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Cookbooks for the next level?


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Hey gang,

I do own a lot of cookbooks these days (as I'm sure all of you do), some classics, some oddities, some strange used-bookstore finds (the little book of big sandwiches is actually a goldmine)... but I'm always trying to notch my food up to the next level. To make my food less 'busy', simpler (does not mean quicker!), but well better at the end of the day.

My tastes lie more french/italian than anything else, though I have cooked an awful lot of indian and thai when the cravings hit me. I'm more looking at technique, doing simple things well, but also 'fussy' things, plating, building a cohesive meal rather than just one thing. Maybe something simpler than The French Laundry.

Some things I do own: les halles, River Cottage Meat, mastering art of french cooking I and II, the new book of middle eastern food, all about braising, molto mario, charcuterie, new spanish table, the old world kitchen, several Jamie Olivers (I know, I know, but there is a few gems to be found in there), Hazen, a CIA manual (I use mostly for diagrams of cutting up chickens, trussing things, etc).

I'm not afraid of fussy, getting my hands dirty, or finding good ingredients. I'm ok with pickling, jamming, curing (bacon, hams, etc have had some success in my house), smoking (mostly fish) and I'm getting better at deboning/hacking up larger cuts of things (most of the time).

I've been eyeballing reviews of things by ducasse (but which one?), waters (again, which one?), keller (maybe Bouchon?). I'm sure there are others.

Is there one (or several) decent cookbooks out there for the determined amateur wanting to bring the food up to the next level, rather than "quick easy short-cut 20 minutes only" blah cookbooks. I've had several breakthroughs this year and "ah-ha!" moments which have only made me rethink what I'm cooking and how I'm doing it. Food blogs and local restaurants have made me think more about how I present it, and things that work together, rather than just 'following' a recipe. I like to know why.. how... more inspirational works rather than just a list of ingredients and directions.

What was the cookbook that really solidified your cooking skills?

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Take a look at James Peterson's Sauces. When in a similar discussions have arisen in the past, people have said they worked their way through this cookbook and felt they learned a lot.

I think you've got to look at where you want to go before you'll be able to evaluate how you want to get there. Augment that with an understanding of the knowledge you have now, and you'll have a clearer picture. What kinds of things would you like to be able to do in 5 to 10 years?

Do you know how to throw some ingredients together in a tasty meal, without a recipe? Is it important to you to not be recipe-dependent? Do you want to expand your horizons with a broader spectrum of international dishes? What other kinds of things do you want to learn?

I think your answer to those questions will tell you a lot about where to turn next. I suspect that not one, but actually two or three books, will be more like it. Other than Peterson's book, I think a range of books might be an answer.

The 20-minute meals, also, have something to teach you. Try a quick-and-easy version of something... then a more complex version. If you do that with several dishes, you may learn a lot about using certain ingredients to bring out certain types of flavors in other ingredients. Julia Child's potato-leek soup is just about the simplest thing ever, yet is just sublime. It's not a 20-minute meal, but the actual involved cooking time totals under 20 minutes.

I've also learned a lot from Alton Brown. Amazing what a few key pieces of information can do. Don't forget McGee and Corriher for information about why a dish crashed, or which thickening agent to use. Lots of good stuff there, too.

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I think you've got to look at where you want to go before you'll be able to evaluate how you want to get there.  Augment that with an understanding of the knowledge you have now, and you'll have a clearer picture. What kinds of things would you like to be able to do in 5 to 10 years?

Do you know how to throw some ingredients together in a tasty meal, without a recipe?  Is it important to you to not be recipe-dependent?  Do you want to expand your horizons with a broader spectrum of international dishes?  What other kinds of things do you want to learn?

I've also learned a lot from Alton Brown.  Amazing what a few key pieces of information can do.  Don't forget McGee and Corriher for information about why a dish crashed, or which thickening agent to use.  Lots of good stuff there, too.

Good questions. Five to ten years I think I would like to be much less recipe dependent, more following what I have on hand / know what to source, better at understanding conventional and unconventional pairings. More intuitive? More technique focused rather than cooking-to-the list --this is a slow process as I find myself following a lot of recipes before it finally get into my brain the why's and the how's of how that particular recipe works / comes together (or doesn't work / bothers me, etc). Cooking more has obvious benefits, but cooking more with a little more direction is what I'm looking for. I just did some fascinating experiments on a simple roast chicken (many variations of plainly roasted) that really made things come together for me on that front. Stuffed vs. unstuffed vs stuffed and trussed vs trussed and unstuffed vs brined vs temperature control (start high, finish low vs start low, finish high). A little over the top, but I had a good line on good chickens for cheap and a better idea for what I look for in a finished roast. And that experience has brought me to where I am now, really wanted to hunker down and figure out technique / the why and how, rather than just cooking an interesting recipe. So again, looking for cookbook(s) that focus on technique / process / understanding, pitched more for the determined amateur as opposed to something that may be more accessible to the general public.

As for expanding the horizons with a broad spectrum of international dishes --I dabble quite in a bit in all sorts of cuisines but really want to focus more on generally European cuisine (and use those techniques in the context of the pacific northwest materials I have easy access to). While fusion cuisine is interesting, I want to be much more comfortable with the un-fused cuisines before delving into that.

I have read through McGee --fascinating! I have a lot of chemistry in my background (I am an geological engineer) and it was a real treat.

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I like Charlie Trotter's Kitchen sessions books and Gray Kunz' Elements of Taste. The Kunz book, while occasionally a little pretentious, does give you a lot of insight into how to create dishes using different tastes, something that sounds right up your alley with regards to where you want to go with your cooking.

I don't use cookbooks much anymore, except for pastry, but the Kunz book is a nice reference and I have approximated some of the dishes from it.

"A culture's appetite always springs from its poor" - John Thorne

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I took a spin by the book shop on the way home from work (handy that there is one between me and home) and had a peek at a Cook's book. Though a good reference, particularly Charlie Trotter's sections, it isn't quite what I am looking for. It does, however, look perfect for my old man (he's just getting into cooking) and his birthday is coming up soon --so thanks for the recommendation.

Still looking.. was hoping to catch a glimpse of Peterson's books, but they had none in stock.

pg

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It's been around for a while but you didn't mention it so... do you already own Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking? If not then that's definitely one I'd recommend.

Edited to remove irrelevant rambling.

Edited by Tri2Cook (log)

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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Tri2Cook is right: any serious cook needs On Food and Cooking. If you don't have it, get it. Read it. Memorize large sections.

I'd also suggest you check out Tom Colicchio's Think Like a Chef and the Bittman-Vongerichten collaboration Simple to Spectacular.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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The Cook's Book is deceptively simple. There are sections that aren't that strong -- I'm a big fan of David Thompson and I think that part's just ok -- but there are other sections that are stunning. You gotta read the whole thing in detail, try out some of the techniques, to really see how fascinating it is. Bittman it ain't.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Looking at Peterson's Sauces and Peterson's Cooking.

Anyone have experience with well, either (or both!), and like to chime in?

-pg.

Sauces is one of my favorite cookbooks, and I think is right along the lines of what you're looking for. The book is fantastic for techniques and it gives you the base of knowledge required make smart improvisations. It's also a cookbook that I sat down and read cover to cover.

I don't have any experience with Cooking, but I have a couple other Peterson books and he's probably my favorite cookbook author, so I don't think you can go wrong!

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You might also want to look at Michel Richard's Happy in the Kitchen.

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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I'd recommend "Exploring taste and flavour" by Tom Kime. The title succinctly captures where our culinary experiments and researches take us.

In the book, he outlines his approach to combining the tastes of sweet, sour, salty, hot and applies it to dishes ranging from the simplicity of favorites such as a BLT through to the richness of Thai cooking. Try your BLT using sweet tomato, sourdough bread, salty bacon, and arugula [rocket] to see what he means.

Chris Mirault mentioned David Thompson in an earlier post; as someone who worked with Thompson, Tom credits him with totally changing his approach to thinking about flavors and it shows in his recipes.

Extend the approach of balancing flavors by adding contrasting textures and you will produce food that speaks to the soul.

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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Well, now that you've brought him up again, I'll toss Thompson's Thai Food into the ring. If you want to learn techniques about a sophisticated, non-Western cuisine, there's no better place to start. The essay on rice and the tutorial on tasting sauces as you prepare them are remarkable -- and that's before you get to the recipes.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Well, now that you've brought him up again, I'll toss Thompson's Thai Food into the ring. If you want to learn techniques about a sophisticated, non-Western cuisine, there's no better place to start. The essay on rice and the tutorial on tasting sauces as you prepare them are remarkable -- and that's before you get to the recipes.

Thai food is fantastic (if oddly organized). A thai friend is always shocked when I make good thai.

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I have to second Sauces by Peterson. This book is fabulously instructive.

Other books that are often mentionned and that I like a lot include: The whole Beast Nose to Tail by Fergus Henderson, Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli, Bouchon by Thomas Keller, the Babbo Cookbook by Mario Batali and The cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert.

You could also opt for cookbooks on specific topics such as breadmaking (Reinhart), charcuterie (Rhulman and Polcyn, Reynaud), etc.

Or if you are interested in sourcing your ingredient, the river cottage series (although very UK centric) can be a good start. You could decide to learn about gardening and foraging in the wild as well.

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Try to track down Dorenberg and Page's Culinary Artistry book. It's a great reference tool and discusses a great deal about taking cooking to a more professional quality. I reread it again on vacation and it got alot of cylinders firing.

Also I'd recommend getting cookbooks for any restaurants you like because they, too, will impart alot of techniques and arrangements that you may not get in more home-cooking geared books. If you haven't already, get Batali's Babbo cookbook for a prime example.

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The French Laundry cookbook isn't as complicated as it seems, and you will be guaranteed to learn a lot. Bouchon is also quite good though, both have improved my cooking tremendously. Much simpler but good for thinking about whole menus is the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook.

Martin Mallet

<i>Poor but not starving student</i>

www.malletoyster.com

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I have three of Peterson's cookbooks: Sauces, Essentials of Cooking (gift) and Cooking. Much of Essentials is replicated in Cooking. I think those two books are what you are looking for. Peterson is probably my favorite cookbook author.

Dennis

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  • 2 weeks later...

I just ordered McGee's and Peterson's based on the comments on this thread.

I'm surprised Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook hasn't been mentioned. I really like the no-nonsense, "here's how you get the #$%ing job done" attitude.

Reading this makes you feel like you're working for an unhappy, hung-over Tony.

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

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Peterson rules. Get all his books, which reminds me: I should sign on to Amazon to fill in the holes in my collection.

I love "Les Halles" -- for the fab soup section alone --but it's a self-described down and dirty bistro cookbook. Buy it, by all means, but anything in it you can get from Julia.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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I'm a James Peterson fan - Essentials of Cooking has an excellent format, laden with info but very clear. The CIA Professional Chef (8th) is thorough but the images and labeling are not good - and I keep finding typos - it reminds me of a large mediocre text book.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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