Books for Cooks
The Basics: The Foundations of Modern Cooking
A bible of prissy non-functionality and crystal-clear photography
By Marisa Demarco
Let me tell you about my ideal cookbook. It's big, maybe 12”x12”—so while you're stirring (or frying) you can quickly glance at its 14-point font to make sure you added the right number of eggs. It's spiral bound and lays flat on its back when you set it on the counter. Its pages are laminated, so when you inevitably spill something nasty on it, you can sponge it off. You could drop my dream cookbook from the roof of a 60-story building and still find yourself making almond soup with it at the bottom. Also, it would do your dishes and speak to you in calming tones when all those nasty measurement details began to run away from you, like so many cats from inside a bass drum.
Essentially, I want an easy-to-read book that can take a beating.
The Basics is not that book. This hard-backed little number is impossible to keep open, as though you were supposed to memorize its terse instructions before allowing the thing to snap shut. To this end, it helpfully offers a proper red ribbon as a placemarker, though the biblical boasts don't stop there. Gold-leaf, or something very much like it, coats the page edges. Why not make the thing leather-bound and encase it in glass, while you're at it?
Why begin a cookbook review with a rant on functionality? Because physical usefulness is the only advantage books have over the net anymore. Pieces of paper from your printer become soft and runny and useless, lost for the ages after a couple of good rounds in the kitchen. Running back and forth to your monitor is hugely impractical. Goodness knows you wouldn't trust a messy cook near your lovely laptop.
Aside from these practical considerations, The Basics, winner of Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards, is a comprehensive collection of modern cooking techniques. The instructions are tight, with every recipe fitting neatly on a single 6.5”x5” page. This is, overall, a good thing—some cookbooks have a tendency to prattle on in circles, causing an impatient cook such as myself to try to skip to the important bits. You can imagine the result. But every word is vital in The Basics, with often only a sentence devoted to each step. The cooking directions aren't broken out and numbered, and even the ingredients don't appear in a list. Rather, it looks like a condensed narrative or a book of verse.
This is great during the descriptions of techniques, which come as little paragraphs on the intro pages. Who has time to crawl through hundreds of words on blanching? The Basics seems to understand that there is such a thing as a beginner, trial-and-error chef. Still, I get the impression that many people who would purchase a volume with a recipe for spinach jelly would probably already have an idea of what too serve it with, what implements one would use for eating it or why the hell you've made spinach jelly in the first place.
The photography alone in this book is worth the price of admission ($19.80). It far surpasses the basic requirement of food photography, which is, I'm assuming, to make things look appealing and appetizing. Here, every single entry is accompanied by a full page of art, every single sauce, every single bread, even the bit about tempura, the Japanese deep-frying technique. Artfully arranged and perfectly clear, these photos really set this book apart and flesh out the information imparted in the compact instructionsThe Basics.
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