Saturday, June 7, 2014

To Serve Man

My oldest son was almost eight and we were at the small, local airport to see my mom off for her trip back to New York. The queue at the security line was long, way longer than usual, but people were laughing and smiling and didn’t seem at all grumpy.* My well-traveled child studied the situation for awhile, experienced enough to know that happy, waiting passengers were something of an oxymoron, then (never one to hold back), turned to me as he pointed to them and shouted (way too loudly for an airport), “Mom! Mom! It’s a …COOKBOOK!!”

Funny kid.

cookbook, mark bitumen
Great book at a great price! Less than $20 on Amazon. Buy here!
The same line went through my mind when I received my latest Amazon purchase in the mail this week. If ever there were a time to yell, “It’s a cookbook!” this would be it. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything is a massive tome:  over 2 inches thick, 1000+ pages, and nearly 5 pounds.  I’d been stalking the price for some time and when it dropped a few bucks I decided to spring.

But does it truly tell one how to cook everything? My oldest, now almost 11, put it to the test:
“Chicken pot pie?” Check. 
“Hazelnut brownies?” Check.
“Crème brulee?” Check. 
“Hmmm, I guess it really does have everything. Good job, Mom.”
I’m only a couple of chapters in so far – Kitchen Basics  & Sauces – but what I’m really loving about Bittman’s approach is that it’s more of a cooking tutorial than simply a collection of recipes. He includes of course the basic ingredients and preparation instructions, but also explains, where relevant, how to choose ingredients, why they work together, and how to create almost endless numbers of variations.

He also includes recipes I would’ve never thought of making from scratch – like ketchup and coconut milk.

Each chapter starts with instructions for what he terms Essential Recipes: basic recipes that every home cook should know. For example, in the section on grains, the essential recipes cover simple cooked grains, basic pilafs, fried rice, and couscous – the types of cooking that, with a little practice, won’t require a recipe at all.

There are tons of tables in the book, too – lexicons with descriptions and uses for basic ingredients and also mix-and-match charts for recipe variations. The idea is that once one’s mastered the basic recipes, a few simple guidelines can help to create a huge variety of dishes.

I’m looking forward to donning an apron and delving in this summer. My sons and I put in a small vegetable garden in the back yard, and have allied with our neighbors to form a barter-based co-operative (basically a table where we can all trade our excess veggies).  Bittman’s section on vegetables is mouth-watering: layered tortes and Asian stirfrys; outdoor grilling and curried everything. So many options it’s almost overwhelming, but I’ll start from the basics and go from there. Wish me luck!

* The date was 02 May 2011. News had just been released that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan. 

Spoiler Alert! To Serve Man is a 1962 Twilight Zone episode in which suspiciously nice aliens – the Kanamits – come to Earth to assist mankind. Aided by their trusty book, “To Serve Man,” they do all sorts of nice things to make us safer, happier, and healthier….and tastier…

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