Sunday, December 7, 2008

THE cookbook

Yesterday, I took the subway down to Union Square to the Strand where I was mentally prepared to browse for several hours. Suffice it to say that I did not last the four or so hours I anticipated to look over all of the fiction available at the Strand. Instead, I had to leave after two hours...because staying at the Strand can be extremely dangerous to my bank account (pitiable thing that it is).

In my many years of visiting the Strand, I had never once ventured to look over their cookbooks. I assume this is because I was always bewilderingly distracted by their poetry and fiction, along with the many tables of discounted new books. However, yesterday, I ended up meandering along the hardbound classic section as I have been keen on finding another Balzac novel translated into English (while famous Balzacs such as Lost Illusions, Pere Goriot, Cousin Bette, etc. are easy to find, much of his Human Comedy remains unavailable in English today).

Little did I know that the cookbook section is right next to the hardbound classics; in the midst of my Balzac search, my eyes wandered to alight on Julia Child and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II, first edition! Surely, this must have been an oversight on the Strand's part. Their loss, my gain. While missing a dustjacket, the cover was a beautiful blue fleur-de-lis pattern on an off-white background, classic and elegant.

As soon as I got back home, I settled for a long cookbook read while eating goat cheese on wafer-thin crackers. Nothing that will make you as hungry as reading Mastering the Art of French Cooking (I assume the same for Volume 1 which I plan on buying very soon). Even thinking about the book now has me reaching out for those crackers, anything to fill my mouth while thinking about those soups recipes rich with cream, the roasts studded with lardons before being briefly pan fried with pork fat, the sausage recipes with one portion ground pork to one portion pork fat, the pate cooked in brioche dough, the deconstructed cabbage reconstructed with a stuffing of ground pork and rice, the lighter than air pound cake...hungry yet?

For all the recipes, what makes Child and Beck's cookbook so outstanding is the thorough description of technique, the idea that each section is built around one technique which can be mastered and used again and again throughout one's cooking lifetime. In many ways, today's cookbooks are extremely light on technique with too many homecooks reliant on cookbooks to offer a diverse range of techniques that needs to be learned over and over again. However, this is not the way cooks of old did it. Instead, what matters are a core set of skills (after all, cooking is a craft) that can be learned and which can be reinterpreted through various recipes.

For example, Child and Beck cover a good range of beef stew recipes. However, underlying each recipe, as the authors point out, is the central skill of braising with variations on the beginning and finishing portions of the recipe as well as slight modifications of ingredients. In this section, the authors, amateur cooks themselves who loved food but did not cook for restaurants, offer comprehensive information on different cuts of meat, what makes a certain cut of beef better for braising.

Many of the recipes are illustrated with drawings showing technique. This isn't the cookbook as food porn, which is so often the case these days and a visual feast I fully indulge in frequently, but the cookbook as a serious manual to a central skill.

Why a central skill? I realize that many people now cook only for entertainment. However, nothing is as nourishing or as reliable as a good meal. There might be days when I won't have the time to read (that mental and even emotional sustenance that I need). But I must eat, even if my lunch is too frequently in front of a computer. And I always eat a full breakfast, not a continental breakfast of pastry and coffee. With such eating habits, I try to always make a substantial main course that will last me for several breakfasts in a row (today, I made chicken and rice porridge with jujubee). Even if I have a long day of reports ahead of me, I can look forward to my breakfast, enjoy having something warm and filling, particularly on these cold December mornings. I know pop psychology is popular these days as a means of working one's self towards happiness...but I really think everyone would be happier if they learned to cook so that they could eat something delicious everyday.

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