Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Only Book that Matters

Like everyone else, I grew up with a copy of “The Joy of Cooking” in my mom’s kitchen. I never actually saw my mom crack it open, but it stood there on the counter underneath a cupboard for years, along with other yellowing and sticky treatises on culinary arts that were never examined. Because I was a nosy child, I did on occasion pull the tome out to inspect its secrets. It seemed dated even then, in the mid-70s, what with its promise of the perfect casserole and unorthodox uses for gelatin. Always good for a ponder were the recipes for bear, and possum. In junior high school I discovered the recipes for butter icing, also brownies, which at the time were one of the only things that could soothe my bitter soul. (I confess here that I never attempted “magic” brownies, since even then I knew my limitations in the kitchen. And why otherwise waste a perfectly serviceable dime bag?)
As I got older I got more interested in cooking, which isn’t to say I knew anything at all about it. In my 20’s I learned how to make 20-clove garlic chicken and four-can bean soup (one can of tomatoes, three cans of beans, different sorts). I perfected my rice-making. In my early 30s I was married and had a baby and was spending a lot more time in front of the stove than ever before. My then-husband brought home a new copy of The Joy of Cooking (because it was such an American thing, he laughed, and because Brits love to laugh at Americans), and after learning that the recipes for bear and possum had largely been purged (much to his disappointment), we placed it on our counter and rarely opened it again except for use as a reference. How long do you cook an artichoke? Consult the Joy Of!
It wasn't until a few years later that we heard about the Book. It had just been published: A thick yellow tome with the simple title, "How to Cook Everything." I started seeing it around, on the shelves of various people I didn't associate with cooking. I started hearing complimentary things about it. It was basic, I learned, but not so basic as to be boring, said one friend. Everything I've tried to make has turned out, said another. I picked it up one afternoon early in 2000 and flipped through it while everyone else made merry at the Superbowl party around me. Hmm. One of the first recipes in the book was how to marinate olives. Even I could mix garlic with balsamic vinegar. There was a whole section on vegetables (how to buy, how to store, how best to cook), as well as an exhaustive primer on meats. There were recipes for basic dishes: Roast chicken, for example, but also little sidebars on how to make a roast chicken more sexy. What sold me, however, was the recipe for crackers. My own saltine crackers. Easy as mixing flour with water, the author promised. It had never occured to me that you could make your own crackers - or at least that someone like me could do so. Page 239.
Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" became my kitchen Bible. The Joy of Cooking for my age. With it, I actually began to have some rudimentary success in the kitchen. I appreciated his many chapters devoted not to recipes per se, but to basic edification. Those more skilled than I might turn up their noses at an essay on how to make tomotoe sauce, but I, for one, was thankful. "Thirty-one sauces and dishes you can make in the time it takes to boil water and cook pasta" is the kind of side-bar that has supreme relevance to my life.
My copy is now tattered and stained. Whole pages have fallen out (Cookies. And the whole section on beans), and I’ve tucked them back in disorderly along with yellowing newspaper clips of recipes I like the sounds of but may never make. It’s a loved cookbook. Well-used.
The very first recipe I tried: marinated olives. Page 18. It was a boffo success. Everybody ranted about my olives. And I was thus emboldened to push onward.
I learned how to make an ok vinagrette. I learned how to seed a pepper, then roast it (although mine still stick to the tinfoil). I learned how to make really good zuchinni - useful since at one time I had a plot in the community garden that could feed all of China with its zuch ouput.
I learned that if you poke a hole in an egg with a needle or pin before you boil it your chances of successfully making soft-boiled eggs increases dramatically.
At one point I even made cod-cakes! Me! This involved three steps, which dramatically increases the chances of my bollixing up the entire operation. But they turned out pretty damn good, too! I can hardly believe it now, but part of my success was that at the time I lived in Berkeley and hence had access to the overwhelming assets of the Berkeley Bowl. I could go and find salt cod any time I wanted and all it required was 30 minutes or so circling for a parking space nearby.
I used the gingerbread recipe to universal accolades. Blueberry cobbler! Sauteed roast potato with rosemary! Mashed potatos!
You must understand what it’s like to make successful mashed potatoes from scratch when you’re someone like me. I have ruined spaghetti.
Not everything turned out, of course.
Lamb patties with Bulgar. As I suppose I’ve mentioned before, I’m mad for Mediterranean food. Lebanese food, in particular, is something I savor. Kibbeh is a big deal in the Middle East, and it’s a pretty basic part of a lot of yumminess. That’s why this dish sounded appealing. Alas, I’m not too good with meat. I don’t understand it. At any rate, this all came off very badly, made a mess and ruined a perfectly good iron skillet as well.
Chestnuts – did you know that chestnuts will explode in your oven if you don’t score them first? I do. Now.
Red beans with meat. Again with the meat. Bad. Bad. Bad. And then there was the coconut milk that made it worse.
Brown rice with lentils and apricots sounds good on paper, but the version I made was way too sweet. Brown rice pisses me off in any case.
But let us not dwell on the failures. My point is that this book changed my life. It gave me all the meager hope I needed that perhaps not all was lost. Perhaps even I could one day be a passable home cook.
Then again, stay tuned for my latest adventures with cod cakes.