I want to call attention to a cookbook after my own heart, a cookbook that seeks to encourage and teach the few fundamental ideas on which all cooking is based. It’s called Twelve Recipes by Chez Panisse chef Cal Peternell, and it came into being out of the love of a father for his sons.
Peternell, on returning from a family trip to Europe, wondered why more cooking wasn’t done at home, notably and especially by his fellow chefs. He understands: fatigue, time, the desire to see new restaurants. But he also knew this:
“The ancient acts of gathering foods, cooking them, and then coming together to eat are as profound as any that we do, and as pleasurable.… I consider cooking and eating with my family my best skill.”
Yet he’d failed to teach his kids to cook. And so he wrote this book, and it’s excellent.
Sam Sifton said it best in his NYTimes review: “Rare is the cookbook that acknowledges the simple truth that there aren’t really all that many recipes in the world. There is just technique, and practice, and joy and love, and at the end of it something simple and delicious on the plate, something that the reader may not have considered making before cracking the spine of the book.”
As Sifton notes, the recipes here are narratives, as the best recipes are. A really good recipe is a story. And of course Peternell includes not just twelve but rather numerous recipes, and variations on those recipes, but his title emphasizes, as I tried to in Twenty, that all of cooking rests on a small but powerful base.
The first chapter is called “Toast,” the second “Eggs,” the third “Beans.” One is called “Roasted Chicken,” from which so much can be learned. I love his “Three Sauces” chapter, which describes the underappreciated-at-home Béchamel, as well as Salsa Verde and Mayonnaise.
The book is beautifully designed, with homey photography (everything seems to be rustic these days!) and lovely watercolor illustrations.
And it’s thoughtfully, honestly, eccentrically written. Meaning we get a full sense of the chef’s personality as well as his personal cooking convictions. In the “Pasta with Tomato” chapter, he describes a marinara variation called “Arrabbiata.” Though the term typically translates as “angry,” Peternell writes, “I prefer ‘enraged.’” And so in the list of ingredients is “Enough red pepper flakes to enrage and not engulf.” I love that. I love that he wants his kids to know how to make a cake. Everyone should know how to make a cake.
I love this whole book—even though he does tell his kids to put vinegar in the egg-poaching water (Kids! Don’t tell your dad I said this but it’s a bad idea!). And I want to give one away because it’s so damn good. I want to spread its exuberance about cooking food and sharing it with the people we care about, one of the most important and profound acts of humanity.
To win a copy of this book, write in the comments below a dish or technique that teaches more than the dish or technique alone by Thursday (comments will close at midnight).
Other links you may like:
- My past posts on Meat Broth and Stock, Hoppin’ John, and Annie’s Caviar Pie.
- My holiday 2014 cookbooks picks.
- If you’re looking for another great book to learn how to cook, one I wrote describes the all-important concept of Ratios.
- Two other blogs to check out are The Culinary Life and Vanilla Garlic.
© 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2015 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.