80 of 81 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2000
"Essentials of Cooking" is one of a couple books that have appeared recently (Pam Anderson's "How to Cook Without a Book" is another) that are designed to help home chefs wean themselves from over-reliance on recipes. James Peterson uses a visual approach by presenting well-over 1000 photographs (taken by Peterson himself) that show how various basic culinary techniques are performed and fundamental dishes prepared. Everything from dicing apple to trimming a saddle of lamb is included, with just enough narrative to keep the reader on track. A lot of cross referencing gives the book a 'hypertext' quality. Your can read it from beginning to end, or you can just bounce around. I would not think that this would be a very good book for beginners, though. The general thrust is toward cooks with enough experience to want to loosen up and generalize their knowledge rather than newcomers just trying to find their way around the kitchen. And the "recipes" aren't really recipes in the way most readers will be familiar. They're more in the nature of general models to which you can add or subtract individual ingredients to your own liking.
46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2000
I buy cookbooks for fun. This book will develop cooking skills as opposed to cooking following the many creative recipes from the numerous cookbooks we all own and freqently use. Peterson's goal is to have you cooking without the crutch and the burden of following someone else's game plan. This book will help your confindence in the kitchen without resorting to books. (The pictures are quite helpful.) If you are a really good cook already, this book isn't for you. If you are a reasonably competent cook, but not a chef, you will find this book valuable. Peterson is top flight, and he wrote this one for all of us who have a life outside the kitchen but hold a passion for cooking nonetheless.
49 of 52 people found the following review helpful
When I make my list of top ten (10) most useful books on food, this volume, `Essentials of Cooking' by James Peterson will be near the top of my list. The reasons are as simple as they can possibly be. First, the book covers virtually all the really important basic techniques you need to do serious cooking well. Second, the author does a very good job of explaining these techniques in words and pictures. The only other book with which this book can be seriously compared is `Jaques Pepin's Complete Techniques', which I have not yet read critically and reviewed, but I will point out that while that older volume was done by an extremely talented chef with a flair for teaching, with black and white photographs, the current volume is done by someone who is more of a teacher with a talent for cooking, and it is done with color pictures.
I generally discount the value of photographs of prepared dishes in cookbooks, but I make a huge exception for photographs that demonstrate techniques. The only thing better than a really good set of pictures for explaining a culinary technique may be a really good set of colored drawings, since they can eliminate the distractions and focus one's attention on the important details of the technique. In this book, the photographs range from useful where all the action is done in a saucepan as when you are making a beurre blanc to absolutely essential when you are forming a salmon steak into a medallion for poaching.
The range of techniques covered by this book is truly impressive. As I turn each page to a new method, I find myself thinking `Of course, there is a right way to do this... and I can never seem to find an authoritative description of the method.' This happened to me just yesterday as I was looking for the method to poach pears in wine. Well, it's in this book along with dozens of other essential techniques.
There are six (6) chapters that roughly correspond to the most typical division of recipes in a French cookbook. These chapters and their salient points are:
Basics - These techniques are commonly done during prep or by the garde manger. It includes preparing fruits and vegetables, making broths and sauces, making pasta doughs, and making gnocchi, blinis, crepes, risottos, and pilafs.
Vegetables and Fruits - This is summarized as the techniques for applying heat to fruits and vegetables. It includes sections on roasting, gratins, glaces, deep-frying, grilling, steaming, sautéing, mashing, flans, soups, and poaches (as in poaching pears in wine).
Fish and Shellfish - This gets into the problems posed by coaxing the best properties out of your most typical shellfish packagings, in addition to the typical methods of applying heat to flesh. This includes methods for cooking en papillote, cooking things with tentacles, shucking oysters, preparing soft-shelled crabs, using anchovies, and making a miso soup.
Poultry and Eggs - This is the chapter on fowl butchery and how to treat eggs with the respect they deserve when boiling, poaching or baking them or in making an omelet or a soufflé. I confess to finding the description of making a classic French omelet to be just a bit thin. There is no mention of the qualities of the best type of pan to use for omelets and no mention of bringing the eggs to room temperature before beating. Compared to many other descriptions, the instructions seem sparse between the point that eggs are added to pan and the cooked omelet is folded.
Meat - Roasting, grilling, sautéing, poaching, braising, and stewing the big red stuff.
Working from Scratch - Butchering things without feathers is the heart of this chapter with techniques for scaling and filleting fish, hot and cold smoking fish, curing, trimming and butchering lamb, cutting up a rabbit, and braising rabbit.
One of the most delightful aspects of this book is how you can run across techniques for things you which on the face of it appear to violate conventional cooking wisdom. My favorite example is the section on making a stew without browning the meat before starting the braise. Not only is this an acceptable technique, but the French have a name, a daube, for this type of dish. The heart of a daube is a long marinade in wine followed by thickening with a beurre manie or cornstarch slurry. The most famous daube is actually a German dish, sauerbraten, but it is common to many areas in western Germany and eastern France such as Provence and Alsace.
A second great virtue of this book is how it can give you the confidence to do things that a simple description in a conventional cookbook may leave you in doubt of your ability. This book shows you how to do it and the pictures assure you that it can be done.
As you consult this book, it may be easy to overlook the Glossary. Don't. This section is easily as useful as any of the chapters mentioned above. The name of the section is even a bit misleading, as the section does not simply define terms used in the book. It contains pictured descriptions of several important procedures such as degreasing a liquid and preparing a mousseline. Even if you are not in the habit of simply reading cookbooks, I strongly suggest you read this glossary. It will easily double your culinary IQ in a single sitting. One example is the article on blanching. Thousands of recipes tell you to blanch food before applying heat in some other way with no indication of why you are doing this. The article reveals at least four different reasons for blanching.
This book is not perfect, but it is very, very good. Highly recommended for turning difficult recipes into routine. And, it is very entertaining to read. Peterson is both a skillful teacher and an entertaining writer. Get this after you buy Julia Child or Patricia Wells.
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2001
I find this cookbook to be very USEFUL for the beginner cook. I work in a library and several new books go through my hands every day. This book is not a traditional cookbook where you follow a recipe; it shows you, with step-by-step color photographs, how to perform the basic and advanced techniques involved in cooking. How DO you prepare an artichoke, a chicken for roasting, etc.? Recipes too often tell you to DO something that you don't know how to do, and this book is a great reference tool for the novice and expert cook. After all, I can borrow this book any time but I am buying it for myself...what does that tell you?
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Known for his great cookbooks like the ones on sauces and soups, Peterson gives the home culinary world a wonderful resource on the basics for prep to do great things with our food.
Mine now has moved to above my prep area where I refer to it often. Unlike some other fine works on techniques, this one is so easy to work with: large photos (0ver 1100 of them) simply explained and step-by-step clear photos.
From the prep of different types of fruits and veggies to clarifying butter to the one he really helped me on lately, peeling chestnuts.
Also, valuable secitons on pasta, deboning fowl and fish, butterflying, etc. This has it all. Concludes with an excellent glossary of 25 pages. Outstanding!
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 21, 2000
I recently had the honor of taking 10 hours of classes from Jim Peterson in Aspen. He is the flame bearer for Julia Child and her classical-French-food-in-America's-households approach to cuisine. In Essentials of Cooking one can find a reference book of techniques, much like Housewives found in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. What makes Essentials superior is that it is wonderfully illustrated with copious photographs by Jim himself. It is a must have for any kitchen, especially that of the beginner. With Essentials one gains the knowlege necessary to unlock the language of all other cookbooks, I definetely reccomend it as a gift to yourself or anyone else!
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2002
It's difficult to fully understand the appeal of this book until you've seen the pictures taken. In the author's own words, "I've tried to make the photographs cheery (see how easy this is!) and life-like--they were shot under real-life conditions in my cramped Brooklyn apartment--so that if the going gets rough, things won't seem utterly hopeless."
Before reading this book I wouldn't touch anything that didn't go in the microwave. After about a month with this book, I was making great soups and a mean paella. Just looking at the beautiful pictures motivated me to mimic the skills shown in the photographs and to go the extra three miles to get better quality food.
For each technique, Mr. Peterson offers the bare-bones, this is how to do it description as well as an explanation of the variables that make one recipe different from another.
I love this book. Looking through it makes me hungry. Luckily I have a fast metabolism. ;-)