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!)

Too Much Testosterone at the New York Times?

Jill AbramsonIf you are not outraged, you must be amused at the abrupt firing of Jill Abramson as Executive Editor of the New York Times.   As the standard-bearer for “All the News that’s Fit to Print,” the New York Times has a propensity to editorialize rather than simply report the news.  Many on the extreme right consider the Times to be the hand-maiden of Methuselah, but ever since Bill Buckley died there is not much literate news from the American “right” that is worth reading.   Frankly, it is the only newspaper I still read and have trained myself to simply skip over the latest political cause célèbre that – given time – generally tends to be no more annoying than a pimple on a teenager:  As long as you don’t irritate (sic read) it, it will soon disappear.

Now I have no particular insights as to why Ms. Abramson was summarily dismissed, but the suits at the Times claim that her behavior was “brusque” and “polarizing.”   Now, if these suits had had the cojones to add that these managerial attributes were “not appropriate for a woman,” it would have made a lot more sense.    Let’s face it, it appears that Jill simply had too much testosterone “for a woman” and this rubbed the suits the wrong way.   The hypocrisy and sexual-bias is derisive!

Some reports – probably accurate – suggest Ms Abramson’s compensation was below that of her predecessor – a male.    At the risk of offending Gourmay’s female readers and my Executive Editor, “equal pay for equal work” seems fair and reasonable, but I am not convinced that it is a useful barometer in measuring executive compensation.

Before you get out your poison pens, please hear me out!  One of the objectives of a well-run company is to maximize the output for a given resource level.   Economists would argue that if you can replace current resources (in this case labor) with less expensive resources and still maintain the same output you have done something that makes economic sense for the enterprise.   Without trying to diminish the “value” of Ms. Abramson, it would appear – in strictly enterprise value terms – the New York Times simply replaced a more expensive labor resource with the goal of maintaining or increasing productivity.  The fact that she was a woman is simply incidental to the argument, although Ms. Abramson may consider herself to be discriminated against because she was executing the same role as a man and received less compensation.

If we move beyond the “gender issue,” this resource substitution process is reshaping our communities and employment practices in ways that are far more disruptive than Ms. Abramson’s sense of self-worth.    For instance, the decision by Pfizer to “invert” and become a British company to save on corporate taxes will affect thousands of employees and their families on both sides of the pond.    This is a gender-neutral enterprise decision, but far more serious.   Oh, and how about all those call centers in the Philippines and India which have been outsourced by U.S. and European companies to save a few bucks?   What about all of the manufacturing jobs that have been outsourced to China leaving mass unemployment in cities in the U.S. and Europe? These are jobs for both males and females that simply won’t be coming back anytime soon until the cross-border labor cost/output value is normalized.

From my point of view (and desire to retain my job at Gourmay), I think women make far better managers than men and they tend to understand the nuances of social interaction and corporate responsibility far better than the suits that were influenced by the outrageous behavior of Chainsaw Al:

In this complicated world, doesn’t it make a lot more sense to judge people – regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation and nationality – by their values rather than by how much they are paid?

Bitty’s Inside-Out Lamb Persillade

Mark Bittman is the author of many cookbooks and is probably best well known for this column in the New York Times Food Section (each Wednesday) entitled “The Minimalist.”  This recipe for “Leg of Lamb With Kick” comes from the June 9th 2010 New York Times.   “Bitty” as he is known to his friend Mario Batali and who appeared as “straight-man” to the hilarious Mario in Spain . . .On The Road Again, a delightful documentary about food in Spain, has become a spokesperson for “slow cooking” and how processed food is both ecologically unsound and harmful to our well-being.   In the short video clip below promoting his book Food Matters, Mark Bittman discusses the importance of cooking in preserving our health, civility and the environment. 

Inside-Out Lamb Persillade

Ingredients (yields 8 to 10 servings)

3 to 4 lb butterflied leg of lamb
2 to 3 Tbs Olive Oil
4 cups parsley leaves
1 Tbs fresh rosemary leaves or 1 tsp dried rosemary
3 to 4 cloves garlic
1 tsp lemon zest
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lemon wedges for serving


  1. Heat oven to 425 degrees.  Trim excess fat from lamb.  In a food processor, make persillade by pureeing olive oil, parsley, rosemary, garlic, lemon zest and some salt and pepper.
  2. Sprinkle lamb with salt and pepper on both sides, then turn so the side that had been on the bone, the one with the more iiregular surface, is facing up, with the wider end facing you.  Smear the surface of the lambe with most of the persillade mixture, then fold it in half (there will be a kind of natural hinge, as you’ll see) with persillade on the inside.  Smear the remaining persillade on the outside of the lamb and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  3. Put lamb in a roasting pan and cook for about 35 to 40 minutes for rare meat, or until an instant thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat reads 130 degrees, or, for medium rare, 135 degrees.  Strongly recommend an additional 10 minutes of cooking to achieve desired level of doneness
  4. Transfer the lamb to a cutting board and let it rest for a few minutes; slice and serve with fresh lemon wedges.