Friday, October 14, 2011

Michael Ruhlman's "Twenty"

Michael Ruhlman has done it again. Following fairly soon on the heels of his excellent Ratio, he has produced a wonderful new book, Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook's Manifesto.

While many of the twenty chapters-- salt, water, acid, eggs, butter, flour and sugar -- are ingredients, rather than techniques, Ruhlman explains that they are tools, and his explanations of how to use them are, in effect, techniques. And he's right that the semantic difference doesn't matter, for this book is a book about cooking basics, but not just for novice cooks. His explanations of the "real" techniques -- dough, batter, sauce, soup, saute, roast, braise, etc. -- as well as his discussions of how the "tool" ingredients are used, are sophisticated and enlightening. I found myself making connections that I hadn't made before, and better understanding some of the things I've been doing for years, making pan sauces, for example.

All this in a well-written and beautiful package, with detailed illustrations that add a lot to the technical descriptions and recipes. Ruhlman includes 100 clearly-expressed recipes of varying degrees of difficulty, which are very inviting in themselves but are also selected to make a point. His French Onion Soup recipe is there to illuminate what he is saying about caramelizing onions as well as the power of plain water to be the best stock in many cases. Braised Lamb Shanks with Lemon Confit perfectly exemplifies the points he makes as to why and how to braise, and how to get the most out of braised meats by doing it a couple of days in advance, defatting and slowly reheating.

But the 100 recipes are deceiving. The book contains many ideas that can translate into an infinite number of recipes using the techniques and concepts in the book. In his discussion on vinaigrette, and in addition to the four vinaigrettes for which he give recipes, Ruhlman seemingly effortlessly tosses off the following:

A vinaigrette is infinitely variable. Replace the neutral oil with a flavorful nut oil. Alter the vinegar, from red wine to white wine or any of the other countless flavored vinegars now available. Use a citrus juice instead of vinegar. Consider adding spices -- cumin, cayenne, coriander, or allspice, clove, or cinnamon. Consider other flavoring elements as well, mustard, say, or peanut butter, or anchovies, or roasted peppers, or ginger.

Twenty is a great read, and I eagerly look forward to trying a number of the recipes. Perhaps I will make an exception to my no-deep-frying-at-home rule to make his Rosemary-Brined, Buttermillk Fried Chicken, which Ruhlman says is "the best fried chicken, ever." I think I believe him.

Bobby Jay

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