The number of cookbooks published every year is mind-boggling. It’s hard to believe this market exists, but apparently it does because they keep coming. As a cookbook author, I write for home cooks and I’m most interested in introducing home cooks to the cooking of other cultures. A chef has a different life even when they write cookbooks. A friend of mine who ghostwrites cookbooks for restaurant chefs tells me how difficult it is for them to grasp what’s necessary to turn their creations into something that can work in a home kitchen. Of course, not all of them care about whether their food will work at your home because their books are often marketing tools for their restaurants — You’re not supposed to make this food at home, you’re suppose to go to their restaurants.
Cookbook authors who write for the home cook are concerned with reality and practicality. We know you don’t have five assistants in the kitchen to do all the chopping and cleaning. We know you can’t afford to buy a pound of truffles. We know that you don’t have eight burners delivering a gazillion BTUs. We know that you must clean up the chopped onion that fell on the floor. We know you want recipes that are inspiring, that result in good tasting food every time you make them and, if they are a challenge, they are not a challenge because of imprecise directions, hard-to-get ingredients, or impossible or mystifying techniques.
As a home cook and cooking teacher who writes for home cooks and someone very interested in culinary cultures, I demand of my readers a bit more care and effort than will be found in a recipe in a food magazine. I may encourage you to drive around a bit and find an Italian market or search the Internet for foods and roll a stuffed cabbage leaf, but for the most part I’m sensitive to the fact that your time, talent and interest may be limited. I look for shortcuts for you that don’t compromise taste. I’m not going to ask you to painstakingly remove the near-microscopic sliver of green from a garlic clove, I’m just going to have you chop the damn thing. With some recipes, however, I’ll put you through the mill. My recipe for cassoulet, for instance, is a challenge, but it’s the only way you’ll understand the dish.
Loving recipes that challenge
Every now and then, everyone who cooks loves a challenge. I remember a challenge I faced enthusiastically in the early 1980s when I received Chef Paul Prudhomme’s cookbook on Cajun cooking as a gift. At the time, I knew zilch about Cajun cooking and neither did anyone else in an era before blackened this and that, invented, incidentally, by Prudhomme himself. (That’s right: There was no blackened anything before Prudhomme.) If you wanted to cook Cajun food and you were clueless as to what it was — there was nothing intuitive about it — you just had to follow the recipe closely. Prudhomme guided me to all kinds of amazing dishes that I cooked like an old pro although, honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing. It was the culinary equivalent of painting by numbers. Now, that’s a good cookbook.
If you are cooking the food of a culinary culture you don’t know much about, it is imperative that you follow a recipe closely. In fact, I would say, exactly. You’re learning, not being creative. You’re learning to be creative in the future. I love recipes written with precise instructions even if they’re lengthy. Long lists of ingredients or directions don’t intimidate me; they invite me. I began cooking when I was about 15, spurred by my first job working in one of the most celebrated restaurants of Long Island in the 1960s.
A few years later, living on my own, I bought what turned out to be my seminal cookbook for understanding Italian food and now one of my favorite cookbooks, Ada Boni’s “Italian Regional Cooking” and I tackled her il grande fritto misto all’Emiliana, a ridiculously intimidating recipe of more than a 1,000 words without an ingredient list. I used a magnifying glass to determine what some of the dishes were in the photographs. I made my very first ossobuco from Boni’s book in about 1970, and my love and appreciation for regional Italian cooking comes as much from my travels as from that beloved cookbook.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Ossobuco with Risotto alla Milanese.