Sunday, December 03, 2006

What I'm Reading: The Improvisational Cook

I'm a big fan of paragraphs. Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate the efficiency of bullet points and itemized lists, but there's something about paragraphs that just speaks to me. With paragraphs, I know I'm getting the real thing: all the little details that get left out when you try to cut a topic into bite-sized rectangular morsels are there for the taking. With paragraphs, there's room for conversation, for discourse.

So you can imagine my delight when I started leafing through the copy of Sally Schneider's The Improvisational Cook that the kind people at William Morrow had sent me (that's right, take note, this is a solicited (but still very, very earnest) review). This book is not a series of dry, regimented recipes. It's far more: a kitchen philosophy based in trying new things, trusting your instincts, working with what you have, and being creative. There are ingredient lists, yes, but for each one, there are about 5 variations, written in simple conversational paragraphs. Each main recipe also has a page entitled 'Understanding', where Ms. Schneider gives you an idea of the ingredients, tastes, and concepts you're working with -- just the kind of knowledge that will empower you to riff off her ideas.

What's more, the first section of the book contains nary a single ingredient list. Decorated with gorgeous photography (sadly, the only photos in the book are in this first section), in paragraph upon glorious paragraph, Ms. Schneider acqaints you with your food, and how to prepare it: how to put flavors together, a primer on seasonings, and a very inspiring section on finding inspiration. Her tone is nurturing. Her deft tips act as improvisational training wheels, subtly guiding you as you develop your own balance. She gives you practical advice to get through the fear of straying from what you know (taste just a spoonful of your sweet potato puree with the experimental spice blend before adding it to the whole batch), and has a very cool attitude towards mistakes. Throughout the book, I feel like I'm in a chatty dialogue with someone who is both highly skilled and highly forgiving.

The food sounds delicious. Her recipes have a minimalistic aesthetic -- a few choice ingredients highlighted in simple preparations (with a strong lean towards Mediterranean, Southeast Asian, and Southern tastes), but they still turn out sophisticated, satisfying results. I enjoyed layering flavors as I prepared The Pasta With Baby Artichokes: a spring of fresh rosemary in the early stages, a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts and a splash of sherry vinegar towards the end -- these simple details really allow the flavors to shine. And two bites in, I was already thinking of my own improvisations: leeks instead of baby artichokes, additions like tangy olives, sweet onions, preserved lemons, toasted hazelnuts, and on and on.

I also tried one of the book's desserts. Unable to leave well enough alone though, I made some changes: I turned the Earl Grey Tea Cookies into a delicate saffron tea shortbread, and the book's instructions led me to a buttery, flaky texture.

I'm excited to have this book in my collection. I can't wait to try the slow-roasted tomatoes (followed of course by the slow-roasted tomato sauce, soup, tart, and jam), the boozy prunes (and other fortified fruits), and all her wildly creative ways with popcorn. But there is more to this book than individual recipes. I feel like, if someone were to go through this book cover to cover, they would come out of the experience a good cook. The techniques Ms. Schneider teaches and the vast knowledge she imparts help you develop your skills and find your own tastes.


  1. Shame on you for not sharing some of the yummy food. The book sounds really great. Hint, hint.

  2. oohh..I made Earl Gray tea cookies this weekend, too--from a Martha Stewart recipe. WHile they tasted okay, the dough was a crumbly mess that did not hold together...Perhaps I'll seek out this recipe.

  3. Tannaz, I asked for this book for Christmas weeks ago! So glad to hear it's worth it!

  4. tsp - there are plenty of opportunities to share yummy food... come on over! and as far as the hints, the wheels are already in motion in another direction, but i'll see what i can do. maybe you should add it to to a giftlist... =)

    erin - admittedly, my dough was a little crumbly too, which is why it turned into shortbread instead of cookies. i suspect though, that if i had actually used a food processor as she suggested instead of a pastry blender, it would have been less of a mess. next time, if i make it with saffron tea, i will dilute the tea in a little water or milk first, so i can get the pretty orange color.

    jodi - you are on point! you will not be disappointed! what's fun about this one is we can both start at the same cookbook but diverge in totally different directions.

  5. Dee-ri-cious looking!
    Okay but seriously, how did you get the publisher to send you a schnazzy book? Personally, I'm still waiting for that bogus free copy of Tony Bourdain's newest book (from taht website, you know. YOU KNOW)