Pros: Fabulous food; amazing information; fascinating read; simple recipes
Rating: 5 out of 5
First published 5/17/2001
You can buy all sorts of books on cooking techniques, so what makes this particular one unique? There are plenty of technique and information books that include recipes. For instance, “The Joy of Cooking.” On the other hand I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who kept the JoC around for its recipes. Unfortunately this seems to be the norm for technique books. The authors go for the most basic example of a technique that they can, under the mistaken impression that this is the best way to demonstrate a concept. Other technique books don’t include recipes at all; I think this is one of the things that make the “Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion” so good. It concentrates on what it does best – information, not recipes.
So if I believe that cookbooks are better off doing one or the other and not both, then why am I giving “Cookwise” top marks? After all, it does both.
These are nigh-perfect recipes – and I don’t say that lightly. Every single thing that we have made from here has been to-die-for. The Salmon Fillet with Sweet, Grainy Mustard Crust is the first “perfect” fish recipe I have ever tasted. Ever. I’m not a big fish fan, so even when it comes out well I’m not likely to put a big star next to the recipe in the cookbook. I did on this occasion. The sweet-tartness of the sauce is the perfect foil to the fattiness of the salmon. You actually boil down apple juice to almost nothing in order to flavor the sauce! Not only is this recipe perfect in terms of taste, but it’s also distressingly simple to make: Heat oven. Boil juice; stir stuff into it. Season salmon and place on greased baking sheet; cover with sauce. Bake. That’s it!
Then there’s the broiled tomato slice recipe. Wow. You just top thick tomato slices with seasonings (Shirley has a laudable fondness for white pepper), grated lemon zest, and a bread crumb/butter mixture, and broil for a minute or two. The tartness of the lemon zest adds the strangest, most delightful taste to the tomato – and I was dubious at first. And let’s not forget the broccoli with chili oil. I’m not a broccoli fan. But a simple recipe of minced jalapeno, peanut oil and seasonings, and I go wild over it.
You may notice a couple of trends here. One: very simple recipes. This is not rocket science. Many of these recipes are five-minute jobbies. Two: sharp, clear tastes that are just a little unusual, but not completely “out there.” Three: very high-quality results.
The Science of It
How many of you are fans of the Food TV show, “Good Eats” with it’s wacky host, Alton Brown and his fondness for food science? Whenever Alton gets really deep into the science aspect, he tends to bring on one of his favorite zany guests (also a teacher of his, I understand): Shirley O. Corriher. Shirley is the author of this book, and as you read through it you can see where Alton learned most of his techniques. If you like “Good Eats” and the food that results from following along, you’ll love “Cookwise.”
Instead of just demonstrating techniques, Shirley explains things. She debunks mysteries. She tells us straight out when we just don’t know why something works the way it does. She often details her experiments for us, so we can try it ourselves if we want. She explains the science of things, but not too much: even if you aren’t into science you’ll be able to make use of this cookbook. She provides the most amazing troubleshooting charts.
Take pie crust for example. There’s a chart on “Techniques for more or less crust browning.” Talk about control! If you like your pie crust a little more brown, you can use a clear glass or a dark pan. Or you can coat the outside of the crust with a dark crumb coating. Or you can refer to her list of ingredients for browning. And not only that, but her chart explains why these things work. The pan types cook the crust faster. The crumb coating absorbs heat and produces a crisper crust. On the next page you’ll find a list of “pastry faults” and their causes. Your crust isn’t flaky? Maybe the fat pieces were cut into the flour too finely, or they weren’t cold enough, or you used a type of fat that melts too fast. Your crust was soggy? Maybe it wasn’t cooked long enough, or it had a wet filling, or the temperature was too low, or the crust wasn’t glazed, or there wasn’t enough heat from the bottom. And that’s just the start of it.
Shirley also doesn’t presume that we want our food done the same way she wants hers: witness that aforementioned chart that allows you to make your pie crust more or less brown. For those of you who read my review of “1001 Cookie Recipes,” you’ll be happy to know that Shirley blows that cookbook away. Her Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe has four columns: Basic, Thin, Puffed, and In Between. You can compare the amounts and types of ingredients that she uses for each sort of cookie.
She includes a list of typical cookie ingredients and what they do to cookies (reduced-fat spreads, for example, make cookies soft and puffy). She tells us how to shape cookies through heat control, and discusses how to alter an existing cookie recipe to turn it into the sort of cookie you’d like: “You can alter any recipe to tailor-make cookies exactly as you want.” There’s even a “Fine-tuning cookies” chart. It has two columns: “what to do for more” and “what to do for less.” The categories are Spread, Puff, Tenderness, and Color.
Shirley gets called in by chefs to help them figure out why their recipes are going wrong. She includes some really interesting stories of these adventures; this is one of only a few cookbooks I’ve ever been tempted to just sit down and read.
The index is perhaps the most thorough index I’ve ever seen. The “sources” chapter includes ingredient and equipment sources – and far more than just the one or two sources provided by most cookbooks. The layout is clear and obvious, although a few recipes do trail onto the next page, occasionally necessitating flipping back and forth.
This is nothing short of a stunningly fantastic cookbook. If you have any amount of curiosity about the way cooking works, or any desire whatsoever to do something beyond just blindly following recipes, then you need a copy of “Cookwise.” Shirley is described on the back cover flap as a “culinary food sleuth,” and by the time you’re done with this book you’ll feel like one too.