This month we review a book that shows you how to use your intuition to create great-tasting dishes.
By Joanne Saltzman
Book Publishing Company, 2006
Have you ever lifted a cookbook off a store shelf, begun to peruse, and found it so engaging you wanted to curl up in a comfy chair and just read? Intuitive Cooking by Joanne Saltzman is a volume so compelling it literally teases out the naturally creative instincts we all possess but have allowed to languish.
A former dancer, choreographer, and mother of four, this innovative, well-seasoned cookbook author founded the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Colorado in 1983. "Today it thrives as 'The Language of Cooking Without Recipes,'" says Saltzman.
She compares the composition of a recipe to a grammar lesson focusing on sentence structure with the specific ingredients as the subjects. The verbs are the cooking methods, while the ending punctuation is salt. Yet she recognizes the sentence needs more than a simple subject and verb. Adding complexity, she describes cooking oils, cooking liquid, herbs, and spices as the adverbs and adjectives that bring color, flavor, and texture to the ingredients.
With compelling, lyrical prose the book teaches the reader to relate to plant-based food ingredients in a new way that expands conventional thinking. One example is the author's relationship with salt, which she finds the most important ingredient in food preparation. Her concept is not to salt a dish to excess, but to balance the flavors, enhance the ingredients, and bring harmony to the dish.
The opening segments of the book discuss the particular nature of certain ingredients such as grains and the theory of the five flavors that balance the seasoning of a dish. Colors and textures each play an important role in a composition as does the way vegetables are cut to compliment a dish.
Frequently philosophical, the author reveals her deep relationship with foods as one that can bring her sensuous pleasure even with the simple act of washing grains. She views cooking methods as either first or second stage, describing first stage as the first time an ingredient is prepared to create " a transformation to make it digestible." Vegetables and grains can become complete dishes with first stage cooking, while beans fall into the second stage category.
Each cooking process, boiling, blanching, broiling, grilling, soaking, smoking, sealing/sautéing, steeping, dehydrating, steaming, and pressure cooking is explained in great detail and brings greater understanding of how to create a great dish without a recipe. Readers truly receive a unique education on how each cooking method transforms an ingredient. It's almost as if one were attending a cooking class with the teacher standing close by to offer guidance. The instruction is complete covering every variety of sauce from hot and cold sauces and flour-thickened or oil based sauces to nut, bean, or vegetable sauces, and marinades.
The third chapter puts all the elements together and offers an extensive section of recipe sketches, which are not actually complete recipes but merely ideas that outline the recipe process. Beginning with the ingredient, the sketch briefly lists the first stage method, second stage method, and some of the ingredients that season the food. Here the author takes time to give background information about specific foods such as a description, the history, varieties, health benefits, best cooking methods, and storage tips.
The book concludes with a glossary and several pages of unique charts that categorize more than 100 plant foods as either sweet, salty, pungent, bitter, odd, neutral, or sour. Other charts suggest a number of cooking methods for various food categories such as grains, vegetables, protein, or gluten.
Intuitive Cooking could be considered a passionate interlude with food, yet it is far from an ordinary cookbook. Saltzman imparts a unique knowledge of food characteristics that, once learned, will allow anyone to be able to cook without a recipe. Not only does this book serve as a cooking reference and handy guide, but it's also a pleasure to read.
Reviewed August 2007