Cookbook trends can swing from hyper-stylized masterclass tomes detailing intensive cooking projects all the way to those aiming for the simplest, quickest, least-resistant paths to getting a meal on the table.
But there is an expanding middle ground. Cookbooks that assume a love of food as well as a knowledge of it. Consider these the intermediate level: books to empower the reader with the skills to improvise. They detail the basics, without being basic. The recipes are aspirational within reason, never too out of the realm of doable possibility, but just the slightest stretch from the comfortable.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking is a standard bearer of this style. In it, Samin Nosrat breaks down cooking to its most essential components. Nosrat doesn’t try to convince the reader to want to cook. She focuses on the hows and whys, peeking under the lids of pots and pans and into the oven, to truly understand what is going on as we make a meal.
David Tamarkin’s Cook90 movement, with more than 150,000 people who have taken up the challenge to cook every meal themselves for a month each year, spawned Cook90: The 30-Day Plan for Faster, Healthier, Happier Meals, with meal planning approaches and a routine of cooking daily.
Odette Williams champions baking as a regular activity with Simple Cake. As she says in the introduction, the book is “written this like a choose-your-own-adventure cake book: 10 cakes and 15 toppings that can be mixed and matched to create endless flavour combinations.”
Baking requires stringency in following recipes, and while Williams succinctly covers the general tenets of cake-making, she doesn’t dwell. Instead, she proceeds with efficient confidence in the reader’s general knowledge, placing control with the reader and baker.
Where Cooking Begins: Uncomplicated Recipes to Make You a Great Cook by Carla Lalli Music addresses maintaining a love of cooking. Over three parts – strategies, techniques and recipes – she looks to do more with less, balancing passion and the practical. Shopping is divided between market trips for favourite ingredients and seasonal inspiration, with staples found online. The kitchen is organized into zones, tools stripped to the indispensable and seasoning distilled to an equation.
It is from these foundational, framework recipes Lalli Music encourages spinning off to explore their permutations and possibilities.
For example, her Buttery Beets and Grapefruit is a twist on scallops with brown butter and lemon, with the citrus swapped out and roots taking the place of crustaceans. Tucked within the method are takeaways for preparing grapefruit, quick-pickling shallots, searing to establish a proper crust and mounting a butter sauce. All the while the recipe is chatty, quick-moving, and subtly didactic – in other words, the voice so many want as company in the kitchen.
Buttery Beets and Grapefruit
Ingredients (serves 6)
- 1 white grapefruit
- 4-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
- 1 shallot, very thinly sliced
- Kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil, plus more for drizzling
- 3 softball-size beets (about 11⁄2 pounds), trimmed, scrubbed, peeled, and cut into 1- to 11⁄2-inch-thick wedges
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Flaky sea salt
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Mint leaves, for serving
Prep the grapefruit, which you’re going to use three ways: First, use a vegetable peeler to remove 3 or 4 long wide strips of zest, avoiding the bitter white pith underneath. Set zest aside. Next, take off a thin slice from the top and bottom of grapefruit and upend it on a cut side. Using a thin sharp knife and following the curve of the fruit, cut away peel and pith to expose flesh. Slice off a 2-inch-thick round from one end of grapefruit and squeeze juice from that piece into a small bowl; you’ll have about 2 tablespoons. Slice remaining grapefruit crosswise into 1⁄2-inch-thick rounds and transfer to a platter. Pick out seeds.
Put ginger into a small mesh sieve set over bowl with grapefruit juice and press down on solids so that ginger juice drips into bowl. Set grapefruit-ginger juice aside (discard solids).
Place shallot slices in a small bowl, cover with cold water and use your fingertips to separate into individual rings. Soak for 5 minutes, then drain and return to same bowl. Season with salt and add vinegar and 1 teaspoon sesame oil. Set pickled shallots aside.
Season beets with salt. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Place beets in pan with a flat side down. Cook until almost charred underneath, 6 to 8 minutes, shaking skillet occasionally to make sure they aren’t sticking. Turn beets and cook on second flat side until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Cut into one and taste to check doneness – it should be firm at the centre, but no longer completely raw. Transfer to platter with grapefruit and tuck grapefruit slices between and around beet wedges. Season with flaky salt. Let skillet cool for 2 to 3 minutes.
Pour off any oil from skillet and carefully wipe out with paper towel. Return to medium heat, add grapefruit-ginger juice, swirl, and cook just until mixture simmers (this will happen almost immediately). Add butter and reserved zest and cook until butter is browned and smells nutty, about 4 minutes (if you’re using a pan with a dark surface, spoon a little onto a white plate to check colour).
Spoon pan sauce over beets and grapefruit. Top with pickled shallots, along with any juices in bowl. Serve topped with mint.
Excerpted from Where Cooking Begins: Uncomplicated Recipes to Make You a Great Cook by Carla Lalli Music.
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