Sunday, July 1, 2012
Cookbook Review: Essentials of Cooking
Author: James Peterson
Published: 1999 by Artisan, my copy--with the cover shown above--published 2003
Available for Purchase: Amazon, Powell's, Barnes and Noble
This is a departure from the cookbooks I usually purchase, as it's not a specifically "cooking for two" or small-yield book, and it's not really even a cookbook. Truly, it's a cooking reference book, and if you've only got space for one on your shelf, this should be one of the top contenders for that spot.
This really does offer the "essentials", plus several new ideas that would never have occurred to me. The book starts with full instructions--including step by step photos--on peeling vegetables (each type of vegetable is demonstrated separately), and ends with preparing and braising a large rabbit. In between is everything from making tomato sauce to making chicken liver mousse; making french fries to cooking squid; poaching eggs to boning a whole round fish. And there are clear photographs for each and every bit. Even the 25 page glossary has some pictures, and it provides more than just definitions for each term. The entry for "steam", for example, defines what cooking in steam is, how to do it, when it is usually done (with cross-reference to earlier text), descriptions of the four main types of steamers available for purchase, a description of how to improvise your own steamer, and instructions for how to use two different types of steamers.
I've never had to fillet a salmon, because my sweetheart takes care of that aspect for me when he catches the fish. But I truly believe that if I were faced with a whole salmon, I could use the 19 photos here to take me from cutting away the fins to removing the pin bones. At the same time, there are instructions--I hesitate to call them recipes, as most give ratios, not measurements--for all sorts of dishes, and I could use this book to make mayonnaise, chunky vegetable soup, baked tomatoes with garlic and fresh basil, gnocchi, or any of 18 classic sauces for sauteed chicken.
Complete and sensible index, well-arranged table of contents, and colour-coded page numbers correlating to sections make it easy to find what's needed quickly. There was not a single technique that left me feeling a jump had been made from one step to the next, and anything that requires previous knowledge tells you which page to find that particular bit of knowledge on. For example, on "How to poach chicken in a pot", there are references to "to truss a chicken, page 146", "to core and section carrots, page 21", "to make a bouquet garni, page 31", and "to carve a roast chicken, page 149", plus the related glossary entry (poach) is listed so the reader knows where to go for more.
I am completely unsurprised that this guide was nominated for a James Beard award. It is a condensing of years of training for those of us who will never attend culinary school but want a solid foundation for our home cooking. As it says on the inner jacket: "Knowing how to execute a technique makes you efficient; knowing why you've chosen that technique makes you a master."