: views from the Hill

Friday, April 04, 2008

Cookbooks as Anthropology and the art of cooking

comment on the cookbooks post:

Mainly, though, I don't use cookbooks for meals any more. Everything we eat seems to be variations on about ten themes. Gordon Ramsay always advises his victims on Kitchen Nightmares to simplify, and it's good advice.

Of course cookbooks are not only, or sometimes hardly at all, for cooking. From the pure book POV I love David, and Claudia Roden. I have a fat tome of classic techniques in Italian cooking by Antonio Bugialli, which is only for thumbing through.

We pretty much stopped cooking from cookbooks when the youngsters were in the house. No time for browsing through cookbooks when you are working and raising, and it's disappointing to spend time prepping something that's downed in ten minutes and appreciated just as much as if you'd made them their favorite meatloaf. We had dishes we knew they liked that we varied in one way or another but yeah, ten themes is probably accurate for our cooking repertoire then too.

I like cookbooks, whether I'm cooking from them or not. I sit and read them and I'm in another world, a world with cuttlefish on the table or an endless number of cabbage recipes, or no eggs-milk-butter. You can tell a lot about how people live by looking at the cookbooks written for them.

A friend once asked, "But really. How many cookbooks do you need?" What can I answer to something like that?

Cookbooks aren't just something for checking out a recipe for mu-shu pork or Char Siu Bao or gingersnaps. No, when I need a recipe, it's usually not a specific cookbook I head for. I pull out five cookbooks and find five recipes and mix them up, or I go to the Web and do something similar with Google.

Cookbooks are for dreaming over, for sitting curled up in a chair with a breeze coming in off the Bay with a pad of sticky notes, marking pages with possibilities for future dishes or snacks or desserts.

Dinner the other night (and last night as leftovers) was a variant on shrimp à la king, made without recipes. Simple, ready?

Olive oil. A small red onion. Garlic.
Bell pepper strips from Trader Joe's, mélange à trois green/yellow/red: frozen. (16oz bag)
Medium-sized shrimp from Trader Joe's: cleaned, cooked, frozen. (16oz? bag)

Butter. Flour. Heavy whipping cream.
Parmesan cheese. Pale dry sherry.

Olive oil in pan. Heat. Add garlic and sliced onion. Cook until browned. Add red-yellow-green pepper strips. Cook some more. Add shrimp and stir until shrimp is hot. Set aside.

Butter in pan. Add flour for roux. Add cream for Béchamel sauce. Toss in shredded Parmesan cheese and sherry and then fiddle with cream and cheese/sherry until you have a nice thick not-too-cheesy sauce. Grind of pepper. Stir sherry sauce into shrimp/pepper medley. Serve with rice.

Total cost ~ $10, if that. From that we had two dinners, or four meals. It was delicious.

Would I have known to toss those things together if I hadn't already made seafood enchiladas =and= chicken with the sherry Parmesan sauce? Would I have tossed the melange à trois peppers with the shrimps if there hadn't been a shrimp à la king in my past? I don't know. I think, like many things, it's easier to cook without recipes, once you have enough time booked using someone's tried and true directions.

Natural cooks do not spring from Zeus' brow.

Oh, how I love cookbooks.

Update: "So, what are you planning for dinner?"
"I dunno. Haven't decided yet. Have any preferences?"
"I'd like meatloaf."

Meatloaf for dinner tonight -- "Cottage Cheese Meat Loaf," to be exact.

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