October 2011

Charlotte Freeman



Iíve been obsessed with the OccupyWallStreet and We Are the 99 Percent movements, in part because theyíre the first political movements Iíve seen that seem willing to take on the creeping corporatization of everything that has left so many of us feeling helpless. And while food might seem an unlikely lens to view this issue through, since our food systems have been co-opted by the same corporate forces that have co-opted our financial and political systems, it seems as good a place as any to start.

We are a nation that does not know how to feed itself. Iím not talking solely about the general lack of nutritional comprehension, although thatís a big part of it, Iím talking about literal cooking skills. People do not know how to cook. They donít know what to do with raw food in their own kitchens.

In part this is because weíve been told for 40 years that food prep is boring, difficult, and unsanitary -- in short, that ďfood prep,Ē cooking that is, is better left to the professionals, to those big factories that churn out the boxes and bags of frozen dinners in the grocery store, to the fast food restaurants that line most peopleís commutes, to chain restaurants or even, to the mom-and-pop restaurants that most of you who live in cities have stuffing your mailboxes with takeout menus.

As always, Iím going to argue that a nation that does not know how to feed itself is a nation in peril.

The nation in peril, however, has three cooking powerhouses with new books out this fall who really really really want to teach you how to cook. Jacques Pepin, Jamie Oliver and Michael Ruhlman each have new books out that are designed to teach you how to cook instinctively, that want to teach you how to go into your own kitchen on a night when youíre fried and hungry and pissed off perhaps from your commute and the crappy job youíre clinging to because at least you have a crappy job and the last thing you can deal with is the leftovers in your fridge or the CSA veggies accusing you of letting them die a terrible watery death in the crisper. These guys can help. These books can help. You can learn to cook your own dinner, dinner for your friends, your family, your kids.

Jacques Pepin has been trying to teach us all these skills for decades now, and he brings to The Essential Pepin his trademarked genial French conviction that learning how to cook well is a pleasure, and one that should be shared with the people you love. I have to confess, I am not objective when it comes to Pepin. Iím old enough to have been seduced as a small child by his first famous American creation: the Howard Johnsonís fried clam, to say nothing of the fabulous Howard Johnsonís hot dog, that came in a very soft bun that had been fried in butter on both of the outside surfaces until it was crisp and buttery. The stop at HoJoís was the best part of the eight-hour drive to northern Wisconsin. However, my love of Pepin is also influenced by the fact that during the years we lived together, my beloved dead younger brother (upon whom I once vomited HoJoís fried clams on a road trip), learned to cook from Pepinís books and PBS TV shows. We went into San Francisco to a cookbook signing to see Jacques and Julia Child, and every Christmas, Patrick made the Paris Brest out of one of Jacques cookbooks.

So, I have a sentimental attachment to the lovely Jacques, who has released a new doorstop of a book just in time for Christmas. Heís collected recipes from across his long career, retested them, updated them for current tastes, and collected them into this collection. This is a big book -- everything from soup to charcuterie, salads to cakes, roasts to grains, eggs to pastry. Thereís a great section on ďBasicsĒ at the end of the book where he covers stocks, sauces, pickles and relishes, and drinks. However, for my money, the real gem here is the DVD in the back of the book, where in short segments, Pepin demonstrates techniques that are difficult to visualize from written instructions. Finally, I understand what Julia Child was talking about when she described making an omelette by shaking the pan -- something Iíve never been able to figure out until I saw Pepin demonstrate it. His crepes demo is also fabulous, it truly takes one beyond relying on a recipe by demonstrating a technique (and it was breakfast this morning). Pepinís matter-of-fact explanation of making puff pastry even has me thinking ďhey, I could do thatĒ (although I think itíd be easier if I had his lovely marble countertop). Apparently, thereís also a PBS series tied to this book, but my affiliate isnít carrying it -- luckily, they episodes available online, and are well worth taking a look at. Pepinís confidence is infectious, and heís a natural teacher, and the episodes where he cooks with his granddaughter will melt even the grinchiest hearts.

Jamie Oliver is not everyoneís cup of tea, but Iíve always liked his enthusiasm and his absolute conviction that cooking is not hard, that everyone can do it, and that knowing how to cook will improve your love life, your family life and your all-around happiness. ďIím too busy. Itís too expensive. I donít know how.Ē These are the three objections Oliver hears from people about why they donít cook, and with Jamie Oliverís Meals in Minutes: A Revolutionary Approach to Cooking Good Food Fast, heís determined to prove that with 20 to 30 minutes in the evening, ďabout the same time it takes to warm up a heat-and-serve meal in the ovenÖ or order and pick up a take-out mealĒ anyone can put together a nice meal complete with a main dish, a side or salad, and either a dessert or a ďlovely drink.Ē To do this, heís written ďrecipesĒ for fifty meals, each written to teach you how to move between dishes as you pull together an entire meal. He tends to rely on a couple of tips to speed things up -- the food processor or blender for prep, the microwave to move things along, and something Iíd never thought of before, using an electric teakettle to get water boiling quickly for pasta or veggies. I cooked several of these meals (although since we donít really eat dessert, I skipped those parts), and I have to say, these recipes work, and itís a great way to learn how to juggle cooking multiple dishes at once. This is a learned skill, and itís the one that most often trips up cooks who arenít comfortable just winging it in the kitchen. Cooking your way through these whole-meal guides is one of the best ways I can think of to learn to move beyond recipes. Plus, there are great flavors here -- everything from Asian to Mediterennean to classic English dishes -- and Oliver gives specific instructions right down to the serving dishes. If youíre looking to start moving beyond recipes but get flustered trying to cook a whole meal, cooking your way through this book might be a great way to get over that hump.

Michael Ruhlman has spent the last few years trying to convince his readers that by learning basic techniques they can move beyond recipes, and begin to just cook. With Ratio (and the Ratio app) he provided the basic formulas for everything from stock to pastry, and with his new book Ruhlmanís Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cookís Manifesto, he expands on the earlier work, dividing the book nearly exactly between ingredients (egg, salt, onion) and techniques (braise, chill, roast). The manifesto is in the first chapter ďThinkĒ in which Ruhlman not only tells you that thinking will make you a better cook, but that cooking, and cooking well, is a discipline that will make you better at the non-cooking aspects of your life. This is my favorite kind of book -- one with great recipes like the citrus-cured salmon (which Iím making for the next big party), and the angel food cake with whipped cream and toffee, and an onion soup recipe that is taking the internet by storm (in part due to itís absolute simplicity) -- but more important, the kind of book that teaches you how to get beyond cookbooks. If you know how salt functions, if you know how a braise works, if you know how to make a basic vinaigrette, then you can take those skills and improvise.

One of the things that trips everyone up when you get home tired and hungry and look in the fridge and see nothing is not knowing how to improvise. Books like these three, can teach you the skills you need for those nights when you come home wrecked, look in the fridge, and canít see anything that looks like dinner. Jacques Pepinís DVD demo and Ruhlmanís chapter on eggs mean the next time that happens, you might be able to see an omelette in there. Cooking through Jamie Oliverís whole-meal recipes might teach you how to not only get some pasta going, but a salad at the same time, and for people who like sweets, maybe even a dessert. With skills like that, you can invite people over without having to stress about a ďdinner partyĒ -- itís not rocket science, itís just dinner.