An Ode to Ingredients

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in: Book Reviews

Manifesto [man-uh-fes-toh]: a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives, as one issued by a government, sovereign, or organization. (Random House Dictionary, 2011)

So, no, “Ruhlman’s Twenty” (Chronicle Books, October 2011) isn’t really a manifesto. What it is, though, is a really great book on basic kitchen techniques and ingredients. Ruhlman has co-written cookbooks with Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert, and is responsible for some of the most outstanding culinary prose over the past decade. Here, he waxes poetic on everyday things that can easily be taken for granted.

Water, salt, lemons, onions … who knew they were so fraught with possibilities and personalities? “If onions were as rare as truffles,” Ruhlman writes, “chefs would pay dearly for them,” and yet “they, like salt and water, tend to be overlooked for what they are: a miracle ingredient that transforms food in many ways, in nearly every style of cuisine around the globe.”

‘Clear your way’

Reading like Harold McGee crossed with Gary Snyder, this downright lyrical book resounds with a sense of wonder that is contagious. See what happens when Ruhlman talks about the behavior of water: “When water gathers enough energy, it will not be able to contain its volume, and it jumps into vapor, which can contain even more energy than water in liquid form.”

Other admonitions like “clear your way” before you start to cook have a wonderful Zen quality about them. Then there is his koan on burned butter: “Black rarely tastes good.” An exquisite appreciation for nature’s gifts is shown in his description of the egg: “a beautiful object, the hard but delicate shell protecting the life within, its elliptical curves symbolic of life and fertility.” This book is a love letter to Ruhlman’s life work.

In the first chapter, “Think: Where Cooking Begins,” he tells us: “Cooking is an infinitely nuanced series of actions, the outcome of which is dependent on countless variables.” Using buttered toast as an example of one of the simplest of all dishes, he challenges the reader to write the perfect recipe for it. We soon realize that everything we imagine as not worth bearing in mind — the temperature of the butter, the type and thickness of the bread, the heat of the toaster — make preparing the perfect plate of buttered toast a gamble.

Cooking techniques that inspire

His other chapters on individual ingredients and cooking techniques teach basics from which even a seasoned cook could learn. His discussions on acid, eggs, butter, batter and sugar counterbalance his musings on sautéing, roasting, braising and grilling. The recipes echo some of Ruhlman’s previous work, particularly his masterly book “Charcuterie,” about curing meats in which readers are shown how to make their own Sage-Garlic-Brined Pork Chops and even Bacon at Home.

Beginning cooks might be intimidated by the advanced cooking techniques; it’s like being fitted with scuba tanks and dropped off five miles from shore when you thought you were going to learn how to dog-paddle. But with Ruhlman’s meticulous instructions and the illustrative photographs by his wife, Donna Turner Ruhlman, there’s more than a good chance that the reader will not only survive, but be utterly hooked on this new approach to food.

If I have any cavils, they are about a handful of slips that should have been corrected but weren’t, and they end up looking like threads hanging from the hem of a vintage Chanel suit. He writes that Simple Syrup has a water/sugar ratio of 2:1, but he then gives the recipe as one tablespoon each of water and sugar. Ruhlman excels in providing detailed directives throughout the book, and yet he tells the reader simply to “truss the chicken” without any further instructions. He advises readers to use Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt in his splendid essay on the wonders of salt, but then calls for Morton’s everywhere else; this could cause problems because Morton’s weighs more than Diamond.

These, though, are niggling matters and in no way detract substantially from this splendid addition to Ruhlman’s brilliant shelf of books on cooking. A novice could start off with this book and in short order become proficient in a whole range of techniques, ingredients and culinary knowledge, as well as an impressive arsenal of tasty recipes. The fact that it reads beautifully, too, makes “Ruhlman’s Twenty” a modern classic.

Buy Michael Ruhlman’s “Ruhlman’s Twenty” Now!


Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.



Top Photo Composite:

Michael Ruhlman. Credit: Donna Turner Ruhlman.

Book jacket courtesy of Chronicle Books.

 

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