The Cookbook: Straightjacket or Teacher?

The cookbook: straight-jacket or teacher? What is it to you? What is it to me? Does it instruct or stifle? Does it inspire creativity or limit it? Does it motivate or just provide a crutch? Does it excite or does it bore?

My cooking history is mostly cookbook-free. I grew up in a house where three multi-course meals were cooked every day from scratch. We had one cookbook. One. It lived in the pantry and was seldomly used. When used, it served more as a reference, a loose guide, than a manual to be closely followed. I bought that same cookbook, a newer paperback edition and moved it across the ocean with me nearly ten years ago. For years, I still hardly used it. But slowly, I started to rely on it and other cookbooks more. My cookbook shelf stays small- I purge the ones that collect dust and use the 25 or so books I find inspiration in. Sometimes I use them for this blog.

Why? Couldn’t I just make up a recipe and write it up here? Couldn’t I just share the dishes, the majority of dishes I cook that are completely improvised, the dishes that I cook day-to-day, the dishes that are quick and complex at the same time? Couldn’t I get all creative on you and defy what the cookbooks say, liberate myself from them? Of course I could.

But I am a geek. I study everything. It is how I learn. I study and read about how to read and study. I read about how to parent, how to write, how to blog, how to taste. Books are my teachers; I will always be a student. I did not go to cooking school. I never worked in a restaurant. I learned all I could from my family role-models, but there came a time when I wanted more. And that is when the cookbooks filled a need. I began to listen, to follow, to train myself. I learned and still do every time I open one. I crave and revel in each step of the never-ending learning curve that it is cooking. I recognize there is a lot to learn.

For teachers, I picked my personal role models- people whose life philosophy I believe in, people who inspire me. I love simple, I respect tradition, I get excited for a twist. Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, and Jose Andres dominate my cookbook shelf. They are masters of their craft- of simplicity, of technique, of tradition. The lesson I learn from them is to improvise only after learning the fundamentals, to innovate after mastering the history. They are not icons of cooking because they walked in a kitchen one day and whisked together an amazing new dish, but because they made the elementary cooking second nature, refined foundational recipes, and advanced essential cooking techniques to the next level. Following their recipes is my way of learning from them.

Many times, I share some of their recipes with you. I make those dishes several times before I write about them. It takes a few tries to understand the author’s goal and it also takes a few tries for me to find my own twist, create my own experience to share. Some of the recipes are simple, some intricate. Some I probably could have created myself. But no matter how deep I dug in my cooking knowledge, no matter how much I tried to recount the few times I had it, and no matter how hard I tried to imagine reconstructing it, I could never figure out how to make kimchi. And I wanted to make kimchi. So Momofuku’s recipe came in handy. Here it is!

Napa Cabbage Kimchi, Momofuku (this cookbook is pure genius!)

Ingredients: 1 small head of Napa Cabbage, outer leaves discarded; 2 tablespoons kosher salt; 1/2 cup sugar; 20 garlic cloves, minced; 20 sliced of peeled ginger, chopped; 1/2 cup kochuharu-Korean chile powder (probably an Asian market is your best bet for this); 1/4 cup fish sauce; 1/4 cup light soy sauce; 2 teaspoons jarred salted shrimp; 1/2 cup sliced green onions (greens and whites); 1/2 cup julienned carrots.

Cut the cabbage in half lengthwise in half, then the halves crosswise into 1 inch pieces. Sprinkle the salt and a couple of tablespoons of the sugar. Toss and let it sit overnight or for at least 6 hours.

In a bowl, make a brine by combining garlic, ginger, chile powder, soy sauce, shrimp, and the rest of the sugar. Combine and try to allow the sugar and chile to dissolve. If too thick for them to dissolve, add water, 1/4 cup at a time, until the brine is creamy but still thick as a creamy salad dressing. Stir in the green onions and carrots.

Drain the cabbage and pour the brine over it. Mix it well and cover it tightly. In as little as 24 hours, but better in 2 weeks, the kimchi will be ready. It gets funkier and funkier- generally a good thing until, well, it gets too funky. Eat it before that happens.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

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  • Evan Jacobs

    I'm curious what you think about Nathan Myhrvold's "cookbook" dedicated to modern cuisine:

    Is it more cookbook or chemistry book?

  • Andra

    I have not yet gotten my hands on it, although I feel like I read enough previews to be well aware of its contents. I appreciate it, what it tries to do, the boundaries it tries to cross. It is not for me- not yet at least. As for cookbook v. chemistry book- probably cookbook with a heavy dose of advanced chemistry (all cooking is simple chemistry in a way).

  • Marina

    I too learned a lot from our family: a mom who catered, a dad who sat at the kitchen reading cookbooks in his underwear until the wee hours of the night and a ridiculously talented, but bad business man Chinese chef my family sponsored to move to Denver from NYC. And I cook mostly using whatever we have on hand or whatever day dreams I've had that day. But I read lots of cooking and lifestyle magazines like candy and I crack a fresh cookbook, reading it snout to tail, like some kind of forbidden fruit. Porn, if you will. Sometimes I get fabulous new ideas. Sometimes I am reminded of things I love to make and forgot about. And sometimes I flip quickly through with nothing better than a "meh." I'm with you that you have to understand the basics and I hope for the most part I do. But while I love reading about the science of cooking, I don't have the patience that you do for cooking the same thing numerous times to master it scientifically. (I think I also just no longer have the time! How on earth do you?! ) But that is also what I love about cooking. Sometimes things blow you away. Most of the time things are pretty great. And sometimes you will just get a good story out of the disaster.

  • Andra

    Marina- I so relate to your experiences with cookbooks. "Meh" is my reaction a lot of times- that is how I keep my cookbook collection very small. As for time- well, no one has time- we make time for the things that keep us going.

  • Monet

    Smile. I can also relate. My mom rarely cracked open a cookbook growing up, and I've had mixed experiences with them during my adulthood. But I must say, I do love your fingernails. So cute! Thank you for sharing with me tonight. You injected my day with creativity and beauty. I hope you have a wonderful day tomorrow, my dear friend! Hugs and love from Austin.