Monday, January 29, 2007

Reading. Cook's Illustrated.

It began a few years ago with Amanda Hesser and her Cooking for Mr. Latte. A friend of her future in-laws' was a superb cook, and whenever they praised a dish, she would say "oh, it was from Cook's Illustrated," as if she had no part in it. Elizabeth (Hesser's mother-in-law), had never heard of Cook's Illustrated, a "curiously lovable food magazine with no photographs and text as dull as a washing-machine manual," so Hesser sent her a subscription. Unfortunately, the magazine is only about thirty pages long and comes swathed in advertisements for their cookbooks. It looks like junk mail, and for months Elizabeth had been throwing the magazines out. (I feel her pain, because my own mother has done the same; fortunately I managed to rescue the plastic-shrouded magazines from the recycling bin).

Cook's Illustrated is a different creature from the glossy pages of Gourmet and Bon Appétit, which are a kind of lifestyle porn, like fashion magazines for the kitchen and table. It isn't just about the food, but about the setting, the hand-painted china and pastel linens or rustic earthenware pottery on bare tables. There are reviews of restaurants where a meal costs about as much as I spend on groceries in a week, vacations in places I'll never visit, knives that cost as much as a handbag. I look at Ruth Reichl's weekend home kitchen and sigh over a life I will never have. Cook's Illustrated is about real life. It tells me which knife to buy, which food processor works the best, not to waste my money on a $200 pan when a $50 pan will do just as well if not better. It is about dinner for your family on a weeknight, how to eat real food and not processed junk thrown together in the name of convenience. And the recipes are for things I want to cook, and do, again and again. It has no advertisements, no glossy color pictures, only black-and-white drawings and occasional photograph of the finished product. The lure is in the description, the reassurance that if you follow the recipe the result will be perfection. And it is.

When you make something...writes Hesser, - a cake, a cocktail, a salad dressing - you are putting all of your trust in the recipe and putting distance between you and the flavor of a dish. You cannot take responsibility for a lack of salt or too much butter, because it tells you precisely how much. When I try something from Cook's Illustrated - a simple lasagne which I have made so many times I can do it in my sleep, or drop biscuits that rise flaky and golden - I can do it with the assurance that it will not fail me. Hesser and her then-fiancé Tad's mother, Elizabeth, stand there counting One Mississippi, Two Mississippi while making the crust for a pear tart, pulsing the butter and flour in a food processor for twenty one-second pulses, as the recipe suggests. At the end, it has come together with "the nubby texture of coarse meal," exactly the way the recipe said it would. I can see the test chefs at Cook's Illustrated methodically counting away until the dough comes together in a way that will yield the most perfect crust for the most perfect tart, and I trust that what they tell me will work.

Hesser, Amanda. Cooking for Mr. Latte. W. W. Norton, 2003. pp 305-6, 122, 307.

No comments: