If you have not had the pleasure of watching America’s Test Kitchen on PBS, do. Christopher Kimball, the show’s host: pictured above, is slightly knobbish, but the exhaustive care the show affords its innumerable cooking projects matches his strange, neurotic egotism. It is a real joy.
I bought Fella the Twenty Years of America’s Test Kitchen cookbook for the holiday. We also subscribe to the magazine, Cook’s Illustrated, or did until recently.
Now’s the time for a disclaimer: this cookbook and cooking show is probably not for kitchen novices. If you aren’t a competent, or at least conversant, cook; it’s probably safer to cook through Better Homes & Gardens’s classic manual first. The recipes are not as unilaterally delicious and without flaw, but they’re loads easier, and require mostly pretty basic ingredients.
BH & G will give you a sense of how to proceed, and build a basic vocabulary for kitchen-related hijinks.
Fella and I both dig food and cooking and while Fella’s probably wilder for fussy recipes than I am, I still deeply appreciate a remarkable finished product.
And it’s not fair to classify all the ATK recipes as fussy. Some of them aren’t. Some of them are designed for weeknights (but are still fussier than grabbing a Bertoli’s bagged dinner out of the freezer, or browning some ground beef for Hamburger Helper).
But here’s the thing about the ATK culture: they marry cooking and science. Their chefs are food scientists who understand how, for example, gluten reacts on a cellular level to other ingredients.
I learned from ATK that a great way to get that battered-fries effect in oven baked potatoes is to par boil (or partially boil) them with a teaspoon of baking soda, because the baking soda loosens up the starch particles, before you toss them with a bit of oil or butter (way, way less than they’d absorb in a deep fat fryer), then bake them. The yield is a crunchy, tasty, much less damaging to the waistline fried effect.
And ATK will hold your hand. Their recipes explain every step of every process, and explain why you should bother. When they ask you to bother so much, their care and thorough explanations are at least 80% of the charm.
We’ve tried casseroles, roasts, grilled feasts, side dishes, breads, and desserts from the ATK recipes, and without exception, the result is remarvical.
Here are some favorites if you find yourself in possession of the 20-years book, or if you’ve got some back issues laying around:
Ciabatta, Pizza Bianca, Vegetarian Lasagne, Roasted Chicken, Paris Brest.
How it improves my love relationship:
A fast way to my heart is through my fairly adventurous stomach. Early in our love relationship, Fella cooked me all kinds of delicious things like his version of curry (which is an Indian version that’s tomato-based more than the soupy, milky Thai sort), and slow-cooked fatty meats.
For the first year we lived together, he did most of the cooking, though I took over when I went freelance (it made more sense), he still makes me delicious meals when he cooks on the weekends.
Most recently, it was Nut Crusted Chicken from the above-mentioned tome of a cookbook. The result was a perfectly cooked (not dry) chicken breast coated in a fabulously crunchy (but baked!!) nut crust with hints of orange. He served it with snow peas that had been stir fried in some (likely tedious) combination of vinegars and spices.
So it improves my love relationship by making me love my partner more when he cooks me delicious food. What? I can’t help it. I am ruled by my gut.
When we’re long on time, we go through the cook book or editions of the magazine and plan menus for the week. Then we discuss the shopping list. Then sometimes we cook together.
Cooking together is an occasion for kitchen dancing and banter and laughs and occasionally fights.
When we’re short on time, we select things that are not in the ATK cookbook or magazines, because you usually have to start at least two hours ahead to do the recipes there any justice. Sometimes, you have to start 24 hours ahead.
These things are good for my love relationship because they are team work.
I didn’t get it right away. I was sort of vexed when Fella wanted to start planning menus. It struck me as a huge pile of toil for almost no payoff.
But he persisted (he is a persistent man, which is why he’s mine at all), and now I think that menu planning is a great idea. I can’t imagine going back to not planning it.
We have less chaos at the grocery store & we spend less money, and we almost always have all the things we need to cook the things we’ve planned, which is way better than how we used to do it.
Also, it’s stuff to do together that’s a) at home–tough to wrangle time away from home when you’ve got a kid whose bed time is 7:30, and b) not TV.
Some tips for using the ATK cookbook:
Always read the recipe completely twice before you start cooking.
Read their recommendations for brands and take them seriously. They typically review brands that are readily available at grocery stores, even in rural areas, unlike the Food Network cookbooks that ask for obscure, non-substitutable stuff like West Mediterannean prawns.
Follow their instructions completely, including cooking and cooling times, even if they seem weird or counter-intuitive.
If it flops, try again. It’s probably you, not them.
Don’t try to pirate their stuff. It’s really hard to get the recipes online unless you subscribe or buy the book, so do: it’s worth it.
Shop before you cook.
Use fresh ingredients and full fat creams when they tell you to.
This post is a cross-blog project with Jamie Chavez, a freelance editor and writer located in Middle Tennessee. You can read more about her—including her thoughts about words, language, books, editing, and the publishing industry—at www.jamiechavez.com.