"I'm Just Here for the Food," Alton Brown

Pros: Alton’s inimitable style; lots of basic info; fabulous techniques; wonderful recipes
Cons: The very occasional missing detail; color scheme; index
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

First published 5/6/2002

Pretty much anyone who pays attention to the world of cooking should know about the TV show “Good Eats” by now. It’s host Alton Brown’s own unique mix of cooking, science, a quirky sense of humor, and – of all things – film noir. Yes, film noir.

Alton’s opinion is that most people really don’t even know the basics of what’s happening when they cook food. Do you understand convection and conduction? How microwaves heat as opposed to ovens, grills, broilers, and stove tops? Do you understand the chemistry of cooking, the alchemy that is making food? Alton understands these things, and he explains them in amusing and handy ways – providing delicious recipes along the way!

Great Explanations

Anyone who explains the way that cooking with water works by drawing diagrams of Lucy and Ethel eating candies from a conveyor belt has got to have a few screws loose, right? Or maybe he’s finally hit on an interesting way to explain something that most people would find boring. Alton maintains that if you know and understand the basics, you can do pretty much anything you want in the kitchen. You can improvise, try unusual things, and create — everybody now — Good Eats!

To this end he includes “master profiles” of basic techniques, like searing. He includes the heat type (dry), the mode of transmission (100% conduction), the rate of transmission (very high), common transmitters (metal pans and griddles), temperature range (the widest range of any cooking method), the target food characteristics (low surface to mass ratio, wide flat shape, high protein foods that benefit from a contrast between surface and interior doneness, starchy batters), and non-culinary uses: “branding cattle (and in some cases, fraternity members).” He manages to give us all the info we need to master the basic technique and move on, and there’s always that little Alton touch (at the end, in this case).

For each method presented, there are also a few recipes. In the case of searing you’ll find Skirt Steak: the Master Recipe (all recipes include “software” (ingredients) and “hardware” (equipment) lists), Cast-Iron Duck, Red Flannel Hash, Bar-B-Fu (tofu!), Blackened Tuna Steak (“I have always suspected that the whole ‘blackening’ phenomenon… was a clever way to serve burned fish”), and Pan-Seared Portobello Mushrooms. Each recipe’s directions begin with a list of relevant “applications” – in this case, simply searing. This way you know in advance whether you need to leave time for a marinade, because it’s listed in bold right up front! More cookbook authors could stand to learn from this.

But… What About the Recipes?

Okay, so Alton would make a good teacher. We get that. But what about his recipes? Is this book worth getting for those people who either think they know everything or aren’t sure they’d enjoy reading the explanations? Unequivocally yes! We’ve made a good-sized handful of recipes from this cookbook already, all of which have ranged from solidly good to absolutely splendiferous. I’m going to break from tradition and just talk about one in this review:

Sweet-and-Sour Tofu

First off, I used to love sweet-and-sour dishes in Oriental restaurants. Then the restaurants changed, grew strange. The sweet-and-sour was really just sweet, no sour. The meat didn’t taste like anything at all, much less meat. And — gasp! — the dreaded maraschino cherries!

Well, you’ll find no maraschino cherries in this recipe, Bub! There’s pineapple (fresh, not canned — Alton says canned is too sweet). And the wonderful tangy sauce has a very simple list of ingredients: LOTS of red wine vinegar, even more ketchup, and some sugar and honey. I’ve never used that much red wine vinegar in my entire life!

Next there’s that whole problem of tasteless meat. Not this time! The preparation method for the tofu is exquisite, and can be turned into snack food as well. You marinate the tofu overnight in a very simple and flavorful marinade. Then you dredge it in flour and fry until golden-brown. You have to understand, this recipe is so good that we made it two weekends in a row. We usually don’t make anything twice, much less twice in two weeks!

Improvisations

Alton encourages you in this book to try new things. I guess we’ve done him proud. One of our first thoughts upon trying the fried tofu (right after “OH MY GOD!”) was, “hey, I bet mushrooms would be really good marinated and fried like this!” We did that yesterday. How good was it? Let’s just say that we all swooned. I don’t think I’ve ever seen guys swoon before.

Any Negatives?

Yes, I am afraid that there are some very mild negatives. While the directions are clear and well-laid-out, it seems like Alton occasionally forgets a detail or two. Nothing serious; just little things it would have been nice if he’d thought of.

Let’s go back to that tofu for a moment. Alton will tell you to stir the tofu right into the mix. Well, this works if you’re going to eat the whole thing that night, which given how filling this stuff is, will probably only happen if you have 10-15 people to feed (Alton claims 8 servings). If you’re going to have to reheat any, this just doesn’t work – bits of the fried batter come off in the sauce and get icky. Instead, keep the tofu separate. Reheat it separately and just add it to individual bowls at serving time.

In addition, the color scheme of this book is really ugly. Split-pea green, dark burgundy, and light blue? Ick. And there are no color photos of the food, for people who care about that sort of thing — although since these are basic recipes, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

The index, however, is a slightly larger problem. If you want to find his brined and roasted turkey, for example, looking under “turkey” won’t help you, which is just silly.

Despite these minor problems, the book is so darn handy that it’s worth buying anyway. Even if you never made a single of the fantastic recipes it’d be worth it, just for the information and techniques.

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