Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cookbook Review: How to Cook Without a Book

{The Cookbook Review:  Let me introduce to you to some of my favorite cookbooks - to the ones that have broken spines, splatters on the pages, and wavy dust jackets from spills. We all know cooking at home is a huge money-saver and there are few things that get me more excited to cook at home than a new cookbook!}

As I've said before, cookbooks are a weakness of mine, especially when I can get them at a great price on Amazon. My latest acquisition has quickly become a staple of my cookbook shelf (pictured above). I'd been mildly interested in this cookbook for a while, but when I read it was one of the Pioneer Woman's favorite cookbooks, I had to get my hands on it. It's How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson.

If I were going to sum this review up in a single sentence, I'd simply say:  this cookbook is a game-changer for me.

A good friend and neighbor of mine totally has a knack for creating her own recipes. Like her pasta version of hot artichoke dip. Ridiculously good. The idea just popped into her head and she whipped it up one night for her family. I was awestruck. How do people do that successfully?  I consider myself a pretty competent cook, but I always have depended heavily on others' recipes. 

However, my way isn't the most economical way to cook -- you have to buy specific lists of ingredients that tack on extra money to your grocery bill. Plus, cooking this way doesn't offer a whole lot of flexibility -- instead of adjusting my meal plan to what we have on hand or the amount energy I have on a particular night, I have to stick to that specific recipe I bought and planned for. I've made it work for us and our budget, but it's not perfect.

But that's all changing now because of this cookbook. Ms. Anderson is gently coaxing me away from the security of someone else's recipes and is teaching me how to create my own meals with a few techniques, combinations, and methods.  In the last few weeks, I've been using the techniques outlined in this book almost exclusively for my family's dinners.

Each chapter of the cookbook features cooking techniques and formulas to help you create your own recipes, using the things you have on hand already. Just buy on her master list of ingredients -- just the basics, really, nothing fancy or outlandish -- and you can make anything in the book. As outlined in the introduction of the book, each chapter consists of five components:
  • A mnemonic rhyme
  • A step-by-step narrative of how the technique works
  • A recipe, presenting the technique in its simplest form
  • Simple variations, exemplifying how the technique works
  • The key points of each technique at-a-glance
I'll give you an example of how it works -- one of the chapters is about making frittatas, something I'd always thought about making but never had. I thought they were fussy and difficult to make. Nope.  Anyway, the mnemonic is simply: "Cook eggs without stirring till set around the edges. Bake until puffy, then cut into wedges." The first time I made a frittata, I followed her master recipe, using her suggestions for fillings. However, the next time I made a frittata, I improvised and added my own mix of vegetables, meat, and cheese. It was so easy! 

The other chapters in the book teach how to make pan sauces, soups, pasta sauces, stir-fry, sauteed meats and vegetables, ravioli, lasagna, salads, and more. I love how adaptable this method of cooking is -- I can adjust the recipes according to what leftovers we have, produce we need to use up, if I want to make a meal meatless, and so on.

Last week, I followed Ms. Anderson's basic outline for simple tomato sauce: "Heat fat and garlic, then cook it for two. Add canned tomatoes and simmer for a few." I added some cream and basil and ended up with this --

A light, clean-tasting dinner -- better than the sauce from a jar and almost as easy. Almost.

I mention this, though, because I want to share the technique we've been using a bunch these last few weeks -- how to make a simple lo mein dish.

I love this recipe/technique for so many reasons: One of reasons is that one of the main ingredients is leftover cooked spaghetti.  How great is that? So often leftover spaghetti has languished in my fridge, only to become slimy and/or rubbery. Another reason is that I can improvise with whatever I want. When I made this last night, I used the last of the asparagus that was starting to look tired, some celery, carrots, and leftover meat from the shredded pork I made over the weekend. I also love making this lo mein because it's super-easy, takes hardly any time at all to make (maybe 10-15, including prep time), and my husband and four-year-old son love it.

Here's how you make simple lo mein:

"Lo mein ratios are different -- 1/2 pound of vegetables and 1/4 of meat. Add 1/2 pound of cooked spaghetti and don't forget the heat."

Simple Lo Mein --  from How to Cook Without a Book

1 medium-large onion, halved from pole to pole, each half cut into eight wedges
4-6 oz. beef, pork, poultry, seafood, or tofu, cooked or raw, cut into bite-size pieces
8 oz. vegetables, cut into bite-size pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 recipe of Lo Mein Flavoring Sauce {see below}
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 heaping cups of leftover cooked spaghetti

Flavoring sauce:
1/4 cup chicken broth (she calls for low-sodium broth, but I used my homemade stock)
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (I use a little less to keep it kid-friendly)

Heat a large heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat while prepping onion, meat, vegetables, garlic, and ginger, and the flavoring sauce. Marinate meat in 1 tablespoon of soy sauce. A few minutes before stir-frying, turn on the exhaust fan (do it -- it gets kind of smoky) and increase the heat to high.

Put 1 tablespoon of oil in the pan and cook the onion for about a minute. Add raw meat and stir-fry until lightly brown, about 1 minute. Add first vegetable, stir-fry until tender-crisp, about 1 minute. Add second vegetable; stir-fry about 1 minute longer. Add garlic and ginger. Transfer mixture to a plate and set aside. {If you're using cooked meat, add it between the two vegetables.}

Put the other tablespoon of vegetable oil in the skillet and heat until shimmering. Add the spaghetti; stir-fry until heated through, about 2 minutes. Return meat and veggie mixture to skillet; add flavoring sauce. Stir-fry to combine and heat through.

Yum. So easy to make and so good. This is the third time I've made some variation of lo mein for the family in the last month. It's such a great way to use up leftovers and produce in a delicious way. And I've gotten to the point where I just whip it up on my own, using whatever I want, making it (dare I say?) without the aid of a cookbook.

I still love cookbooks. They'll always be a weakness of mine. I'll still collect recipes and try new things. That said, I'm really enjoying the freedom I've found in cooking without a book. Try it. I think you will, too.

1 comment:

Tara said...

Did I just get a shout-out?? WOOHOO!!! Thanks, Heather! I am trying that lo-mein dish-looks delish!

Related Posts with Thumbnails