Although it has been a while since I set foot in a formal classroom, each year at this time, with the beginning of school fast approaching, I tend to think about new skills I can learn or old ones I can improve upon. It seemed fitting, then, that I recently received an email from a friend asking which cookbook he should purchase to help him become a better cook.
For me, the choice was quick and easy: Anne Willan’s classic cookbook “La Varenne Pratique.” Ever since I acquired it on my first day of chef’s school 18 years ago, it’s been my go-to resource whenever I’ve needed to reference a cooking technique or learn more about a specific ingredient.
The original volume, weighing close to 5 pounds, was published in 1989 and has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide. Thankfully, this essential book, long out of print and challenging to find in a secondhand store, was recently reissued as an e-book.
During the first half of her 30-plus years running the legendary France-based cooking school La Varenne, Willan, a Zester Daily contributor, and her staff continuously researched and wrote about essential French cooking techniques and the importance of understanding every aspect of an ingredient. The laborious effort of distilling all this culinary information resulted in a 528-page tome that provides in-depth knowledge of how to choose, store, identify and handle ingredients. This knowledge of good ingredients is paired with clear, encouraging instructions and action photos of foundational cooking techniques, such as how to dice an onion, fillet a fish or prepare different types of meringues.
Willan’s cookbook goes beyond the surface
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Many cookbooks these days take us on a wonderful culinary journey, tasting a region’s or country’s culture and table, yet only provide us with a fixed GPS map of how to get to the finished dish. When you get to a point in your culinary journey where you want to veer off course and understand why certain time-honored gustatory routes are so adored, “La Varenne Pratique” is the culinary guidebook to help you navigate your or any country’s kitchen.
The new e-book has been sliced and diced into four parts, each sold separtely. Part 1: The Basics discusses herbs and seasonings; soups; stocks; and sauces, as well as eggs, dairy and oils; Part 2 covers meat, poultry, fish and game; Part 3 examines vegetables, pasta, pulses and grains; and Part 4 dishes on our sweet tooth with baking, preserving, desserts, fruits, nuts and freezing. Each part also comes with a weight-and-measurement table (worth bookmarking for regular reference), list of cooking equipment, glossary of cooking terms and bibliography.
Because the book was written before the advent of modernist cooking, it does not include these techniques. However, if this is an area that interests you, I am sure Willan would recommend you check out her onetime student Nathan Myhrvold’s exhaustive six-volume series, “Modernist Cuisine.”
Having used the e-book version on both an iPad and laptop for the past month, I can vouch that the electronic version is reliable when adapting to different formats and layouts. Simply adjusting the font size or page orientation offers you a variety of almost personalized layouts. Because the images are scans of the original book and not high-resolution digital photographs, they can be enlarged only to a certain point. This is not much of a problem, as the images are large and easy to view.
How to purchase
The e-book version of “La Varenne Pratique” can be purchased through many major online retailers, including iTunes, Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Copia. Each of the four parts is $6.99.
The greatest challenge I’ve encountered is using the search function. In this day and age where we type anything into a search engine and get countless results, using an e-book’s search function can initially frustrate. If you type in a technique such as “how to cut up a chicken,” zero results show up. However, if you are more specific and type “cutting a bird in pieces” the exact result pops up. I’ve found eliminating the term “how to” and being more direct with your keywords drastically increases the likelihood of getting precise hits. It’s also just as easy to simply thumb through a section’s e-pages to find the specific subject you’re searching for.
Aside from the comprehensive information about ingredients, the best thing about this book is the countless technique shots that teach you lifelong, fundamental cooking skills. It would be fantastic to have a single website that aggregates all the “how-to” photo instructions “La Varenne Pratique” demonstrates as videos. But until someone invests the time and money to produce those videos, you will need to visit many websites to find all this information.
Simply put, “La Varenne Pratique” is a cooking school in a book, and certainly cheaper than tuition. It is the best gift you could give a new culinary student, a child heading to college, a newly married couple or your friend who writes a food blog. Fortunately, the e-book version is both lightweight and affordable and will not take up much space or weight in their culinary backpack.
Main photo: Anne Willan’s “La Varenne Pratique” is now available as an e-book. Willan photo by Siri Berting; e-book photo by Cameron Stauch