Good cookbook authors worry all the time that their recipes work. Even more important they hope to impart the underlying foundation of that particular cuisine or style of cooking. So, it just drives me nuts when someone tells me, “Oh, I followed your recipe, but it didn’t work.” I used to fret about this and asked questions about what went wrong only to discover that the cook opted to omit a key ingredient, like garlic from garlic soup. Home cooks, especially competent ones, experiment all the time with recipes, which is a perfectly legitimate way to use a cookbook. For this experimentation to work, however, cooks have to adapt recipes within reason and, more important, they have to understand the cuisine with which they’re experimenting.
Some cookbooks are written in an idiot-proof style. The recipes are usually not interesting, but they’re easy and almost impossible to screw up. Those kinds of cookbooks are great for beginners, such as college students, or for families with bland palates. It gets the beginner familiar with the language and staples of a kitchen.
It’s important to keep in mind that we all are likely to use our kitchen “lab” for our unique style of experimentation. In my experience, men and women generally approach cooking differently. Women want to know precisely what will happen and what they should do. The men are likely to grab a bottle of vodka and say, “I wonder what happens when you put this in?”
I’ve heard good cooks say, “Oh, but I only cook from cookbooks, I don’t create anything.” They’d be surprised to know that very often they are creating something because every little tweak results in a different result and amounts to personal expression and creativity. Very few new dishes are ever created — newly invented dishes are usually just variations on a theme. As that great French gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, said in his “The Physiology of Taste“: “The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.” Mostly what happens is a slight transformation of an old dish.
Work with good cookbooks
The classic American macaroni and cheese derives from an Italian maccherone con formaggio, but it can also become deep-fried macaroni-and-cheese on a stick as it was found at state fairs in recent years. Furthermore, one shouldn’t belittle the achievement of cooking from a cookbook because it’s no mean feat to do so, no matter how good the cookbook, because you’re not doing a chemistry experiment, you’re engaged in a creative act and you are making judgments about the texture and taste all the time beyond the guidance of the cookbook writer. When you read “cook over medium heat” or “chop a medium onion” you are making a judgment about the meaning of “medium.” When you read “cook until golden,” you will learn that “golden” means many things beyond the actual color “gold.”
You can learn a lot from cookbooks, especially cookbooks written by home cooks for home cooks. A good cookbook is not necessarily the best selling one. One of our greatest writers on Mediterranean foods is Paula Wolfert. Her books are not runaway best-sellers, but she writes great cookbooks. Critics and her legions of fans appreciate and emulate her entire approach to food, which is the careful, knowledgeable, appreciative, slow and immaculate kind of food preparation and cooking that values the work of the community and the cook that is behind a cuisine. Others find her approach too fastidious, but that’s a question of their taste, not of quality. If you cook from Paula Wolfert’s cookbooks, you will learn something important. You will learn how to cook, which is what a good cookbook should be written to help you do.
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: A page from “A Mediterranean Feast” by Clifford A. Wright. Credit: Michelle van Vliet