Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cookbook review: The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

If you don't know the name Alice Waters, you should. She's the famed food activist behind Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant that effectively started the slow food/organic movement; probably the most important American restaurant of the last 40 years. Her philosophy is simple: buy local, high quality ingredients, and cook them simply. Good ingredients don't need a lot of fuss to make them taste good. In fact, too much fuss will usually make them taste worse.

This cookbook expounds on that principle beautifully. Many of the recipes are less recipe and more essay; there are two pages on how to properly cook a pork chop, when the ingredients are pork chop, oil, salt and pepper. It's very practical, very simple and very user-friendly for the novice cook.

People always want the "secret" to good cooking. I think it's a largely American trait, one that makes us obsess over the shortcut. We want to win the lottery, know the right people, drive cars that parallel-park themselves, anything that has spark and glamour. No one is interested in plain old boring hard work. We want a cookbook of thirty-minute recipes with secret tips for success, not a three-page essay on why it's better to cook polenta on low heat for an hour, not when we could be eating 30-second toaster waffles instead.

But it really is better to spend time on some things. Your soul isn't satisfied with quickie sex; why then should  you expect to be satisfied with quickie meals? This cookbook, as part of the vanguard of the slow food movement, really spells out why it's important to take the time once in a while, and why the food will taste so much better as a result.
I also like it because it gives appropriate variations in the recipes. I'm a big fan of variations, so I appreciate it when other cooks point out that you can use other greens like collards in the chard frittata. This has become one of the core reference books in my cookbook library.

(Bonus: excellent ice cream recipe.)

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