Monday, March 31, 2008

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

There are many different types of cookbooks. The most basic type is a collection of recipes, presumably built around some theme. Another type is the picture book, filled with pages of pictures of beautiful gourmet dishes. Then there are the celebrity chefs, with books that promise something akin to what you can get from their restaurants, or results like their TV shows. I have one cookbook that is basically a travelogue, beckoning the reader to distant exotic lands. But the one that every household is supposed to have, is the big, basic cookbook. The one that has a general range and, more importantly, general instructions on cooking technique and everything that has to do with a kitchen, without assuming that the reader has learned everything at her grandmother's knee (especially the readers that are not a 'her'). This latter type includes classics like The Joy of Cooking and the Betty Crocker's Cookbook. And Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (HTCE): Simple Recipes for Great Food.

Mark Bittman opens the book with a general statement of philosophy which identifies his audience. In this case, his audience are precisely those who are starting from nothing, new households of people who did not grow up learning from their mothers and grandmothers on how to cook. Second, it is aimed at those who desire to cook, not necessarily gourmet, but food that is good, and not complicated. And because his readers are assumed to be starting from no base, Bittman takes on the role of teacher, not just a publisher. And as a professor (lit. one who professes) he has opinions that he shares, based on his philosophy that cooking can be done, and there is no value in making things harder, more complicated, more fancy, then necessary. The assumption is that people who want something like this, will also know how to find it elsewhere. The first section is basically a tour through the kitchen, equipment, basic ingredients, and basic techniques. All this with advice on what was necessary, and what was optional. No doubt there is room for disagreement. But for someone starting from nothing, the opinions given are useful. And once people learn more and gain more skills, they can form their own opinions starting from what he gives.

So, how are the recipes? There are many cookbooks that I avoid because their too complicated, many due to the shear number of ingredients required. HTCE does not have this problem. It does not go as far as a 5 ingredient list, but the ingredients are constrained to a number that someone without a full spice rack could conceivably have. Throughout the book, there are tips on how to work with various ingredients. In addition, there would be a small essay for major meat and vegetables.

So far, I've probably done a couple dozen recipes over the past couple years. Some for myself, some just me and my fiancee, some for a group. I have found the recipes to be complex enough to be interesting and worthy of something nice, but easy enough so I can gauge difficulty and effort from reading alone, (I only have limited background in cooking). In contrast, I find most cookbooks on the market to be way to simple (and just a list of recipes) or overly complicated and impractical (especially for someone who lives alone and would end up throwing out most of the purchased ingredients as they spoiled.)

I think HTCE a very good baseline cookbook. For the starter, Bittman teaches without intimidation, the recipes are complex enough to impress (if that is the goal), but basic enough to be achievable. The advice and options given are enough that the reader can understand how to adapt and experiment, and thus learn how to cook to a level that should satisfy anyone, and a jumping off point to learn in the future.
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