Mark Bittman "How to Cook Everything"

Recently, the Post ran a pretty solid article on how to stock a kitchen with only 20 essentials tools and utensils.  I’d add one more:  Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food.  “Big Red”, as I now refer to it, has become the go-to guide in my kitchen, and even though I'm pretty comfortable with a chef's knife, when I think back to a time when I wasn't, How to Cook Everything would have shoved Joy of Cooking off the shelf.

Bittman's unpretentious style infuses every part of this book, from what appliances to buy to the actual recipes.  He is exceedingly accessible, especially to beginners or people who like to cook but who don't see themselves making gougères anytime soon (but if so, the recipe is on page 99).  He doesn't believe one needs an award-winning kitchen stocked with the most and best tools and appliances, and he offers his own kitchen as proof:  "7 feet long and 6 feet has a moderate-size refrigerator, what was once considered a full-size stove (as opposed to the compact “apartment-size” stove or the monsters recently gaining popularity), annoyingly little counter and storage space (yes, I sometimes must remove the stored pots and pans before using the oven) and even a small dishwasher."

That's more my style...and, I suspect, the style of most people.

How to Cook Everything is a well-organized walk through every course and food group you might reasonably encounter in a modern market -- super or farmer's.  Recipes begin with building-block essentials, which are easy and/or popular and provide the basis for variations.  Each recipe is also identified as fast (less than 30 minutes), make-ahead (and store for finishing or serving later) and/or vegetarian (600 of the 2000 recipes are vegetarian).

Throughout the recipe sections, Bittman provides basic information about the main ingredient:  types, variations, cooking methods.  For example, the section on beans begins with the basics of buying, storing, preparing and cooking and continues with a 3-page chart on types, varieties and cooking times before launching into 37 pages of recipes, interspersed with sidebars on achieving certain textures of cooked beans, bean/green/pasta combos, edamame, lentils, etc.  There is little you won't know about beans when you're done.

However, not everyone needs voluminous information on beans (or grains or spices or apples).  If you only need to refresh yourself on a technique rather than a recipe, check out the extensive index and look up either the technique or the technique and the food you want to prepare.  I recently grilled a whole chicken and just needed to know whether I started it bone- or breast-side down; less than a minute later, I had my answer (bone-side first).  When are steaks done?  How can I jazz up plain rice in less than 30 seconds?  Which potatoes are good for salads?  How do I squeeze tofu?  You ask, Bittman answers.

His presentation technique is to provide a basic recipe and follow it with all kinds of variations for modifying it.  Want to make that pound cake low fat?  Replace 1 stick of butter with a cup of low-fat yogurt.  Wondering how you're going to use all that black bean puree you made?  Spread it on crostini, use it as a dip for vegetables or place it under a grilled main course.

It’s utterly impossible to be intimidated by a chef who recommends putting leftover Crème Anglaise on Cheerios.

In his typically friendly and low-key manner, he offers subtle suggestions, followed by his catchphrase, "...if you like."  The recipes can be followed to the letter but really are intended as starting points; Bittman encourages cooks to experiment with the basics that he provides.  Indeed, it's how one learns to cook.

While this is a basic cookbook, the volume of information launches it past that category into, dare I say, The Only Cookbook You'll Ever Need territory.  I was even surprised to find grilled chapati in the index, which immediately brought back memories of Tanzania, where the tortilla-like discs of fried dough wrapped in greasy newspapers are a cheap roadside staple.  Adzuki beans to yuzu sorbet, bulgur to zucchini:  it's in there.

But for me, the moment that defined Big Red's Number One spot in our kitchen was when I walked in one morning to find it open on the counter.  Neil, my boyfriend, was facing the stove but craning his neck towards the buckwheat pancake recipe.  For someone who eschews -- no, disdains -- recipes as much as Neil does, this was no small honor to Bittman.

You can catch Mark Bittman over at the NY Times, where he writes "The Minimalist" column and his Bitten blog.  Every so often, the online NYT posts a short video with Bittman preparing a recipe in 5 minutes or less; the amount of information you come away with far exceeds the time spent watching.  In fact, no one in recent memory has brought great cooking within the reach of everyone as well as Bittman has.

Alice Waters' "The Art of Simple Food"

Art_of_simple_food_book_jacket Mesclun and other mixed-greens salads.  Goat cheese.  Name-dropping on restaurant menus.

All of these now-commonplace foodie conventions (and an impressive list of others) can be attributed, either directly or indirectly, to the influence of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, her world-famous restaurant in Berkeley, CA.  So profound is Waters' impact and that of the "California Cuisine" that she helped to popularize that David Kamp devotes an entire chapter to Waters, Chez Panisse and their culinary contributions in "The United States of Arugula," his brilliant foodie history.   

Now, more than thirty-five years after Chez Panisse opened its doors, Alice Waters has released a cookbook to share the secrets of her "Delicious Revolution," as it was dubbed in a 2003 American Masters episode on PBS.  She distills her experiences into nine basic rules that should govern anyone who wants to cook (and eat) well. 

"This book is for everyone who wants to learn to cook, or to become a better cook," says Waters in the introduction to the text.  And on that front, she delivers.  The book begins with nineteen "lessons" that cover the basics of shopping, preparation and cooking.  Some of these lessons cover specific courses like soups, pastas, desserts and, of course, salads.  Others deal with cooking techniques like grilling, simmering, slow-cooking, and frying. 

Each "lesson" chapter begins with a brief paragraph introducing the concept that will be addressed before jumping right into the topic at hand.  Rather than discussing bread making in an academic context, for example, Waters takes only a few paragraphs to talk about factors that impact the taste and quality of breads before walking the reader through a recipe for "Herb Bread or Pizza Dough."  Lessons that deal with techniques are approached in a similar fashion, with an emphasis on learning through doing in the form of recipes.

The second section of the book is a compendium of additional recipes entitled "At the Table."  These recipes are separated into broad categories (sauces, meats, eggs and cheese, etc.) and then presented in straightforward fashion. Not surprisingly, the single largest category is the one for vegetables - Waters provides seventy-two different recipes for everything from fennel and chard to potatoes and tomatoes.

It is the presentation of these recipes (Waters' status notwithstanding) that truly distinguishes "The Art of Simple Food" from similar cookbooks.  Waters eschews the traditional recipe format (a list of ingredients followed by a series of instructions) in favor of a more - go figure - organic approach.  Each recipe is a narrative in and of itself, instructing you to:

       4 pork chops, 1/2 inch thick
       salt and fresh-ground black pepper
Heat a heavy frying pan over medium-high heat.  Pour in:
       olive oil to coat the pan"

The offset, bold-faced ingredients are still easily noticed, and the as-you-go instructions help to reduce the risk of omitting a key item or skipping a step.  Most recipes are followed by a set of bulleted recommendations on ways to vary the end result without significantly changing the basic technique.

To put the book to the test, I attempted to follow Waters' recipes for Grilled Lamb Loin Chops and Lentil Salad.  The first recipe was quintessentially Waters - it called for nothing more than salt, pepper and oil to season the meat and a total cooking time of 10 minutes - and it allowed the full, rich flavor of the lamb to shine through.  The Lentil Salad was simply dressed with red-wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and the lentils were combined with shallots and parsley for added taste and texture.  I opted to include two of the recommended variations - chopped cucumber and sweet red pepper - to give the dish some more crunch.  The final product was flavorful, but unlikely to become a staple in our household. 

A word of warning: anyone who reads the title and subtitle ("Notes, Lessons and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution") and expects a memoir or even a few anecdotes is in for a disappointment.  This is a simple cookbook extolling the virtues of simple food, though it is accessible, clearly written and a pleasure to work with in the kitchen.  That should come as no surprise to those who see Alice Waters as one of the people who helped awaken the American palate to the joys of "fresh, local, seasonal ingredients" in the '70s and as a tireless advocate for sustainable agriculture and "edible education" today.


Tom Colicchio's "Think Like a Chef"

Think_like_a_cheft_book_jacket Calling "Think Like a Chef" a cookbook is like calling a Sherlock Holmes novel a detective story.  Tom Colicchio's book goes beyond the basic formula to offer something new, something interesting.  "How a chef thinks about food" is the phrase Colicchio uses in his preface to describe what follows, and "Think Like a Chef" certainly delivers.

In 2000, when the book was first released, Tom Colicchio was the successful chef of Gramercy Tavern who had attracted a loyal following among the Foodies of New York, but he was nowhere near the celebrity he is now.  Craft had not yet opened (that would occur in March of the following year), and Top Chef was still six years away.  Seven years later, "Think Like a Chef" has been re-released, taking full advantage of Colicchio's star power.  The cover art now features him smiling broadly, and it identifies him as "Head Judge of the Hit Series 'Top Chef.'"  But this is no vanity project - you won't find Colicchio name-dropping his way through a list of Gramercy Tavern favorites. 

The book still features the unique approach to cooking that sets it apart from simple recipe collections.  It progresses, organically, from a few basic techniques to a few key ingredients and then on to recipes involving some of Colicchio's favorite ingredients and "trilogies" (three ingredients whose flavors simply work together, according to the chef).  Before it gets started, it even offers advice on "how to use the book," encouraging the audience to read all the way through the book to best grasp what is being discussed and to follow the progression that Colicchio has laid out to truly absorb the process.

"Think Like a Chef" begins, like a good chef should, with technique.  The first section of the book walks the reader through five basic techniques: roasting, braising, blanching, stock-making and sauce-making.  With these five skills in your culinary arsenal, so many seemingly complicated dishes become significantly easier.  Colicchio is a great teacher - he guides you step by step without giving the impression that he is dumbing things down for you.  Along the way, he provides anecdotes and asides that further humanize the text and give insight into the chef's approach to cooking.

Once each technique has been explained and demonstrated with a simple recipe, it is followed by several more complex recipes, each of which uses the technique.  Striped bass, sirloin, and leg of lamb are all roasted with a variety of herbs and seasonings, and the small adjustments that turn a general technique into a specific set of steps for a recipe are highlighted.

From here, Colicchio moves on to "studies" of three basic ingredients - roasted tomatoes, pan-roasted mushrooms and braised artichokes.  As in the previous section, he takes the time to walk you through the basic recipe before elaborating on it and using it as the inspiration for a dizzying variety of recipes.  This, says Colicchio, is the key to thinking like a chef - allowing yourself to be led by the ingredients you find at your disposal in different directions using the techniques at your command.  Just reading through this section, you feel yourself starting to understand what he one point, I realized that I was reading a recipe and mentally adjusting it to better suit my own tastes and a few other ingredients I had picked up at the farmers' market that weekend.

The remaining sections of the book move from the theoretical to the practical - a series of recipes for each of three seasonal trilogies shows the surprising ways the same ingredients can be combined to create diverse flavor profiles, and a section of favorites provides a (very) few of Colicchio's favorite dishes from his own kitchen.

As instructed by the chef, I read through the book from beginning to end before I even thought about attempting any of the recipes inside.  I was pleasantly surprised by the narrative voice and the flow of the book - I didn't feel like I was reading a reference book or some kind of flat, lifeless text.  I really did feel like I was gaining insight into Tom Colicchio's mind and his approach to his craft. 

After reading the book, I was that much more eager to put the chef's lessons into practice.  A visit to  the farmers' market turned upMushrooms a beautiful selection of wild mushrooms, and I decided then and there that my first attempt at a recipe from the book would be the pan-roasted mushrooms that form the basis of the second "study."  I had already learned from reading through the section that the single most important thing to keep in mind when roasting vegetables and mushrooms is not to crowd the pan - doing so prevents the moisture that cooks out from rapidly evaporating and basically boils your veggies until they are lifeless and rubbery.

So I cooked the mushrooms in three batches (resisting my usual urge to just throw them all in at once) and seasoned them with salt and pepper.  When I turned them, I noted with some satisfaction the way the mushrooms had begun to brown without losing their shape or their texture.  Adding some garlic, butter and herbs I brought each batch to readiness and set it aside until all of the mushrooms were cooked.  At the end I brought all three batches back together and seasoned them once more as I warmed them just prior to serving.  Though I overdid the salt a bit, my wife and I agreed that these were by far the best mushrooms I had ever made, and they were a perfect accompaniment to our oven-roasted pork tenderloin.  I found the directions easy to follow, and the results spoke for themselves.  This was a recipe worth holding onto - as I expect many of the ideas from the book will be.

"Think Like a Chef" invites the reader to develop a new way of looking at what goes into a kitchen - as well as what comes out.  Tom Colicchio has provided an excellent resource for Foodies who are long on appreciation but short on raw talent.  I'm already looking forward to next year's farmers' markets and the creative eye with which I will approach them thanks to this book.