Back to (Cooking) School 

Crack open these books of techniques and tools for the kitchen

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Now that the kids are back in school, I have more time to spend educating myself. Periodically, I feel like I've maxed out my abilities in the kitchen and fallen into ruts. That's when I turn to books like those included here, ones that can open new doors, pathways, possibilities and ways of thinking in the kitchen. If you feel like you could use a refresher, read on.

Most chefs will tell you that the single most important tool in their kitchen arsenal is a good knife. I don't think I've ever made a meal from scratch without one. Well, like a great chef's knife, Bill Collin's 106-page Knife Skills: An Illustrated Kitchen Guide to Using the Right Knife the Right Way is relatively small but indispensable to the serious (or even amateur) cook. Beginning with a chapter on how to choose and use knives, Knife Skills packs a sharp punch. The chapter on caring for knives—including various sharpening devices and how to use them—is something you'll turn to again and again. There's also useful info on non-knife tools like graters, peelers, microplanes, zesters, mandolines, pastry cutters and so on. Why, there's even a chapter on how to carve a turkey—something most of us are required to do at least once a year.

A kitchen appliance many of us own but probably don't use as often as we might is the slow cooker or Crock Pot. I'm going to be putting my slow cooker to use much more frequently now that The New Indian Slow Cooker by Neela Paniz has arrived. This cookbook contains recipes and cooking instruction for making all sorts of Indian and Pakistani foods in the slow cooker—everything from curries, chutneys and masalas to dals, biryanis, paneers and more. In addition to slow-cooker recipes, Paniz also provides how-tos for foods that don't work in the slow cooker, like Indian flatbreads.

Is there anyone who doesn't love french fries, or frites? I doubt it. And yet, by my estimate, 95 percent of all restaurants turn out fries that are either limp and soggy, or overcooked and dry. Thank goodness, then, for Frites by Anne de la Forest. Finally, someone has devoted an entire book dedicated to perfecting the french fry. Frites contains all sorts of useful information, from selecting fryers and what types of oils to use, to the various fry shapes and sizes. There are even recipes for making dessert frites like banana and brown-sugar fries, as well as accompaniments such as ketchup, aioli, fresh herb sauce, blue-cheese sauce and curry sauce—but alas, no Utah fry sauce.

I've referenced this book in the past, but one of the most practical books a meat-lover can have in the kitchen is Great Meat, by Dave Kelly of Ruby & White, one of Britain's leading butcher shops. The book's lengthy subtitle pretty much sums up what you'll find between the covers:Classic Techniques and Award-Winning Recipes for Selecting, Cutting and Cooking Beef, Lamb, Pork, Poultry and Game. This is a nose-to-tail affair, with recipes and techniques running the gamut from everyday dishes like honey-mustard pork spareribs and roasted rosemary chicken to more exotic fare like braised beef cheeks and warm pigeon salad. Along the way, we learn valuable insights into how to select, cut and cook meats that run-of-the-mill cookbooks don't offer.

While we're on the subject of meat, The New Charcuterie Cookbook by Jamie Bissonnette can help turn your kitchen, cellar or basement into a neighborhood charcuterie. Chef and owner of Toro in New York City and Boston, as well as NYC's Coppa restaurant, Bissonnette has forgotten more about meat and how to prepare it than most butchers will ever know. In this book, subtitled Exceptional Cured Meats to Make and Serve at Home, the James Beard Award-winning author teaches readers how to make cooked charcuterie such as Lebanese lamb sausages, goat merguez, country paté and the like before moving on to offal-based charcuterie such as liverwurst, easy chicken liver mousse, smoked beef tongue and—my favorite—boudin noir. Uncooked cured charcuterie such as salami, duck prosciutto, coppa, saucisson sec, lardo and such are actually trickier by far than cooked charcuterie. However, with Jamie Bissonnette leading you by the snout, you'll be a charcuterie king before you can say "bologna."

Since he's a native Utahan cookbook author, I have to include Chef Tom Woodbury, whose TV teachings have helped thousands to improve their kitchen skills and knowledge. In his new book Eat Fresh: Quick and Easy Meals, Woodbury demonstrates his unique skills in teaching how to make rudimentary, but essential, foods and ingredients such as garam masala, a blend of spices that is critical to almost every Indian dish. Or how to make rosemary-&-garlic-infused olive oil, which can in turn be used for dozens of different applications. You can even get the kids involved in making Woodbury's lime-chili popcorn, or his pecan-crusted chicken fingers.

And then there's pizza. There is always pizza. Two particularly timely books dedicated to pizza-making recently arrived while I was trying to perfect my own at-home pizzas. The first is Patio Pizzeria by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig. This pizza cookbook moves the pizza-making locale from the kitchen to the outdoors, with instruction and recipes for making artisan pizzas and flatbreads on the grill. Just as useful for pizza lovers is Ruth Gresser's Kitchen Workshop Pizza, in which she offers up hands-on lessons for making excellent pizza at home. Whether you're pining to learn to make authentic Italian-style Margherita pizza from scratch or a classic pepperoni for the kids, these two prize-worthy pizza publications will get you there.

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