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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!

recipes paper cookbooks electronic digital analog online

I’ve been a passionate advocate for paper cookbooks for some years. I love them equally for their beauty and practicality.

At the same time, I’ve been watching as the Internet’s portfolio of recipes has blossomed, and the search functions that allow you to hunt them down have gradually improved. More and more cooks have brought their devices into the kitchen–yet I and many others wondered: how do you cope with the small, single screen? How do you protect a basically fragile, complex machine in a humid, physically stressful environment? And what about all the extra features of a cookbook: the author’s headnotes, the company of other well-curated recipes, the sidebars, the paper pages you can scribble on with your thoughts and additions?

I don’t have a smartphone–our town is surely one of the last redoubts in the country where no cell service is available–so I have only toured iCookbook and other excellent cooking apps on my laptop.  But when Key Ingredient, a crowd-sourced recipe database site, contacted me about its Recipe Reader device, which it markets as a “Kindle for the Kitchen,” I thought it was time for me to step up and see if my paper biases were unfounded.  I do love a gadget.  I use and love a Kindle, too.  Let’s give it a try, I thought.

Like the Kindle, the Recipe Reader essentially syncs with just one place on the Internet–the database of recipes hosted by Key Ingredient.  So I signed up for the database, uploaded a few of my recipes, downloaded a few others, and set to work.

I was taken, at the start, with the Recipe Reader’s appealing physical properties. It can be canted at a low or high, practical incline for countertop use.  It’s durable, and the seamless surface wipes off cleanly when (inevitably) you spill or splash.

At first, it was just plain fun to see my own recipes pop up on the screen, with my own photos and words.  I like the way the quantities were automatically bolded and the font sizeable.  It was fun playing with the timers and the metric conversion tool and the substitutions glossary.

But as I worked with it, I grew more frustrated. First of all, it was annoying not to see more of the recipe at once.  Good cooks look ahead to budget their time, anticipate problems, and see where they can save steps. They look behind to check and make sure they didn’t omit something, and to repeatedly scan the ingredients list.  I could scroll up and down, but that’s something not usually necessary with a full-format paper cookbook.

And as much as I liked the timer, conversion, and substitution tools, I didn’t want to have to switch screens to see them.  I wanted to be able to convert on the fly, by touching “1/2 cup butter” and seeing it magically change to “8 tablespoons butter” to “1/4 pound” to “113 3/8 gr.” as I wished.  I wanted to be able to touch “Great Northern beans” and see “cannellini,” “navy beans,” “gigantes,” and “pinto beans” come up as substitutes, with mutatis mutandis instructions.  I wanted to be able to selectively scale up recipes by having some kind of multiplying function right there on the screen.

In short, I wanted magic.

I know there are apps out there that address many of these concerns.  And I know that all of this is achievable in a single device.  In a way, just using the Recipe Reader (despite its flaws) made me realize that.  I’m now open to the idea that an electronic device can have a home, and a happy one, in the kitchen.

The bottom line is this: What’s a recipe, for you? Is it just information–a formula? Or is it a complete learning experience?

The things I love about paper cookbooks remain unchanged and hard to duplicate–the sense of customized, sustained attention, the physical heft and portability, the permanence, the voice.  It’s a tangible artifact for a tangible act –  the act of cooking.  To compete with the accessibility of online recipes, cookbooks have had to step up in quality, usefulness, and longevity.  And they have. The best of today’s cookbooks have a thoroughness and perceptiveness not yet achieved by many apps.

What I think I’ll love about digital and online recipes, someday, is the speed and readiness of the information. But there will have to be a lot of information, and it will have to be high-quality, deeply steeped in reference material, and as instantaneous as thought, before I’ll readily set aside the slower pleasures and practicality of paper.

Something odd is going on in cookbook merchandising, and I’m trying to understand it.

We’re all familiar with the explosion of food websites and food blogs in the last 10 years and their inevitable transition into print. From Heidi Swanson and the Tipsy Baker to Food52 and Serious Eats, there’s an abundance of popular online hosts or communities who’ve turned author, and there are more every day.

Many, like Ree Drummond (the “Pioneer Woman Cooks”) and Fifi O’Neill (the “Romantic Prairie” magazine) sell a DIY kind of lifestyle that their readers don’t necessarily have the time or life circumstances to undertake themselves.  It’s not the first time that  cooks who are also talented photographers and stylists have taken off in print. It’s certainly not the first time a domestic-shelter editor has successfully sold a lifestyle (see “Stewart, Martha”.)  So that’s not what’s odd.

What I don’t quite get is that if you look at these recipes closely, something doesn’t add up.  Consider the Romantic Prairie Cookbook (by an expatriated Parisian living in Florida). Grilled chicken with mandarin oranges?  No mandarin oranges on the prairie, unless I’m mistaken. There are sausages and breads in the recipes, but they’re mostly storebought. Recipes for salmon, mussels, fish in a salt crust?  Exactly where is this prairie?  And is it near Balducci’s?

The new Pioneer Woman Cookbook: Food from My Frontier makes me wonder, in the same sort of way, which frontier we’re dealing with: Italian meatball soup? Thai chicken pizza?  Chicken Parmesan? Mango margaritas?  It’s true that there is a recipe for pickles and a recipe for jam in the back.  But the language of sustainability, self-reliance, and rugged wholesomeness conveyed by the photographs is not spoken equally by the food.

I’m not wearing my reviewer hat, and I don’t mean to denigrate the food itself, which I haven’t tested and which looks perfectly fine.  No matter where it hails from (and I think it’s safe to say it’s not from Kansas), it’s straight-ahead comfort food, like what you might find in hundreds of midrange urban brunch places.

Some may find themselves asking,  “Why make it when I can buy it in Brooklyn?”  I’m not sure I can answer that.  But my guess is that it’s not the cookbook’s content but its aura that you’re buying–that glimpse of a life not lived by most of us–a life of pale sunrises, endless horizons, quiet insights silhouetted on horseback.  Question is: is that life even being lived by those who sell it?

A couple of months ago, while chatting with the smart, food-loving crowd at Celia Sack’s wonderful little cookbook store, Omnivore Books, I posed a question.  How many recipes, I wondered, do you use from any given cookbook?  Two or three, said one voice. Five or six, said another.  Nobody, including me, used more than that.  That got me thinking about all the cookbooks I own from which I only use ONE  recipe–and there are many–which in turn sparked the following rumination.

When you bought the cookbook, you were sure it was forever.  You browsed through it on the first day, turning down corners or maybe sticking post-its on the pages.  Within a week you had tried a few of the recipes and while not every one was great, one of them knocked your socks off.  I’ll have to remember that, you said to yourself.

And you did.  You remembered that the citrus pork roast was in the big book with the blue cover (maybe, if you’re better about these things than I am, you even remembered the name of the book and the author), and you made it many, many times over the years–though not quite enough times to be able to pull it off without at least glancing at the recipe. After a while, the blue book began opening to the page all by itself.  You could even see the crease in the spine corresponding with the location of the much-loved recipe.

And one day, you looked up from preparing the roast to realize that you hadn’t cooked anything else from that book since the week you bought it, and that you had essentially paid $25 or $35 for a single recipe.  On the other hand, you consoled yourself, what a recipe!

We all have books like these–cookbooks full of promise when purchased, yet which gradually became equated with a single iconic recipe in our repertoires. I have dozens of them.  To name just a few: the Everyday 100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread from Artisan Breads Every Day,  the lamb burgers with dried fig and mint relish from the New York Times Country Weekend Cookbook, the Butter Roasted Pecans from The Savannah Cookbook, the Corn Salad with Walnuts and Goat Cheese from The Young Man and the Sea, the Chicken and Dumplings from Refined American Cuisine, the Classic Cole Slaw from Bon Appetit Y’all.

A few years ago, to save wear and tear on my one-recipe books, I started xeroxing their single contributions and keeping them in a binder, along with handwritten recipes and recipes from friends and family.  I pull that black binder out almost every week for one old favorite recipe or another, even though I spend most of my stove time testing new recipes from unfamiliar cookbooks.

I always feel a twinge of guilt, though, for all the unexplored recipes in those books.  Yet I do have hope that redemption lies in store for my one-recipe cookbooks (thanks principally to Eat Your Books, the cookbook-indexing website).  Sometime I’ll be searching for the perfect non-boring green bean recipe–which I do practically every week, so far in vain–and there it will be! in a book I know has got one great recipe…and maybe, just maybe, so much more.

My son’s list of “No” foods isn’t as long as some, but it’s still longer than I wish it were: tomatoes, eggplant, avocado, most kinds of egg, and zucchini.  But as of this week, we might be able to cross that last one off the list, thanks to Zucchini Slivers with Garlic, which you can find in Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty.   And just in time, because the zucchini’s just starting to riot in the garden.

Goodness knows I’ve made zucchini with garlic countless times.  But when it comes to zucchini and kids, texture really matters.  You can’t just slap it in a pan with some oil if you want to win over the under-12’s.  This recipe using several techniques–hand-cut slivers, pre-salting, blazing-hot pan, high-smoking-point oil, finely minced garlic–to drive away the moisture that makes zucchini flabby when cooked.  The garlic doesn’t even burn, if you’re quick about it.

I brought two kitchen utensils from home to our place in Vermont:  the immersion blender because I can’t live without it, and the popsicle maker, because I don’t want to.

I also brought a new book–Perfect Pops: The 50 Best Classic & Cool Treats–which turned out to be full of beguiling, unconventional popsicle formulae.  The only problem is that now I am being called upon for a repeat performance.

A few of my thoughts about summer cookbook sales, as posted on Eat Your Books the other day:

Every so often I have a look at the bestseller lists for cookbooks. It keeps me honest–if the books people are buying aren’t the books that I’m recommending, I should know why, even if that doesn’t change my opinion about the books themselves.

If you asked me what sells in summer, I’d probably say: eat-local books, grill books, ice cream books, seafood books. And I’d be partly right. But if you look closely at the Amazon bestseller list in Cooking, Food & Wine, this year’s trends tell a slightly different story:

Celebrities: Yep, it’s a booming market if you’re a TV personality, like Guy Fieri or Theresa Giudice. These books may not consistently inspire, delight, and instruct (the marks of a great cookbook) but wow. They do fly off the shelves. You can also sell a lot of cookbooks if you’re Gwyneth Paltrow.

Men: “Man with a Pan,” “Eat Like a Man”–sound familiar? Audience-based cookbooks are doing really well, especially if you’re a man. The battle of the sexes may have been won on other fronts, but it’s definitely still on in the kitchen.

Bloggers: Well, one blogger, namely Ree Drummond–a one-woman cookbook marketing machine.

Tell-alls & memoirs: Gritty chef stories like Gabrielle Hamilton’s rule the genre, along with macho, exposé style books like Anthony Bourdain’s (see “Men,” above).

DIY: Canning and preserving. People can’t seem to get enough of these, even though I don’t spot much of a difference between any of the dozens of canning books. Also beer (see “Men,” above).

Grills and frozen stuff: I was right about this much–people are buying ice cream books, and, in a twist this year, popsicle books. As for grills–well, not to repeat myself, but: see “Men,” above.

I really am perplexed not to see more fish and seafood books among the top contenders.  Why?  What am I missing??

What else can we conclude from scrutinizing this list? Well, here’s one guess: Men buy cookbooks in the summer.  There, I’ve proclaimed it.  Saying it doesn’t make it true, but it’s curious to observe, isn’t it?

In yesterday’s mail, an exciting first:  The Invisible Cookbook.

It arrived via USPS from a Big Six publisher–marked “Delivery Confirmation”–along with two other urgent envelopes containing more conventionally tangible volumes.

I am even now trying to figure out where I will get the invisible groceries to make these none-of-a-kind recipes. . . and how on earth I will get the kids to try even Just One Bite.

Some thoughts  on “how books” at i.e., food books with the attention-getting “how” subtitle.  Today’s “how” ‘s?  “How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit” and “How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my  way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on forty dollars a week)”.  Read the post here.

They did it!  The family made cranberry scones for Mother’s Day–the ones from Joanne Chang’s Flour cookbook.  I came down to coffee, yogurt & jam, a scone with a little ramekin of butter, and two tulips freshly snipped from….somewhere or other. (I didn’t inquire too closely.)

Then I got to spend the rest of the day gardening, and–after clearing away the ground ivy and grass and old stalks–found about a dozen spears of asparagus smartly shouldering their way out of the ground.

Could any mom ask for more?


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