Book Review

Food titles for grads

Three books for recent graduates

By
June 16, 2009

With jobs to get, loans to repay, and graduate schools to investigate, most recent grads have their hands full. Who has time to cook?

Actually, the post-undergraduate years are a great time for people to practice cooking. Not only does it make sense economically — a bonus during these recessionary times — but a little food know-how can set the stage for a lifetime of healthful and thoughtful eating.

Of course, some recent grads have been cooking for themselves for years and just need to hone their skills. Others, though, are just getting with the program.

A good graduation gift, then, might be a book that demystifies cooking and gives the graduate tools to forge a dinner for himself. (Of course, actual tools might be nice too: A sturdy cast-iron skillet or a new chef’s knife would probably find a home in any 20-something’s kitchen.)

Here are three books most grads would be glad to have. And if you’re feeling prosperous, throw in a copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which, as you may know, is a terrific introduction to the complexity of the modern American food system.

For the take-out king or queen

No More Takeout!, subtitled “A Visual Do-It-Yourself Guide to Cooking,” might be the next best thing to a basic cooking class. With such recipes as Fried Eggs, Grilled Cheese Sandwich, and Sesame Noodles with Teriyaki Chicken, the book is definitely a beginner’s manual for people with easy-to-please palates, but it might surprise. The teriyaki sauce in that chicken dish, for instance, could well be homemade; the recipe is included, but of course, bottled teriyaki sauce is also suggested.

Photos are small and utilitarian, often offering step-by-step instruction. There’s no food porn; it’s not that kind of cookbook. However, there are lots of added bits of info in the sidebars, and plenty of cross-references (menus, needed gear, etc.).

Helpfully, the pages are designated by a numeral in the upper corner — 1, 2, or 3 — which corresponds to their difficulty, so once the reader teaches herself to cook all the 1s, she can progress to the 2s, and then the 3s, which are mostly for entertaining.

A drawback of the book, however, is its few vegetarian recipes, especially among the main dishes. In fact, vegetables themselves are hard to find, grouped as “sides,” although there are some great tips for roasted vegetables, which — next to salads — is many people’s favorite way to prepare veg anyway.

We like this book for its graphics, structure, and friendly, you-can-do-this! tone, which is right on. Anybody can cook — and should give it a try.

Digging in a little deeper

Cooking Know-How, subtitled “Be a Better Cook with Hundreds of Easy Techniques, Step-by-Step Photos, and Ideas for Over 500 Great Meals,” is also a book that can teach a person to cook, but this one really is about technique. The book starts with 65 not exactly base recipes but what the publisher instead calls “explications.” These don’t — like typical recipes — have ingredient lists; instead, each ingredient has its own section, more or less, and each section is a step.

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Here’s an example: The recipe for basic risotto goes on for four pages. (That’s right, Grad — and single-spaced, too.) Sure, there are photos to accompany each recipe — in the case of risotto, four of them — and throughout the book, there are many gorgeous full-page food photos that make you hungry, which may be why this book costs $10 more than No More Take-Out!

But the real selling point are the charts that follow each recipe, offering maybe eight variations on the theme. So, Classic Risotto continues into Mushroom Risotto, Swiss Chard Risotto . . . you get the idea.

Here’s a hint of the authors’ goal, as described in the introduction:

Armed with the knowledge of the simple mechanics of a dish, the five or so steps it takes to make it, you can walk into the market, find what’s fresh (or on special), bring it home, and have dinner on the table without any worries, any overly romantic pretensions, or any cookbooks piled on the floor: fresh every time — and your way, too.

The book appeals to someone who wants to dig in, who learns by reading about a technique (as opposed to hearing one explained or being shown how it works), and who can appreciate the possibilities in myriad suggested variations. If a new cook has only one recipe reference book, this would be a good one to have.

For the adroit cook

Recipes are great, but cooking can be more fun — and more rewarding — sans recipes. Several books, including some by Sally Schneider as well as Michael Ruhlman’s latest, Ratios, attempt to fortify cooks to go it alone.

Everyone can cook.

The Flavor Bible is one of those books. The subtitle, “The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs,” doesn’t quite get at the enormity of the task that authors Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg set for themselves. They interviewed dozens of chefs and other “food and drink experts” to learn about their favorite flavor combinations. Here’s how they describe the result:

The Flavor Bible . . . is not intended to be prescriptive; rather, it is an empowerment tool. The Flavor Bible is a comprehensive, easy-to-use single-volume reference of more than six hundred alphabetical entries listing modern-day compatible flavors, chronicling new flavor synergies in the new millennium.

The result is a cookbook unlike any we’ve ever seen. Essentially, it’s a catalog of suggestions from people who cook (a lot) about how to put ingredients together. So, there’s a list of items that go well with Achiote Seeds (the first entry), and similarly there’s a list of things that go well with Zucchini Blossoms (the last).

Plus there are entries for a given cuisine — Korean, for instance, which lists chile peppers, fish, garlic, noodles (especially buckwheat), rice, sesame seeds, shellfish, soy sauce, sugar, and pickled vegetables (for example, kimchi). Following that, there’s a “Flavor Affinities” section that lists items in the first list that go especially well together: “chile peppers + garlic + soy sauce,” etc.

Not surprisingly for a book called The Flavor Bible, this volume opens with a spirited discussion of flavor — its physical, emotional, and mental realms. Next comes an overview of cooking, complete with glorious photographs. The charts themselves take up hundreds of pages, but are alphabetically ordered and thus are simple to use.

Finally, there are the quotes and suggestions for combinations — hundreds of them, from the people interviewed. These lively bits are the spice of the book, giving The Flavor Bible its flavor. We loved reading about how Meeru Dhalwala, of Vij's in Vancouver, B.C., layers turmeric with other spices, or how Kaz Okochi, of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington, D.C., uses yuzu juice (in fact, we loved learning about yuzu juice in the first place).

At its best, The Flavor Bible equips a good cook to become more adventurous and ultimately more skilled at creating dishes, sans recipes. But just as important, it’s an inspiring and entertaining book to peruse.

Kim Carlson is Culinate’s editorial director.

Related article: Midnight oil

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1. by Gudrun on Jun 24, 2009 at 10:12 PM PDT

I was thinking of buying copies of Bittman’s How to Cook Everything for my kids when they go off to college. They already think it is the best book in my collection :-)

2. by anonymous on Aug 21, 2009 at 2:28 PM PDT

I have Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian,and I find that I refer to the second one more often. Either of these would be great for a first cookbook.

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