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It took me a while to learn to love a lentil, but once I did there was no turning back. The absolute first time I ever cooked lentils was for lentil soup, and I proudly announced my accomplishment to this guy I had a crush on. “How long did you soak them for?” he inquired. Panic struck. I hadn’t soaked them at all, and I didn’t want to look like a fool. “Forty-five minutes,” I lied, thinking that sounded plausible.
As it turned out, we were both fools, because lentils don’t need soaking (I don’t know where Crush got the idea they did). Indeed, their blithe disregard for the bath all other dried legumes must endure is part of their charm.
Since those days, I have developed a real affection for the lentil and its homely, honest ways. The notion that anyone would feel a need to lie about lentils seems laughable now, but there you have it. I may not be the only cook who’s had to make her peace with being a fool, but at least I’m a happy and well-fed one.
When I previously boasted of having the worst kitchen in professional food writing, I posted a picture of my new kitchen space under construction. Many thought this was the “Before” picture, and in a sense, I suppose it was. I couldn’t quite bring myself to post the true “Before” picture, of my old kitchen. I wasn’t sure people could stomach it.
But now I’m just going to go ahead and do it, because I don’t think it’s possible to appreciate just how happy I am not to be cooking in this place unless you see it.
Over the February break, Husby built face frames, cut and polished soapstone, mounted drawers, primed and painted. Our friend Mark helped us move the stove into place and install the close-to-300-lb. first slab of soapstone countertop. I plastered around the windowframes and electric/plumbing holes and oiled the countertop. By the end of the week, we had an operational range hood, working stove, hooked-up dishwasher and faucet, and the biggest expanse of counter space I have ever had the pleasure of cooking on. Sometimes I just stand next to that lustrous, smooth plane of soapstone and run my hands over it for a while.
There’s still a long way to go. We haven’t even reached the halfway point as far as the physical space goes. But the point is, the new kitchen is now functional. And as for myself, I can’t imagine how I could possibly be happier.
Can I just say? The word “golden” takes the prize for Laziest Word in Recipe Writing. And I say that as someone who has written “golden” into her own recipes, any number of iniquitous times.
I know, I know, what else are you going to call it? Without “golden” and its even more indispensable cousin, “golden-brown,” how can we describe the seared skin of the chicken, the crust of the biscuit, the luminous hue of the caramelized onion? Without Mr. Maillard and his golden footprint, where would we be? We might as well pack it in and convert to an all-raw diet.
No question, we need our golden food. But we need a new word – or better, lots of new words. There is almost nothing I like less in a recipe than seeing these three words: “fry until golden”. Sweet Jesus, what is that supposed to mean?! Never mind that “fry” means all sorts of different things in all sorts of different contexts. But “golden”! It could mean anything from a straw-colored roux to a daisy-yellow legal pad to a burnt-amber cork. To sum up, “golden” means “Cook it till it looks appetizing and you want to eat it. You know what I mean, don’t you? Good! now I don’t have to explain.”
Almost as bad is, “Fry until golden, about X minutes”. Firepower is different on every combination of range, burner, and cooking vessel. Without knowing what kind of golden you’re aiming for, a time estimate is pretty meaningless too. You might as well just go ahead and scale the Everest of vagueness: “Cook till done.”
OK, realistically, we’re not going to do away with “golden”. But let’s face it, the word is inadequate. How about we just use it as a starting point? Tell me what kind of gold – burnished gold? dull gold? brand-new-Sacagawea-dollar-gold? bronze? mottled? pale? Better yet, give me other sensory cues – should I wait till the protein releases from the pan? till the tofu squeaks? till the onions begin to stick? till the edges of the loaf pull away from the mold? Give me something to work with – I’m dyin’ here!
Of course, a good cook is a good cook, and even the worst-written recipe is not going to make a good cook produce a bad meal. Still, why not aim high? Why not use our gloriously rich language, so diverse in origin, so blessed in synonyms, so accommodating of nuance and simile? Remember, every time you coin a metaphor, an English teacher earns his wings!
Next time: my thoughts on coarse meal. As in “pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. ” Duck and cover!
Need a cookbook review fix?
I’ve just completed a major overhaul of the review page, eliminating all the broken or expired links and loading all the stories as site-hosted PDFs. You can now seamlessly read all my cookbook reviews dating back to 2002 (and click through the “buy” links to purchase the cookbooks themselves on Amazon).
If you run across a broken link I’ve missed, kindly contact me so I can fix it.
I’ve been reviewing cookbooks for some 12 years now. Every once in a while, I write a critical review. It doesn’t happen terribly often – maybe 2 or 3 times a year, a small fraction of the total. There’s a reason bad reviews are infrequent: if a book looks really unpromising, my editor and I generally just don’t consider it for review. It’s of no service to anyone for me to waste the paper’s column space trashing a lousy book, when there are so many good ones waiting for coverage.
I test most books for a good week. I might test up to 15 or 16 recipes if I’ve had a chance to dip into the book for non-work-related purposes, but I never test fewer than about 8.
I often give a recipe the benefit of the doubt: say I sloshed a bit when I was pouring soy sauce into my measuring spoon, or my oven thermometer battery died and I didn’t notice. Suppose I eyeballed 1/3 cup of chopped nuts instead of measuring them. My eye is pretty good at this point, but I’m human. If I have any doubt that I didn’t follow the recipe to the letter, I disclose it in the review, or I give the recipe some leeway – for example, if it’s too salty from the sloshed soy, I know not to blame the author. If I “fix” a recipe that’s going wrong, as we all do sometimes, I say so.
When the testing’s going downhill on a book, my heart sinks with it. I know that when the review is published, someone – probably someone really nice – is going to have a bad day. On the other hand, I think of the readers who rush out to buy the book, swept up in the 4-week wave of publicity that carries cookbooks out to the world. I have a responsibility, I tell myself, to share what I know. And cookbooks in particular are hard to judge when you’re standing in a bookstore, trying to guess which recipes will work.
That’s why, when I write a critical review, I pretty much stick to the facts. As Pete Wells so entertainingly demonstrated in his famous takedown of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, a hatchet job can be a kind of prose holiday – you can take stylistic liberties that normally wouldn’t be on the menu. But I don’t think I’ve penned a rant since my very earliest days reporting (and when I did, my editor had the wisdom to tone it down), because I can’t help thinking about how the author will feel. I know how I’d feel.
In fact, every time I write a story, whether it’s a review or some other kind of feature, there’s comments and feedback. Most of it’s helpful, and some of it is downright pleasant. But every once in a while, someone goes ballistic, and I’m reminded that a tough skin doesn’t usually come with the package for those of us born writers.
On those occasions, I sometimes find it helpful to imagine my own critics as tiny figures on the floor, shouting through miniature megaphones, yet still inaudible. “What’s that you say?” I reply. “I’m sorry, can you speak a little louder? I just can’t hear you!”
So, cookbook authors, you might consider doing the same. If I’ve reviewed your book unfavorably, imagine me as a very, very small T. Susan Chang, in a grimy apron, brandishing a tiny wooden spoon. After all, in the scope of things, a cookbook reviewer is just a small cog in a great wheel. You won’t be far off from the truth, and it might make you feel a whole lot better.
The views expressed in this blog post are entirely my own and not those of the Boston Globe.