Edible Communities’ Cookbook Club Selection for May 2019.
In 2012, an odd little YouTube video went a bit viral, at least among a certain circle of enthusiastic home cooks. It’s called, “I’m Making Cook’s Illustrated Beef Stew!” In the amateurish animated short, one figure in a purple bunny suit discusses her plans to cook dinner with a cartoon pilgrim.
The pilgrim asks a series of questions that are hilariously close to home for devotees of the dictatorial magazine and cookbook publisher. How many ingredients does it call for, he asks? Forty, replies the bunny. How many steps are in the recipe? Eighty. How many times did you feel condescended to? The whole time, says the bunny.
The bobble-headed pilgrim finishes his line of questioning by asking if she ever deviated from the magazine’s excruciatingly anal retentive directions. “No,” says the bunny. “I was afraid.”
Bunny, I know how you feel. I hadn’t thought of this piece of internet flotsam in years, but it crossed my mind many times as I cooked my way through one of Cook’s Illustrated most recent cookbooks, Vegetables Illustrated. Before I tell you more about my long hours in the kitchen dirtying an alarming number of pots, pans, bowls, cutting boards, and utensils, I want to explain why this new title proved irresistible to me.
Learning to cook with Cook’s Illustrated
Christopher Kimball, who is no longer part of Cook’s Illustrated but was one of the company’s founders and the person who defined their brand for decades, taught me how to cook. I’m not one of those food writers who learned from my mother and grandmother. Ours wasn’t a home-cooking type of family. When I moved in with my husband, who did grow up in a kitchen-as-heart-of-the-home type family, I wanted us to share our own homemade dinners most nights. And I wanted them to taste good.
Enter America’s Test Kitchen, Cook’s Illustrated’s public television show, then in its third season. On weekend mornings, my husband and I watched together, sipping our coffee and making a grocery list. We often cooked the recipes we watched in the morning that same evening for dinner. I wasn’t at all confident in my fledgling abilities as a home cook; I clung to each word of the paternalist directions like a toddler to a parent’s leg. Obedient, I never skipped steps or made alterations. I was afraid.
I also subscribed to and cooked from the magazine. I bought their cookbooks and used them, too. Chris Kimball became like a stern high school sports coach to me. His voice was in my head every time I entered the kitchen. I loved him and I feared him and I could see he was turning me from a clueless kitchen newbie into a woman who could seriously cook. Over time, I came to understand how to learn from Cook’s Illustrated recipes without being so utterly beholden to them. I teased out the ideas and bedrock techniques from a specific recipe with a flavor profile I could riff on.
All along, as my passion for cooking grew, I read many other books, took classes, watched other food television, and practiced almost every day. But I’m not sure any of that would have ever happened without Cook’s Illustrated and the confidence its scolding yet bankable recipes gave me.
Christopher Kimball and Cook’s Illustrated parted ways in 2015. America’s Test Kitchen is now hosted by Julia Collin Davison and Bridget Lancaster. The rigorously tested recipes still regularly feature long ingredients list and rigid, numerous instructions. The core product–recipes that work–has remained rock solid even as the brand got a modern refresh with a souped-up social media presence and a more functional family of websites.
A resource for seasonality
Vegetables Illustrated: An Inspiring Guide with 700+ Kitchen-Tested Recipes by America’s Test Kitchen struck me as a particularly appealing expression of this fresh perspective. It’s not a vegetarian cookbook–there are recipes that feature meat, fish, and chicken–but the spotlight is trained on the produce. It’s organized alphabetically from “Artichokes” to “Zucchini and Summer Squash.” The recipes, even the ones that include meat, celebrate the power of vegetables. It’s plant-based without being prescriptive about diet. It mirrors the way I eat and the way many of us want to eat and think about food in 2019: Vegetable first.
At 528 pages and more than 700 recipes, Vegetables Illustrated feels overwhelming. It’s hard to know where to begin. Now that it’s on my shelf, I know it will be a resource as those seasonal treasures pop up at the farmers market. I can simply turn to the chapters on asparagus, chicories, foraged greens, or kohlrabi for inspiration and instruction. In classic Cook’s Illustrated style, the book is chockablock with education on choosing, prepping, and storing ingredients. If you get a CSA box that leaves you scratching your head, or have a garden that leaves you desperate for new zucchini recipes, this is a book you’d be glad to have around your kitchen.
Recipes by committee
Ultimately, I wanted to love this book more than I could. Cooking from Vegetables Illustrated kept reminding me how much I’ve changed and grown up over the past 15 years. Back when I first became so loyal to this brand, I was, as a cook and even as an eater, unformed. Today, though, I have strong opinions and I know what I like.
Take muhammara, the Middle Eastern dip typically made from roasted red peppers and walnuts. My preferred version of this dish hews classic, if maybe spicier than average. I should have known, at a glance, that the Beet Muhammara would leave me both unsatisfied and annoyed at the crimson mess it made of me and my kitchen. Years of experience as a recipe developer have left me with habits and preferences when it comes to beets. Unless the beets will be eaten raw, I don’t want to peel and prep them raw. It’s just too much of mess. I’d sooner roast or steam them in their skins and then deal with them in a more pliant state.
Here, we’re instructed to peel the beets and grate them before cooking them in the microwave. I did it their way, getting beet juice on my kitchen ceiling and everywhere else in the process. But how did my dip taste? Fine. It tasted fine. It was much earthier and sweeter than I would have liked due to the overwhelming use of beets compared to the traditional red peppers and walnuts. The timid use of cayenne (⅛ teaspoon) made me picture a group of professional taste-testers, huddled around the bowl with clipboards, all with their own personal heat preferences, coming to a consensus that neither offended nor delighted anyone present. I was reminded that Cook’s Illustrated is recipe development by committee, which is terrific for creating dishes most people will like well enough, but lacks what I love most now in cookbooks: A defined personal style, one palate’s point of view. (See: Vietnamese Food Any Day.)
I had a similarly this-is-fine reaction to the Udon Noodles with Mustard Greens and Shiitake Sauce. Though this recipe gets points for being pretty quick to make, its flavor is no more than the sum of its parts. Around my table, after first bites, one diner squirted the dish liberally with sriracha and another applied oyster sauce.
Recipes that work (even as they require work)
Most of the recipes I made, though, I genuinely liked, even when they frustrated me or made me angry along the way. The Cauliflower Cakes, pan-fried patties of coarsely mashed cauliflower and goat cheese assertively seasoned with turmeric, coriander, and ginger, seemed doomed to failure when I could barely form them. The mixture was so loose and soft, I needed to use plastic wrap to shape the patties and I could peel it away cleanly only after the cakes were thoroughly chilled. However, they fried up beautifully and gave me many ideas about other possible variations on vegetable cakes.
The Roasted Celery Root with Yogurt and Sesame Seeds recipe supplied a splashy new way to approach an under-appreciated vegetable. It’s a guest-worthy side that would dress up a simple roast chicken. And the Brussels Sprouts Salad with Pecorino and Pine Nuts reminded me of the reasons I continue to default to Cook’s Illustrated recipes much of the time. “They” (Cook’s Illustrated makes extravagant use of the royal we) told me to use the large holes of box grated to shred my cheese. But the first time I made this, the box grater was dirty and I used a fine grater. On my second attempt, with those big pleasing shards of pecorino, I had to admit they were right. I bet they tested for cheese shred size. This recipe is firmly in “make again” territory.
My favorite recipe in the book, though, is the one that made me come closest to throwing it out the window: Swiss Chard and Pinto Bean Enchiladas. Each recipe in the book is labeled with the time it takes to cook it. These enchiladas were supposed to be a 90-minute project. I stopped monitoring the time I spent on it when I crossed the three-hour threshold. You should know there are 19 ingredients.
First, there was all the chopping. It’s a fact of life that where there’s a lot of vegetables, there’s also a lot of prep. For this recipe, you make an enchilada sauce from scratch, and then you make the filling. There’s also a cilantro sauce that’s spooned over the top just before serving. The tortillas need to be brushed with oil and heated, and then there’s the fiddly work of rolling and arranging the enchiladas in the baking dish. Finally, they bake.
What initially drew me to this recipe was the promise of cheese-free enchiladas. I had never tasted one before, but I loved the idea of a lighter, plant-based version. While they were in the oven, I cursed this impulse, doubting there was any way possible these cheese-less enchiladas could be worth the time and effort I put into them. My part-time dishwasher (my husband, Dan) arrived home as I sat exhausted and angry on the sofa. First, he said, “smells good.” Upon entering the kitchen, littered wall to wall with dirty dishes, his enthusiasm waned. “What happened here?” I told him I didn’t want to talk about it and we’d probably need to order a pizza.
The enchiladas emerged ugly, absent the typical blanket of molten cheese, at least until we put them on plates and drizzled the creamy cilantro sauce on top. “No matter how these taste, I’m never making them again,” I complained. We ate in silence, my dark mood clouding the room. Dan quietly made himself a second plate and I admitted that the enchiladas were delicious. We had plenty left over, and they tasted even better reheated. Sometimes it’s worth it to spend an afternoon dirtying all your cookware.
I didn’t know you could make a legitimately delicious tray of enchiladas that relies on beans and greens instead of cheese, but I shouldn’t be surprised that Cook’s Illustrated’s team of test cooks did. Our relationship has become complicated as my blind respect for its authority has waned, but I clearly still have a lot to learn from one of my original and best cooking teachers.
Join our Cookbook Club!
Actually, you’re already a member—at least in spirit. Our cookbook club has many levels of participation, from reading the review we post every month, to cooking the recipes from it we share, to cooking from the book, to talking about it in our Facebook group.
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