There's something to be said for being a Luddite in the kitchen. The distancing that occurs when technology gets between us and our food can get in the way of our becoming better cooks. Processed food, of course, is the ultimate example of this -- food with ingredients we don't recognize, which often requires no cooking at all -- but consider also the innocent kitchen timer.
When one begins to learn how to bake a cake, one pays attention to the recipe: Bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees. There is often an assumption that these parameters, if followed, will lead to a perfect cake -- all we have to do is set the timer.
An experienced baker knows, however, that no matter what the timer or the cookbook says, it is our senses that are the true arbiters of doneness. Our noses take in the growing chocolaty cloud that fills the inside of the house, followed by the gentle attenuation of scent that tells us the cake is nearly done; our eyes see that the edges of the cake have leaned in from the sides of the pan and grown drier and darker, and whether the middle still looks wet; our fingertips judge the moisture content and springiness of the cake's top.
These are the signs that truly tell us if the cake is done. The timer is only there to remind you to pay attention. The relationship is between you and the cake.
Alice Waters wrote her newest book, In the Green Kitchen (Clarkson Potter, $28) with the primal relationship between humans and their food in mind. She envisions the "green kitchen" not just as an eco- and economy-friendly space, but one in which simple, time-tested kitchen tools (think mortar and pestle, not Cuisinart) and a bastion of basic techniques learned by heart make for heartfelt cooking and eating.
Some of these techniques may cause a seasoned cook to snigger: how to wash lettuce, how to boil pasta, how to shuck corn. Yet to know them is essential, and if you don't, you'd certainly be grateful for some instruction. If you know them, you can move on to more advanced skills like how to poach an egg and how to fillet a fish. Whatever your abilities, the recipes that go along with each technique are useful and appetizing: polenta with fresh corn, fish soup, spaghettini with garlic, parsley, and olive oil. Most of the experienced cooks I know don't make their own salad dressing, but it's one of the easiest and most delicious ways to bring something special to a simple meal.
Likewise, many cooks will have their own favorite ways to roast a chicken, but this book allows them to try Thomas Keller's recipe. Keller is one of many noteworthy chefs featured in the book, each of whom is paired with a technique. For lovers of cookbooks, looking through this book is like fondly paging through a cherished family album -- there's Deborah Madison! David Chang! Scott Peacock! -- but more exciting since you're now holding Scott Peacock's recipe for buttermilk biscuits as well as the secret to David Chang's salt-and-sugar pickles.
I must mention how physically beautiful this book is; the photographs by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton of Canal House Cooking are breathtaking. I loved especially a photograph of dewy, jewel-toned fruit against a black background, reminiscent of a still life by van der Ast or de Heem. The photographs of the chefs, many of them well-known (Dan Barber, Charlie Trotter, Lidia Bastianich) range from humorous and intimate to quixotic and intense; no boring portraits here.
In the Green Kitchen accomplishes a rare feat in offering a pantheon of cooking techniques and philosophy that can appeal to all cooks. Those who love and are skillful with food can nod their heads in agreement, while a college student in his first apartment would do well to make these skills -- and the "green kitchen" ethos -- the foundation of his cuisine. And if, as Waters wishes, you do commit these techniques to memory, you'll be quite welcome in any kitchen you happen to land in.