Thursday, June 27, 2013

What makes a good cook book?

A good friend of mine borrowed me a cook book published by a well known food writer from New Zealand. I do admit, I am ot a huge fan of Anabel Langbein. And even that might be an understatement. don't like her. Yes I was prejudiced which mainly came from browsing through her books in book shops and the local library. I had a better look now at her book "The Free Range Cook" and I admit - I do like her even less now. Most of the pictures are so full of "lifestyle" that I almost felt sick browsing through the pages. The author is pictured in many "lifestyle" situations. For example out fishing, having caught a fish and presenting it to the camera. She wears a mint cardigan and a brilliantly white spanking clean top. Everybody who ever set foot on a boat fur the purpose of catching a slimy fish will know that it takes a nanosecond and your white top would be - well - not white anymore. The book is filled with these clean, emotional, look how down to earth I am , "lifestyle" imagery. It also makes me wonder "Does she own another cardigan than the mint one?"

But it could still be a good cook book, right? Theoretically yes. But is it?

The well known author who is "one of New Zealand's best loved food writers" and is the "star of her own international TV series" is not a trained chef. My experience is, you do see this throughout her recipes. The knowledge is missing. The background is missing. She leaves the reader with too many unanswered questions. She gives too many incorrect information. She, who is decorated with prizes and has her "own international TV series" just lacks the professionalism of a Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey.

Examples? Ok. "3 tsp dry yeast granules" What the heck is that? And how much is it? She has a conversion table in the back which tells me a tsp is 5ml. But "ml" is a measurement for liquids! And what are yeast granules? Is it Instant Dry Yeast? Which you can add straight to the flour? Or is it Dry Active Yeast which needs to be started with some liquid and maybe some sugar? We don't know. Does she?

Rule #1: A good cook book uses weights for ALL ingredients. We don't know how much "3 medium eggs" are but we do know how much 275 gms egg is. 3 tsp = 15 ml of salt can be 10 gms if you use rocksalt or 25 gms if you use fine grained salt. 6 cups of flour can be anything between - I don't know - 850 gms and 1 kg. Yes nowadays we have google and can convert it. But do we want to? Do you cook with your laptop on your side? What's wrong with saying "Use 850 gms of flour"?

Rule #2: Be precise. If you say dry yeast you should know that there are different types of dry yeast. Another recipe lists "mixed spices". What spices are mixed? Don't let your readers feel stupid standing in front of a shop shelve and not knowing what to buy. "200 gms of mushrooms" there are hundreds of mushrooms. If it doesn't matter then say "200gms of mushrooms, you can take any you like".

How much of doing it yourself do you expect in such a cook book? Would you expect a recipe for a pie to include how to make the pie crust? Or would you be happy if it says "1 pack of ready-rolled pie pastry"? I would expect from a good cook book to have probably a pie crust recipe in a general section and refer to it in the recipe. Maybe with a comment saying if you are n a hurry you can as well use a ready made pie crust.

Rule #3: If you take shortcuts clearly mark them as such. If I want to make a pie I will be disappointed if I don't get a recipe for a pie but rather get a recipe for a pie filling using supermarket pie crust.

Rule #4: Don't bullshit! You might get away with it. Sometimes. But not always. Do you really want to risk it? Saying things like "creamy Haloumi" and "I prefer to use Cypriot-style haloumi" is bullshitting. Haloumi, a cheese from Cyprus is anything else but creamy. And here comes my favorite bullshitting part of this specific book: A recipe for Soft Fresh Cheese introduced with the words "There is something wonderfully satisfying about making your own cheese ....". The recipe asks the reader to drain yogurt overnight and voila - say cheese! Sorry but that's bullshit.

One rule this specific book doesn't break is Rule #5: Don't use exotic ingredients nobody will ever find in any shop in their country. So that's a plus. How often have you read "Use 2 tsp of Japanese Toko Yakishima grown on the south side of Mount Fukujikajaki harvested at full moon by Geisha Virgins"? Don't google that, I made that up! Honestly, a cook book which has ingredients like this goes straight back onto the shop shelf. I currently have another book on my desk I got from the local library. This actually saddens me even more since I would love to see books in libraries people find useful. Who made the decision to order a book which - and I swear by the god of chopped onions I just opened it randomly - asks for 4 tbsp of Yuzu Juice or 2 tblsp of Sriracha sauce? This book is an example of an absolutely useless recipe book. At least it doesn't even have lots of sickening "lifestyle" photographies showing the author who has her "own international TV show". Still useless!

What do you expect from a cook book? I do expect easy, clever, healthy recipes. Recipes which work and don't leave me with questions what the author had in mind when writing it. Recipes I can actually cook without having to travel to South Korea to buy a bottle of some sauce. I love tips and tricks. I love shortcuts as long as I don't have to use them. I would expect mainly shortcuts in a "Make a 3 course menu in 15 minutes" cook book. I want to make the food at home. Don't use tools and things not everybody has. One of my pet hate is a microwave used in recipes. That might be rule #6. We don't have a microwave so why do you write recipes using a microwave. Don't make assumptions. If you write for one group of people make it clear. If you have your "own international TV series" and you use ingredients only available in New Zealand then people living in the UK might find your book not that helpful.

Julia Child was not a trained chef. But she knew she needed training and attended the Le Cordon Bleu Institute and became a chef. Ask yourself what the qualifications of the author are. Why should they give you instructions how to cook? What qualifies them? Nice photographs are not a qualification.

No comments:

Post a Comment