Review: The Elements of Cooking

During a recent episode of Next Iron Chef America Michael Ruhlman, serving as one of the judges, criticized one of the chefs for serving a consommé that wasn’t perfectly clear. “Technically, consommé is a clear soup or broth,” according to Ruhlman and in this case the liquid showed the red coloration of the watermelon it was made from. Picky? Yes. Technically correct? Yes. Important? Not in my view.

Nevertheless, objecting to the term “consommé” is the sort of criticism you might expect from the author of The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen — a book that sets out to be the ultimate handbook of cooking. On his blog, author Michael Ruhlman wrote: “I was thumbing through Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style,and a bell went off in my head: I can do this for the kitchen!” With a few caveats, he has.

Author of such diverse books as Walk on Water (about natal heart surgeons and the book he is most proud of) and Wooden Boats, Ruhlman has been writing about cooking for 11 years beginning with The Making of a Chef. A journalist by vocation, he started cooking when he was nine and a Julia Child TV show on making apple pie led him to make a pear pie — using canned pears. But food and cooking weren’t considered a viable career option when he went to college in the 80s. So he became a writer.

A series of articles written between 1992 and 1993 on local Cleveland chefs led to a stint at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to research The Making of a Chef — followed by half a dozen or so other books on people who cook and my personal favorite of his books, Charcuterie. Ruhlman offers a unique vantage as a professional journalist and professionally-trained amateur cook (and I use “amateur” in the literal sense of “lover of” cooking). He brings lucidity, understanding, and, yes, passion to his writing about food and cooking. He’s also generous with his time. Ruhlman is an online acquaintance and has been helpful as I’ve explored sausage-making.

A slim, 244-page volume, Elements begins with a 50-page collection of eight essays titled “Notes on Cooking: From Stock to Finesse.” On page seven I ran into my first stumble where a section is named: “Veal Stock — a personal reflection on the home cook’s most valuable ingredient.” He then proceeds to rave about the wonders of veal stock and veal demi glace. He’s right about how wonderful it is, I used some in my turkey gravy this past Thanksgiving, but the truth is the demi glace I used came from a jar because veal bones are almost impossible to come by around here. Even Judy Rodgers, chef of the renowned Zuni Café in San Francisco admits that they’re hard to come by — in San Francisco ferchrisakes. So what chance does the average home-cook have?

Following these essays are 230-odd pages of descriptions of the elements, the basic building blocks, of cooking. The author covers such diverse elements as water: “…one of the most important ingredients and tools in the kitchen; its influence is everywhere,” and brunoise, “a decorative vegetable cut.”

The list is thorough for what it is, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Ruhlman is by training and (apparently) inclination a classic French cook. This was obvious in his criticism of the watermelon consommé and is even more apparent in his other books on cooking and chefs. But even in France the food of Gascony, Alsace, Normandy, and other provinces often vary from the Parisian classic. Move to Greece, Mexico, or Morocco and most of the rules change.

For instance, the author covers beurre manié, a classic French mixture of butter and flour used to enrich and thicken sauces, but not avgolemono, a classic Greek mixture of egg and lemon that’s also used to enrich and thicken sauces and soups. Strunk and White addressed the vagaries of a single language, English, in their Elements and Ruhlman has done much the same for American French-based cooking. But American cooking isn’t French cooking, it’s Mexican, Ukranian, Polish, French, German, English, and on ad infinitum. In fact it is most American in Louisiana and the Carolina Low Country where French, African, Spanish, English, and even American Indian cuisines have been melded into a seamless and iconoclastic whole.

This is not a criticism of Ruhlman or French classic cooking. I love the cuisine and Ruhlman writes about it, even in this highly-focused volume, with clarity and understanding. When he says something, believe him. But remember, he’s an odd beast: a formally-trained home cook. And remember, too, that his training is based on French cuisine. Nevertheless, go buy a copy. Despite my nit-picking it belongs in every foodie’s library. Who knows, maybe he’ll address the elements of Greek cooking next.

Review: How To Pick a Peach

Russ Parson’s How to Read a French Fry is an outstanding introduction to the science of cooking and I enjoyed reading it immensely. So when his latest book, How to Pick a Peach:The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table, was released I was looking forward to reading it as well. Interviews with Parsons on All Things Considered and The Splendid Table further whetted my appetite for the book. Sadly, when I finally read it I was disappointed.

BookNot greatly disappointed, less so as I continued reading, and I’m glad I stuck with it, but whereas French Fry delved into six essential and limited cooking topics in depth, providing lots of fun trivia and asides, in Pick a Peach the author addresses a significant part of the vegetable and fruit world. If French Fry was a tutorial, Pick a Peach is an encyclopedia. Which is, in fact, its value. It’s just not what I was anticipating.

Parsons is a food and wine columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and one of the most popular and admired writers in the business. A journalist by training, he has been writing about food and wine for 20 years. He brings the fact-oriented sensibility that is typical of his trade to his writing along with the less typical eye for a telling detail that genuinely creates an image in your mind. He writes: “Asparagus lovers will argue about the merits of fat or thin spears. They’ll debate the necessity of peeling. They’ll quibble over methods for removing the spear’s tough base. … Fans will even argue about their beloved vegetable’s effect on their urine.” Without even knowing an asparagus lover the reader can tell they (or perhaps I should say “we”) are passionate and somewhat daft.

Nevertheless, the book remains essentially a reference containing 31 chapters spread among sections for each season. Some chapters cover a single fruit or vegetable, cherries for instance, while others cover a collection of related items such as root vegetables. Each chapter begins with a two- to three-page general introduction to its subject covering its general characteristics and history, any unusual characteristics and those of particular significance to cooks, and anything else that seems appropriate. This introduction is followed by a concise one-page bullet list of: “where they’re grown,” “how to choose,” “how to store,” “how to prepare,” and “one simple dish.” The chapter ends with two or three more complicated recipes — a feature that echoes How to Read a French Fry.

How to Pick a Peach also includes additional sidebars of a more general nature. These include “what to refrigerate” (and if you thought “everything,” think again), “reliable soufflés,” and “when it’s OK to buy unripe fruit.”

I consider myself knowledgeable about fruits and vegetables. Certainly more so than most people, but I still learned in reading the book that although sniffing a cantaloupe will tell you whether it’s ripe or not, sniffing a honeydew won’t tell you squat: I can quit trying. I also learned (in a different sidebar) that honeydews don’t continue to ripen after picking — although they will soften.

All in all, I’m pleased with How to Pick a Peach and consider it an essential part of my library. If you cook, if you buy fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s a valuable asset. You needn’t read it cover to cover as I did (frankly, it lacks a cohesive story line and consistant character development) but instead read about the current season’s offerings. If you’re going to take the time to shop, you might as well make sure you’re getting the best value you can in terms of flavor both when you buy those sweet cherries and after you get them home. And a tip: refrigerate the cherries in the coldest part of your refrigerator, they’ll keep two to three weeks.