Let me just say straight-off that I love this book. Love love love it. Why? Because it does more than just list a bunch of recipes, it teaches an adventuresome, fearless approach to cooking. It encourages the reader to be curious and bold and involved. It teaches us to trust the natural world and methods of cooking that have sustained humankind since, well, in some cares, almost forever. That said, it's probably not for eveyone.
Title & Publisher: The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time, by Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafzinger. Published by Perigee, 2010.
First impressions: When I first picked up this book, it had a familiar feel. After ruffling through a few pages, I realized much to my delight that in many ways it reminded me of the Nancy Drew books of my youth. The size and weight, the satiny cover, the feel and color and texture of the pages, and especially the ink drawings, are all reminiscent of summers spent lolling about in a hammock in my suburban backyard, clutching a Nancy Drew mystery and a cold bottle of Mountain Dew.
The book has 233 pages, approximately 100 recipes, dozens of line-drawn illustrations and an index. It it divided up into chapters including Ferments of Vegetables and Legumes (pickles, sauerkraut, miso, olives); Fresh Vegetables and Legumes (fresh tomato sauce, dolmas, onion soup); Fruits and Nuts (preserves, almond milk and cheese); Grains and Pastas; Bread; Meat (roasting, rabbit, pastrami); Fish; Poultry; Dairy Products and Cheese (cultured butter, yogurt); Fermented Beverages (wine, psychic love wine, beer); and Pies, Pastry and Other Confections (pastry, doughnuts, bourbon truffles).
The angle: This is a unique cookbook in many ways. First, the authors have chosen not to use the modern recipe format where the ingredients and their amounts are listed first and then followed by instructions. Rather, they take a more old-fashioned approach where the ingredients and their amounts are imbedded in the instructional text. It's kind of like being told a story, rather than reading a formula. Nice. Oh, and those amounts? Maybe you'll get specifics, maybe not. Sometimes, it's just a handful of this or a pinch of that or a scoop/dollop/plop.
Each author worked separately on their own projects and you don't know who wrote what you're reading until the end of the recipe or chapter (which can be several pages) where just a single initial appears. It's kind of fun to become familiar with each person's style and guess who wrote each piece before coming to the end.
The recipes, too, are unique, at least to modern kitchens. Here, molds and bacteria are not universally your enemy and you are invited to discover which ones make delicious pickles, breads, yogurt and cheeses, cured meats. There is also a preference for the unplugged: the whisk over the electric beater, the hand grinder over the food processor, common sense and a few drops on your wrist over a thermometer.
The authors: Rosanna Nafziger has a blog called Paprika and also has posted a few delightful entries on Penguin/Perigee's blog, especially about the book's illustrations which were done by her mother. She lives in San Francisco and works at Bi-Rite Market.
Ken Albala is a professor of history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA where he teaches courses on food history. An award winning author, he has written several books on food and food history and writes a food blog called Ken Albala's Food Rant.
On why I said it's not for everyone: The title page sums it up: An introduction to the antiquated kitchen, or cookery made difficult and inconvenient being foremost a pleasant discourse on the nature and execution of arcane and dangerous culinary practices especially designed for patient, discerning individuals who appreciate superior homemade food and those who will not balk at devoting many laborious hours to the kitchen.
Recipes for right now: Like most "real" cooking, the time of year is important, not just for what's in season but for the temperatures as well. A lot of recipes in this book call for things to hang out on your counter, fermenting or culturing or just plain resting for a little while, and the heat or coolness of the season will have a big effect on how quickly things go (or don't go!) It's actually kind of hard to recommend recipes for now, since while most of the nation has been boiling beneath record-breaking temperatures, it's been rather nippy here in SF.
So for hot kitchens, you can try the yogurt and creme fresh, but keep an eye on it as it may set up more quickly. If your kitchen is cool, you may have to wait longer or set up a supplemental heat source like a lightbulb. Cool kitchens can probably start one of the cured meat projects like salami.
Recipes I'm most excited about: Almond butter (not your usual ground almonds but an actual butter made from separating out the fat from ground almonds), miso (homemade miso!), an intriguing pastry recipe made with flour, salt, butter, eggs and whey leftover from yogurt cheese making.
Recommended? Yes! Yes! Yes! But maybe not for real beginners, although Albala and Nafzinger argue in their introduction that it would be just fine. I do get their point not to become overly dependent on formula-like recipes and to trust your instincts. So I say a beginner might need an experienced cook nearby, if even just to say "uh-huh, Honey, you've doing it right."
• Buy the book: The Lost Art of Real Cooking by Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafzinger (Amazon.com) or Powells.com)
More 2010 Book Reviews
• My Favorite Ingredients by Skye Gyngell
• Ready for Dessert: My Best Recipes by David Lebovitz
(Image: Dana Velden)