MattE writes: "Alton Brown, for those who aren't familiar, has a cooking show on the Food Network called Good Eats. His new book isn't so much a cookbook, in the current sense of a book that contains a heck of a lot of recipes. (It does, in fact, contain recipes, but it really isn't what the book is about.) See the Perl cookbook, for a translation of this idea to programming. It is a book about cooking that covers science and technique first; Recipes are only example code. He says he is a 'culinary cartographer.'" This sounds like a fun book -- for the rest of Matt's review, read on below.
Rather than giving precise directions about how many rights and how many lefts, Alton aims to give you the lay of the land. "Cooking is not defined by seasonings ... it is defined by the application of heat." That is why the first six chapters are devoted to a single heating method each: searing, grilling, roasting, frying, boiling, and braising. This first book doesn't cover baking, or other manufactured food. Another book, in a similar vein, by a chemist, Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking , actually begins with baking.
As partial proof of the author's geekiness, I present an excerpt from the introduction to the grilling chapter:
I am typing on a Macintosh G4 Titanium Powerbook, which is roving through my MP3 collection like a digital whirling dervish. When I need to speak to someone, which isn't very often since the G4 is wirelessly connected to the Web through a device in the house, I do so on a Nokia cell phone capable of trading files with my Palm V, which I really should replace since it's so 1999.
He's got his own web site, complete with blog. Throughout the book, he describes approaches to cooking that have everything to do with good food and geekiness, and nothing to do with the manufacturer's instructions. Back to the grill, he's removed one of the plates on the side of his grill and fitted it with a piece of tailpipe. Then, when he's grilling, he sticks a hair dryer in the tailpipe and uses it to whip the coals into an inferno. Which might explain why he gets his oven mitts from the hardware store in the form of welding gloves. When talking about ovens, he describes how he builds an oven out of firebricks, and how he uses a large terra cotta pot to cook a chicken in his oven. It's all in the name of even heat distribution. He's also not above rewiring his electric skillet to provide a greater range of temperatures. You know you've read something good when the author includes a mini-disclaimer to the effect of "if you try this at home kids, I and the publisher are not responsible."
Alton encourages improvisation, suggesting you hold a refrigerator roulette party: everybody brings three ingredients and then everybody has to make something of it. Now there's a team building exercise for the daring. Basically, a recipe is like an open source app that nobody's willing to muck with -- you either eat it when somebody else has already prepared it, or you compile (I mean prepare) it yourself, but follow the directions exactly. This just ruins the whole point of making the source (or the recipe) available. Tinker with it, make it better, make it awful, hey, it's just food.
From Alton's Rules I Cook By: If the food is an existing hunk or hunks of something to be cooked, you can generally mess with seasonings, herbs, spices, and so on to your heart's content. The book is filled throughout with examples of Alton's own improvisations -- like the recipe he used to win a cheap chili competition he and some friends dreamed up while sitting around on somebody's porch. In this case, the ingredients were tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, and salt he had in his pantry, some cheap beef stew meat and some lamb stew meat from the supermarket, and the cheapest beer available from the local taqueria and the chips and salsa that came with it. Total cost: $7.74
The end of the book includes appendices with a Critter Map, which shows where different cuts of meat come from, and The Basic Culinary Toolbox, where he describes necessary tools, from heat resistant spatulas and all kinds of thermometers to what makes a good knife. Also included are a very brief selection of suppliers for various dry goods and a selection on cleanliness that has some tips on recognizing a good meat and produce department. The one weakness of the book may be its index. Again, since this isn't really a cookbook per se, it might not matter so much that all the chicken recipes in the book are not listed in the index under Chicken, or that his great recipe for microwave popcorn is listed under M, but not P. As for the popcorn recipe itself, here's a hint: popcorn, paper bag, and 2 staples.
If you are reading this I highly recommend I'm Just Here For the Food as well as the show Good Eats. This is the book on cooking I've been waiting for someone to write ever since I started cooking. It gives you the tools and the principles so that you can cook what you want and experiment with flavors and ingredients you like.
Appetite whetted? You can purchase I'm Just Here for the Food from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.