Eat at the restaurant, but don’t necessarily buy the cookbook

If only they really were always "easy" -- restaurant cookbooks often have complications and may seem as though the recipes were never tested in a home kitchen.

If only they really were always “easy” — restaurant cookbooks often have complications and may seem as though the recipes were never tested in a home kitchen.

Spending time interviewing authors of some of my favorite cookbooks has made me think a lot about cookbooks in general.  Why do I like some and not others?  I asked a bunch of friends about books they enjoy and cook from, and those they bought hoping to enjoy but didn’t in the end.  The likes were all over the board – different cuisines, TV chefs, classics – but the disappointments mostly fell into one category:  cookbooks from famous restaurants.

I got pages and pages of complaining e-mails about restaurant cookbooks.  It isn’t because my friends can’t cook.  I’d put them up against any team of amateur cooks anywhere.  But it turns out the reasons for dislike distill down to two things:  some of these books are just not made for home kitchens, and some don’t feel like they came from the restaurant listed on the cover.

By far, though, the first reason predominates.  I don’t know if the authors didn’t try the recipes at home (or pay recipe testers to do it), but some of the recipes just don’t work out when you try to make them, even following the directions to the letter.  I’m not talking about the obvious candidates here, like the super-artisan-niche ones or molecular gastronomy books.  They were probably intended as coffee-table books rather than cookbooks.  And they’ve spawned a cottage industry of bloggers who spend a lot of time trying to make the recipes work and publishing the results.

No, I’m talking about books from great restaurants that just don’t make sense.  And in addition to the disappointment of the recipes not working well, you have likely spent a lot of money on pricey ingredients.

So here are my eight ways that restaurant cookbooks can make for a less-than-stellar home experience.  I’m not naming names here, since most of these complaints applied to more than one book.  First up, those that show that the book never saw a home kitchen on the way to the publisher:

1.  Ingredient lists in fractions of grams. I always like to see ingredients by weight.  But when you see fractions of grams, that’s a red flag.  Most kitchen scales only go down to 2-gram increments.  When you see something like 3.7 grams of salt, you can be pretty sure someone sat there with a calculator and just cut down a big restaurant recipe to make it serve four or eight people.  I find this is more of a problem with baking books than cookbooks.

I know that you can buy scales that will measure more precisely, but a quick survey of my friends showed that few of us have them.  And in any case, would 4 grams ruin a recipe that calls for 3.7?  If not, then why not use 4?  I could see it if that fraction of a gram made it a level teaspoon or half-teaspoon, but generally it doesn’t.

2.  There’s a photo showing shapes, things, or ingredients not listed in the recipe, even as alternatives. Presentation is a big part of the restaurant experience, and it often looks like dishes shown in photos from restaurant cookbooks were taken right there at the restaurant.  Lovely (usually) and perhaps even inspirational.  Except when the photos show things that contradict or aren’t found in the recipe.  Like a pasta restaurant cookbook where the pasta shape in the photo is completely different than the one the recipe instructs you to make.  You’re making the pasta for the dish, not buying it, so you’d think they’d at least try to get that right.  In other cases, a mysterious sauce magically appears.  Or there are clearly recognizable things in or on the dish – like nuts, for example – that aren’t in the ingredient list.  Maybe the recipe will still work, but couldn’t they have photographed the home recipe version?

3.  Too many complicated sub-recipes. Yes, many great books have sub-recipes apart from the main recipe.  Like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for example.  That book was designed for home cooking, and the sub-recipes fit well with the main recipes.  But for a lot of restaurant recipes, the sub-recipes are way more difficult.  The chef has plenty of people making those complicated things and probably doesn’t give it a second thought.  And the book editor doesn’t want the main recipe to look too complicated, so we get the truly difficult parts shunted off so we don’t notice them right away.   I’ll resort to sub-points to list three of the ways this becomes infuriating.

(a) The sub-recipes aren’t easily divisible and make vast quantities of something, and then the main recipe uses only a small bit of it. What are you supposed to do with the rest of it, especially if it’s perishable?  (Believe me, it’s not always obvious.)  Either you have no instruction or a way-too-cheery list of the other recipes in the book that you can use it in – assuming you’re going to make any of them, that is.

(b) Some of the sub-recipes take hours, which pushes the full recipe into days, not just hours, to make. Of course, we all should read everything carefully before we begin.  But for really long lead-times it would help if there was something up-front that listed the time required to make the recipe and all its parts.

(c) Sometimes sub-recipes contain “ingredients” that should really be additional sub-recipes. But for some reason they’re lumped in together, with one hugely long step telling you how to make this “ingredient.”  I suspect, again, this is so things don’t look too complicated on first glance.  Or perhaps the publisher was trying to save on printing costs.

4.  Bad math. Often when a restaurant recipe gets cut down, someone forgets to do the division on all the relevant numbers.  Or, things just don’t add up.  A friend sent me this example:  Slow cook 3 onions in 8 cups of oil for 10 hours, and the yield is 5 cups.  Really?  The three onions are going to cook down to maybe 2 cups at most, and the oil isn’t going to evaporate, so how do you end up with 5 cups?  Maybe it’s a reverse loaves-and-fishes miracle, and stuff just magically disappears.

I'd expect a place like Alinea to have a cookbook that most mere mortals couldn't easily use at home. In fact, it has at least one blog devoted entirely to deciphering it. But you should expect restaurant cookbooks to work when you try the recipes at home.

I’d expect a place like Alinea to have a cookbook that most mere mortals couldn’t easily use at home. In fact, it has at least one blog devoted entirely to deciphering it. But shouldn’t you expect less exotic restaurant cookbooks to work when you try the recipes at home?

5.  Weird or wrong pan sizes/shapes. This seems to happen more often with dessert books, but not always.  There are a few ways it plays out.  Do you have an 11 x 4-inch baking pan?  Nope, me neither.  And I’m not going to buy it so I can try one recipe I may or may not like.  Then, I’ve tried recipes where there’s too much batter for the listed pan.  Maybe restaurant baking pans have higher sides?  You’d think they’d try the recipe in a home pan, though, even just for kicks.  Or the cake recipe makes a thin batter but says to bake it in something like a bundt pan – which means it won’t bake properly and you’ll never get it out of the pan intact.

In non-dessert recipes, I’ve sometimes found that the pan is too big.  Like for roasting chicken with potatoes and vegetables.  Obviously, the restaurant roasts multiple chickens on a large pan with a ton of vegetables around them.  But then the home recipe cuts down to one chicken and much less vegetables, but still asks you to use a too-large pan.  The result:  burnt vegetables by the time the chicken is barely cooked.  (I realize you could also categorize this as bad math, but I like having a longer list…)

6.  No (or grudgingly-given) alternatives for exotic ingredients. Part of the reason we eat out is to have things we can’t get or won’t make at home.  So I have a tiny bit of sympathy when a chef tells you that some exotic ingredient is an absolute necessity.  However, if it’s nearly impossible to source (even online), only comes in industrial-size quantities at enormous cost, or appears in only one or two of the book’s recipes, find something else to use.  And please, don’t be a jerk about it.  You can tell us it won’t be quite the same and encourage us to try to find the right stuff, but spare us the snark.  Because if I try the recipe with the alternative and like it, I’m more likely to find and buy the real ingredient you asked for.

These last two fall into the category of not being representative of the restaurant rather than the recipes not working properly at home.

7.  Signature dishes not included. Here’s an example.  I was lucky enough to travel for work to a southwestern U.S. city with a lot of great restaurants and went to one in particular a few times.  I asked for the cookbook as a Christmas present, but found that two of the things I ate – considered staples of the restaurant – weren’t included in the book.

Seriously?  I could understand if the book were an old one and a dish was a fairly new addition to the menu.  Or, if it’s outrageously complicated and difficult, then it might be a good move.  But if not, what’s the deal?  Are you trying to protect a mail-order business or make sure people keep coming back?  Is there something in there that shouldn’t be, like an endangered species?  Or maybe it’s not really the chef’s recipe and he or she can’t get reprint permission?  (I’m picturing a former employee who developed that recipe and is letting the chef keep using it, but will sue chef’s ass off if it’s in the restaurant book.)

8.  No wine/beverage information. Of course, I had to get something about wine in here, but it’s legit.  If wine or cocktails are an important part of what the restaurant offers, then we should get some drink recipes or wine recommendations.  I realize that specific wine pairings can be a turn-off if they’re too hoity-toity.  Plus, every restaurant wants to seem on top of current trends – while Zweigelt is hot today, it might seem lame in a year when we’re on to the next trendy red.

Still, if the chef has discovered a terrific pairing for a recipe, why not tell us?  Or why not have a chapter about the wines and other drinks you serve, how they fit in with the food, etc.?  Generally they’re not shy about sharing their concepts (or “point of view,” as they say on TV) when it comes to food, so why not with wine, beer, and cocktails?

Thanks to all who gave me ideas for the post.  After I compiled the list, I spoke to a friend who is also a chef.  He gave me a piece of advice that I think works for everyone who has been burned by restaurant (or non-restaurant) cookbooks:  Browse the new book for a couple of recipes for things you know how to make and look at them carefully.  If the versions you see don’t make sense, then don’t buy the book.  And I’ve got a suggestion for the chefs/authors.  There will be errors and omissions even if you’re scrupulously careful, so put some contact information in the book for questions or possible corrections.  Post answers to the frequently asked questions on your website, along with a separate page for recipe corrections.  We’ll all be grateful – and maybe that will lead to a second edition with the opportunity to put the corrections in.

—————————

At this point, I should as a good blogger give you a recipe I’ve made from a restaurant cookbook I like and have tweaked to make my own.  Well, I’m just back from being away for 12 days and my mind hasn’t recovered from jet lag yet.  So perhaps in a couple of posts, but not this time…

A few weeks ago I was watching Pati Jinich’s TV show, Pati’s Mexican Table.  In this episode, she went to the home of one of her long-time viewers and cooked a meal with her.  Together, they made a chicken, chile, and pasta dish that reminded me of one of my old standbys from way back – pasta risotto.

We’re normally told to boil pasta in a large quantity of salted water.  The pasta releases starch, which makes the thin pasta water a great addition to sauces when you add the pasta to them to finish cooking.  But if you cook the pasta in a lot less liquid, the starch makes its own sauce with the liquid.  Taking it a step further, you can cook the pasta like risotto, adding the liquid a little at a time until it’s absorbed, stirring to release the starch to make it creamy.  Be sure to toast the pasta in the olive oil first, and then add in some grated onion, garlic, tomato paste, and red pepper flakes before adding the liquid.  At the end, stir in the cheese and a little lemon juice to brighten everything up.

I used to make this as a side dish, but it’s a good, simple meatless meal if you serve it with a salad.  Eat it right after making it, though, it doesn’t sit around well.  I think it’s perfect with a complex white wine, like Cave la Romaine Viognier ($16).  You know I couldn’t let this post go by without a wine pairing, especially after giving the cookbook chefs a hard time!

Cheers!

Tom

Pasta Risotto

Serves 4 to 6

6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 pound dried tubular pasta, like ziti or penne (don’t use elbows here, they’re too soft)

½ cup good olive oil

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/3 cup grated onion (about half a small onion)

2 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

A large pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

2 – 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

½ cup (2 ounces) grated Parmesan

Heat the stock to a simmer in a medium saucepan.  In a Dutch-oven or a heavy pot of similar size, heat the olive oil over medium heat until it’s just shimmering.  Add the pasta and turn the heat up to medium-high.  Stir and cook until the pasta is just starting to brown on the edges.  Stir in the onion, garlic, herbs, salt, and pepper flakes to coat, cook for about 30 seconds.  Lower the heat to medium-low.

Add the hot stock, one ladle-full at a time, and stir until the liquid is almost completely absorbed before adding the next ladle-full.  Adjust the heat to keep it at a simmer while the pasta cooks.  Cook until the pasta is al dente, cooked but not thoroughly soft.  This will take at least 15 minutes, but likely no more than 20.  Turn off the heat, stir in 2 teaspoons of lemon juice, then the cheese.  Taste for salt and lemon juice, and serve immediately.

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