In Great Falls I nabbed the April copy of “Cook’s Illustrated”, one of my fav mags. I would subscribe except that about half the time they cook things that I wouldn’t cook and couldn’t eat anyway because of not eating sugar. But this issue was right up my alley: pan-seared chicken breasts, everyday beef stroganoff, better stir-fried broccoli.
This magazine is tagged “America’s Test Kitchen.” It is the product of imagination and persistence beyond any cookbook I’ve ever known, though I’m sure this sort of thing goes on in the kitchens of good cooks everywhere. Christopher Kimball is also a very good writer. Even if I don’t shell out for the mag, I stand in the store and read the excellent editorial page about rural life in Vermont. What better way to make a living in rural Vermont than by exploring fine cooking, both scientifically and aesthetically? One of the staff members is Guy Crosby, Ph.D, Science Editor!
Kimball and his crew review equipment as much as food: what is the proper angle a big saucepan’s handle ought to have? They tried EIGHT saucepans, studying the materials they were made from, subtleties like the sharpness of the corners which can be hard to scrape out, and attractiveness. In the photos they look almost indistinguishable but three were “not recommended” including one costing $400. Among the “recommended” was one costing $70 and another costing less than $90. Two were recommended with reservations related to difficulty in handling, like pouring.
I was intrigued by a short piece comparing Euro knives with a thirty degree angle on the cutting edge with Asian knives that have a fifteen degree angle. It was concluded that the sharper angle cut better, but pointed out that Euro knives are made of softer metal. One could grind a thirty degree edge to fifteen degrees, but it would mean losing a lot of metal and having to resharpen often. Your choice. In another brief note, if you are stuck (not literally!) with a dull knife in a place with no knife sharpener, you can use the gritty unglazed ring on the bottom of a coffee mug, drawing the blade across, if you pay attention to the angle.
The chemical composition of ingredients, the molecular explanation of how they work, and the alloys of metal are all included for your consideration. Some people will think that’s really boring and unnecessary, but for me -- someone who is more interested in thinking about cooking than actually cooking -- it adds enormous value. In the end it turns out to be useful and helps prevent the unaccountable bad results I sometimes get, which is why I like to avoid the reality.
This thin magazine (32 pages, not counting the cover) is not food porn with substances sprayed with oil and color-hyped. What “illustrated” means is a still-life-quality painting on the front and black-and-white vignettes inside, matching John Burgoyne’s careful drawings to Carl Tremblay’s black and white photos in a clear and charming layout. There is no advertising, though there are lists of recommended products. One must look carefully to find the website: www.cooksillustrated.com. There is also a PBS cooking show, “America’s Test Kitchen,” which has it’s own website: www.americastestkitchentv.com.
There are two forces that push me to take advantage of these resources. One is low income, which makes food failures either expensive if you throw things out or repulsive if you have to eat a failure. I flinched when my niece disapproved of the job my toaster did (I bought it because it’s red) and simply dropped the too-dark toast in the garbage. The other is having to stick to a diabetic (sugarless, low carb) diet which means cooking unfamiliar things (strange veggies) and wondering how they are supposed to taste. One runs out of inventive ideas and needs technical advice.
Long ago I had a cookbook I treasured that explained why recipes for things like bread or piecrust failed. I cooked out of it all the time. When I left seminary, some boxes of my books were sitting out in the hall, waiting to be carried downstairs, and someone stole that cookbook. It was not the only book of mine stolen while I was in seminary, a place that considers books to be precious objects. I doubt the place has gone electronic in a big way, but everyone there is much younger now. Considering the batter-spattered state of my cookbook, I think I would not want to prop up a Kindle on the kitchen counter.
I ran across an appealing cookbook while browsing online at www.lulu.com where people self-publish books, often better books than in a bookstore. (There are 2643 cookbooks! Many specialty-focused.) The title that called out to me was “Make Me Something Good to Eat.” The book linked to a website and a cooking show one can watch on vid. (http://www.tamradaviscookingshow.com/) It’s kid-centered and starts with the garden. Mostly vegetarian recipes. And she says this: “Sorry it has taken me forever to post a new show. I have been busy finishing my film “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child”. I got in to Sundance Film Festival and it was a crazy rush to get it done. I hope you get a chance to see it.” So how many other cooks do you know who can cook up a film about Basquiat? (Do not google “FIX me something good to eat” unless you’re marijuana friendly. It’s the first line of a song about lying around getting high!)
Maybe other people have a tendency like mine to think that good cooking is rather pretentious and requires a kitchen like Martha Stewart’s. Or that it’s something done by unsophisticated fat rosy women in country aprons who love to feed people mounds of food. But these sources above remind me of one morning when I was visiting JoAnn Johnson Clark on her ranch. She was a student of mine who became an English teacher. Her children were both girls, so -- Blackfeet-style -- she and J.R. (who was superintendent of schools in Browning until he retired to run the ranch) took in a little boy. He woke up and came stumbling into the kitchen where we were talking. “Make me something good to eat!” JoAnn cracked an egg into a small bowl, dropped in some cheese, added a bit of butter, and tucked it into the microwave for a moment or two. He went off smiling with his spoon already in action. No Count Chocula here.