This last year, I discovered the writing of foodie Michael Rulhman, and his experiences in both the CIA and getting to work with such culinary greats as Thomas Keller and Michael Symon.
There are three essential sections to this slim volume, each one providing understanding to any cook, no matter what their experience level is. It's not exactly a book to sit down and read through as you would a regular book, except for the opening section. Instead, this is one to have nearby when you're reading through a cookbook, and you come across a term that you don't know, for example, a chiffonade or daube, or when you want some clarification on just what is poaching or why is a confit is so desired by foodies. No, it's not that massive tome, Larousse's Gastronomique, but it's quite a bit lighter and easier to go through than that chef's bible.
Ruhlman starts off slowly, after an opening essay by Anthony Bourdain. He gets right down to the very basics with a collection of eight essays on why you need to have knowledge of a variety of tools and ingredients, namely: Notes on Cooking, From Stock to Finesse. The language is geared for the average cook, who has never set toe into a professional kitchen or culinary school, but do want to improve their own skills at cooking.
The eight essays are as follows:
Stock: Ruhlman gets pretty darn rhapsodic about stocks; how to make them, how to ruin them, and while you don't really need to make your own, it's still a good idea to try. He also takes some of the mystery out of making them, such as how to actually 'skim' the stock, and get rid of that pesky raft. What I really liked about this one is his recipe for veal stock -- it's one that I will have to try soon.
Sauce: And yes, you can make them too. This is where stocks come in very handy, and how to get the most out of the techniques.
Salt: Why it's important, and despite the constant railings of those who wish to ban it (along with that other necessity in the kitchen, fat), how to learn how to use it. I agree with Ruhlman here, don't use it for a while and see how much you suddenly start craving it.
The Egg: I love eggs, both as ingredient and tool. Ruhlman shows here how the egg can leaven food and make it rise, bind things together, and work wonders. He also includes a nifty little set of instructions on how to prepare eggs in the most basic ways, from boiling to poaching to scrambling.
Heat: Dry heat, moist heat, and poaching, along with a few other refinements. Once you start learning how to manipulate heat, and learn how to do it, you can pretty much learn to cook anything.
Tools: Ruhlman maintains that you really only need five tools -- a chef's knife, a large cutting board, a large sauté pan, a wooden spoon, and a large nonreactive bowl. Ok, I'll buy that, but realistically, you need to have a few more things in there -- for me, it's serrated and paring knives, thermometers, various pots and pans to stew, braise and roast in, and suchlike. Almost every chef who's written a book on cooking has a list of these sorts of things, and one thing they all seem to agree on is that each tool should be able to cope with a variety of tasks, and ban the expensive gimmicky item to the depths of the cooking store that's selling it. Most average kitchens are already cramped, and those flashy designer ones to usually be found in Vulgaria never get cooked in anyway.
Sources and Acknowledgements: Fifteen really good books about cooking. I won't list them all here, but I was surprised and inwardly pleased by how many of them I already have. One thing I should warn the reader about -- throughout this book, Ruhlman continually refers back to Harold McGee's exhaustive text by stating See McGee in the text; I have to admit that I agree with him a bit, no one has done more research into the world of why and how cooking does work than McGee. The book is huge and moderately expensive, along with other tomes that he cites, but yes, they really are that important if you want to move from being an average everyday cook to the person that can cook very well.
Finesse: A tricky term, that Ruhlman tries hard to explain, but never really quite gets there. I can appreciate what he is trying to do here, but I was also left feeling unsettled a bit as I read. Most of the time I don't have the energy to knock out an amazing meal -- if I can get everyone fed and the house cleaned, that's usually enough for the day. But I can certainly respect him for trying.
The Elements of Cooking A to Z
This is the main guts of the book. There's a wide variety of topics here, most of them French, and a few new ideas and fads -- like foam -- that have been creeping into the American culinary world. Depending on how much you are obsessed with food, you'll probably find quite a few new ideas and tools to learn more about, which is where the third section of the book will come in handy. Ruhlman's writing style here is articulate and while he does get clever in a few spots -- especially with the slang found in restaurants -- it is writing that I wish most culinary writers would contain. It's clear, free of fancy jargon, and 'cuteness.' It's smart and very useful.
The final pages are given over to acknowledgements and a bibliography, most of which is covered in the opening essays.
So what didn't I like about this book? Well, Ruhlman has a tendency to be just a wee bit snobby in his attitude towards home cooks. Read carefully enough between the lines, and there's just a dash of patronizing to the reader; I guess it really can't be helped, Ruhlman has been able to hobnob with the very greatest of cooks in America, and it shows. Too, he assumes that some of the tools and techniques that he talks about are already familiar to the reader. But these are small nits, and easily taken care of.
Summing up, this is a handy little book to have in the kitchen. Either this one or the recently published What's a Cook to Do? are engaging reads, and perfect for the home cook or budding culinary star in your family. It's lightweight enough to be used easily, and not nearly as intimidating as the more traditional culinary sources.
Four stars overall, and certainly worth the effort to find.