Pros: superb beginners book, wonderful illustrations, and step by step directions
Cons: not geared toward an experienced cook
Reviewed by Pamela Grant
Once upon a time every human being has looked at an egg and thought, "What am I supposed to do with that?" Come on admit it. There was that once, when you were little.
Most of us get over it. There are, however, those of us who reach adult life not knowing why or how to crack an egg, or, once that task is accomplished, what to do with it next. I can't count how many times I have heard "I don't know how to cook," or "I could never do that," or maybe you're familiar with "I don't cook. It's too complicated."
Cooking is a basic skill that everyone should have at least a little knowledge about. No More Takeout is just the book for those people who think they can't cook. A comprehensive ho- to guide for today's lifestyles and busy schedules, this book gives clear, concise, easy to follow directions for everything from the most basic cooking principals to some of its more complicated dishes, presented with a delightful array of pictures to assist in the process.
Acknowledgements are seldom mentioned in book reviews and I usually skim through them quickly while on my way to more interesting items within the book's pages. But I have to mention one item of interest I found while perusing the acknowledgement page. Contained within the very heartfelt thank- yous and honorable mentions is a note thanking their attorney for accepting meatloaf as payment. I need to get that lawyers number!
After a very well thought out list of essential equipment, kitchen gadgets, pantry staples, and spices, the authors go on to list something I really thought was a good touch. They talk about the difference between a Filet Mignon and a T-Bone; what types of fish are considered white fish as opposed to oily fish or shellfish, and how to tell if they are fresh; and what to look for in produce departments to assure freshness and quality in fruits and vegetables. After a small blurb on food safety, they go on to impress me again with an entire section, complete with step by step pictures, about preparations, such as boiling vs. simmering vs. blanching; frying vs. searing; what deglazing means; how to sweat an onion;, the proper way to reduce a sauce and how to tell when it is reduced enough are just some of the methods discussed. All the useful techniques and terms, that might be confusing to a novice cook, are expertly demystified in this chapter.
In the preparation section they cover such basic things as how to safely hold a knife, the difference between slice and chop, grate and shred. The how-tos of measuring and some differences in cooking terms and methods are all laid out in lovely full color photography. All basic principles to most of us, but to the beginner or intermittent cook this information is invaluable.
The recipes in the book are categorized by the degree of skill required to cook each dish. This allows each individual to decide for themselves what their level of skill might be. For instance, frying an egg is a level one recipe while Sticky Toffee Pudding is a level three recipe requiring a higher level of skill to make. I love this rating system. I do not always agree with their choice of skill level required, however, as I wouldn't have put Buttery Mashed Potato as a level three but perhaps a level two. Although several steps are required to get the desired result it is not a difficult dish to make. Differences of opinion aside, I definitely applaud the effort that went into classifying each recipe.
Another nice touch: Each recipe has a run-down of the gear needed to prepare that recipe, along with all the ingredients listed in a clear shopping list style. The print was a bit small on those lists, however, which I think was only an effort to keep the size of the book down. Too bad they didn't opt for a larger, easier to read font, and use a larger book binding. Harder to store, perhaps, but more user friendly.
I have to say that for me, in this type of instructional book especially, the photography made the book. The writing is well done and easy to follow, but the pictures made the process clear and concise and the book wouldn't be at all the same without them. Not only are they plentiful, they are well lit and beautifully highlight the subject matter or technique being explained. There are both photos of the process as well as a picture of each dish as it should look when plated, to give the novice cook an idea of what the finished product should look like. Kudos' go out to the photographer Michael Filosa for his great work.
In an effort to be fair I decided to prepare one dish from each skill level. Even though I know how to make hamburgers I decided to make them using the instructions as they were laid out, just as a beginning cook would. They say it is the little things in life that make all the difference. This book did a wonderful job of remembering the little things. The prep time includes refrigeration time, there was a small asterisk next to the word hot which referred you to a note on how to test if your pan is hot enough, they make reference to the "Four-Finger Firmness Guide", found in the preparation section, when assessing doneness, and give a good variety of not only alternatives but side dishes to go with your burger and where in the book to find those too. I found the beginners recipes to be easily followed and took you from start to finish without missing a beat.
For the novice cooking skill level two recipes, I decided to make the Bread Pudding recipe. Now this is a popular dish in our family and a New England staple in the winter, and although this recipe differs slightly from my traditional recipe, the basic dish is the same. Again I found the tips and hints to be not only helpful but thoroughly to the point. The directions are in step form and are easily followed. There were even photos, showing the proper technique to scrape out vanilla beans, another one of those good to know for the new cook kind of things.
I chose Lobster Salad for the last recipe. Here in section three the author doesn't automatically assume you have all the tips and hints found in the other two sections. They continue to refer you back to the indices whenever the author feels it might be necessary for a quick refresher course. I chose this dish not because I don't know how to make it (I do live in Maine, after all) or because I make mine differently, but because I wanted to highlight something else I thought valuable about this book. In this simple recipe two of the seven steps are devoted to plating and making the dish appealing to look at as well as eat. This is seldom mentioned in cookbooks geared towards the beginner cook. I am impressed!
I wasn't as impressed with the dish itself however, but to be fair to the author I believe that's due to my years of having Lobster Salad a certain way. Theirs wasn't bad; it just wasn't what I am used to. It would surely be a triumph for a burgeoning cook.
Overall, this entire cookbook is a gem for beginners. I suggest buying several copies and handing them out every time you hear "I can't cook" or "I could never make that".
Recipe: Bread Pudding
2 Tablespoons butter
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cinnamon stick
4 egg yolks
½ cup granulated sugar
1 pound stale brioche, challah bread, or croissants, cubed
½ cup raisins
2 ½ tablespoons light brown sugar
¾ cup Toffee sauce (page 78)
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. In the small bowl, add 1 tablespoon of butter and melt in the microwave, about 15 seconds on high. Grease the loaf pan with melted butter and set aside.
2. Place the medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the cream, milk, vanilla bean pod, and seeds, and cinnamon stick, and bring the mixture to a boil. Remove from heat.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and granulated sugar until well combined. Then, slowly pour the hot cream mixture into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly as you pour. Set aside.
4. In a medium bowl, add the bread cubes and raisins. Toss until well combined.
5. Place one layer of bread mixture in the loaf pan and pour the egg-cream mixture over the layer until completely covered. Repeat until the pan is full of bread and custard. Grate about ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg on top and sprinkle with the brown sugar.
6. Place the loaf pan inside the roasting pan and pour in hot water halfway up the side of the loaf pan (to ensure even cooking of the custard). Bake for 45 minutes, until the bread is puffed, crusty, and golden brown.
7. Remove from oven and set aside on the wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the toffee sauce in a small saucepan until warm. Serve pudding in slices and drizzle toffee sauce over the top.