The New Must-Have Cookbook: ‘From Scratch’
Michael Ruhlman’s latest book inspires you to cook from scratch.
You know that dinner-party game where you’re supposed to choose your last meal? I used to stretch out like Orson Welles: “I’d start with oysters, six fine de claire, six tumbled oysters from the West Coast, and six Rappahannocks, with a glass of Krug Champagne. Then a dish of blue crab run under a broiler with butter and a couple slices of aged steak, served with an old sauterne. I want to tear off a hunk of a perfect baguette and smear it with foie gras. I’d like a glass of Weller Bourbon on the side throughout, and a roasted leg of chicken, with truffles tucked under the skin…” I’d go on as if I were trying out for the role of Pantagruel in a production of Rabelais’ book The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel.
But I’ve recently changed my mind. I just want a perfect BLT. I want to have made all the ingredients. I want to have grown the tomatoes and the lettuce, baked the bread, mixed the mayo, and cured the bacon. (I will leave the pig growing to someone else.)
So you can imagine my joy when I gazed upon Quentin Bacon’s photograph of the BLT of dreams in Michael Ruhlman’s new cookbook, From Scratch: 10 Meals, 175 Recipes, and Dozens of Techniques You Will Use Over and Over. (Bacon’s photographs throughout are absolutely worth the price of admission, even if his name is suspiciously well suited to the project.)
Mr. Ruhlman and I, it seems, are cut from the same napkin.
His book was, as it turned out, inspired by a BLT contest he ran on his website a decade ago. (How am I learning about this only now?)
Of course, lots of folks don’t want to start their lunch from seed and eat 60 days later when the first tomato is ripe. Furthermore, who needs a recipe for a BLT? Most of the recipe is right there in the name. Fair enough.
Ruhlman’s magic is that he uses the BLT (and nine other meals) as starting points and semi-free associates out 175 recipes. In the beginning of each chapter, written out in hand, is a sort of a mind map with a narrative. “So, you know how to make a Basic BLT” it begins. He goes through the basic steps, the bread recipes, the mayonnaise, and then he takes a small step to the Turkey Club, which Ruhlman correctly insists is a sandwich deserving of more respect than it gets.
Here’s the first magical leap: “Another classic sandwich to try from scratch is The Rueben, which will involve learning to make corned beef (perhaps you have some left over from the recipe on page 223), as well as Rye Bread, Russian Dressing, and Sauerkraut.”
From there, we jump to the French Dip, beef stock, Banh Mi, Meat Loaf, Falafel, Pita, and Egg Salad. You start with a roasted pork shoulder, and you find yourself reading about Blanquette De Veau and Chicken Fricassee. Paella leads us to Stuffies and Gumbo and Pozole.
Along the way, it’s the small recipes, practically asides, that really make this book sing.
On page 77, we get a standalone essay on how to cook mushrooms. You want to read it. On page 139, another sidebar about shallots, and onions in general, that teaches you how to tame raw shallots, and disposes of any falsities you might be harboring about the qualities of different onions once cooked. Leading into Steak au Poivre (after compound butter but before bone marrow) we get pages of info on French Fries. I’d like to do a concordance of the various French fry recipes out there, noting how many words each author has given to the side dish. (I’d bet that the longest recipe is in Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles cookbook.) Here, in more than four pages Ruhlman gives us three recipes, or, as he calls them, “situations.” Situation 1 is for when you have very little time, just 45 minutes. Situation 2 is a more robust recipe, but you don’t have hours and hours. “French Fry Situation 3: You’ve planned ahead and hours, if not days . . .”
All the while, he’s making it clear that his goal is to make you comfortable in the kitchen. Not to restrain you with these recipes, but to get you to a place where you can leave them behind. “Once you feel comfortable,” he says in his bread recipe, “feel free to try other proportions, using more water and different flour, such as spelt.”
There are generally three types of cookbooks: the first is a personal catalog of what a certain cook cooks, usually in a restaurant. The second gathers information about a type of cooking, a regional cuisine, or a technique—barbecue, Persia, salt…etc. The oldest type is the “how to.” The superstars of this genre are well known, the Joy of Cooking, Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife and the Larousse Gastronomique. The idea is that with this book alone, you could learn to cook. It goes, almost without saying, that this is never exactly true—if you only had the Larousse, for instance, I don’t think you’d ever learn to cook, since it helps to already know how before you open it. Most personal cookbooks would be absolutely worthless as starting points—can you imagine if the only cookbook you’d ever seen was Mission Chinese?
I suppose you could get away with only knowing what was taught to you inside the compendium of Italian cookery The Silver Spoon. Better, however, is to turn to a cookbook like this with the goal of teaching you some recipes, but lots of techniques.
It’s a lot of fun to read Ruhlman unfold cassoulet and start with beans, simplifying everything and making curing your own pork belly seem as approachable as toasting your own bread. And what’s more, it’s aspirational in a way we don’t see much of anymore. Today, cookbook aspirations are usually ego driven 34-step recipes that have no business in a book with a roasted chicken on the cover. Here the aspirations are optional. If you learn how to make pasta, you might someday score a truffle, and you’ll now know that you should shave that truffle over the top of your freshly buttered noodles. If you like BLTs, you might look again at that most perfect of sandwiches, and when you’ve got a Sunday afternoon and some free time, you just may bake some bread.