No Experience Necessary 

Great new books for home cooks

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With winter seeming to have made an early exit this year, I’ve gotten an early start on my spring and summer beach reading—mostly on my patio. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been picking through the piles of foodie-friendly books that have come my way, and I’ve whittled them down to a handful that I think are worthy of your (and my) time. They range from African-themed vegan cooking to snout-to-tail meat preparation.

Ramen is the rage, along with pho, in American restaurants these days. So, it’s an opportune time for The World’s Best Asian Noodle Recipes to come along. It’s an assemblage of 125 noodle-based recipes from chefs, bloggers and food experts as far away as Tokyo and Hanoi and as close as Denver. The book opens with a recipe for how to make ramen noodles from scratch, and then takes the reader on a world tour, noodling through Vietnamese pho, Chinese dan dan noodles, Burmese noodles, seafood ramen soup, traditional pad thai and much more.

Another big trend in American restaurants is cooking with wood. With From the Wood-Fired Oven: New and Traditional Techniques for Cooking and Baking with Fire, author Richard Miscovich moves the fire from the restaurant kitchen into the home. Don’t fret, however, if you don’t own a wood-fired oven. The recipes include instructions for cooking in a home oven, too. From breads and pizza dough to scalloped tomatoes and pound cake, From the Wood-Fired Oven is jam-packed with excellent recipes, techniques and essential information about cooking with wood.

Bryant Terry is a food activist, chef, educator and author of the acclaimed Vegan Soul Kitchen. Where Southern cooking is concerned, he’s pretty much the anti-Paula Deen. With his just-published Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed, Terry reboots classic dishes of the African Diaspora and gives them a vegan makeover. Recipes range from Brazilian-inspired creamy coconut-cashew soup with okra, corn and tomatoes to North African zaalouk dip and Moroccan-style tagine. Whether vegan or not, you’ll find Afro-Vegan brimming with bold flavors.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to eat in one of Chef Ruth Gresser’s Washington, D.C.-area Pizzeria Paradiso restaurants, you know how great her pizza is. Now, in Kitchen Workshop: Pizza, Gresser shares the secrets of world-class pizza-making with home cooks. The recipes—which include gluten-free dough, pizza Margherita, calzones, pizza quattro formaggi and more—are geared for cooking in a normal home oven using tools you probably already have on hand. With Kitchen Workshop: Pizza, you’ll never need to phone Domino’s again.

When business took my wife to Los Angeles recently, she had the opportunity to dine in Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s popular restaurant Animal. You might recognize the chefs as the stars of Food Network’s Two Dudes Catering TV show. Well, the missus brought home Shook and Dotolo’s cookbook: Two Dudes, One Pan: Maximum Flavors from a Minimalist Kitchen—and although it’s not new, it’s rapidly becoming one of my most cherished and food-splattered cookbooks. Animal is especially known for its offal offerings—dishes like crispy pig head with bulldog sauce or veal brains vadouvan.

But what I like so much about Two Dudes, One Pan is that the authors didn’t attempt to re-create their restaurant dishes for the home kitchen—a mistake made by too many cookbook authors who make assumptions like, “Well of course everyone has pig’s heads in their pantry.” Rather, Shook and Dotolo created a compilation of very doable (even easy) dishes for the home cook that are, without fail, delicious. I also like the way this cookbook is organized: by cooking vessel. It begins with recipes for (uncooked) things made in bowls: Caesar salad, Hawaiian poke, winter fennel salad and so on. The following chapters include cooking with a nonstick skillet, classic frying pan, Dutch oven, roasting pan and baking dish.

Along the way you’ll discover can’t-miss recipes for sake-soy sea bass, blistered zucchini gratin, tuna au poivre with Cognac sauce, tri-tip with salsa verde, buttermilk-sage fried chicken, pistachio tiramisu and dozens of other tasty dishes. Most of the cookbooks I get to review are pretty to look at, but inevitably wind up gathering dust or grease in the corner of my kitchen. Not this one. Two Dudes, One Pan is a cookbook that you will use, again and again.

Another new book that scores high on the practicality scale 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.

The aforementioned books are all terrific, but my favorite read to come along in quite a while isn’t a cookbook per se—although it does contain some recipes. It’s an autobiography: No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. In today’s celebrity-chef-crammed universe, it’s easy to forget how important Van Aken was and is to contemporary American cuisine. Anthony Bourdain gets it right when he says, “Norman Van Aken is the Jimmy Page of his profession—a man who was there at almost every important moment in its history.” Van Aken gave a skinny kid named Charlie Trotter his first job bussing tables, and was pals and cooked with Emeril Lagasse long before the Food Network existed. For lovers of great food, great restaurants and great tales, No Experience Necessary is a must-read. 

Twitter: @Critic1

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