But you don't really learn much from those sources, other than a specific recipe and an occasional tip. One of the reasons I watch Alton Brown religiously and subscribe to Cook's Illustrated is because I want to know how the cooking and baking processes work, so that I can understand how to negotiate a recipe to serve my needs.
Yes, certain foods are easy to vary (e.g., add more vegetables, use less salt). I have no problem changing things up in a stew, for example. Herbs and spices are always mere suggestions. And there's always room for some vermouth! But when it comes to making bread, pie crusts, or cakes, I'm at the mercy of my recipe books. I love my books, but sometimes I wish I understood why certain ingredients are listed so that I know whether or not I can substitute or omit them all together.
Enter Michael Ruhlman. His most recent book is Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. This is the book I've been looking for since I burned, cut, and maimed myself while foraging for sustenance in my sad little kitchen oh so long ago. This book gives you the ratios of how to make foods that require precision, thereby offering me a foundation from which to be creative in the kitchen.
For example, as he states after offering the ratio for bread is 5 parts flour to 3 parts water:
"You can make fresh bread without opening a single book or scouring a website for random recipes, and you can make as much or as little as you like. That 500 grams of flour or 20 ounces of flour with the water, a pinch of dry yeast, and 2 big pinches of salt make a good loaf of bread. But if you want to liven it up, add a tablespoon of freshly chopped rosemary and a head of roasted garlic and stretch it out for a roasted garlic and rosemary ciabatta. Other fresh herbs such as thyme, sage, and oregano work beautifully, too. Or use other intense, flavorful ingredients: poblano and chipotle peppers, kalamata olives and walnuts, chocolate and cherries, pistachios and cranberries. Caramelized onion! A sausage! Cheese! The variations are limitless because you know the ratio, 5 parts flour, 3 parts water."After giving you ratios and a few other tips, he gives you a few recipes to understand how to use the information. Because the point isn't to walk away with a recipe, it's to walk away with an understanding of how you can make every recipe bend and yield at your command!! Mwa, ha, haaaaa!! Hmm...too much? OK, it's at least a great tool in understanding how you can manipulate recipes to suit your ingredients on hand, or alter the servings needed (serves 4 vs. serves 8 isn't always a matter of doubling everything).
Now that this book is in my hot little hands, I'm much more keen on getting The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. After hearing about it at every turn (a fun review here), I checked it out from the library, and found that it wasn't for me. Much like a dictionary, it lists foods and their complimentary pairings. For example, if you look up cherries, it will list every food that goes well with cherries, as well as a list of foods that go exceptionally well with cherries. Personally, I found that it put the onus on me of understanding what I cook, and that's just silly. But as I feel a bit more confident in cooking and baking, I might feel more inclined to have such a tool in my kitchen. As a home cook, it really can come in handy. If I'm debating on what to do for dinner and I know I have some herbs or vegetables that I want to use up before they go off, this book would be a great way to figure out how I can use a few ingredients effectively. Things like that don't just come to me...I need help! And how likely is it that I'll find a recipe in a random book or online as easily? Riiiiiight.
So these are my exciting new kitchen finds. Have you seen anything exciting out there?