Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Top of the class: The Cook's Companion

I'll spare you some grand rant about what most people consider 'healthy' - suffice to say I'm totally against everything that get's labeled a diet, a detox, or even a 'lifestyle'. My basic view is that if people were more concerned with reading ingredients lists rather than the nutrition facts, the world would be a better place. 200 calories of synthetic processed crap is not the same as eating well-balanced fresh-food - preferably that is organic and locally produced. Know where your food comes from people. I also feel very strongly that it is much easier to eat well when you know how to cook. Sometimes the best food is the most simply prepared. But it also takes confidence in the kitchen to let the ingredients speak for themselves. So, today's post is a tribute to my favourite cookbook of all time.

Pretty bold statement. I know. So let me tell you why.

My boyfriend and I love to cook. It's something we thoroughly enjoy doing together - from shopping to final presentation, and of course, eating! We have a lot of cookbooks for different purposes - some are recipe books covering various cuisines, while others are specifically about technique. It's always exciting coming across a good new find, but we're also fairly discerning. The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander is by far and away our most referenced and most used cookbook. We bought this together way back in 2004, the year it was re-released in its current form. My boyfriend was more advanced than I was, and he also tends to be very intuitive and has an excellent sense of smell. So for him this was a great reference book. For me it was the perfect companion for learning how to cook - seasonality and variety of ingredients, flavour pairings, technique and recipes - it covers all bases in a way that is informative but also practical for a home cook. It offers enough guidance for a fail proof execution but also enough latitude to experiment within informed boundaries if you so wish. And for this reason it's an excellent resource for both early beginners and as a continued reference once you up your skill.

The book is 1100 pages long, and kicks off with sections devoted to equipment, basics (a glossary of terms as well as base recipes for sauces, butters, batters, brines, custards, pastries, doughs, stocks, etc etc etc) and then measurements. The remainder of the book is organised alphabetically by ingredient. The book is aimed at an Australian kitchen but the ingredients would be easy to come by in most places. Some of the advice on seasons would obviously need to be reversed but that's nothing most antipodeans aren't confronted with all the time. In terms of varieties of particular ingredients - I think this is most relevant for seafood and the kinds of fish you're likely to find in a local Australian market which may differ from places with different fished waters. But again, no biggie. For each section devoted to an ingredient there are a few headings which get repeated throughout the book:

  • Varieties and Season: Explains when is best to purchase particular ingredients and what kinds of variations you may come across. For meat this may mean different breeds of animal, how they're raised, the age of slaughter, and the difference between a chicken, a poussin, 'spatchcocking' etc. For fruits and veggies this may mean the difference between meyer, eureka and lisbon lemons or kaffir, mexican and tahitian limes, and how they compare in taste, texture or other relevant characteristics. This is helpful for becoming better educated about how you choose your food and beginning to learn what kinds of ingredients are good at certain times of year and for certain purposes.
  • Selection and Storage: This goes through how to choose the said ingredient. For meat, and other proteins this may mean describing the different cuts and what they are each good for, or for produce how to tell if something is fresh, ripe, etc. She also explains how different food is produced, which tend to be on an industrial scale, etc. and therefore where it is most important to prioritise organic and local if you can't be discerning across the board.
  • Preparation and Cooking: Here she'll go through different techniques for prep and cooking - say boning, stuffing, roasting, grilling, steaming, poaching, stirfrying, etc. as in the photo above. Where relevant she then specifies which cuts lend themselves to which technique. Oven temps, timing etc as well. This is great because it can be used as a reference even if you're not following a specific recipe in the book. I always consult this section for cooking times of roasts for instance, even if I'm winging it flavour wise.
  • X goes with... And that brings me to this. My favourite and most used part of the book. For each ingredient there is a list of other ingredients that pair well. This provides the perfect support to then experiment - within reason. It goes both ways - either checking the list and realising you have a bunch of stuff that works in the fridge, or having an idea and just double-checking whether it will work. These lists have been invaluable as I've learned to cook and begun to gain confidence. It means you're not always bound to a recipe but can start making your own. Also, because Australian cuisine is also heavily asian influenced, the lists cover flavour pairings more traditional of 'european' food but also of various asian cuisines which helps to build a wider repertoire. 

The recipes in the book have never failed me and there are ideas for variations or other simple preparations in the margins. Stephanie writes in a way that is thoroughly informative but casual, does not drop technical terms without spelling out what they mean, and is very passionate about getting more people (and children) involved in learning to cook good, simple, and nourishing food that promotes health and conviviality. If you only invest in one good cookbook I would highly highly recommend this one.

You can compare prices and shipping here. The book is also now available as an app in the iTunes store.

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