Americans love their kitchens – their cupboard space, dishwashers, garbage disposals, appliance garages stocked with curvy KitchenAid mixers, acres of granite (marble?) counters, and hulking “professional” stainless-steel refrigerators and stoves. But the fridge has only condiments, the freezer is full of sodium-laden “meals” destined for the microwave, and one would be hard-pressed to find more than five things in the pantry that contain fewer than five ingredients (I’ll place my bets on flour, sugar, rice, pasta, and bottled water). And there’s one kitchen drawer that it seems the U.S. uses more than any other – the drawer stuffed with take-out menus and pizza coupons.
Cooking? It’s something our mothers . . . er, grandmothers . . . er, great-grandmothers did.* In other words, it’s been awhile since a lot of us had someone around to teach us how to chop an onion, figure out when the meat is done, crimp a piecrust, use a burner setting other than “high,” or sauté anything (um, what exactly does sauté mean?).
If this sounds frighteningly close to home, then the books below are for you. (Or they might make excellent gifts for someone you know – tuck them in with the wedding shower gift, bundle them off with the kid moving into his first apartment. That saying: “The way to man’s heart is through his stomach”? True for girls, too. Guy who can cook = pure gold.)
The goal here? To be able to cook real food from real ingredients. Quickly. And easily.
[*In my case, something my mother – and father – and his father did, and Grandpa was the one who taught Gram how to cook.]
I opened this book and fell in love. This book shows you (and tells you) how to cook. Each recipe has not only a photo of the finished dish, but multiple photos of the preparation process, with particular attention to any steps that might not be clear to a novice cook. And the recipes are, in fact, the basics – simple, but (and!) very good food. Popcorn, grilled cheese, and scrambled eggs all make their appearance, but so do, for instance, shrimp scampi, cauliflower gratin with blue cheese, and hot and sour soup. I wouldn’t consider myself a novice cook, but this is a cookbook I want to own, both to expand my own repertoire and to use as I teach my kids to cook.
This is the what-do-I-make-for-dinner-tonight cookbook. While How to Cook Everything – The Basics uses recipes to build the basic skills of cooking (chopping, sautéing, determining doneness, etc.), How to Cook Without a Book is about learning to use those skills to make quick homemade meals on the fly. Each chapter is devoted to a specific type of food – salad, supper soups, sautéed meat, etc. Anderson begins each section with a basic technique and recipe template, and then she gives variations. The recipe-templates are simple and straight-forward, and it’s an easy jump for readers to internalize the recipe principles and begin to develop their own variations.
::The Everyday Food Cookbooks
Once you’ve got a few cooking techniques and some staple weeknight meals under your belt, it’s time to branch out a bit – but you’re probably not quite ready for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for instance. Everyday Food: Great Food Fast and Everyday Food: Fresh Flavor Fast are the perfect solution. The recipes are no more complicated than those in the two How to Cook books above; there’s just more variety. My experience with Everyday Food recipes is that they tend to be quick and easy enough for a weeknight meal (especially after you’ve made a dish a couple of times), but tasty and colorful enough to serve guests without embarrassment.
You don’t even have to buy the books to get most of the recipes – just visit the Everyday Food section of the Martha Stewart website and browse! While you’re there, check out Martha Stewart’s Cooking School – online videos featuring basic cooking techniques, from knife skills to pan searing.
::Bonus:: Novice-Cook Inspiration
This is not a cookbook. It is part memoir, part instruction in basic cooking techniques, and it is a book that I would give to any reader who wanted to learn how to cook, who felt intimidated by the thought of cooking, whose kitchen repertoire consisted largely of heating ready-to-eat food. The topics Flinn covers include basic knife skills, what “to taste” means when salting or seasoning food, bread baking, making one’s own salad dressing, and techniques for cooking meat and fish. And woven throughout is the story of how nine people went from “can’t cook” to cooks.
- Associated Press review of The Kitchen Counter Cooking School
- New York Journal of Books review of The Kitchen Counter Cooking School
- BlogHer.com review / interview with Kathleen Flinn
- Online cooking lessons, including a Free Basic Knife Skills Lesson with Kathleen Flinn
And one book for the novice (and most other cooks) to skip
4-Hour? Simple? “4-Hour” is in the title because it’s a book by Timothy Ferriss, and that’s his brand. Otherwise, there’s absolutely nothing about the book that makes one think that any part of it could be tackled or mastered in four hours. And I have no idea where the “simple” came from . . . When my husband and I flipped through this book, we each entirely independently thought of the movie Limitless, in which Bradley Cooper plays a guy who takes a drug that bestows hyperproductivity – with a few side effects. Now I’m not suggesting that Ferriss is on drugs. Just that his cookbook has the same frenetic, hyper-drive, toomuchcontentontoomanysubjectsintoolittletime feeling as Cooper’s character in the movie. And the same kind of weird randomness – like Ferriss’s theoretically reductionist “80/20” pantry: the “oils and cooking mediums” he prescribes are extra-virgin olive oil (great!), ghee (an excellent choice), unrefined coconut oil (great choice nutritionally), grapeseed oil (can take high heat), and macadamia nut oil. Wha – huh? I picture a newbie cook frantically searching for this “pantry staple” – one that I’ve literally never seen in a recipe, and cannot recall ever having seen on a store’s shelves, even at Whole Foods. (It could be there. One small, expensive bottle of it. Macadamia nuts are not cheap.)
So, if you’re new to the whole cooking thing, save yourself and skip the book. That said, it does look like a fun book to own farther down the road – a book to flip through in small doses, like a super-thick (672-page) magazine on everything – including cooking.
Fun exercise – watch the Limitless trailer (note: not a kid-friendly trailer), and then watch the 4-Hour Chef book trailer:
See what I mean?