It’s an important question, the answer to which probably says more about the type of cookbook you have open in front of you at the time of asking rather than the skills you have as a cook. The easy answer to that is, “Well, I use it exactly the way it tells me to use it. Just follow the recipe.” Take How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. It’s a vital resource and also one that can be used quite literally. It contains a wealth of straightforward techniques for myriad ingredients and recipes that can be followed step by step. Nothing wrong with that. How to Cook Everything was the first cookbook I ever owned and it taught me countless recipes, many of which I still use regularly.
The answer gets more complicated though when you move into the realm of fine dining cookbooks. What is Grant Achatz’s Alinea or the collected works of El Bulli, but really high grade food porn? Unless you are the most ambitious of home cooks, it’s probably just that. Something to ogle at on your coffee table.
There is another way of looking at the heavyweights though. I’ve owned Eric Ripert’s A Return to Cooking for many years and while I’ve tried my hand at a few recreations, the only dish I faithfully go back to is the biggest throwaway in the book: a recipe for homemade pancakes. Yup, that’s right, despite the full-on display of Ripert’s countless beautiful dishes and genuinely inspirational asides, I’m making pancakes. If you purchase a cookbook by a fine dining chef with the expectation that you will be recreating tasting menus at home, in no time you’ll be woefully disappointed. You will also be missing out on the huge learning opportunity these cookbooks present if you focus on the faithful replication of each dish instead of reading between the lines for useful technique after useful technique for which your cooking and your thought process in the kitchen will benefit. To wit, I learned much more from A Return To Cooking than just a reliable breakfast recipe. Ripert’s work is a bible when I need a reference for cooking times for fish. If I have a monkfish filet, it’s a good bet that I won’t be making “pan roasted monkfish with lemon carrots and mint pesto” but it’s also a good bet I’ll be reading the recipe to make sure I am cooking the monkfish properly.
Now, please don’t mistake this as an argument against recreations of fine dining recipes. They are fun to do, will challenge you as a cook and are rewarding as all hell when you pull them off. But they are not how 99% of the cooking public chooses to prepare dinner on a Wednesday night after a long day at work.
Which brings me to Thomas Keller, The French Laundry Cookbook and a meal that I regularly cook during the week: salmon poached in court bouillon. Of the many things I’ve learned cooking out of Keller’s seminal work, this dish is the one I go back to the most. Of course, nowhere in the book will you find a recipe for salmon cooked like this, but for me to deny that it was creation totally borne of a technique in the cookbook would be downright larceny. Instead, “Shrimp with Avocado Salsa,” an appetizer, became poached salmon, a main course, over the years. How did I arrive there? I’m not so sure, but all I can tell you is that if you spend enough time with Keller, or any other legitimate fine dining cookbook, you’ll probably figure out a variation like this too. That’s the other way to use a cookbook. Gleaning what you can from the recipes to improve your own cooking.
Very Simple Court Bouillon
1 large yellow onion, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
1 ½ cups white wine
2 quarts of water
1 sprig of rosemary
1 Tbsp salt
1 lb salmon, cut into 2 filets.
(All liquid measurements are very approximate. The truth is that I rarely measure these out. Play with it and see what works for you. Want to add some fennel along with the onion, be my guest. Some thyme and parsley instead of rosemary, more power to you.)
Court bouillon is a quick stock that is high in acidity and perfect for poaching all manner of seafood. Keller’s version in the book incorporates more aromatics and herbs than I typically do. I’m sure this is heresy but my bouillon typically consists of no more than water, white wine, an onion, lemon juice and some rosemary. That’s it. Take it to a low boil, turn the heat to low, add the fish and some salt.
The key to cooking fish this way is to never let the stock come to a boil. Gently is the key word here. I typically leave the salmon in for 10-12 minutes. If you prefer your salmon medium rare, you can cut two to three minutes off that time. It’s important to note that I’ve used many varieties of fish to cook in this manner. Blackfish, cod, bluefish, fluke, and monkfish have all spent time in court bouillon in my kitchen. The cooking time will vary with the species but the method is forgiving because of the gentle cooking temperature makes experimenting a little less daunting. We typically serve with sautéed spinach, or roasted potatoes.