Tuesday, November 20, 2007

My First Cookbook

I’ve reading other peoples’ websites and blogs and seeing recommendations for “beginner” cookbooks. Specifically I saw advice to a young woman who was going to be renting her first apartment for the summer on her college break (it was an old post, clearly). Many people recommend Joy, about which I have moaned before. There were some other recommendations that had me wondering what they were thinking as well. Here (for those who care) is my running mental commentary on what I saw. I’m just using this particular list as a sort of representative of what people recommend as first-time cookbooks for someone starting out. There were lots of responses to this particular blog entry, so it seems like a pretty good sampling.

Silver Palate New Basics
This is actually one of my favorite cookbooks, but I don’t think I’d recommend it for someone just starting out. It’s got too much party food, and too many things too intimidate the novice. Lukins and Rosso assume a certain familiarity with cooking basics. Also, it tends to call for quite a few specialized ingredients that someone new to cooking may not understand, have, or want to invest in (some of them can be pricey).

Martha Stewart’s Basics
This isn’t the actual name of the cookbook, and I can only assume that this person is suggesting The Martha Stewart Cookbook. I own this one too, and unless the beginner is interested in knowing how to make hors d’oeuvers, and fruit tarts, this is not the book I’d recommend. I use it for a reference for lots of things, but mostly for party food. I can’t think of a single think I’ve ever made out of it for a regular weeknight dinner. If you want a book full of things to cook on a daily basis, this is not it. It’s a good cookbook, but not for everyday food. There are two new ones that are The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook, and both are also pretty good, although the recipes may be somewhat time-consuming, but if you don’t have kids or other responsibilities, they’re reliable recipes.

The Apartment Vegetarian
This is a cookbook I’ve never heard of by a woman named Lindsay Miller. The person who recommended this book was offering it as an example of what they themselves had bought, but the person asking about setting up a first kitchen didn’t say they were a vegetarian specifically. I’m not much for vegetarian cookbooks (I own one), so I can’t say if it’s any good or not. I would say that unless someone specifically asks about vegetarian cooking, I’d not recommend a vegetarian cookbook as their first purchase. There are so many bad ones out there that a novice could easily be turned off of cooking altogether, which would be sad. IMO, of course.

The Good Housekeeping Cookbook
I own the 1957 edition of this, and it’s very June Cleaver, with recommendations for which cuts of meat make the best pot roast and that sort of thing. I know they’ve updated it, and it’s probably a fine choice because I’m sure it includes lots of good information about technique and basics. It’s probably not very exciting (unless they’ve seriously spiced it up since 1957), but it wouldn’t be a bad choice. Not the most interesting, perhaps, but a decent place to start. My only concern would be that it probably offers most recipes to serve four or more, and the single person cooking alone doubtless doesn’t want to eat the same food for three days in a row.

The Gourmet Cookbook
This is the one that was published a couple of years ago by Gourmet magazine. I’d shy away from it, because Gourmet’s focus is and has always been more dinner party food than what to eat for dinner every night. They have had columns over the years that offer simple dinner suggestions, but even then their ingredient choices are expensive or somewhat exotic or both. Again, this one might be intimidating to someone just starting out.

Rachael Ray Express Lane
Sure, if you want 20 recipes for hamburgers, and another 10 for pasta, have at it. Also, you need to be able to tolerate an eye watering degree of cutesiness.

How to Cook Everything
This is probably the most interesting and sensible suggestion made. Someone cooking for themselves may still find the portions overwhelming, but if they learn to divide by 2, they’ll have a pretty solid cookbook. In addition to having good basics, Bittman also has enough fun stuff that can actually be eaten for meals, not just served with drinks. This book is a good middle ground between the how-to-roast-a-chicken instruction manual, and the chapters and chapters of hors d’oeuvres and dessert recipes.

Barefoot Contessa
Again, too much party food, too expensive for a good basic.

The Fannie Farmer Cookbook
While this is a great source for things like instructions on how to make yogurt, or an English muffin recipe, I find very little in this book that really work as What to Have for Dinner. It’s a reference book to me.

Sally Schneider
Schneider actually has two books out these days, A New Way to Cook, and The Improvisational Cook. Both great books, but not beginner books by any means. They assume too much technical knowledge to be good starter books. Also, beginners in my experience want to be able to turn out things that everyone recognizes and is comfortable with. Schneider’s whole premise is that you too can be a creative cook and come up with different things on your own.

The New Best Recipe
This is the one put out by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. I love to read about food, but I find Cook’s Illustrated to be even beyond my obsessive/compulsive needs. They just seem to go on for pages and pages with substitutions for this and why this worked and that didn’t. The other things is, I can’t say what’s in this specific book, but I have a couple of their books that are kind of all over the board with their content. They have a few things that are fine for everyday eating, but a lot of what they perfect seems to me to be baked goods.

My own first cookbooks (or to be completely accurate, the first cookbooks I read, because I had a ton that belonged to my mother; I just didn’t use them all from day one) were Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer, which was fine for fancy French sauces and instructions on how to make mayonnaise, and a basic James Beard (the name of which actually escapes me now). I wouldn’t recommend the Kitchen Primer to anyone starting out, unless their goal was to be able to make mayonnaise from scratch right away. The James Beard had a good discussion of things like braising, baking, broiling and what the differences were. I highly recommend James Beard (really any James Beard that isn’t one of his “single topic” books—bread, fish, etc.) as a first cookbook for anyone. He’s knowledgeable without being preachy, instructive without being condescending, and his recipes are ones you might actually use. Even after all these years, he’s still accessible and relevant.

What I’d really recommend for anyone who was just coming to cooking would be cooking magazines. Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, Fine Cooking—any of these has a nice variety of easy and more complicated recipes. When I was a beginner, what I wanted was things I could eat for dinner, not things to make for a dinner party. Then, once I had gained some confidence, I wanted things I could make for friends that weren’t too complicated. Cooking magazines have all of these things, and the ingredients are usually in line with the seasons. Another problem with being a novice is that you’re not always sure what’s in season. Cookbooks don’t always help with that. Cookbooks say “run out and buy some strawberries and make this tart!” but they tell you that all year long, and the novice may be reading the book in January and thinking “Hm, that does look tasty…” and find that the berries they can get (assuming they can get any) are tasteless and mushy. They may then blame themselves for doing something wrong, when in fact it was that their ingredients were poor.

Learning about cooking isn’t like learning about other things. You don’t have to start with the culinary equivalent of the cave paintings at Lascaux or with the Greek’s contributions to architecture. You can pick up a magazine and find a recipe for Spice-Crusted Roast Pork Tenderloin and make it, without having to understand the historical recipes from which it might take its cues. All you need to know is what’s in the recipe—what to combine to make the rub, how to rub it on the pork, how to roast the coated pork, and how to tell when it’s done. Cooking can be done in a vacuum, essentially. Sure, it’s nice to understand the nuances of recipes and the fact that this or that combination of ingredients will give something an Asian or Indian or Italian flavor, but it’s not critical to know it. Once a novice has some confidence that cooking really isn’t that hard, then they can learn all about the foundation recipes and the influence of the West on Eastern cooking and vice versa.

Beginners always go for the complex, the elaborate. I know I did. I think one of the first meals I ever cooked was chicken in a cream sauce with grapes (that was before I realized I didn’t like grapes in things). Cream sauce is notoriously hard to make, and I remember undercooking the chicken in my terror over how the cream sauce would turn out. This was during a period when I had expressed to my mother my desire to learn to cook properly, and she let me make dinners for a week or so (all of them similar to the chicken in cream sauce recipe—that is, containing huge quantities of cream, butter, and like ingredients). Finally she pointed out that we couldn’t continue to eat like that on a regular basis, that we’d wind up with heart disease. She started steering me to more reasonable recipes, and I learned to do things like roast a chicken, and broil a steak. She tried to show me that simpler things were actually better than the more complicated ones, which every cook learns sooner or later.

And just for laughs, here's the recipe for the Spice-Crusted Roast Pork Tenderloin I mentioned. It's from the December issue of Fine Cooking.

4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil; more as needed for the baking sheet
1/4 cup plain low-fat or whole-milk yogurt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh coarsly ground black pepper
Two 1 1/2-lb. pork tenderloins, trimmed
3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs (from a baugette or other white artisan-style bread)
1 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds

Position a rack in the ceter of the oven and heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Lightly oil a heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet.

In a small bolw, stir together 2 tsp of the olive oil and the yogurt, mustard, garlic, salt, and several grinds of pepper. Spread this mixture over the entire surface of the tenderloins with your hands or a rubber spatula. (The pork can be slathered with the yogurt mixture and refrigerated up to 4 hours ahead.)

In a shallow baking dish, combine the breadcrumbs and the mustard, coriander, cumin, and sesame seeds. Roll the tenderloin in the breadcrumb mixture, patting so that the crumbs and spices adhere to the meat. Put the tenderloins on the baking sheet, gather up any remaining crumbs and spices, and pat them onto the top of the pork. Drizzle the remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil over the top.

Roast the tenderloins for 10 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees F. Continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of each tenderloin reads 140 degrees F, 25 to 30 minutes longer. Transfer pork to a carving board and let rest for 10 minutes before carving it into 1/2 inch thick slices. Be sure to serve all the crumb coating that falls off during carving.

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