Friday, February 18, 2011

Alice Water's Cook Book

In the previous post I had to restrain myself from carrying on some more. The tea was cold. My feet were cold, the cat was hungry.

Alice Waters, genius. Why? Because she has a cookbook that I wish I had had when I was new to the kitchen. Her cookbook "The Art of Simple Food" takes the wannabe cook or the 'if I don't cook, i won't eat' cook into the world of "Starting from Scratch...Lessons and Foundation Recipes"

I first found this book at the library and was so impressed (and this is coming from a person who thinks every minutes spent in or near the kitchen is a bad minute) I bought the hard copy.

ISBN 978-0-307-33679-8 Clarkson Potter Publisher, New York, $44.00 Can.

I'm sure there is a link to a book seller but I can't get that to work. I bought it at BookMark on Spring Garden Road. They are terrific and a local bookstore, not a box store.

But why Alice Waters in the first place? Alice opened her restaurant, Chez Panisse,in 1971, in California I think. Her idea was to to serve organic, seasonal dishes, with the menu changing frequently to reflect this. She began to shop at farmers markets for her ingredients. This is how we stumbled onto her, through the local food, local diet movement.

Her principles are:
Eat Locally and Sustainably,
Eat Seasonally,
Shop at Farmers markets,
Plant a garden,
Conserve, compost and recyle,
Cook simply, engaging all your senses,
Cook together,
Eat together,
Remember food is precious.

Those are pretty good principles, don't you think?

To illustrate how great this book is, in the chapter on Broth and Soup, Alice covers how to make Chicken Broth, Carrot Soup and Minestrone. How to bring a broth to a boil and not scorch it, the difference between a light broth and a rustic broth. She shows variations on the carrot soup while the Minestrone soup can evolve into a Fall or Winter or Spring variation. As a new cook, never would this have happened. I would have bought a different can of Campbell's and changed the cheese in the sandwich, thinking I had done something bold.

Along the way Alice explains how to use tools beyond a wooden spoon and a spatula. To give you a clue as to what kind of cook I used to be, I called the spatula "the shovel".

The second part of the cookbook is "At the Table, Recipes for Cooking Every Day". Sauces, Salads, Eggs and Cheese, right on up to Deserts. You learn how to plan, four essential sauces, and it continues; Simmering, Rice, Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Oven, Over the Coals and so on.

In the chapter on Sauces, Alice provides recipes for every sauce you would likely have bumped into; Tartar sauce, Bechamel sauce, bolognese sauce, warm butter sauce, pesto, tomato salsa, peach salsa, creme fraiche, garlic mayo, herb butter, simple tomato sauce.

The thing I love about this cook book is that it doesn't have all kinds of complicated steps, the organization is easy to penetrate, the recipes are simple but unfailingly good, and her instructions are so instructional yet kind.

White sauce (Bechemal Sauce) ...."To avoid lumps, completely whisk in each addition of milk before adding the next. If, despite this, the sauce is lumpy, strain it through a sieve after all the milk has been added and return to the burner to cook. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring all the time. Turn down to a bare simmer (use a flame tamer if necessary) and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep the sauce from sticking."

I would have phoned my mom at the first sight of lumps, (spending vast amounts on long distance calls since everything failed for about 3 years) abandoned ship if whatever my mom said didn't work. Or I would have started reading a book during the 'stirring all the time' part, assuming the recipe writer was an ambitious sod with no life beyond the stove. If I knew why I had to stir for all that time, I might have done it. You notice that it never occurs to me in that stage of life that there is any correlation whatsoever between the not stirring and the scorching. But Alice explains it and in such a nice way too. And because she has such a pleasant way about her writing, I am tempted to read to the end of the recipe instructions.

These days I still read the ingredients list, assume if it's a sauce, it all gets stirred and just wham it all together and wonder what went wrong. Alice goes on to say...'season with salt, a pinch of nutmeg (optional) a pinch of cayenne (optional)' (in my world view anything that says optional means ignore) and then she says 'use right away or keep warm. (the sauce will solidify when cool).' You can see what would happen in my life. I'd make the sauce the day before or in the morning before classes and come home to a solidified sauce, thrown it out, cried, phoned my boyfriend and begged to be taken out to dinner. The boyfriend, who happened to be Steve, would snort and be disagreeable and lecture me on reading all the instructions and then would have come over and fixed it (if I hadn't thrown it out) and then he would have sat reading a book while I struggled with whatever else I didn't know what I was doing, offering uncalled for advice and commentary from the next room.

These days, Steve reads Alice, agrees with her about everything, cooks amazingly, has given up being disagreeable and snorting and lectures only students because I'll sock him if he lectures me one more time. I have had to give up crying to be rescued, must read all instructions (I tend to forget this) and I read at the kitchen table while he cooks. That means I'm on the hook for washing the dishes (and last night Phoebe and I killed ourselves laughing because the white dishes still had lots of white sauce on them after being washed - so my new life lesson is to wear glasses when doing the dishes)

Well that tangent had little to do with Alice, except as you can see, cooking in this house is a whole lot more interesting, and if I have to do the cooking, there is a decent chance it will turn out (depends on lot on how good my fiction book is). I bought this cookbook for both Lucas and Phoebe when they left home and they both cook very well. Friends often phone them up for cooking advice and out comes Alice. I'm not sure if she is given credit or not by the kids, but at that age, would you have?

Alice Waters created the Chez Panisse Foundation, supporting an edible schoolyard in Berkley.

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