Where Cooking Begins:
Uncomplicated Recipes to Make You a Great Cook
How do you learn to be a good cook? I bet the answers in 2020 are different than they used to be. I have noticed a trend in what I call “building block” cookbooks – books that teach you techniques and flavours so that you can apply that knowledge yourself, rather than following recipes by rote. Think of the grandmas and nonnas and bubbies cooking by touch and smell. But what if you don’t have one, or she’s not available? That’s where this book comes in.
Carla Lalli Music is the food director at Bon Appetit. Bon Appetit was and still is a food magazine, but it has reinvented itself through hugely popular YouTube cooking videos and Music is featured in many of them. Like the videos, this book is good whether you are a novice cook or not. Part I has cooking strategies, like “how to live forever on fewer spices”. I read that one carefully, still working on it. Part II is techniques –sauté, pan roast, steam, boil and simmer, confit, slow roast and pastry dough. Text and step-by-step pictures for each technique are super helpful. What does squash look like after it’s seared? Darker than you think.
Part III is the recipes, each with suggestions about how to “spin-it”. Fresh mozzarella with charred and raw sugar snap peas can be made with green beans, cherry tomatoes or radishes, ricotta instead of mozzarella, hazelnut oil instead of olive oil. Fried grains with bacon, mushrooms and kimchi can be made with carrots or cabbage, beef or shrimp, or skip the meat. You get the drift.
I like the freedom to substitute. I made the recipe for Stir-fried celery with peanuts and bacon but used brussels sprouts instead and it worked just fine. I used chicken breasts instead of thighs for my Pan-fried chicken with Italian salsa, juicy chicken with a bruschetta-like mix of cooked and raw tomatoes. This was another winner, would definitely make again. I like both Greek and grain salads, so I also made the Greek-ish grain salad, with farro, feta, cucumbers and anchovies and added tomatoes and chickpeas, just because.
Pasta all’amatriciana is one of my favourite pastas and I was very pleased with the results. I made it with the confit tomatoes as suggested but you can use canned.
I have now made the Swedish pancakes a number of times. These slightly sweet, thick crepes/thin pancakes are good with fruit and syrup, sweetened lemon ricotta or anything you like. I like that you can make the batter in advance although the pancakes are best eaten hot and fresh.
An interesting and useful book but one last note – the directions were generally good but everything took longer to cook than indicated. Leave yourself some time and trust your senses. But it’s OK because that’s what the book is about. Begin here.