequently in the May household. This basic recipe comes from the June, 2009 Food and Wine magazine.  The crumbled firm tofu in the sherry vinegar dressing adds extra protein.

Barley and Spinach Salad with Tofu Dressing

Ingredients

1 cup pearl barley (7 1/2 ounces)
2 cups chicken stock
2 thyme sprigs
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt
2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
10 oz cremini mushrooms quarted (makes about 4 cups)
Freshly ground pepper (tellicherry is best)
2 shallots, thinly sliced
7 oz baby spinach (8 cups)
1/4 cup basil leaves torn
3 Tbs chopped mint
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 Tbs fresh lemon juice
2 Tbs light brown sugar
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
7 oz firm tofu, drained and crumbled

Preparation

  1.  In a medium saucepan, combine the barley, chicken stock, thyme and half of the garlic.  Add a generous pinch of salt and bring to a boil.  Cover and cook over moderately low heat until the barley is tender, 25 minutes.  Discard the thyme.  Drain the barley and transfer to a large bowl; cover and keep warm.   
  2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 1 Tbs of the oil.  Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper and cook over high heat, stirring until lightly browned, 5 minutes.  add the shallots and cook, stirring until softened, 3 minutes longer.  Scrape the mushrooms into the barley and toss.  Add the spinach, basil and mint, but do not stir.
  3. Heat the remaining 1 Tbs of oil in the skillet.  Add the remaining garlic and cook over moderate heat until softened.  Add the vinegar, lemon juice and brown sugar and bring to a boil.  Cook until slightly thickened.  1 minute.  Add the tomatoes and cook until heated through.  Stir in the tofu and season with salt and pepper.  Scrape the sherry vinegar dressing over the salad and toss.  Serve warm.