Review: Ruhlman’s Twenty

Editor’s Note: Linda Avery returns with a look at Ruhlman’s Twenty by noted food writer and award-winning cookbook author Michael Ruhlman. Is it a cookbook? A textbook? Read on to find out.

Ruhlman’s Twenty

by Michael Ruhlman
photography by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Facts: Chronicle Books,  368 pages, $40.00 (or Amazon at $33.34Kindle $17.59)
Photos: 281, including photo series demonstrating techniques
Recipes: 113
Give To: Dedicated home cooks who want to learn more about the cooking process.

Have you wished you could or would have gone to culinary school? If it weren’t for time, money or family? Maybe your career (which you also love) is too far down the road to start over, but you still want to know more about how a chef approaches a dish so that you can become a better cook.

My advice: read and learn from Ruhlman’s Twenty by Michael Ruhlman – that’s the ticket.

This isn’t a dry textbook. The book has been named a 2012 cookbook award finalist by IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals). Ruhlman knows how to communicate, even if he comes across as preachy at times. He has written or collaborated on some heavy-hitter cookbooks in the past couple of decades, including The French Laundry Cookbook.

The “Twenty” are 20 essential “techniques”; some are obvious like roast, braise, and poach. Some not so obvious, i.e., words that initially come to mind as nouns, but in Ruhlman’s world they are verbs — like salt, water, and batter.

The very first technique seems a no-brainer: think.

Should it go without saying that the process begins with reading the recipe? Envisioning how things will play out? Gathering ingredients? To some it is second nature, but many people begin to cook without thinking.

Here is a hard-to-believe-but-true example. A friend was making Christmas cookies and having a difficult time stirring the dough. Either her arm or the KitchenAid became fatigued, and she called her husband to assist. After a few turns around the bowl, he stopped and read the recipe. She had forgotten the butter. How does one start a cookie recipe without butter? Did she read the recipe? Ever heard of mise en place? Okay, she gets a pass – there are a lot of distractions during the holidays: kids yelling, dog barking, etc., but it’s a good example.

Back to the Twenty: each chapter includes a number of recipes illustrative of the featured technique, and at least one recipe within the chapter has a series of photos exemplifying that technique. Most recipes are classic, with Ruhlman’s personal touch added. But this isn’t a book you necessarily buy for the recipes.

As Ruhlman himself says, referencing his previous book Ratio, “A ratio is like a key. To turn that key, you need technique.”

Sautéed Scallops With Asparagus

photo © Donna Turner Ruhlman

I first saw a variation of this recipe at The French Laundry where the poissonnier at the time, Grant Achatz, put it over the top with truffles and asparagus tied in a cute little bundle with a chive, additional chlorophyll keeping the sauce intensely green. And it was fabulous, but the main reason it was so good was that scallops and asparagus are an unparalleled pair on every level: contrasting colors and textures, and a wonderful mix of flavors.

The main critical points are to cook and shock the asparagus properly and to get a good colorful crust on the scallops. The hardest part is finding good scallops. Try to find a good fishmonger who can offer large dry-packed scallops in the fall and winter when they are primarily harvested. The larger they are, the better the dish will be, and the easier it will be to prepare.

1 1/2 pounds/680 grams asparagus, boiled and shocked
1 1/2 pounds/680 grams scallops
3/4 cup/170 grams butter, cut into 3 equal pieces
Fine sea salt
Canola oil
Kosher salt
About 2 tablespoons lemon juice
Finely chopped lemon zest for garnish

1. Remove the tips from the asparagus and reserve for garnish. Cut the stalks into pieces and purée in a blender until completely smooth. You may need to add a little water, 1/4 cup/60 milliliters or so, to ensure they’re completely puréed. You can also use a food processor; if you do, pass the purée through a basket strainer to remove any long fibers. The asparagus can be prepared up to 24 hours before serving and stored in the refrigerator.

2. Remove the scallops from the refrigerator 1 hour before cooking and place them on a plate lined with paper towels/absorbent paper. They usually have a little nib of connective tissue on their side; remove and discard this.

3. Just before cooking the scallops, put the puréed asparagus in a saucepan over low heat. Put the asparagus tips and 1 piece of the butter in a sauté pan over low heat.

4. Season the scallops on both sides with fine sea salt. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat. It needs to be large enough that the scallops aren’t crowded, or you won’t get a good sear, one of the pleasures of this dish. Add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. A depth of 3/16-inch/5 millimeters is ideal, but gauge the depth by eye. It is better to err on the side of too much oil. You’re not eating the oil, just cooking in it. When it’s very hot, just before it smokes, add the scallops and cook until they are beautifully seared, about 2 minutes. Turn and continue cooking just until the scallops are warm in the middle and medium-rare, about 2 minutes. With scallops, it’s better to err by undercooking them; raw scallops are delicious, but overcooked scallops are rubbery. Remove the scallops to paper towels/absorbent paper to drain.

5. While the scallops are cooking, raise the heat on both pans with asparagus to medium. Warm the tips in the butter. Bring the pureed asparagus to a simmer and season with kosher salt, then whisk in the remaining butter.

6. Immediately before serving, add the lemon juice to the asparagus sauce. Divide the sauce among plates or large bowls. Place the scallops on the sauce and garnish with the warmed asparagus tips and lemon zest.

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