The Improvisational Cook

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Improvisational Cook, by Sally Schneider

I think I have a girl crush on the author, Sally Schneider. I want to buy her a dozen roses so she'll cook me dinner. I had heard her speak several times on one of my favorite podcasts, The Splendid Table, but it did not prepare me for the magic that is her cookbook.

Just to look at it, it's a beautiful book. The photos alone will inspire improvisation. But content is solid. I don't normally review cookbooks, art books, how-to books, or the like on this site, but I'm so impressed with this that I had write about it. Plus, in case you were my honey and realizing that my birthday is soon and looking for a gift, there's a handy link at the top of the page. (Or, hypothetically speaking, this book would also be appreciated. Just in case.)

The author introduces her approach by describing how to know what flavors go with what, how to find inspiration, essential ingredients, etc. Then in the recipe section, she takes a basic recipe and gives a little background, explains the technical side of it, and then gives at least four or so riffs on the recipe as examples of how to continue on your own. I like the approach, and I like her overall philosophy of food, too. She uses whole foods, good herbs, high quality fats, and organic when possible: No bottled steak sauce or dried ranch dressing envelopes here. Her ingredients can be more gourmet than our grocery budget would allow for, but she gives so many different options it's not a big deal. I learned the most from the sections entitled "Long-Keeping Staples for Pantry, Refrigerator, and Freezer" and "A Guide to Classic Flavor Affinities".

I've only made two recipes so far, but they've both been great. The master cornbread recipe (Crackling Cornbread, p. 261) produced the best cornbread I think I've ever eaten. Here's the part I liked especially:

"Note: to render bacon fat, cook several slices of bacon in a covered skillet over moderate heat until crisp. Strain the fat into a bowl for easy measuring. Refrigerate unused fat. (Eat the crisp bacon.)"

Now how could you not like a cookbook like that?