by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Photographs © J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
When “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science” hit the shelves last October, it intimidated me. I had never seen anything like it and didn’t know exactly how to tackle it. There was so much information. And then some time passed and unfortunately, you know, out of sight = out of mind…
I was abashed at a dinner party recently when a chef asked what I thought of “The Food Lab.” Eloquently, I said “huh?” to which she responded “You know, Kenji!” Then it all came back: that book sitting somewhere in Chicago – it’s time to face the music.
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Culinary Director at Serious Eats and author of The Food Lab section, which demonstrates the wheres, whys, and how-tos of numerous culinary techniques. Many have exclaimed that he is the new Harold McGee, the acclaimed expert in food science and author of “On Food and Cooking.”
This book is massive – about 6 pounds and almost 1,000 pages. Although it has been compared to a textbook, it is far more useful, informative and practical for the home cook, in my opinion, than, say, “The Modernist Cuisine.”
The 81-page introduction covers essential gear, explains which knife (and other tools) should be used for what, how and why. There is also an extensive list of essential pantry ingredients. Then, the titles of the following nine chapters all end in “and the Science of…” such as Blanching, Searing, Braising, Glazing, Roasting, and the Science of Vegetables or Green Emulsions, and the Science of Salads. Don’t let that be off-putting because he speaks in everyday understandable language.
He peppers the book with experiments to try such as Fat = Flavor, where he suggests you take a piece of beef cut into three portions and add one ounce of a different fat, such as beef, lamb and bacon, to each portion. Then grind each separately, form into a patty, cook and taste. You learn that it is the type of fat which flavors the meat, not the type of meat with which you begin. Fascinating.
When it’s appropriate to compare ingredients or techniques by the use of a table, the reader can do so at a glance. For example, you can find a list of vegetables lined up with five basic cooking techniques; or upwards of 40 types of cheese showing if they can be fried or crumbled or melted; another chart lists types of milk and how they taste; and there is even a chart showing the smoke points of common oils.
Even if you are a beginning cook, buy this book and you will have a better understanding of everything you do in the kitchen – not only the how-to, but more importantly the “why.” This is a real guy (a real smart guy) who talks and writes like a friend. In the first pages of the book, he’ll endear you immediately when you read “I am a nerd and proud of it.”
Beside being a nerd, he’s a darn good photographer, too, as he did all of his books photos as well. Here’s a recipe for a high-heat roasted cauliflower with a sweet-sour-salty vinaigrette.
- 1 head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into 8 wedges
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 table sherry vinegar
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed, drained, and roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
- 1/4 cup raisins
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
- Adjust an oven rack to middle position, place a heavy rimmed baking sheet on the rack, and preheat the oven to 500°F. Toss the cauliflower with 3 tablespoons olive oil. Season generously with salt and pepper.
- Carefully remove the baking sheet from the oven, using oven mitts or a folded dish towel. Transfer the cauliflower wedges to the pan and return to the oven. Roast until the cauliflower is tender and deeply browned on both sides, about 20 minutes total, flipping the cauliflower with a thin metal spatula halfway through roasting.
- While the cauliflower roasts, combine the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and the vinegar, honey, capers, pine nuts, raisins, and parsley in a medium bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Transfer the cooked cauliflower to a serving plate and spoon dressing on top. Serve immediately.