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Cookbook of the day – The Cook’s Bible

The Cook’s Bible: The Best of American Home Cooking

by Christopher Kimball

Publisher – Little, Brown and Company 1996

ISBN 10: 0316493716

ISBN 13: 978-0316493710 

Christopher Kimball is the bowtied, avuncular founder of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and can be seen as the host of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country from America’s Test Kitchen on PBS.

The premise of his various media is a test, or trial and error approach to solving the world’s culinary mysteries such as how to achieve the perfect pie crust or “how do you create the perfect blueberry muffin?”

To this end, we find the book The Cook’s Bible.

This is a very useful look at not only creating “the perfect dish” but also a quick and dirty comparison of various cooking implements, the type of tests that you find in Cook’s Illustrated, a magazine refreshingly devoid of advertising. Kimball also answers the questions that have puzzled us through the years, such as “What’s the difference between baking powder and baking soda?” and an explanation as to how cornstarch and flour thicken sauces.

Many of the trial and error tests include outcomes of various trials, with the results listed sequentially. This is very useful indeed.

However…

I did find two fairly serious flaws in the book. The first is the command that you shouldn’t wash, rince or soak rice first. Well, that’s not the case with jasmine or basmati rice. Basmati rice in particular must be rinsed 4 or 5 times, until the water turns from cloudy to clear. This is done for several reasons – first, imported basmati often has the occasional tiny pebble or twig left in the bag. You want to get rid of those. Also, some basmatis are polished with talc or glucose and you want to get rid of that as well as well as additional starch. Some people say that basmati should be soaked; I’m not one of them. Kimball and his crew outline the various methods of cooking rice, but didn’t hit on the way that I’ve found that works best for basmati – simply put, you put about an inch of water above the rice (I was taught an index finger first knuckle by a very good Indian chef), add some ghee, oil or butter, toss in a bit of salt and bring to a boil. As soon as the water is boiling, reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover and walk away for about 12 minutes. Don’t uncover it until at least 12 minutes. At that point, you can check it for small “steam craters” on the surface of the rice (small pockmarks where steam has escaped. Normally, the rice is just about ready at this point (unless you’re cooking mass quantities, of course). To check to make sure it’s ready, you take a chopstick and carefully part the middle of the rice and see if there’s any liquid remaining in the bottom. If so, return to the heat and leave it covered for another 2 minutes and recheck. Normally, by the second check, it’s done. You want to be careful to disturb the rice as little as possible. The great thing about this method is that the “inch of water above the rice” method works consistently for any reasonable amount of rice and any reasonably shaped saucepan (I’ve never tried it for rice for 10 though).  No measuring required. No precise measured ratios between rice and water. Once you get the hang of what “an inch above the level of the rice” looks like, you’re home free. My rice always comes out perfectly and never over or undercooked or stuck to the bottom of the pan. This works with either basmati or jasmine rice.

My second quibble is with his description of barbecue. Well, not so much with his description of barbecue itself, but his “blow by blow account” of cooking a 3.75 lb Boston Butt. First of all, he was waaaay too dainty when it came to air and grill temperatures. Even the most conservative, hidebound, Luddite know-it-all BBQ’er knows that 225 degrees is just fine. Trying to keep the temperature around 200 as Kimball did just slows things down and doesn’t help anything. Also, he found that the temperature had dropped from 145° to 140° at one point, leading him to speculate that he had taken the internal temperature at the wrong place. What he didn’t know, but any halfway experienced BBQ’er knows, is that there’s a plateau point in slow cooking where the temperature either stays the same or even drops for an extended period of time. that’s one of the first things you learn when cooking Boston Butt – that it generally plateaus at around 140° for an hour or two, and oldtimers caution newbies not to panic and crank up the heat – it’s just part of the process. But the final nail in the coffin is that he served the Boston Butt sliced at 145° and proclaimed it “the best barbecue he had ever tasted”! Well, maybe that’s what passes for BBQ in Vermont (or even Boston, where his empire is based), but I can’t imagine a 145° piece of Boston Butt being even edible. You see, Boston Butt is highly marbled and dense. It must be cooked to at least 180°, and that’s if you’re going to slice it. All of the connective tissues and fat must be rendered first to keep it from being tough. And personally, I cook it to the point where it can be pulled, which is a minimum of 195° (I usually like to go to 200° – 205° to assure maximum elimination of solid fat and connective tissue). I guess it’s also hard to find larger cuts of Boston Butt where he’s from (ironic that he claims to mostly only find 4 lb’ers of Boston Butt in Boston of all places – here in the South, the most common size is between 6 and 9 lbs). No, he definitely missed the boat all around on his section about BBQ’ing. He specifically says, “For barbecue, the experts say that the heat should be kept at a steady 200° – not 250° or 275°. This is hogwash. Paul Kirk, one of the most successful BBQ’ers says between 230° and 250° and Ray Lampe goes with an even higher temperature for pork butt (the cooler name for Boston Butt) – 275°. I’ve participated in the most widely read smoking forum on the web and most people talk about 225° – 250°. And I’ve discovered that for larger butts of 6 lbs or more, you can go for the first 2 – 4 hours at 300° without any problem (of course, your bark will be black, but that’s the perfect bark where I come from). Christopher needs to do a little more research. Perhaps he has, since this book is about a decade old. Oldtimers will bust me for the 300° comment, but I’ve done the trial and error thing as well, making notes all along the way, and my 300° – 325° initial temperatures and rendered perfectly moist pulled pork time and time again. the thing is, the last half of the cooking must be done at the more conventional temperatures – I like 225° once I get to the halfway point (I figure about 1.25 – 1.75 hours per pound – every Butt is different due to shape and density – I’ve had it take as long as 2 hours per pound before).

In any case, there’s a lot of useful information in this book, but be careful about some of his proclamations. I guess it would be trial and error for that as well.

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Cookbook of the day – The Habanero Cookbook

The Habanero Cookbook

by Dave Dewitt & Nancy Gerlach

Publisher: Ten Speed Press; illustrated edition (March 1, 1995)

ISBN 10: 0898156386

ISBN 13: 978-0898156386

This book, written by famed “hot food” writers, Dave Dewitt and Nancy Gerlach, is actually outdated, even though it was written in 1995. It declares the habanero as “the hottest pepper in the world”. Those who follow this blog know that there is actually a hotter pepper, the India-based Naga Jokolia, a pepper which is twice as hot as the habanero. Also called “ghost pepper”, this little bomb of a pepper is allegedly used to make pepper spray by the Indian police.

However, this doesn’t reduce the utility of this well-written book.

The first part of the book is a comprehensive source of the history of Capsicum chinese and taxonomical information about variations within the species. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this discussion is the origins of Red Savina, considered the hottest of all of the members of the habanero family. The authors list at least 25 names for the habanero given by different locales, locales mostly found in the Caribbean but also as far-flung as Fiji.

The habanero distinguishes itself from many other chiles through the very distinct citrus and fruit notes that it displays. This gives it a depth of flavor that isn’t obscured by its intense heat.

The discussion turns at times to cultivation, crossbreeding and hot sauces as well.

And the recipes!

The recipes are well-chosen and diverse, offering a glimpse into Caribbean cooking, but it doesn’t end there. The habanero is incorporated into more generic dishes as well.

If you’re a chilehead, this book is right in your wheelhouse. It’s not an expensive volume and will expand your repertoire of “fiery foods”.

Habaneros from the Agricultural Research Service, a branch of the United States Agricultural Department

Cookbook of the day – The Taste of Thailand

The Taste of Thailand

by Vatcharin Bhumichitr

  • Publisher  Macmillan General Reference (September 1993)
  • ISBN 10: 0020091303
  • ISBN 13: 978-0020091301
  • This, the last cookbook review of the decade, has a literal title that can be taken multiple ways. The first is used in the sense that you would expect a cookbook to use it – taste in a literal sense. But it’s also a taste of Thai culture, with long narratives of Thai life, and finally, it’s a taste of different regional variations of Thai cooking.

    Half cookbook, half history and half cultural commentary (wait – that’s three halves!), this is a most useful book in fleshing out a cuisine, which can’t be separated from the society from which it emerges.

    It has a logical structure. Starting with the history of Thailand, it merges into basic ingredients, essential equipment, basic techniques and the home kitchen. Following that narrative, the book takes you to the country and you start with basic, easy to do recipes. the author then sends you to Bangkok and you start to get to more advanced food. Then, a section on seafood, Thailand obviously being a maritime country. Then you go up country to the North, where he explores the tribes, culture and food of one corner of the “Golden Triangle”. Following that is a segment on hors d’oeuvres, party foods, desserts and the all-important aspect of Thai cooking that you often don’t get a sense of in the US, vegetable carving. Finally, the narrative ends with a paean to eating out in Thailand and some selected “copies” of restaurant food that the author has reproduced.

    This is one satisfying sucker of a book. Laden with photographs that capture the breadth and width of the country, this is a cookbook that every chef should own, even if they’re not really big on Thai food. This might make you a believer.

    My copy of the book has the cover that’s pictured above. Mine is a paperback UK edition. There are at least 4 different covers that I have seen and the book is also available in hardback. And, beware, there’s a book called A Taste of Thailand. It’s not the same book. I haven’t seen the book and it might very well be a great book. But it’s not the book that’s reviewed here.

    The book is available at this moment from Amazon sellers in both paperback and hardback in new and used conditions. The price ranges from very cheap to very expensive as is usually the case – for out of print editions, there’s always a seller willing to sell you a book for $50 that you see listed for $4 from another seller. They also stock the current Pavillion reprint of the original book for around $14. It has a different cover and it’s questionable as to whether it has the great photographs of the original. I see no credit for the photographer, nor any photographs when I use the “Look Inside” feature that Amazon offers. If I had my druthers, I’d only buy the reprint as a last resort. 

    Here are the Amazon links:

    Original hardcover:

    http://www.amazon.com/Taste-Thailand-Vatcharin-Bhumichitr/dp/0689119941/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0

    Original softcover:

    http://www.amazon.com/Taste-Thailand-Vatcharin-Bhumichitr/dp/0020091303

    Current softcover reprint (out of stock at the moment, but available):

    http://www.amazon.com/Taste-Thailand-Definitive-Regional-Pavilion/dp/1862057060

    And, just for kicks and giggles, here are eBay’s current listings:

    http://books.shop.ebay.com/?_from=R40&_trksid=p3907.m38.l1313&_nkw=The+taste+of+thailand&_sacat=267

    You’ll have to filter out the other books – look only at listings for Vatcharin Bhumichitr.

    Happy hunting!

    Cookbook of the day – Cooking Fearlessly

    Cooking Fearlessly: Recipes and Other Adventures from Hudson’s on the Bend

    by Jeff Blank, Jay Moore with Deborah Harter

  • Publisher: Fearless Press (September 1, 1999) 
  • ISBN 10: 0967232309
  • ISBN 13: 978-0967232300
  • Hudson’s on the Bend is a creative restaurant slightly north of Austin. It’s owned by two creative chefs named Jeff Blank and Jay Moore. By all reports (I’ve never dined there), it’s a stylish, forward-thinking restaurant known for its willingness to exotic ingredients like rattlesnake, emu, et.al.

    This book is a colorful and delightful paeon to the restaurant. The cover gives you a good idea as to the humorous and eye-popping nature of the book.  With lots of original and a bold visual graphic style that first seems garish but ultimately adds to readability, the great thing about this book is the humorous approach the authors take to prod the reader to take some chances. You don’t see this often in cookbooks and it’s refreshing.

    They tell the stories behind the creation of the dishes, dishes that sometimes are birthed through mistakes, happy accidents or thinking “out-of-the-box”.

    The flavor profiles are layered, consonant and bright; the plating is striking.  And the authors give plenty of leeway for the reader to modify the recipes to make them their own and they give some flexibility with suggestions should you not be able to get rattlesnake, armadillo or antelope.

    A quote from a Buddhist monk opens the book appropriately.

    In this food

    I see clearly

    the presence of the entire universe

    supporting my existence

    One of the most enjoyable cookbooks that I’ve obtained in a while.

    Cookbook of the day – Asian Grills

     

    Asian Grills

    by Alexandra Greeley

    Publisher Doubleday; 1st edition (April 1, 1993)

    ISBN 10: 0385422121

    ISBN 13: 978-0385422123

    The book is a sleeper. Unassuming at first glance, this cookbook actually covers virtually all of Asia, including Indonesia/Bali, Malaysia, Singapore, the Treasure islands, Laos, Myanmar and, of course Thailand, Japan, India, China, Hong Kong and Korea. She even visits Macau and the Philipines, both usually left out of the discussion of Asian foods.

    Grilling has always been an essential part of all of these cuisines and author Greeley surveys each area with a nice mix of dishes, not all of which are necessarily grills. she offers a personal perspective and knowledge of each culture and her thumbnail sketch of each area is valuable to those of us who will never visit.

    She has a well-rounded glossary and she draws distinctions between similar ingredients in different countries, warning when substituting one for the other will dramatically change the character of the dish. She distinguishes between Singaporean and Malaysian Laksa, for instance, although she only gives the recipe for the former. It would have  been nice to have both recipes. Her Thai green curry seems reasonable (I haven’t made it) and I would have liked to see a red curry recipe as well. She has a red curry dish, a grilled duck recipe, but it uses a commercial red curry paste. Of course, Thai curries are usually used more in “stews/soups” type of preparations, but it’s nice to see it used for grilled dishes as well.

    I’m anxious to try the Grilled Balinese Duck, a banana leaf wrapped smoky/spicy duck cooked directly on low coals for 8 – 10 hours.

    I highly recommend seeking this book out, It will expand your horizons greatly and any of these dishes can be cooked on a decent sized kettle grill. Well-written and well-researched, this is an enjoyable survey of the world of Asian grilling.

    Balinese grilled duck. Photo by Jean Marc D at Yelp.

    http://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/l2CuOXGfLMzNQ-mSf8ylKA?select=0Cc-isET5wNucxwMTGxWaA

    Cookbook of the day – Cooking Under Cover

    Cooking Under Cover: One Pot Wonders — A Treasury of Soups, Stews, Braises, and Casseroles

    Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (September 21, 1998)

    ISBN-10: 0395935210

    ISBN-13: 978-0395935217

    This book is exactly what it pretends to be – a compendium of soups, stews, braises and casseroles. It’s nice to have all of those categories in one place instead of having to plow through many different cookbooks to find what you need.

    You won’t find cutting edge cuisine here. There is some variety with different cuisines, but most of the recipes are what you’d expect – stick-to-the-rib savory dishes that even your grandmother would enjoy. You have dishes like Chinese style Tea Smoked Scallops as well as Nana’s Chicken Fricassee. But you also have some semi-exotic dishes such as Choueroute Garni (Braised Alsatian Sauerkraut & Pork) and Pot Stickers with Cabbage, Scallions & Carrots.

    I really like this volume because it’s well-spoken and well-thought out. It will help you expand your thinking when you need to deliver a family-style one pot meal (it would be particularly useful for offering an addition to either the Thanksgiving or holiday table).

    As this book might be difficult to find locally, I’ve included a link where multiple copies can be bought (I have no connection to the vendor).

    http://tinyurl.com/ya64bnl

    Amazon also has it as well.

    BTW, Amazon is selling the paperback edition printed by Houghton Mifflin but I have the original hardback edition published by Chapters Publishing Ltd, a small Vermont publisher. If you can get the hardback for a price similar to the softback, I’d spring for it. It’s got a good heft and feel to it.

    Photo courtesy of Bed, Bath and Beyond.

    Cookbook of the day – Small Batch Baking

    medium_small-batch-baking

    Small-Batch Baking

    by Debby Maugans Nakos

    Publisher: Workman Publishing Company (November 15, 2004) 

    ISBN 10: 0761130357

    ISBN 13: 978-0761130352

    How many times have you wanted a homemade cake but didn’t want to throw half of it away after a couple of days because you didn’t want to eat the same cake for days on end? Those who have large families usually don’t have to worry about this sort of thing, but for those who don’t have a voracious group of gobblers, this book is a welcome addition to the household.

    Baking is an exact science, unlike other types of cooking where you can add a little bit of this or subtract a little bit of that. Baking relies on specific chemical reactions between certain ratios of ingredients and temperatures. Too much or too little of an ingredient can cause a catastrophic failure.

    This book is useful in that the ratios have been maintained during the trimming down process.  The author turns regular cakes into cupcakes, frosting into “just enough”, pastry into amounts good enough to make two small pies, etc. And she cleverly uses empty 8 – 16 oz cans for baking small cakes, saved from the trash can after cooking the cream corn that originally came in it. She also advises on choosing things like mixing bowls, because your standard-sized mixing bowl isn’t appropriate for small amounts of dough and batter. 

    One caveat though – there’s a little sloppy editing that allows a crucial mistake in the very first recipe – water is substituted for buttermilk in the ingredients listing even though buttermilk is mentioned in the instructions. This is supposedly fixed in later printings, but mine is the 3rd printing so it hadn’t been corrected up to that point.

    So, every recipe in the book should be closely looked at before trying it and it might be a good idea to do a trial run before baking something for a special occasion like Valentine’s Day or a spouse’s birthday. Fortunately, if something goes wrong, it’s not like you’re going to be throwing out a lot of raw ingredients.

    All in all, a clever MacGyveresque book that might prove useful to most people from time to time. After all, wouldn’t it be cool to just make a half cup of peanut brittle so that you aren’t munching on the crack-like substance for days on end?

    sweetpotatoebread

    This photo of a mini Sweet Potato Tea Bread loaf courtesy of Brooke at:

    http://brooke-cookiejar.blogspot.com/2008/02/small-batch-baking-sweet-potato-tea.html

    Cookbook of the day – Hotter Than Hell

    Hotter Than Hell

    Hotter than Hell: hot and spicy dishes from around the world

    by Jane Butel

    Publisher: HP Trade; Revised edition (August 1, 1994)

    ISBN 10: 1557880964

    ISBN 13: 978-1557880963

    This is one of the original “spicy foods” cookbooks. Butel was a pioneer in the field and this cookbook is a foundation volume.

    She tends to limit the heat in her recipes, so you won’t even see a mention of habañero, even in the chile guide. But you’ll find many useful recipes that can spice up your kitchen portfolio. Her chile con queso is particularly noteworthy. You’ll also find some recipes that don’t seem to be all that spicy because they are designed to complement spicy fare.

    This was a groundbreaking work that anyone who has a taste of fire should have in their library.

    Get a sneak peek at the book here:

    http://tinyurl.com/yfb37d2

    jane-butel09

    Cookbook of the day – Lemongrass and Sweet Basil

    Lemongrass and Sweet Basil

    Lemongrass And Sweet Basil: Traditional Thai Cuisine

    by Khamtane Signavong

    This slender volume would make a good companion piece to my previously recommended book, True Thai by Victor Sodsook. True Thai didn’t have any photographs of dishes and this volume has copious photographs that will give the chef a good idea of plating, presentation and composition.

    It’s not as in-depth as the previous book and I don’t recommend it as ones only Thai cookbook, but it does cover a lot of ground and is ideal for the beginning chef.

    There’s a pretty good cross-section of recipes and a concise bit of background information. As I said, for me, the main utility is the number of photographs of the various dishes.

    The author says that fresh chili pastes can last in the refrigerator for “up to three months”. I find this quite optimistic. My experience has been that you have about two weeks max before the chili paste starts turning.

    That quibble aside, I recommend this volume to anyone just getting interested in Thai cuisine, or anyone who has taken my recommendation and bought True Thai.

    spicy-bbq-beef-salad-lg 

    Photograph of Waterfall Beef Salad courtesy of:

    King and I Thai Cuisine

    West Des Moines, Iowa

    Cookbook of the day – Fish Cuisine

    fish cuisine

    Fish Cuisine

    by Anton Mosimann

  • Publisher 10 Speed Press
  • ISBN 0-89815-543-6
  • This stylish volume from the Swiss chef Anton Mosimann was first published by Macmillan Press in 1988. It looks as modern today as it did then. Many cookbooks from the late 80s look dated but this is an exception. The platings are fresh and modern (see the cover for a good example) and the recipes are simultaneously classic and progressive. The copy that I have is a reprint from 10 Speed Press. I have no idea what the original edition looks like, so all comments are based on the reprint.

    There is a very practical guide to purchasing and processing seafood in the beginning of the book. He actually covers 7 different things that you should look for when choosing fish. and you might actually learn some little things that you might not have consciously realized (like fresh trout should have a “healthy slime” that shouldn’t be removed by the fishmonger).

    But Chef Mosimann really shines in his various dishes. His plating displays more of an Asian than a European flair but the recipes themselves have a solid European bearing. From Monkfish with Mustard Sauce to Young Salted Herring in Onion Marinade to Turbot Tartar, you’ll find fresh inspiration from seafood.

    Highly recommended.

    Anton%20Mosimann-744316