Prepare yourself. I'm going to wax poetic about this cookbook. I have now cooked numerous recipes from Cooking at Home and spent a fair amount of time just flipping through it, and I have to say that I haven't fallen this hard for a cookbook since Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything years ago. It is everything I love in a cookbook: comprehensive coverage with simple to prepare recipes that hearken back to an older style of real home cooking without being fussy or out of date. Mr. Williams (who is now in his 90s) has been around the kitchen for a while now, and while his book (written with Kristine Kidd) reflects his decades of experience the recipes and writing style are contemporary and engaging.
My first reaction to Cooking at Home was excitement over the sheer number of recipes included. The cover claims 1,000, but I wonder if that number is actually a little low as most chapters include not only pages of recipes laid out in a traditional format, but brief recipe synopses of old standbys at the start of each chapter (like the pies and tarts introduction which includes a page detailing the basics for making standard pie fillings like apple-spice and peach-raspberry).
While the gamut of classic recipes seem to have made the cut -- from dishes like pot roast (recipe below), Coq au Vin, and Boston Baked Beans -– Mexican, Spanish, Indian and Asian foods are also spattered throughout. And I think this is exactly why I love this book so much. Unlike the old Joy of Cooking (and I have to say this book does remind me of that one in its expansive coverage of almost every type of food and cooking technique), Cooking at Home mostly emphasizes traditional American fare, but also includes a hodgepodge of ethnicities and world cultures that more accurately reflects who we are as a nation. From fish tacos to Chile Fried Rice and Crab, the basics for trying a dish or ingredient (like fish sauce) that may be outside your comfort zone are presented in a calm, easy and nonthreatening way, inviting you to branch out a little.
With the Williams-Sonoma brand tagged on to the title, I was concerned the recipes might need specialty ingredients that needed to be purchased at their store, but was happy to see instead that there is an emphasis on whole natural foods, tried and true cooking techniques, and the real process of home cooking. The gimmicks are few. There are occasional references to using specialty products, such as crocks for French Onion Soup Gratineé or a note about how convenient a mandoline can be when making Shaved Fennel and Mushroom Salad. Set in the margin notes, I saw these as covert references to the many coveted yet gratuitous products the Williams-Sonoma store sells (then again, I'm a skeptic at heart). But these are few and tangential to the real purpose of the book: making wholesome food from scratch. The cherry pie calls for real pitted cherries, not the jarred mix from the store; and from what I can tell, there is no mention of fancy demi-glace, which seems to be for sale on every other page in the holiday Williams-Sonoma catalog.
As with other expansive cookbooks, pretty much all major topics are covered. From breakfast to pasta and pizza, meat and fish, and vegetables and grains, plus a section for every type of sweet you can imagine (pies and tarts, fruit desserts, cheese and cheesecakes, cookies and brownies, and the list goes on). There are also a few bonus sections that I found appealing; such as the Cooking Basics chapter, which opens the book and should be presented to anyone who doesn't know how to cook but wants to learn. With information ranging from how to outfit and stock your kitchen to directions on how to follow a recipe, plus essential knife and cooking techniques, this is really a primer for any novice and a great refresher for old hands. But what I really loved about the book's opener was its listing of basic recipes, such as any type of stock you could hope to make (from various kinds of beef and chicken to fish and vegetable), clarified butter, preserved lemons and breadcrumbs. This one chapter alone is a fantastically succinct resource for any kitchen.
The book's many chapters begin with a type of encyclopedic opener. These pages attempt to provide background information, cooking techniques, and the brief recipe synopses I mentioned earlier. So in the salad section, you get a briefing on the various types of salads, short recipes for basic dressings, plus notes on how to shop for and wash greens, keep things crisp, test your flavors, and, finally, present your dish. There is also a Greens Glossary listing the many types of greens you can buy, notes on salad components (breaking a salad down into herbs, proteins, legumes, cheeses, etc.). And this is all before the salad recipes even begin.
But the facts don't end in the section introductions. Beside each recipe in the margin is a helpful nugget (such as whether or not you should rinse your rice or tips to frying crunchy potatoes); information that may be helpful to the recipe (such as choosing the right type of dried fruit for a chutney) or a variance of the recipe (like turning the Peach Upside-Down Cake into one with pineapple).
Now that the holiday season is upon us, I'm contemplating giving this book to a few people. The core cooking basics make it the perfect gift for someone new to home cooking, but it's also ideal for an experienced home chef as the recipes are great reminders for how to make old favorites that you may have forgotten or provide a twist on something you've made for years but may be a little bored with. I've already given a copy to my friend Christina (of Lasagna Illuminated fame) not because she needs any help in the kitchen (she may be one of the best home chefs I've ever met) but because the breadth of the recipes combined with the numerous facts on food and technique are helpful and also just plain fun to read.
Classic Pot Roast
(printed with permission from Weldon Owen)
I made this dish earlier this week on a night when my daughters had two friends over for a rainy day of play. At around 4 PM all four girls stopped by the kitchen to ask what I was making. When I responded "pot roast," I was surprised none of them had heard of it. What was once the archetypal American dinner now seems to be unique and unusual. When I then explained that pot roast was a beef dish served in gravy with potatoes and carrots, all four girls yelled "gravy!" and then the two playmates asked, "Can we stay for dinner?" As they later ate their dinner while watching Santa Claus is Coming to Town, I saw each girl clean her plate. I guess some dishes never go out of style.
Makes: 6-8 servings
5 Tbsp flour
Salt and ground pepper
1 Beef chuck roast (3-4 lb)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp canola oil
4 Carrots, 2 finely chopped and 2 cut into 1-inch pieces
1 Yellow onion, chopped
1 Celery stalk, chopped
3 Cups beef stock
3 Yukon gold potatoes, about 1 lb total weight, peeled and quartered
1 Cup frozen pearl onions (I used fresh cut in half)
½ cup frozen peas
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
In a large bowl, stir together 3 tablespoons of the flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Turn the roast in the seasoned flour, shaking off any excess. In a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, melt the butter with the oil. Add the roast and cook, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer the roast to a plate.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat in the pot. Add the chopped carrots, onion, and celery and sauté over medium-high heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons flour and cook for about 1 minute. Pour in the stock, bring to a boil, and deglaze the pan, stirring to dislodge any browned bits on the pan bottom.
Add the roast back to the Dutch oven, cover, and bake, turning the roast occasionally, until the meat is very tender, about 3 hours. Remove the pot from the oven and transfer the roast to a platter.
Strain the cooking liquid through a fine-mesh sieve into a heatproof bowl; discard the solids. Skim any fat from the surface of the cooking liquid. Return the roast and liquid to the pot and stir in the potatoes, carrot pieces, and pearl onions. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and stir in the peas. Re-cover and bake until all the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes longer.
Transfer the roast to a cutting board, tent with aluminum foil, and let rest for about 10 minutes. To serve, cut the roast against the grain into slices and divide among warmed individual shallow bowls. Using a large spoon, divide the vegetables and cooking liquid among the plates. Season with salt and pepper and serve right away.
There were two margin notes with this recipe:
Place the browned roast and broth mixture in the slow cooker, cover, and cook for 8 hours on low. Strain and skim the liquids; cook for 1 hour longer with the vegetables, adding the peas during the last 15 minutes of cooking.
The Best Pot Roast
Many believe that chuck roast, a muscular shoulder section of the steer, makes the best pot roast. Not actually roasted at all but braised in a savory cooking liquid, the beef becomes meltingly tender and juicy after long, slow cooking in a covered pot.
Disclosure: A friend who is also an employee of Weldon Owen, the publisher of Cooking at Home, suggested I review the book for Bay Area Bites but she did not work directly on the production or editing of the book.