Apologies for the radio silence! I was out of town, and had a draft all queued up and ready to go, but wordpress ate it.
Anyhow, A while back I started writing about a few of the cookbooks that have made a big difference to me, and the way I cook. Turning me from a heater & assembler of pre-packaged food-like-substances to an enthusiastic cook.
First, the Joy of Cooking reminded me what real, from-scratch cooking looks like. Then Jamie’s Dinners got me cooking by taste, instead of strictly measurement and instruction.
Number three in the collection of cookbooks that really helped turn me into an enthusiastic cook is The Improvisational Cook by Sally Schneider.
I’ve tried to get others excited about this book as an amazing tool for working with food, but its lack of photos for any of the recipes is a turn off for a lot of cookbook enthusiasts – especially those who get off on the food porn craze of glossy, sumptuous photos of every dish.
But fear not! The lack of photos will set you free! There is time to worry about presentation later, for now, this book is all about focusing on the flavours.
What Schneider does in this book is take some of her favourite dishes, present them in their original form, then goes through an “Understanding” section, explaining how the ingredients work, finally re-creating them three other ways by swapping out the starch, protein, oil or vegetable to improvise new dishes with whatever’s handy.
For example, one of the “core” recipes is Chicken with Root Vegetables in Fragrant Lemongrass Broth (inspired by the classic French “poulet au pot”). By understanding the components of a flavourful broth, and how chicken turns out after cooking in liquid in a closed casserole, it’s a quick step to Rabbit Rillettes (rabbit’s a very similar meat to chicken), made with Madeira and herbs, and from there to Chicken with Red Wine, Bacon and Mushrooms (the traditional flavours of coq au vin), finally combining some of the flavours between the previous two recipes to create Guinea Hen with Bacon and Madeira.
Before this book I hadn’t thought about the relationships between ingredients and how they come together. After working through a few of the variations and learning how to tweak small things in recipes in meaningful ways, I now almost never have a dish that doesn’t turn out (unless, of course, it involves tempering eggs).
I still don’t create my own recipes, but I do a pretty good job of adapting existing ingredient lists to what I’ve got on hand, make the best use of seasonal ingredients, or insert flavours I prefer. It has, quite literally, changed the way I cook. I couldn’t have done it without slowly building my confidence following recipes to the letter, then focusing on flavour, and finally switching things up on the fly.
But don’t take my word for it – try it yourself. And if you have, comment and let me know what your kitchen-changing cookbooks are!