Pros: A nice simple cookbook for someone who doesn’t have much experience and doesn’t want to be overwhelmed
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Review book (published 2011) courtesy of Chronicle Books
Some time ago I reviewed Megan & Jill Carle’s College Cooking book—a handy guide to making simple meals with only a minimal kitchen and supplies. Their The First Real Kitchen Cookbook: 100 Recipes and Tips for New Cooks picks up at the next natural stage: what to do when you move out on your own post-college. You probably have slightly more kitchen to work with, room for a few more pots and pans, and hopefully a little income and the desire to eat better food. The Carle sisters suggest which pans you should pick up first, what some of the necessary utensils and gadgets are, and what you might pick up next if you have some extra money and space after getting the basics.
Chapter one, vegetables, starts out with a few notes about picking out the best produce. It’ll help you know your basic varieties of mushrooms, sweet peppers, hot peppers, root veggies, tomatoes, greens, cabbage, and squash, all handy for making your basic dishes. A handy little Venn diagram teaches which vegetables are most useful in some of the basic cooking methods: stewing, grilling, stir-frying, and roasting.
The recipes aren’t as simple as the ones in the college cookbook, because it’s assumed you want to start in on less simplistic fare, but they also aren’t gourmet monstrosities with tons of steps to them. For instance, you might try the grilled summer vegetables with balsamic vinaigrette, which comes with a handful of serving suggestions that turn it into several possible dishes in one. An easy dish of roasted root vegetables with couscous came out absolutely perfectly when we made it. Sidebars help out with information such as explaining various slicing terms from julienne to large dice, or listing which vinegars are the most useful to keep around in your cabinets. Beneath a recipe for spicy stir-fried vegetables you’ll find instructions for de-stringing pea pods—the sort of thing that tends to trip up novice cooks who haven’t worked with a given ingredient before. The more complex recipes are things like chiles rellenos with Mexican rice, but even those come with suggestions for simplifying the process (parts you can make ahead and refrigerate) or ingredients (buying pre-roasted peppers instead of roasting them yourself). Recipes such as split pea soup with ham note when they can successfully be frozen and reheated, and there’s a sidebar explaining different types of rice, which ones are more starchy, and what the different types are used for. There are also a few budgetary tips that will seem obvious to most people but might be new to anyone who hasn’t cooked much, such as getting cheaper nuts via the bulk section if your store has one. Sidebars help you figure out which ingredients freeze and thaw well, so you can buy them in bulk on sale.
Chapter two covers pasta, which seems to be a staple of anyone on a low budget. Basic sauces are included such as marinara and a garlic and olive oil sauce. If you do have a little extra money, though, or need something for a special occasion, there are a few recipes that make use of ingredients such as salmon: pasta salad with smoked salmon, asparagus, and lemon vinaigrette, for example. A sidebar even explains the difference between hot-smoked and cold-smoked salmon. One of my favorite recipes/tips in this chapter teaches you to use wonton wrappers, finely chopped leftovers, and homemade pesto sauce to create ravioli. I’m particularly fond, however, of the penne burina, which includes bacon and mushrooms. A sidebar also explains for those poor souls who haven’t dealt with fresh garlic before what the difference is between a clove and a head. Don’t laugh: people have actually been bitten by that mistake, and the whole point of this cookbook is to help out folks who didn’t learn all of this from their parents already.
Chapter three is all about seafood. The opening text gives you an idea of which fish are particularly flaky, delicate, sturdy, or whatever, and what types of cooking that makes them good for. There’s a recipe here for crab and corn cakes; one of the sisters notes that “adding corn helps stretch the crab and makes the cost a little more reasonable.” The recipe also comes with a sidebar to warn those who haven’t worked with hot peppers before to wear plastic gloves or something similar—no one likes to learn that lesson the hard way! This is definitely a chapter of more expensive recipes, but it’s nice to have them around for when they’re needed.
Chapter four tackles chicken. Basic chicken broth, chicken noodle soup, tortilla soup… there are plenty of variations to give you ideas for your own creations. Chicken tacos, nachos (with homemade guacamole), pot pie, curry, teriyaki—all the basics are in here.
Chapter five covers wonderful, wonderful beef (okay, I might be a little bit biased here). Again there’s a Venn diagram suggesting cooking and preparation methods for various cuts (marinated, grilled, roasted, braised/stewed). There’s some explanation of the names of various cuts and what they mean to you as a cook (budget, toughness, etc.). You’ll find recipes for everything from beef stroganoff to beef bourguignon, ropa vieja, Thai green curry, horseradish-crusted steak, beef and broccoli with rice noodles, a simple pot roast, a delicious roast beef with roasted parsley potatoes, and an absolutely fantastic (not to mention fantastically easy) recipe for Mongolian beef. The sidebars in here did cause me to knock off that half a point on my score, however; a couple of them perpetrate certain cooking myths that have been debunked by food scientists in recent years. For example, no, mushrooms really don’t become waterlogged if you wash them or soak them, and thus you don’t have to delicately clean each one with a soft brush. Searing meat also doesn’t seal the juices inside—if anything seared meat loses a certain amount of juice; searing is strictly for flavor and appearance.
Chapter six delves into the world of pork, once again explaining the various cuts and what they’re useful for. Here you’ll find everything from white bean soup to baked ham and asparagus omelet (this recipe, like a few others, includes some nutritional information). My favorite recipe in this chapter so far is the pulled pork sandwiches with coleslaw; it’s absolutely delicious. If you want to try something a little fancier, there’s a recipe for ham and gouda crepes with garlic cream sauce; it’s a nice sort of thing to try once you’ve made a number of other recipes and are feeling a bit more confident in the kitchen. Sidebars in this chapter address such things as working with crepes, reducing liquids, and avoiding cross-contamination while preparing ingredients.
Finally we reach chapter seven, desserts. As the authors explain, baking can be a little more tricky than some other types of cooking because it isn’t as tolerant of variation. Therefore, they include reminders such as measuring everything exactly, tempering eggs, preheating the oven, using dry measuring cups for dry ingredients and liquid measuring cups for liquids, how to avoid cracks in cakes, frosting a cake without getting crumbs in the icing, and so on. There’s a basic yellow butter cake, with several delightful flavor variations. There’s a very light and fluffy chocolate cake, again with variations (mocha, and “no-frost”). A fluffy white cake, angel food cake, pumpkin log, buttercream frosting… there’s a definite bias toward cakes in this section; if it were me, I might have included and started with more simple items such as no-bake pies, cookies, etc., but there are a few in the latter half of the chapter (creamy rice pudding, caramel-banana cream pie, brownies, chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies, and molasses cookies).
The layout of the recipes is crisp, clean, and clear, as is standard for most Chronicle cookbooks. Not every recipe comes with a photo, but some of them do, and they’re certainly lovely. The pages are sturdy and will stand up to a certain amount of abuse. There’s a thorough table of contents, and a very thorough index.
In short, this is a great cookbook for someone who doesn’t have much experience cooking, but wants to get a real start on the subject. It’s for someone who wants more than a repertoire of five recipes, and who wants to experiment a bit. Every recipe we tried came out perfectly delicious; not a one disappointed. I’d certainly recommend it.