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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Read Local: How to Be a Real Cook

Posted By on Wed, Jan 23, 2013 at 11:00 AM


New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every Wednesday for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.

"Cooking is often one disaster after another. What you learn is the only thing you can't fix is a soufflé."

This quote by Julia Child, who needs no introduction herself, serves to introduce a book that promises to arm you with the kind of knowledge that makes a chef. I'm not talking about someone who can drive to a fancy food store and buy imported truffles snuffed out by a female pig. That requires little more than a nice-sized bank account, which also seems to be the only prerequisite a person needs in order to declare oneself a "foodie."

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As Cook's Wisdom: the A-Z Guide to Ingredients, Equipment and Techniques (Weldon Owen) points out, "nowadays fewer and fewer people have had a true understanding of cooking passed down to them." This is what compels people to procure rarefied ingredients for complicated recipes they will attempt no more than one or two times, during which they will adhere to every ingredient and direction with frightening precision.

A real cook can improvise. They can do without, supplement, and most of all, save. They seek out recipes, sure, but more than that, they are relentlessly pursing knowledge, and Cook's Wisdom claims provide it.

You'd like some proof. Of course, I understand, and I've come prepared. Every night for a week before this article's deadline, I randomly opened a page in the book with high expectations.

Who am I, besides your book critic, to judge? I am not only a home cook, but a writer who works from home. It is not uncommon that I make two meals a day, and most often three. I have pastry scrapers and an immersion blender, properly seasoned cast iron pans and a mandolin that has seen its share of blood. You want muffins? I've got trays that can produce minis, tops, and regulars. Think it over and let me know. I'll be in the kitchen making my own yogurt.

Interior page, Cook's Wisdom.
  • Interior page, Cook's Wisdom.

In other words, if you tell me you're going to lay some wisdom on me, you better bring that deliciousness.

January 15: You had me at freezing. Do I know how to mark and freeze things? Yes, but I've often wondered about vegetables, particularly celery, which seems to grow a new stalk every time I use it, only to suddenly perish the next day. I learned not only which vegetables can be frozen, but also which require blanching. Also, don't thaw your frozen vegetable! Steaming is ideal.

January 16: How to disjoint a chicken. Totally gross, but those six steps were also quite simple yet informative.

January 17: I'm met with a crab glossary. The six types of crab described are most widely available in North America, but thousands exist. What is the difference between a Blue Crab and a Snow Crab? Blue Crab is indeed dark green to black, hails from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and supplies most of the country's pasteurized crab meat. Snow Crabs, on the other hand, are found in the Alaskan waters and have skinny legs good for crackin'. There's also info on how to clean hard- and soft-shelled crabs, but I don't want to spoil the whole thing for you.

January 17: I landed on cookies, of which I make a batch a week. That being said, baking can be black magic, so I was hoping to find a truly enlightening tip. Telling me to make drop cookies by scooping up a spoonful of batter wasn't it, but I persevered. Don't grease with butter because it burns easily? Okay, that's probably helpful for some. Flour your surface before putting dough on it? Come on. I skipped ahead to "Cookie Blues," which tries to figure out why your cookies -- not mine, I assure you -- are so bad. If your cookies spread too quickly, it was probably because you put dough on a hot sheet. Isn't that axiomatic knowledge, like waiting until the cake cools before frosting?


January 18: The almost full-page seasoning chart was actually pretty helpful. I own practically all of the seasonings, but I don't often experiment. Beets tend to get the citrus and mint service, but I never even considered ginger. Likewise, green beans seem to have long been monogamous with garlic, but marjoram, savory, or thyme would certainly be worth exploring. Telling me, however, that potatoes are good with chives, dill, garlic, and parsley, doesn't do a thing for me.

January 19: Knives! It turns out I can get rid of all the sad IKEA knives and subsist on a chef's knife and paring knife alone. When I buy them, I should look for ones with "full tangs." I had no idea what that was or why I wanted it, but it simply means the metal blade visible extends through the entire length of the handle, i.e. metal rivets. I'm still unclear as to why I need them, so I assume they somehow better secure the handle. I did learn, however, that my laziness is dulling my knives: The glorious dishwasher, for all its many attributes, dulls knives.

While I did encounter information I already knew, I do consider this book is a success. The thing is, I won't finish Cook's Wisdom in another five nights, or even five months. Maybe it'll remain on my nightstand for a full year, but all along the way I'll be learning just enough to inform, but not overwhelm, and I probably won't have to buy a single thing along the way. Take that, foodies. 

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.

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Alexis Coe


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