The first three words that come to mind after jumping into this book are ingenuity, precision, and passion.
Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot’s new book Ideas in Food: Great Ideas and Why They Work has gotten a lot of great press (and deservedly so), and especially rave reviews from the professional community. I’m happy to add my voice to the chorus of support from the home cooks out there. I had a pretty good idea that I’d like this book. I’ve enjoyed reading Alex and Aki’s blog for a while now, and although some of the techniques go beyond what I can accomplish at home because I don’t have an immersion circulator, vacuum sealer, or meat glue (yet), I love the way they approach ingredients and the way they question conventional wisdom to understand what’s happening at the molecular level of the food that we eat. I appreciate their explanations of the science — the “…Why They Work” part of the book is great. Yes, I do want to know the temperature and pH ranges of lactic acid producing bacteria, the protein content of various flours and starches, the details of plant cell structure, and what happens to proteins in muscle cells when soaking in a brine. Now, I like this stuff because I’m a science teacher, but beyond curiosity and general interest, knowing these things will help you to make better mashed potatoes, gnocchi, pizza dough, scrambled eggs, vegetables, pickles, vinegar, and roast chicken. As they write, “the more you know, the better you can cook.“
Not all the techniques in the book are high tech. In fact, the ones I’m the most struck by are the low tech ones. Why not separate hydration and cooking of starches? Why not smoke the ingredients of a dish first? If freezing damages plant cells, why not use the freezer to your advantage and do it on purpose? I’m happy to add some of these techniques to how I approach cooking at home. The great thing is that, like all good brainstorming activities, reading their ideas can (and should) spur creative ones of your own.
So far I’ve smoked some penne (dry, right out of the box and into that foil tray on the right), which I matched up with an eggplant caponata. I used the other half of the pasta later in the week for some smokey macaroni and cheese, which tasted like there was bacon in there, even though there wasn’t any (this time). The list of recipes to try from the book gets longer with each section I read, and so far it includes maple vinegar, brown butter ice cream, crispy chocolate mousse, red cabbage kimchi, sourdough doughnuts, preserved lemons, no-knead brioche, octopus confit…
The bulk of the book (the first 240 pages or so) falls into the section called Ideas for Everyone, and I think this will be the most useful part for me. This includes creative ideas and precise cooking, with some new techniques of course, but they’re ones that I can accomplish with the stuff in my pantry and batterie de cuisine. The last 60 pages of the book make up the Ideas for Professionals section, which is fascinating. It contains instructions and background information on cooking with hydrocolloids (starches, thickeners, algae), transglutaminase (meat glue), liquid nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. Of these, I’m most likely to try the meat glue first, as my interest has already been piqued by past Ideas in Food blog posts on the pork belly chop and crispy chicken skin wrapped shrimp. The explanations in this section, although technical, are clear, and they’re grounded in the same guiding principles that you find throughout the book: Is there a technique or an ingredient that can make this dish better? What can we learn from the success (or failure) of this dish that could improve another one? Then let’s try it.
What it comes down to (for me) is that understanding the processes behind cooking, knowing about the transformation of proteins, pH, ions, emulsions, and chemical reactions, is tremendously helpful for whatever dish I’m making. That’s why we love Alton Brown, and why we read McGee, Ruhlman, Blumenthal, Bertolli, Corriher, and even Kurlansky. When you take the background science and add to it the creativity (and methodology) that goes on consistently at Ideas in Food, deliver it clearly and without pretense, you end up with a remarkably readable, informative, and enjoyable book. Working through it will also make you a better cook.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I know Alex from college. There are some great stories involving road trips, bonfires, and the fire department, but those will have to wait for another time (or we can keep them buried). And I can’t claim a culinary connection at all, except that I was happy to be around at his house with some friends for a few Sunday brunches where he cooked, and his love of food was as clear then as it is now. A bunch of guys sitting around watching Braveheart or something, and Alex whips up a round of legit eggs Benedict, or poached eggs with a huge pan of corned beef hash. I think we’d probably all have been happy with bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches, but we were psyched to get the upgrade. I’m glad to see Alex and Aki doing so well, and am really excited that they put together such a terrific book!