Welcome again to the A Mazie Q cookbook club! We’re so excited to kick off this project. Part of my (Jayna) motivation for doing this is for the simple fact that I’m starting to get lazy with my cooking. I have hundreds of cookbooks in my collection and I notice that as years past, I rely less from cookbooks but more from my head. And while that would seem like progress (and to some degree it is), I’ve really shut off the learning stream and kept myself limited. And that really is complacency, no? If I only cook what I know, then I’m only cooking what I know. I want to cook things that I don’t know. I want to cook and experience what others know. I have a nasty habit of loving 3 ingredients (garlic, onions & wine) over and over again. This needs to stop. I’m committed to using a cookbook and cooking a recipe that does not have these 3 ingredient combinations. I challenge you to do the same.
I also challenge myself to be serious. And I hope you do too. While I hope everyone joins in on this project, I understand and respect that not everyone will and that is ok. As for me, I am in it for the 12 months. I will cook one recipe from a selected book a month. You have a fire in you to cook? Well so do I. Good, glad that’s settled. So let’s get serious and have fun at the same time together.
First things first. There is a method to the madness. Yes, there is. Half the people that pick up a cookbook and put it down, they put it down as they do not know how to approach cookbooks. The first thing to know above all else is what makes a good cookbook. There truly is such a thing behind a good cookbook and well a not so good one.
Can you judge a book by it’s cover? Perhaps. The binding, the publisher, the layout of the book. These can in fact be a tell-tale sign of the content in the book but sometimes, you get a really good gem in an unlikely find. So thus the saying that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover is somewhat true. I say all things considered.
Then what exactly do I consider a good cookbook? Well I have laid out my typical guidelines below that have stood true for me for as long as I can remember. Please pay special attention to the narrative voice. This is pivotal in a cookbook for me. A narrative voice is how the cookbook author speaks to the reader…the stories they tell, the backstory of a recipe or really any dialogue within the cookbook. And don’t get me wrong, if a book does not have a strong narrative voice, I don’t think it’s a bad book, I just don’t feel a connection to the author and the recipes can seem without direction. And I have plenty of these books and they do indeed have wonderful recipes that I’ve used repeatedly and I treasure. However, to me, a cookbook without narrative voice is recipe book. I’ve got a bunch of great recipes and I can be happy with that, absolutely. But a cookbook will show me how to cook. See the difference?
Let me give you an example. One of my favorite cookbook authors is Thomas Keller. Now, he happens to be my favorite chef as well, but I don’t like his books cause of his restaurants. Cookbooks and restaurants, respectively are two different things. And just because a chef or cook has a successful restaurant or celebrity persona doesn’t mean that they can give me a good cookbook. A cook has to be able to take his/her work in the restaurant and put it in a book for me to execute in my kitchen. That’s how you know you are dealing with an excellent and well thought out cookbook author. A narrative voice should tell me the author’s cooking philosophy and values. I have never met Thomas Keller, but at any point I could tell you what he believes in, how he runs his kitchen and his cooking temperament. When I read his books, I feel like I am having a conversation with him. That’s how fluid his books are to me. I can get a sense of his humor and his respect of ingredients. So much so that when I cook a recipe from his book, I always repeat the words “finesse and respect” in my head. I’m sure to double strain my sauce, my mise en place is completely done before I begin and my cutting board is pristine. I know he demands greatness and I am right there with him at that moment.
So join in if you can, commit to 1, 2 or all of the 12 months this year. You may surprise yourself. Otherwise, thank you for being here on our journey, you are always welcome at our table.
How I approach cookbooks….
1. Read all beginning intros – the foreward, acknowledgements, equipment, pantry items and back stories. These set the stage for the book. It connects the author to the reader, the culture and atmosphere. If you can tell it’s a good cookbook, slow down on the equipment and pantry. If something like a salad spinner seems to be something you’d look over, consider that maybe the cook really values dry greens. Sounds silly? Well, maybe recipes are so thought out that even the smallest amount of water left behind in the cleaning process will dilute the dressing. Or maybe water will interact with a vegetable such as celery and cause flavors to bleed. See, it’s not all about what’s easy for you after all ; p
2. Look at the narrative voice. Narrative voice is very important to me and I often can get a sense of the book by the narrative voice alone. A good cookbook should have a strong and clear narrative voice. If the author accomplishes this, then I will know how each recipe came to be, troubleshooting, cooking philosophy and overall direction of the book.
Some of the deepest respect and understanding of ingredients can come from the back stories. After I read Zahav, I treat every chickpea with the most delicate hands. I understand how a country can be divided and come together in a single dish (Israeli hummus tehina). I felt the author’s grief and allowed myself to really understand what true tehina truly means to a culture and solace within the author.
3. Recipes are Intentional – Ok, so we as people seem to think that either we can cook better than the author or we just prefer it our way. So what we do is change up an ingredient or two or change something about the recipe to meet our wants. I do this. I call myself a “tweaker” when I do this. And this means that if you’ve done this, you’re a tweaker too. Don’t do this. Resist. I know it’s hard. The author has intentionally written the recipe in a certain way with certain ingredients. Cook it first the author’s way, then you can change it and make it your own the next time you do it. If a recipe gives you the impression that you can tweak as you like, then go for it. Otherwise, don’t tweak. You will never know what the recipe was supposed to be if you tweak. This is especially true for really good cookbooks. Trust that the author has developed this recipe for years and has made all the mistakes so don’t go inventing your own. Please also know that this is not intended for an allergy. Big difference between tweaking something cause you think you can improve upon a recipe and not being able to eat an ingredient cause of an allergic reaction.
4. Read the recipe at least twice before you buy any groceries. Read it again before you begin to cook. One of the first few chefs I worked for would not even allow me to cook for the day unless I had all my recipes written out on an index card. On days that I didn’t write the recipe index cards, I was so scattered and read step by step in the moment. This is why people are so turned off by cookbooks. They think a recipe is more complicated than it is. If you read it until you understand the process, it will be less daunting.
5. Have humility. Pride will kill a recipe before you even begin. Resign to know that maybe you don’t know it all. Unless you’ve done the recipe before, you’re learning it for the first time.
6. Look at the relationships within the cookbook – I look at the balance from the appetizers to entrees, entrees to sides and ultimately all of them to the desserts and pantry items of the book. Is there balance and cohesion to it all? Do you see harmony? Understanding a cookbook’s cohesion will solidify trust and respect in the author. On a side note, I do the same at restaurants for menu composition. The way a menu is composed tells me everything about a restaurant.
7. Do something you wouldn’t do – We all flip through cookbooks and pick out the recipes we’d consider and it’s usually based around ingredients or meats we like. If you’re cooking the same profiles over and over again, you’re really not learning anything other than those flavors. Pick a recipe with ingredients that you are not comfortable with or have never used.
8. Cook like you mean it. Seriously. You’re a culinary badass.