I wrote recently about the persistence of print catalogs in this digital age. That piece told the story of adaptable analog media finding new jobs to do when technology assumes their old task. It made me reflect on why I cook with books, not apps.
But why cookbooks? What about all the great qualities of digital recipes? Videos for technique? Enormous databases of recipes? All the photos I could like? Why, with all the digital culinary help available, am I drawn back to books?
It’s not about convenience—though I think books can handle the oil and water of a kitchen (among other things) better. It’s the clearer presence of an author. Someone to cook with. Most online recipes are fairly anonymous, or written by television celebrities, whereas most of my favorite cookbooks are written by restaurateurs, and I have been to most of their restaurants. The majority of my cookbook purchases are triggered by a meal in a restaurant. I have a connection to a meal made in their kitchen that lets me welcome them into mine.
These thoughts were marinating in my mind as I spent a recent Saturday documenting the role of cookbooks in my kitchen. I felt like making some tacos, or ceviche tostadas. Maybe both. Got me away from all this New England snow and cold.
Where to start? Two places: the bookshelf, and my neighborhood Caribbean market.
Bookshelf first. I rely on cookbooks, but I generally don’t follow recipes*. If I am in the mood to make something—usually a loose direction, not a specific dish—I will look at two or three recipes and especially pictures. Pictures are more important to me than recipes, because they show a destination but don’t prescribe a path. I want to make my own way. I want to be inspired.
*I don’t bake much, for that reason. That is science, not improvisation.
The other starting point is the market. A friend of mine who is a chef has one rule: buy good ingredients and don’t screw them up. Easy enough said.
I got lucky—found this beautiful Spanish mackerel, and these sour oranges. They are as sour as limes, but taste of orange. Good for the fish marinade, also good for a slightly modified margarita.
This is a great example of what I look for in a recipe. Simple recipe, clear visuals. The only info missing from the photo is oven temp and time. Everything else in the recipe, I changed. Ottolenghi asks for lemongrass-ginger crème fraiche, I make lime crema with cilantro and Serrano chile. That’s what a recipe is for.
I’m going to do what pleases me, both in terms of the process and the result. But I refer to my favorite advisors. Joy of Cooking is for when I want to make something specific I’ve never made before. A great starting point, and for beginners, the only book you need. (You could say the same thing about Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.) Rules are for when you need someone else to tell you what to do.
To start, I’ll pull a couple of chefs off the shelf and see what they propose. Any two recipes for the same dish will be different. The distance between those recipes maps out a space where any variation is likely to be perfectly fine.
Personality of the author matters to me. She may be the authority on Mexican cooking, but Diana Kennedy sounds impossible to please, so I don’t like cooking with her. When she tells me there’s an esoteric ingredient you’ll never be able to substitute, she loses me. Show some imagination! Have some fun! (For the same joylessness, I can’t stand America's Test Kitchen). Cooking should feel like hacking, not doing Quality Assurance.
I’ll play with Rick Bayless instead. He has so much enthusiasm that I don’t need photos. All his recipes come with suggested substitutions and variations. The takeaway is “Do what you want.” I can tell by looking at the index what he’s really passionate about. Did you know there were so many things you can put in a taco? What can’t you put in a taco?
Sometimes a recipe can come in from a different category, and provide a spark. Going way off recipe can feel like cheating, and nobody cheats more brazenly than David Chang. He has no respect for rules. Delicious is everything with him. This recipe for Hamachi is a totally legit reference point for ceviche. Cured fish is cured fish, and marries with certain flavors and textures, no matter what cuisine you’re dealing with.
Two disparate connections inspired the crushed corn nuts. First, the best ceviche I ever had was in a Peruvian restaurant, where it came with large, starchy corn kernels, kind of like hominy. Also, if David Chang is putting puffed rice in his hamachi recipe, it must be fine, at least in terms of texture.
Two principles that apply to experience design and to cooking: keep it simple, and make connections.
When I’ve got all my prep work done, I might go back to the books. It helps to see everything in one place, and confirm the plan because from here, the decisions are irrevocable. Like design work, there are points when you’re doing exploratory work and points when things all need to converge. Time for a beer, and a sit-down with the books, to make sure I’m not missing something, and that my timetable is mapped out.
It’s settled. We’re doing tostadas de ceviche, and two kinds of tacos: fried fish, and chard with potatoes. The cabbage is now for the fish tacos, not a salad.
Buen provecho! No wait, that looks too formal. Break up the tostadas so they’re bite size, sprinkle chile and cilantro, drizzle crema. Set. Now, about that margarita.
Here’s to Ottolenghi, Bayless, and David Chang. You guys make it fun.
The Virtual Shelf
Momofuku, David Chang
Authentic Mexican, Rick Bayless
Plenty, Yotam Ottolenghi
Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer
How To Cook Everything, Mark Bittman