How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson

2000.  290 pages, over 200 recipes.


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“We still go out for a cheap midweek supper now and again, but with a decently stocked pantry and refrigerator coupled with tehniques and formulas I know by heart, it’s a whole lot easier to say, ‘Set the table. We’re eating dinner at home tonight.’”


 Herbed Ricotta Ravioli

 The Little Big Fat Omelet with Smoked Salmon, Sour Cream and Chives

 Sour Cream-Capped Yogurt with Sugar and Berries

 Simple Fruit Tart


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When I was first living on my own at age twenty-one, my cooking repertoire consisted of  snickerdoodle cookies and Rice Crispies treats.  It was Irma Rombauer ‘s Joy of Cooking that slowly lead me  into a state of relative competence and confidence in the kitchen.


Those who claim they don’t know how to cook these days have no excuse not to learn…except that they may be paralyzed by the number of  basic cookbooks that have been packing the bookstore shelves in recent years. I’m not sure how much of this boom is wishful thinking on the part of cookbook writers who hope to rescue home cooking from the endangered list of human endeavors, or if these books are really filling a need among those hungry to learn. In any case, I applaud the effort. Down with Lean Cuisine! Up with home-cooked meals! (For my reviews of some recent basic cookbooks, look in the Cravings cookbook archives for How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham, and Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings by Edward Espe Brown.)


One of the recent entries to the basic-cooking category is How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson, who is the former editor of the acclaimed magazine for serious cooks, Cooks Illustrated.  Apparently even  august food editors face the same mealtime problems as the rest of us working stiffs. Anderson writes in her introduction, “Typically, we’d come home from work with no idea what to have for dinner.” Although there were certainly cookbooks and recipes at hand, “I didn’t know how to make something out of whatever we had.” (I must say I find that a little hard to believe, coming from a food editor.) “Eventually I realized that we didn’t need more recipes; we needed to learn to cook without them. With a decently stocked pantry and the grasp of a few basic techniques, we found that eating well could be very simple.”


Learning to cook is like learning a new language. Much as we may hate the grammar part of the process  (I still itch with anxiety when I think of grappling with the French past perfect and subjunctive), we have to admit we’d be talking like cartoon cavemen (“Fish…me sauté.”) if we didn’t get a good grounding of the rules.  Anderson takes the grammarian approach to teaching cooking. (Believe me, it’s much less painful than French grammar.) She concentrates on techniques as building blocks to numerous dishes. For example, she has one chapter titled, “One Easy Formula, Many Supper Soups”. She presents a formula and then offers twelve variations on the theme.  Although the formula is inspiring in its simplicity, many of the suggested variations are not .


Anderson begins each chapter with a little rhyme that encapsulates the subject at hand. For the soup chapter, it’s “Sauté an onion, then add vegetable, starch, and meat./ Cook it in a quart of broth for a meal that can’t be beat.”  Shakespeare, it ain’t. I’m not sure whether I think these guileless whimsies are charming or cloying. In any case, I hand it to her for having the guts to put them in. 


 I like her categories of  “fast” food. One chapter encompasses the “Big and Bigger Frittata”.  One is devoted to potato permutations. Her chapter “If You’ve Made One Sauté, You’ve Made Them All” gives a rundown on sautéing chicken cutlets, fish fillets and more. In this chapter she takes the reader through the how-to of pan sauces. Good for her! Sauces have suffered an image problem in the last few decades; people associate them with rich complicated creations from old-school French restaurants. Anderson proves that pan sauces  can be easy and can liven up these lean meats. Speaking of sauces, she has a chapter on tomato sauce and  “scores of possibilities”. These should be a happy revelation to those whose repertoire of  tomato sauce begins and ends with bottled Ragu.


There are a few missteps. When Anders proposes butterflying a chicken for easy roasting, she only gives the sketchiest directions on how to butterfly. I’m a pretty experienced cook and I couldn’t get how to do it from what she wrote. When taking on sautéing chicken cutlets, she says to cut out the tenderloin, without a clear explanation of what that is.


I would have liked to see a little more on the aesthetics of  flavor: balancing tastes and textures. In her chapter on salads, she lists all the possible add-ins:cheese, fruit, nuts, vegetables. But without any guidelines on balancing different elements, a beginner could end up wit a kitchen-sink salad and wonder why it was a disaster. (Edward Espe Brown deals well with the aesthetics of flavor in his Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings.)


Other good fast food she deals with: quick-cooking polenta and couscous (I know purists would be horrified) and orzo. She suggests won ton skins  to make ravioli. I have seen this idea before, but this is the first time I tried it. What a find! I can’t imagine how anyone could go back to making fresh pasta dough for ravioli after making them this way.  Anderson does a similar  spin on lasagna using egg-roll wrappers. But while she was delving into won ton skins and egg roll wrappers, why didn’t she mention varieties of fresh Asian noodles, which are faster to prepare and more flavorful and pleasantly chewy than dried pasta?


How to Cook  Without a Book  is definitely  not a book soley for beginners.  It really is for all of us. On those nights when we want a home-cooked meal, but think we only have the energy to tackle a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, this is the book we should turn to.