Which book is best? That depends on how you like to cook.
The holidays bring with them a flurry of cookbooks, which makes sense. People probably do more cooking now than any other time of year, and cookbooks make great gifts for, well, cooks. Here are three, each with a distinct point of view. Are all three for everyone? That depends on how you like to cook.
First, by way of full disclosure, I used to work on staff at Cooking Light, so, yes, I’m a bit partial to this “guide to everyday cooking.” But that also means I can vouch for the thorough testing that’s done to vet the recipes and techniques in the book. It’s organized by technique (braising, sauteing, roasting, and so forth) with lots of helpful step-by-step photography, which makes it particularly handy for novice cooks. There’s also ample info about equipment and ingredients (does butter fit into light cooking? Absolutely). And, of course, since it’s from Cooking Light, the emphasis is on healthy recipes. Looking for something hearty to warm up a winter evening? Make a pot of Beef Daube Provencal, a classic recipe originally created for Cooking Light by Lia Huber (founder of Nourish Network).
Great Expectations: Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller ($50)
Thomas Keller, revered by many as the best American-born chef, shares his version of family-style cooking in his newest book. In some ways, it’s both an extension of and the polar opposite of Cooking Light Way to Cook. If Cooking Light’s book is about getting supper on the table tonight, Keller’s is about crafting dinner this weekend. But if the basics in Cooking Light Way to Cook are too basic and you’re ready for the next step, I urge you to get a copy of Ad Hoc. It will challenge you, in a gentle way. It’s unlikely you’ll ever have Keller in your kitchen, but his voice comes through in the pages of Ad Hoc, and reading the recipes is a bit like having him coach you at the stove–conversational, thorough, and friendly.
Keller makes some concessions to the home cook. The first recipe, “Dinner for Dad,” which consists of his late-father’s favorite barbecued chicken with mashed potatoes, collard greens, and a dessert of strawberry shortcake, calls for bottled barbecue sauce. “Try to find a sauce with some integrity,” Keller urges, “preferably from a small producer.” He also allows store-bought shortcake for assembling the dessert.
That’s the exception. Overall, Ad Hoc encourages the home cook to a higher standard, with multistep recipes and lots of technique. Meatballs with Pappardelle is a perfect example. Keller’s version of this humble family standby calls for four kinds of meat, which, ideally, you grind yourself. Or ask the butcher to grind for you. Picking up pre-ground meat is offered only as a last resort. He also calls for homemade dried breadcrumbs and homemade pasta (the book has recipes for both), and an Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce that takes several hours to prepare (it’s delicious). The meatballs are stuffed with fresh mozzarella and I’m surprised Keller doesn’t call for making that, too, ’cause, yep, there’s a recipe for that in the pages of Ad Hoc. You see what I mean when I say that Ad Hoc is for weekend cooking.
You can prepare a decent, even good, meal in 20 minutes, sure. But great meals, memorable meals, take longer. They just do. And that’s what Ad Hoc is about. My advice: Start with the Basics section at the back of Ad Hoc. This is where Keller shares some wonderful (and wonderfully approachable) building blocks for great dishes–sauces, doughs, and the like. The Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce is just one example. Yes, it takes a couple of hours to make, but it’s not hard and you’ll be rewarded with a complex-flavored sauce that will enhance all manner of dishes, even a simple bowl of pasta.
Culinary Off-Roading: Ratio by Michael Ruhlman ($27)
Although I make a living developing recipes, I’ve always said that a recipe is only a template to inspire the user to create something new. In Ratio, Ruhlman tutors you in the basic formulas behind cooking–everything from batters and doughs to forcemeats, sauces, and custards. Want to whip up a batch of biscuits for supper tonight? Armed with 3 parts flour, 1 part fat, and 2 parts liquid–plus a trusty kitchen scale–you’re ready to go. Basic ratios won’t yield the best biscuit, pizza, or vinaigrette you’ve ever had, Ruhlman notes, but they are the basis for true culinary creativity. “Ratios free you,” he declares. Interestingly, Ratio is sprinkled with Ruhlman’s tempting recipes, but these simply serve as examples of how basic ratios inspire new variations. His new accompanying Ratio iPhone app ($4.99) makes it even easier to calculate ratios for any yield. Now, go have some real fun in the kitchen.