Good Cooking!

Antique Walnut and Pewter Fork

Good Cooking Book Review: May  21, 2000

by Bess Emanuel Vyhnanek

How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson, New York: Broadway Books, 2000

Having been married to a professional chef for over twenty years, I am well aware of a "great divide": home cooks like me depend on recipes and may have been taught to use them by rote, while professionals understand cooking techniques and concepts to an extent where they can dispense with specific measurements and ingredients, and are able to improvise.  I'll never forget the first time I asked my husband for a recipe for pizza dough that I could use with the children at my day care center---it listed ingredients, but had no quantities or even procedure!  Many years, and one successful joint restaurant venture, later, I have come to understand this approach.  Now, a new book has arrived which explains this in a clear and helpful way so that cooks who have been dependent on recipes can free themselves and adapt dishes as they wish, once they grasp the concepts.
 

Pam Anderson's How to Cook Without a Book is a cookbook with traditional recipes, but it is much more than that. It explains a particular cooking technique, presents a range of foods which will work with that method, and offers recipes and variations which give the sense of the possibilities of the technique.  For example, the sections on omelets and frittatas discuss the whys of the basic techniques, and suggest many variations on the theme.  Each chapter has a somewhat corny, but helpful, little rhyme to assist the cook in remembering the basic technique:

For omelets:  "Tilt pan and cook till eggs no longer run.

                        Fill and fold, then cook till barely done."

With chapters covering everything from hors d'oeuvres to a range of entrees to stir-fry dishes, there are items for all tastes.  In addition to helping the reader become a more flexible cook, Anderson attempts to streamline so that dishes can be produced quickly for the busy person rushing home from work to get dinner on the table.  Although the recipes I tried were not quite as quick as described, they were certainly not intimidating or complex. She also helps the reader think about how to use what's on hand, rather than feeling the need to do large-scale shopping for a particular dish. There is a section on desserts with helpful suggestions, and even though most cooks agree that baking requires fairly precise scientific measurements, Anderson still manages to present several items, such as fruit tarts, with a number of variations.

Although I think that someone who is fairly new to cooking could make good use of this book, some basic techniques would be helpful to know in advance in order to take full advantage of this different, helpful new resource.  An added bonus is Anderson's sense of humor, which makes it very readable, even if you're not about to use a recipe.