Educational Books for Cooks

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08 Sep Educational Books for Cooks

Here in Ontario, school began yesterday. Despite having graduated from university last millennium, to this day fall still brings anxiety dreams where I race from room to room trying to find my class, or arrive on campus only to learn I forgot to register, or worse — I’m enrolled in nothing but advanced math, for which I lack all prerequisites.

Even when I’m fully awake, the September nags at me to crack the books. And since my focus is now on food writing, the books I turn to are usually culinary. While the following recommendations contain recipes, and lots of them, their primary focus is on education. Their aim is not to provide you with recipes to follow, but to give you culinary knowledge so you can create delicious meals on your own. While these books have a similar purpose, they come from opposite ends of the spectrum. One is beautiful, serene and informative. It makes me want to move to the country and raise chickens that lay blue eggs. The other is crammed with more information than my brain can hold, but funny as hell. Being a Gemini, I like them both, and for very different reasons.

Feel like learning? Try one of these:

In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn By Heart by Alice Waters (Clarkson Potter, 2010)

In this beautiful yet simple book, Alice Waters rounds up 30 chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, cookbook authors and culinary instructors and gets them to share their culinary strengths. Some, like Thomas Keller, are famous names, while others are relatively unknown outside the culinary world. All have a talent for a certain technique and share a passionate for Slow Food. Their instructions and supporting recipes will convince anyone they can cook.

Who will like it: This books is ideal for anyone who wants to take control of their kitchen. With few fancy ingredients and nothing more difficult to spell than guacamole, there’s little here that will overwhelm or intimidate. Even the list of essential knives is kept to a modest three — chef’s knife, pairing knife and bread knife.  While you might want to use a food processor instead of the recommended mortar and pestle, the ingredient list is equally unassuming. Many recipes call for only half a dozen ingredients.

What I liked best: The reminder that simplicity can be delicious. With instructions for the most essential, indispensable techniques, this is a book you’ll turn to again and again — until you learn them by heart. Which you will. Meat lovers will appreciate knowing how to roast a chicken, grill a steak and braise meat. Vegetarians and omnivores alike will simmer, steam, blanch, wilt and roast vegetables. And dessert lovers will gobble the galette.

What surprised me: Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton’s photography. Being constantly inundated with photos of carefully positioned food teetering on stacked dishes all tarted up with fancy garnishes, I forgot the unadorned can be exquisite.  Forget the tilt-angle, close-cropped food porn. Instead, the photographers opted for uncomplicated overhead shots of rustic, straight-from-the-oven recipes sitting in the very dish they were cooked in. Even the chef portraits show a wonderful range of personalities with only a few, if any, props. This is real food. Real life. And it’s very, very pretty.


Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food by Jeff Potter (O’Reilly, 2010)

Like Water’s book, Cooking for Geeks includes input from a wide range of culinary experts, but the similarity ends here. Chock full of charts, diagrams, food facts and recipes, this book is informative, imaginative and funny as all get out. You’ll read interviews with Myth Buster Adam Savage, pastry chef David Lebovitz and an associate professor from Kansas State’s Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology, Doug Powell, who muses about food safety on his online publication delicately entitled — I kid you not —  barfblog. Those keen to give Sheldon Cooper a run for his money will love the “Fun with Hardware” chapter where you learn to bake brownies in an orange skin and cook fish in a dishwasher. One can only hope you live with understanding people if you attempt that one.

Who will like it: Geeks. And people with a sense of humour. And those annoying know-it-alls who like to derail perfectly good dinner conversation by picking at their omelet while saying things like, “Did you know the most heat-sensitive protein is ovotransferrin?”

What I liked best: Not knowing what comes next. This book is full of surprises, like the hilarious conversion charts where 15 cm = a big pen and 170 cm = Summer Glau. Weights? Well, let’s just say they translate kilograms using a cat, Shaq and Your Mom (with and without cheap jewelry and makeup). But the science is solid. You’ll get the straight scoop on things like gels, taste pairing, leavening agents and infusions. Despite the geeky attention to detail, most of the information is actually quite useful. After all, Potter wants you to be a better cook. In doing so, he encourages you to burn supper while contradictorily suggesting you RTFR (read the F’ing Recipe). While you may never construct your own ice cream maker out of Lego (page 92), you will want to follow their advice and keep a pizza stone in your oven.  By the time you understand how baking powder works and heat affects meat texture, you will be ready to charge off confidently on your own.

What surprised me: If you said the reference to lolcats, you’d be wrong — although Potter gets bonus points for deftly weaving that into the subject at hand. The biggest surprise was the recipes themselves. Almost every cookbook I have lists the ingredients, then the instructions, forcing you to bounce up and down the recipe as you cook. Instead, Cooking for Geeks weaves the technique and ingredients together in such a way it’s hard to miss a step or forget an item. With this model in mind, I’m seriously rethinking my approach to recipe writing. Now that’s a first.

Got any instructional culinary books you recommend? It’s a long semester and I’m eager to learn.

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No Comments
  • Amy P
    Posted at 09:42h, 08 September Reply

    Ha! Cooking for Geeks sounds like it is right up my alley! I’ve been keeping a pizza stone in my oven for years – improves radiant heat, and retains heat when you open the door. Lego ice cream makers, Oh! Be still my heart! You know, I’d be the one saying the ovotransferrin line at a dinner party, guaranteed!

    I had Doug Powell as a professor – before he moved to Kansas State he was Guelph’s own, irreverant, smart as heck, and opinionated (with facts to back him up). One of the best profs I’ve had.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 13:17h, 08 September Reply

      @Amy P, you always have such interesting connections. I had no idea Powell was a local food geek.

      And I’m moving my pizza stone to the oven tonight!

      • Amy P
        Posted at 13:59h, 08 September Reply

        @Charmian Christie, This is the Canadian capital of Food Geekiness! It’s our job to be food geeks! From Ag Canada’s food research division (where I work), the provincial ministry, the university, Canadian food geeks unite in Guelph!

  • Jill U Adams
    Posted at 09:52h, 08 September Reply

    Charmian,

    My friend Cynthia Graber interviewed the Geeks author for Scientific American. You can listen here:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=cooking-for-geeks-jeff-potter-on-ex-10-09-03

    Despite my science background, I lean towards Alice Waters these days. Simple, straightforward, unfussy… I am so there!

  • Jill U Adams
    Posted at 09:53h, 08 September Reply

    (I guess I can’t post a link…)

  • Alison
    Posted at 10:36h, 08 September Reply

    Great post and can’t wait to check this book out

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 13:19h, 08 September Reply

      @Alison, they’re both quite interesting. I’d love to hear what you think of the one you choose.

  • Janet Foster
    Posted at 10:54h, 08 September Reply

    I just started reading “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee. It’s definitely not light reading but it’s really interesting.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 13:19h, 08 September Reply

      @Janet Foster, thanks for the recommendation. I’ll have to check this one out.

  • Cynthia Graber
    Posted at 15:11h, 08 September Reply

    I’d missed that you just wrote about the same book! I loved sitting down with Jeff in his kitchen to talk about Cooking for Geeks (for Scientific American). He’s a character, and I agree, it’s a great book.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 19:00h, 09 September Reply

      @Cynthia Graber, I’m sooo jealous. Great to know the author is as entertaining as his book!

  • Robin Smart
    Posted at 22:42h, 08 September Reply

    Since I enjoy reading a good cook book, as much as I do a good novel, I have added these two to my reading list for ASAP perusal.
    I’ll keep you posted.
    Love,
    Robin

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 19:01h, 09 September Reply

      @Robin Smart, you and John will love Cooking for Geeks. It could replace his annual request for the World Almanac.

  • Dan @ Casual Kitchen
    Posted at 19:10h, 16 September Reply

    Charmian, one book I’d strongly recommend is Kate Heyhoe’s “Cooking Green.” I wrote a review at Casual Kitchen here: http://casualkitchen.blogspot.com/2009/07/cooking-green-by-kate-heyhoe-making.html

    It was an exceptional book, full of all sorts of ideas of how to save money while reducing your kitchen and home’s carbon footprint. Best of all, it turned out to provide me with dozens of ideas for blog posts too!

    Dan

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 19:53h, 19 September Reply

      @Dan @ Casual Kitchen, thanks for the recommendation. I hadn’t heard of this book before. It sounds like a great addition to my book shelf. Or an excuse to start a new one :-)

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