Thursday, August 4, 2011

How to learn to cook from cookbooks

People can’t afford to eat healthy, the headline says, but when I read more closely, I find the numbers saying something else. In fact, only a small percentage of people say they can’t afford to eat the kinds of foods they would like to eat. I consider the cost of groceries against the alternatives to cooking my own food: eating out, or buying prepared food.

Since money’s not the issue for most people, they’re choosing to buy worse food than they could be buying to stay healthy. What is the real barrier to access, if you can get to a grocery store and afford to buy good quality food? I think there are two things that stop people from eating as well as they know they should, and the first one is that people think there’s not enough time to make good food. People are genuinely busy, and their days are already full. Until we’re so enlightened a country as to offer the working people simple, healthy food at government-subsidized prices, we’ll just have to tackle the other barrier: culinary confidence.

The cheapest, most nutritious foods you can buy are simple ones you can cook yourself, but that we’re losing the knowledge of how to prepare. Food preparation is fascinating to everyone, at a time when the art of home cooking is imperiled. My mother didn’t learn how to cook from her mother: she learned how to cook from boxes and cans, so that’s what I learned. I had to pass through some other apprenticeships to learn the basics of feeding myself cheaply. If there’s no one to teach you, you can teach yourself. Learn to cook just one dish that you know you enjoy eating. Then learn another one. It’s not an all or nothing business, cooking for yourself.

The best kind of culinary confidence is being able to work with whatever you have, even without a recipe. That comes as you learn the techniques that you can apply to categories of foods. But even experienced cooks like reference materials. If you’re new to cooking, you will want at least one good, encyclopedic cookbook. The kind of cookbook you need to get started will teach you how to do basic things like fry an egg, soak and cook beans, make rice, or sear a steak. They’ll continue to serve you for years, every time you want to bake a cake or some bread.

Most cookbooks on the market will fall to one or the other side of the encyclopedic cooking reference. On one end there are themed collections of recipes, which are usually of limited utility for someone who’s learning how to cook. They have their place, but you’ll know from the title, or a glimpse through the pages, if the flavors appeal to you and the techniques are at your skill level. Most of my shelf is taken up with themed cookbooks: I consult Claudia Roden on Middle Eastern food, and have several volumes of Indian cooking, but my favorite is by Madhur Jaffrey. Someday when I want to cook even more slow food than I do now, I have a daunting volume of Mexican cookery that I will delve into.

To the other side of the cookbook spectrum are the kind that I typically avoid: the mainstream, “healthy” cookbook. It’s usually full of advice on how to structure your diet so as to remove all of the things they think you shouldn’t eat, like animal fat and salt, and the recipes are usually pretty horrible as a result, so it manages both to avoid teaching basic cookery, and also to avoid teaching you to make even one solid dish that you’d want to make again. You can see why this would not qualify as a culinary confidence builder.

What cookbook should a new cook buy? Go thrifting, and keep an eye out for the gingham-checked “Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook,” which might be familiar from kitchens of your childhood. It’s still a good reference. My favorite go-to for marinades, quick breads, and stews is Mark Bittman’s “How To Cook Everything,” but if the big yellow book is scaring you, there’s a smaller, “Basics” version that’s cheaper. For whole wheat baking and charts on cooking times for bulk food items, I recommend “Laurel’s Kitchen,” a vegetarian cooking reference guide.
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