Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Note About Cookbooks

After years of cooking and dutifully uploading photos and recipe ideas to this site, I thought it a good idea to show you where I find much of my inspiration. What has become a second nature of pairing flavors and hosting dinner parties still seems a daunting notion to many friends in my age-group. Cooking, I have been told, is a means to an end. Eating is the goal and making food is the obstacle. This couldn't be further from the truth. Even those individuals who love to prepare food seem to get stuck at a plateau where they make what is easy, familiar, only healthy or only out of a bag, etc.

As I sit here, camped on the kitchen floor with tea and 150 of my best friends (not including those books stashed in the spare-bedroom, away at school or packed in storage), I wanted to write about why a good cookbook is so much more than a book o' stuffy recipes which stands in the way of you and your hunger.

Here, you'll see pictures from Jamie Oliver's, "Food Escapes: Over 100 Recipes from the Great Food Regions of the World." It best represents the point I want to make: Cooking is like travelling, and cookbooks are the passport. Whether you follow a recipe verbatim or simply use it as a rough guide (I can attest to following a recipe to-the-line maybe twice in my life), their inspiration gets your brain stewing.

Nothing smacks you in the face and humbles you like a trip to a country where by virtue of language and customs, you are a total foreigner. The time I attempted to make green curry paste in our old home's kitchen, I spent an eternity of time pounding down turmeric route, chilies, curry leaf and other authentic ingredients in a mortar and pastel, only to cook with it later and make everyone cry because I used too many chilies. Taste as you go. Lesson learned! Or the time that I made sourdough starter and was excited to try out Jim Lahey's revolutionary bread-baked-in-a-dutch-oven method only to be left wondering why my damn bread wouldn't rise. The active yeast was past it's best-before date and had lost it's leavening ability. Double check your ingredients. Noted. These are the types of things you learn between the lines of cookbooks. This is not dissimilar to the many of the lessons you learn while exploring the globe.

Take risks = use mysterious spices. Go down that back alley = try-out the recipes which make you cringe. Soak-in the culture authentically = boycott the styrofoam skinless, boneless chicken breasts and learn to cut up a chicken from the Italian mamas.  Find the hidden treasures = splurge on the heirloom vegetables at the farmer's market. Compromise with your fellow travelers = learn to cater to everyone's liking. But, most importantly, "travel" don't "tour" = enjoy cooking for the process of intuition rather than the shallow notion of making food for eating. This last point reminds me of a lot of trips or vacations whereby people spend so much time taking photos of things and running from place to place to see the cliches hot-spots that they never just chill-out and people watch over a cup of the local specialty.

To me, a good cookbook represents potential. What is possible, familiar, or practical is thrown to the wind. Sure, you don't need chocolate ganache or (see below) Venetian fish stew, but why not? You get to play chef, alchemist and magician. You get to step in someone else's shoes and experience their tradition. And when you make a dish you've grown up with, you get to share your own. There's no more intimate interaction with the world or its people than that of consumption. To me, there's nothing more beautiful that picking something grown locally, brushing the soil off, transforming it ever so slightly and sharing it with friends and family to eat. Cookbooks and more broadly, cooking media in general, have taught me that intuitive art.  

So, while you don't necessarily need a ga-zillion cookbooks as my family has come to collect, a few good ones will serve you really well. Not only because they'll teach you the technical skills, but because they'll push your boundaries and encourage you to be more adventurous in life. *Cue a bowing down to Julia Child's aspics chapter.*





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