Chapter 3

In Which Adam Explains His Extreme Dislike of the Magazine “Cook’s Illustrated”

It seems that when someone hears that I like to cook, especially if they know I make my living as a programmer and/or system administrator, they instantly assume I like the magazine “Cook’s Illustrated.” Well, I don’t like it; in fact, I hate pretty much everything about it.

Every so often, if I see an issue on the shelf at my local grocery store, I pick it up and skim the articles. As I’m reading, there’s a conversation going on in my head between the author and me; it goes something like this …

Cook’s Illustrated: “After several experiments, I discovered that my stew tasted better if I started by browning the meat.”

Me: Yeah, it’s called the “Maillard Reactions,” and we’ve known about them for a hundred years. Even if you don’t know the name of the reactions, if I gave you a nice steak to cook, would your first thought be to boil it? No. What you love about steak is that wonderful seared crust on the outside, right? So why wouldn’t you want that same flavorful crust on the meat for your stew?

CI: If I dredge the meat in flour before I brown it, my stew tastes bitter and the texture is lumpy.

Me: You obviously didn’t learn the lesson about browning meat, did you? If you had, you’d realize you’re browning the flour, not the meat. Your stew is bitter because you didn’t just brown the flour, you burned it! Anyone who has ever made roux knows that burned flour is the kiss of death; throw it out and start again. As for the lumps, it’s because you have clumps of flour stuck together, rather than nicely coated in fat (which is what you get when you make a roux); those clumps aren’t going to break up without a lot brisk stirring, and even then, some are going to stick to the meat. Please go back to discovery #1 above: brown the meat, and save the flour for the roux.

CI: My stew had much more flavor if I used wine or stock instead of water.

Me: Of course it has more flavor! Water has no flavor, so when you add water to the meat and vegetables, you dilute whatever flavor you have. Wine and stock (and beer) have flavor, so instead of diluting, you’re adding even more flavor. Those flavors combine, and that’s what makes your stew taste good.

CI: If I add the vegetables at the beginning of the stewing, by the time the meat is tender, the vegetables have turned to mush and worse, have lost all their flavor.

Me: Didn’t you learn anything in cooking school? Chuck is one of the gnarliest and toughest cuts of beef, and it needs to cook for a long time before it gets tender. Vegetables, on the other hand, are pretty delicate, and cook fairly quickly. Do you like over-cooked carrots and peas? I doubt it – so why would you go to the effort to cook them properly when you serve them as a side dish but not when you serve them in stew? Did you think the meat would somehow protect the vegetables from being over-cooked?

CI: If I add the potatoes at the beginning of the stewing, they fall apart by the time the meat is done, and the consistency of the stew is all wrong.

Me: Gah! Once again, you didn’t learn your own lesson. Potatoes may take longer to cook than carrots, but they clearly don’t take as long as chuck. Like the vegetables, you need to add the potatoes late enough in the process that they finish at the same time as the meat. If that’s too hard to figure out, cook the potatoes separately and add them only after the meat is cooked.

By this point, I’m thoroughly disgusted, and have decided that the author is not someone from whom I’m going to take cooking advice. Either he’s a trained chef but not a very good one (if he were good, why did he blithely follow directions in a recipe that were clearly wrong), or he’s not a trained chef (in which case, why should I listen to him, when he’s only now learning lessons I finished years ago).

In fairness to the magazine, since many authors contribute to each issue, I skip ahead to another article. This time the conversation is much shorter …

CI: I couldn’t be bothered to cook my pork shoulder at the correct (low) temperature for the required (long) time, so I cranked up the heat, but the meat dried out and didn’t taste good, so the next time I soaked the shoulder in brine for eight hours and everything was yummy.

Me: Yummy? You think over-salted pork shoulder is yummy? Bleah! And “tender?” That’s not tender, that’s mushy! I’ve been judging barbecue competitions for almost ten years now and I know the difference between tender and mushy; you (obviously) can’t distinguish between the two.

CI: I cooked the pork in the oven so it didn’t get that wonderful smoky flavor it would have gotten if I’d cared enough to cook it outside, slowly, over a wood (or charcoal) fire, so I doused it with all sorts of additives and unusual spices and it came out just as good as when I cooked it outside.

Me: Arrghh! You clearly don’t care about doing the job right, nor do you care about the quality of your results; I’m really glad I don’t have to eat your cooking! If your taste-testers can’t tell the difference, you should fire them for not being very good at their jobs or for being too polite to tell you your cooking tastes like crap!

CI: In the end, I was able to combine these shortcuts to produce a good meal in just two hours when the traditional method would have taken at least 12 hours.

Me: Cooking is as much about the process as it is about the results; if you don’t enjoy the process, why not save yourself a shitload of time and effort and stick to really easy meals? You should care enough about the people you’re cooking for to give them the best ingredients you can afford, prepared as lovingly and as carefully as you can. Furthermore, if you don’t have the time to cook a fancy meal, why jump through all those hoops so you can pretend you cooked a fancy meal? Why not prepare a simple meal and let the goodness of the ingredients shine through? In fact, you can prepare that simple meal in half the time it took to make your ersatz-fancy meal, and the simple meal will taste like food, not like something that came out of a jar or a laboratory. I’ll match my butter-poached haddock with a simple sauce made of pine nuts, raisins, parsley, Gran Marnier, a touch of olive oil, and the butter and juices from the fish – served with super-fresh steamed green beans or broccoli and a dead-easy bulgar pilaf – against your Frankenstein meal any day! Total cooking time for my meal: about one hour, even for someone with only moderate cooking skills.

At this point I shove the magazine back on the shelf and get on with my shopping. I have some lovely pork chops in my basket (that I’ll cook in my trusty cast iron skillets until they’re golden brown) along with three fresh zucchini (which will be sauteed with garlic, onions, and mushrooms); I already have some brown rice, and just about an hour after I get home, I’ll be serving a meal for my wife and me that will leave us both feeling satisfied and happy. It won’t be fancy, and it won’t pretend to be something it’s not – but it will be a meal that I would be proud to serve to the people I love.

[Sunday, 07 February 2010]