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!)

Alison “Baguette Lady” bakes bread

Alison “Baguette Lady” May has graced us with her presence and given us a great demonstration of how to make homemade bread.  In the short video sequence below, Baguette Lady has improvised a bread oven, by placing a pre-heated cast iron skillet over a cast iron Dutch oven.  This process simulates how commercial bakers get “perfect” bread every time.

Gourmay readers everywhere will soon be making homemade bread. Thanks Al!.

Homemade Walnut, Pecan and Olive Bread

Homemade bread with goat cheese

Alison the “Baguette Lady” has outdone herself for my birthday:  a lovely gift of her homemade walnut, pecan and olive bread together with 3 goat cheeses.   She cautioned me that I was likely to be transported to a “familiar but exciting” place after sampling her bread and artisan cheeses.  She was soooo right:  Mount Olympus still feels the same, but is a tad bit rundown with the Greek austerity plan.    Actually, I had memories of sitting under a Greek olive tree eating yogurt and honey while Abigail and Miranda were running about as little tots.    For the record, Greece simply doesn’t make bread like the Baguette Lady and I suspect that most Greek dairy farmers would find it difficult to match the lovely varieties I received from San Francisco.   No question about it:  this delicious rich bread full of goodies and the artisan goat cheeses were food fit for a God!  I humbly accept.

With four types of Greek olives (possibly, Spain and Italy thrown in), the pecan and walnut bread was dark and full of mystery in every bite.  The three goat cheeses also had their distinctive flavors and texture and, while I favored the cheese from Nocturne Andante Dairy, the smooth Goat Capricho and complex Goat Humboldt Fog were simply delicious.

Sharing bread with someone – even if they are 3,000 miles away – is perhaps one of the most enduring rituals of friendship and civilization.  When the bread is made with such love and affection, the experience is all the more moving.  Al, thank you for remembering me on my birthday with such a lovely and thoughtful gift.