Saturday, October 20, 2012

Cooking with Cookbooks

For some reason this article irritated me.  For several reasons, actually.  I thought about ranting against each point, but instead I have decided to wish the author inexpensive gadgets, extra long battery life and a stable high speed internet connection so that she never need consult another paper cookbook again.

Me, I love cookbooks.  I love the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook I inherited from my grandmother.  I love the old, battered, much used paperback edition of The Joy of Cooking which sits on the shelf next to a shiny, less stained hardcover copy of the 75th edition of the same book.  I love my well used copy of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.  I love the newer acquisitions such as How to Eat Supper and Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet.

I used to buy cookbooks because I thought I needed recipes in order to cook, and quite a few of them were pretty much collections of recipes without a lot of pictures or context and narrative.  I have since learned that I do not so much need the recipes themselves as I do the skills which they teach.  One of my long-term hopes and goals is that this self-directed culinary education will help me figure out how to prepare and update the recipes in the family recipe boxes.

If I want to try a new recipe, find out what to do with an unfamiliar ingredient or learn a new skill, however, I look in a cookbook.

I love reading cookbooks written by restaurant chefs -- even if the recipes aren't exactly designed for home cooking -- because they include their philosophy and process.  While the results of some of their experimentation don't appeal to me, they are still educational.  They tell me that I probably wouldn't like things it would never occur to me to put together, but they also encourage my own mind to think "off menu."  Sometimes way off menu.

Nor do I read only cookbooks when it comes to learning about food and its preparation.  I read memoirs and books of food writing and even food-centric novels.

Cookbooks can be delightfully specialized, and I am not talking about the latest diet or nutrition craze.  (One of the many joys of living without television reception or cable is that I tend not to hear about such things.)  You can get books such a Bones, Meat, Fat Roots and Salted.  If you want to be more inclusive, there is the Nose to Tail approach.  There are new (or maybe not so new -- again, no tv) and different genres -- whole foods, raw foods, sushi, miso, tofu.

If cookbooks are on their way out, why are book deals part of the up and coming chef's road to celebrity?  People want to connect with or associate themselves with these celebrities, and what better way to show your connection than a shelf full of books by Giada or Emeril?  By purchasing all of the other merchandise they endorse, of course -- pots, pans, knives, bakeware, and even foodstuffs.

(I will confess to owning several books by Giada and two Martha Stewart enameled cast iron pots, but I actually use the books and the cookware regularly.  Giada has some great recipes which I make often, and those Martha Stewart pots get the job done without the Le Creuset price tag.  In fact, last weekend, I made a modified version of Giada's basic marinara sauce in the larger of the two Martha pots.)

At the other end of the spectrum, there are cookbooks that aren't really cookbooks, such as Heston's Fantastical Feasts and Notes from a Kitchen.  Just today, Too Many Chiefs and Only One Indian caught my eye.  The last two are gorgeous works of art, not only for the food which they feature but also graphic design, typography and photography.  (One of my favorite things about them is that they cannot be had from or Barnes & Noble.)  A little less extreme but still impressively visually appealing is What Katie Ate, written by a commercial photographer with a passion for food.  She wrote the recipes, cooked the food, and styled and shot all of the photography in the book.

With all of the options offered by computers and other technology these days --digital photography, graphic design, vibrant soy-based inks, non-traditional paper fibers, typefaces, and even page size -- the possibilities for creative publications are more numerous than ever.  Why would you want to stare at a digital screen, when you can get a more complete sensory experience by holding one of these fabulous books in your hands and making a new discovery every time you turn a page?  After all, aren't the best meals the ones which engage all five senses?  So why not start the experience with the recipe source?

It's not that I do not look for recipes online, but I have gotten away from the ubiquitous and and  They are too noisy.  Too many choices.  Too many recipes and reviews by people I don't know.  Instead I read cooking blogs and follow links found in the Twitter feeds of cooks and food writers.  The only time I use recipe focused sites anymore is when I am trying to find a recipe I saw in a magazine and can't remember which issue.  (If anyone has a way of collecting and organizing recipes from magazines so that they can be easily found and used again in the future, I would love to hear about it.)

These cookbooks and blogs inspire me to not only work on my own cooking but also my writing and photography.  The more I read and the more things I try, the more things I want to learn and the more convinced I become that I can actually cook and write and photograph and have fun doing it.

Finally, there is my most recent discovery: cookbook stores.  Apparently there are loads of them if you just look.  Not only are they independent booksellers, but they are specialized independent booksellers.  (Take that, RAMJAC!!)

Maybe the cookbook publishing business isn't growing by leaps and bounds.  Maybe it is even shrinking, but constant growth isn't a sustainable course.  Maybe, as should be with food, there is a trend toward quality and time well spent rather than quantity and speed disguised as efficiency.

Whatever the case, I will keep reading (and buying) cookbooks.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pizza Post

Saturday night -- sometimes Friday night -- is usually pizza night, and the local delivery options definitely vary in quality.  Over the summer, I happened to stop by a local bakery on a day that they had fresh pizza dough, which led to this:

I rolled out the dough, spread some homemade sauce over it, and basically cleaned out the refrigerator.  Yum!

Since then, delivery has just paled in comparison, but I have not been quite organized enough to make my own dough, and the local bakery where I found it for my initial experiment can't always sell it, so they don't always make it.  Trader Joe's had some, but the ingredient list was too long.  Then, about a week ago, I found organic pizza dough at a local grocery store for about a dollar, so I brought home a couple of pounds and stuck them in the freezer. One pound makes a decent-sized pizza, as long as you like thin crust, and it turns out that it only takes a couple of hours to defrost (another concern I had about buying pizza dough to have on hand).

I thawed out some sauce cubes and sliced up veggies (again, cleaning out the fridge).

I oiled my largest rimmed cookie sheet with a small amount of canola oil.  Yes, you can use cooking spray, but you don't need much oil to cover an entire pan -- I would guess less than a teaspoon -- and you get the benefit of knowing what you are using, as opposed to whatever additives and propellants are in the spray.  If you are really worried, check out one of those pump sprayers that you can fill with the oil of your choice.  In this case, I used canola oil because it has a higher smoke point than the much beloved olive oil, and pizza does well cooked at high temperatures.

Then I rolled out the dough with a little flour, put it in the pan and spread the sauce.

After the sauce comes cheese -- I like a mixture of finely shredded mozzarella and mild cheddar cheese -- and then veggies -- thinly sliced summer squash, red onion, baby portabella mushrooms, yellow sweet pepper and kalamata olives -- followed by a little more cheese -- in this case my favorite "magic cheese" blend of parmesan, romano and asiago.

After about 20 minutes in a 435-degree oven (yes, 435), voila!  

Crispy, thin crust pizza with very little edge.  Again, I say, yum!

Yes, delivery is quicker (maybe) and requires less effort, but making it myself is not only far less expensive but also more satisfying on a number of levels, including taste and nutritional value.