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Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 02:45 pm

Books for cooks 2009


The Elements of Cooking by Michael Ruhlman

Looking for something to give to the cooks on your holiday shopping list? Here are some suggestions for books that will be equally welcomed by would-be, novice and experienced practitioners of the culinary arts. These books are far more than cookbooks that consist merely of a collection of recipes. They’re references useful to anyone with any level of experience in the kitchen.

The Elements of Cooking by Michael Ruhlman

The Elements of Cooking
by Michael Ruhlman

“What does dredge mean?” a friend asked my husband, Peter, years ago when we were freshman at UIUC. (This was before Peter and I met). They’d discovered a common love of liver and onions, something that wasn’t included in the truly dreadful food served at our dorm. (I shudder to think what it would have tasted like if it had been on the dorm’s menu.) So they reserved the dorm’s kitchenette one night to make liver and onions for themselves. Peering at the recipe they’d somehow obtained, she said dubiously, “It says to dredge the liver in flour.”

“I don’t know what ‘dredge’ means,” replied Peter. “But I can only think of one thing you can do with liver and flour.”

Defining “dredge” and hundreds of other culinary terms is what Michael Ruhlman’s The Elements of Cooking is all about. The subtitle is “Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen,” and that’s exactly what this slim volume does. It’s modeled on the classic English writing text, The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. Just as that book is used as a must-have reference by writers and English students, The Elements of Cooking is a must-have reference for cooks of all levels.

Interpreting recipes can be one of the biggest stumbling blocks new or even experienced cooks can encounter. What does it mean to “sauté,” to “brown,” or to “butterfly”? What exactly is “caramelization,” how do you “fold” in ingredients, what’s a “slurry”? What’s the difference between “macerating” and “marinating”?

Ruhlman explains all this, and much, much more. I’ve been a Ruhlman fan ever since reading his first culinary book, The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America. He enrolled at the CIA, not to become a chef, but to write about the experience of going through America’s top culinary school (often called the culinary equivalent of Harvard). It’s entertaining and fascinating, something that’s my first recommendation as a must-read to anyone wanting to become a chef.

Since then, Ruhlman has gone on to pen other narratives about chefs going through the arduous trials to become official “Master Chefs” (The Soul of a Chef: the Pursuit of Perfection), as well as the world of television chef stars (The Reach of a Chef: Professional Cooking in the Age of Celebrity). He’s also co-authored cookbooks with some of America’s most renowned chefs, such as Thomas Keller of Napa Valley’s French Laundry and Eric Ripert of New York City’s Le Bernadin. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Ruhlman is currently America’s best, most respected food writer.

That said, I have to say that after buying The Elements of Cooking, I thought it was something I wouldn’t use much, even though I knew it would be beneficial for beginning cooks. After all, I know all those definitions and terms. And the only recipe in the book is for veal stock. It’s a classic interpretation, but I have my own stock recipes.

I was wrong. I find myself going back to The Elements of Cooking again and again, not to discover what those terms mean, but more as a way to define them with crystal clarity for readers of this column. Much as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style belongs on the shelf of every writer, Ruhlman’s Elements of Cooking belongs on the shelf of every cook.

Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini by Elizabeth Schneider

Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini
by Elizabeth Schneider

Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini is an encyclopedia of the astonishing array of produce that’s increasingly available to cooks. But it’s much more than that. It includes not just information about all that produce, but tips and suggestions from well-known chefs, as well as recipes for each entry from Schneider herself.

Schneider’s book has a few notable omissions. For example, there’s not an entry for tomatoes. Or lettuce, except for “stem” lettuce, found in Chinese markets and used mostly for its crunchy stem, which has a texture similar to cucumbers. But the entry for potatoes is extensive, covering specialty types from fingerlings (so named because they’re long and relatively thin, like fingers) to those of various colors, from rosy-fleshed and golden varieties, to exotic blue and purple skin and flesh types. Schneider examines which types are suited to which cooking methods (boiling, roasting, sautéing, etc.).

And so it’s a compendium of both commonplace and exotic vegetables, which can now be found in farmers’ markets as well as in grocery produce displays. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed jicama at a Mexican restaurant, seen it in your grocery’s produce section and wanted to buy some, but were unsure of what to do with it. Or those sunchokes (a.k.a Jerusalem artichokes) that were at the farmers’ market and are on grocery shelves. What’s the difference between broccoli, broccoli raab and Chinese broccoli? Or the bewildering variety of winter (hard-skinned) squashes. How can they be prepared? Schneider has answers – and recipes – for all of them.

Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini is one of the most frequently referred-to books in my kitchen. In fact, it’s been used so much that it’s beginning to fall apart.

Jacques Pépin’s Complete Techniques

Jacques Pépin’s Complete Techniques (compiled from two previous books, La Technique and La Methode) contains more than 1,000 cooking methods and recipes.

Like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, it is a step-by-step, hold-your-hand encyclopedia. (So much has been written about Child’s classic masterpiece that it hardly needs my recommendation, although it must be said that it’s worthwhile for anyone with more than a passing interest in cooking. Interestingly, though it’s been a longtime cooking standard, Mastering the Art of French Cooking hit the New York Times bestseller list for the first time this summer after the release of the Julie and Julia movie, which I reviewed in IT’s Aug. 13 issue.)

Pépin is almost as well known as Child, having been featured in numerous PBS cooking shows for years, not least several in which he teamed up with Child. They had an engaging and congenial interaction that made it clear that it was a meeting of minds – although they frequently had differing opinions on the best way to prepare a specific dish. He’s as renowned as she among cooking professionals. At one time the personal chef of Charles DeGaulle, he’s been in the U.S. since the 1960s. Of Complete Techniques, Child writes that it’s “A standard kitchen item the world over…. There has never been anything like it anywhere… a seminal work, and like no other…. For us to have all this information in our hands, fully illustrated and explained, is indeed a treasure.”

Praise, indeed, from one who spent years codifying basic cooking techniques. But while Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking has detailed instructions and illustrations, Pépin’s book goes one step further – and it’s a crucial one. Complete Techniques not only has more than 1,000 recipes – it has thousands of step-by-step photos for each of those recipes. “How to Prepare Spinach,” “Trimming and Cooking Meat,” “How to Carve a Rib Roast, or Rack of Lamb or Turkey,” “How to Trim an Artichoke,” “How to Make Cream Puff Dough.” In short, photos that illustrate pretty much any and every cooking technique you or I can think of. Even cooks who think they pretty much know it all can learn from this book.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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