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Excellent Survey of all Things Noodle. Buy It!
on May 15, 2007
`The Complete Book of Pasta and Noodles' by the Editors of `Cooks Illustrated' Magazine is one of those books whose outstanding value is obvious almost immediately upon opening to the Table of Contents. This was surprising to me, as this is not the case with most other `Cooks Illustrated' books. There is just something about the meeting of this subject with the classic `Cooks Illustrated' approach to things which comes up a winner.
The first positive impression is the excellent organization of the chapters into different types of pastas, noodles, and sauces for same. While there are many excellent books about on pasta dishes, most especially `The Top100 Best Pasta Sauces' by Diane Seed and just about any book by Marcella Hazan, Lidia Bastianich, or Ruth Rodgers and Rose Gray of London's River Café, this `Cooks Illustrated' volume organizes our thinking about the sauces to make us all much better at improvising our own pasta sauces. It divides pasta sauces into:
Olive Oil based sauces, both cooked and uncooked.
Pesto and other pureed sauces.
Butter and Cheese sauces, such as spaghetti alla Carbonara
Cream Sauces, such as Fettuccine Alfredo
Sauces with Bread Crumbs
Cooked Sauces with Fresh Tomatoes
Canned Tomato Sauces, such as Pasta Puttanesca and Vodka Cream sauce
Sauces with Vegetables, such as `cabbage and noodles' and `pasta Primavera'
Sauces with Beans and Lentils
Sauces with Meat, such as the classic Bolognese sauce
Sauces with Seafood, such as clam and other shellfish sauces.
Like Seed's book and virtually any other book on pasta and noodles, the subject really is pasta and noodle dishes, although this volume, true to its title, gives as much about actually making a wide variety of pastas. It also covers just about every conceivable form of noodle, including the German spatzle, the North African couscous, gnocchis (the bridge between the Italian and the German forms of dumpling), Japanese noodles (soba, somen, ramen, and udon) and Chinese noodles, especially rice and cellophane noodles.
The book can easily be forgiven for spending more time on the Italian noodle than on any other subject, as this is the primary interest of most English speaking readers. To this end, the book includes excellently detailed tutorials on making fresh pastas, with and without egg, with vegetable and herb additions, spatzle, and several varieties of gnocchi. It does not, however, teach us how to make couscous or any of the oriental noodle types, which is fine with me, as I believe they are techniques which require far more practice and patience than the classic Italian or German noodle.
I love a cookbook that sheds new light on a dish I've made a dozen times and consider `my own'. This is what happens here when I read the material on combining cabbage and noodles in a dish. It reminds me of how to best cut the cabbage, but it significantly adds to my knowledge of how to braise the cabbage and combine it with the noodles at just the right time.
`Cooks Illustrated' tends to squeeze a lot of the `joie de vivre' out of cooking in their articles by starting off with a clean slate, as if no one had ever made the dish they are discussing in an article. Cooking is one of those crafts where centuries of practice have pretty much arrived at the best way to do most things without loading us up with all the paraphernalia of experimental science. But, with this subject, proper respect is given to tradition, and to the recommendations of such culinary sages as Paula Wolfert on couscous and Marcella Hazan on pasta.
Their finest contributions are the sidebarred tutorials on everything from preparing artichokes to opening clams. This makes the book superb for the novices who happen to enjoy experimenting with their own variations of pasta dishes.
I must also mention that as a trade paperback, this manual of riches lists for less than $20, about half the cost of a book of recipes from an A-List culinary writer.