Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book 'Em

I'm so ambivalent about cookbooks. Most of the ones I love, I love because they make fascinating reading: revealing unknown flavor/texture combinations; linking known techniques to unknown utilizations and vice versa; or, most pruriently, flashing lots of pretty pictures of food. I don't really ever hover over a recipe and copy it item for item, quantity for quantity...I'm much more interested in Cookbook As Guide versus Cookbook as Gospel.

Except for one: Jamie's Dinners, by Jamie Oliver. Oh sure, it's beautifully photographed and easy to follow, but it's glory is in the fact you don't want to change a thing with the recipes! And many of them are basic fundamentals of cooking -- Oliver opens the book with "The Top Ten," a magnificent procession of culinary delight: sausage and mash with onion gravy; burger and chips (fries...remember, this is a British book!); lasagne; baked potato with a half dozen stuffing options; salmon; apple pie...oh Jamie, you had me at sausage!

Further chapters are divided into intuitive and helpful chapters: sarnies (sandwiches); salads; soups; meat; fish; and, desserts, for example. Two particularly helpful chapters are Five Minute Wonders -- surprisingly creative meals one can prepare in 1/12th of an hour, such as Parmesan fish fillets with avocado and cress salad or beef with pak choi, mushrooms and noodles -- and The Family Tree, wherein Oliver builds extensive menus from the basic platforms of pesto, simple tomato sauce, slow-cooked lamb, stewed fruit and puff pastry...dozens of menu items grow from this "family tree" of basics, leading to a dizzying number of potential combinations.

Oliver wraps up his book with a brief chapter addressing the basics of kitchen utensils, cookware, appliances and cooking tips.

Throughout Jamie's Dinners, a casual tone drives the written and photographic content...smeared clothes and faces (gotta love kids and spaghetti!), people in comfortable clothes, chopping block tables set with paper napkins and carry-out packages -- this is no Gordon Ramsay. And therein lies its charm, its capacity to win one over and lead a cook to follow its recipes more closely because a) it seems possible to do so and b) the food looks so darn good you want to make it look exactly like that on your own table.

That said, many of the items on display here in their working class guise look just as beautiful on a fine dining table. Only a few of the items -- burger and chips, fish and chips, and the cheat's dessert come to mind -- are simply too inelegant to serve to His and Her Grace from the castle down the street.

Thanks to my friend Stu, who gave me this book for Christmas in 2004, I've enjoyed learning some basic cooking techniques and combinations. The cover and pages are stained with the memories of many happy meals and good times with friends. If the best books open doorways to new ideas and experiences, this Jamie Oliver cookbook may very well be on the next Booker Prize shortlist.

What's your favorite cookbook? Why do you like it? Let me know in the comments!

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