Have you ever been at a party and started talking about, say, your new-found appreciation of painting, only to find out that the conversation partner who has been politely humoring you is the curator of the Met? That’s a little bit how I felt reading Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand, which I learned about from my friend, chef Paul Redman.
While I’m peeling a few desultory cherry tomatoes, he’s developing relationships with farmers so that he can hold a week-long heirloom festival with 200 varieties, and then selecting the best to create a 12-course tasting menu. While I’m investing in one little bottle of aged balsamic, he’s got a set of six casks in his attic, made by his friend the barrel maker, in which he’s producing vinegar for his newborn son to enjoy when he’s grown.
Now I don’t mean this in a bad way at all! I’m envious as all get out. I’m hoping the time will come when I have time and energy to dive this deep. In the meantime, his books make enjoyable reading and can serve as the source for an occasional project on a rainy Sunday. In an age when the vast majority of cookbooks tout five-minute meals, Bertolli’s motto is "Good Cooking is Trouble". As my wife can readily attest, when it comes to the kitchen, sometimes I’m looking to start a little trouble.
Bertolli was chef de cuisine at Chez Panisse during the years when that restaurant was defining California cuisine and seasonal cooking, and proceeded to open the very highly regarded Oliveto in Oakland. Perhaps more than Alice Waters herself, his writing explicates the philosophy of that revolution.
Cooking By Hand isn’t divided into the usual appetizers, entrees, desserts, nor in the modern way, by season. Each section is devoted to a particular ingredient (pasta, balsamic, tomatoes), or a philosophical approach (planning a menu backwards from dessert, revisiting classic dishes).
The fresh pasta chapter was particularly enlightening. Typical books tell you to put some all-purpose flour in a bowl, make a well, add egg or yolks, stir it in, knead, roll, cut, boil and eat. Which is totally great advice if you have enough practice with each of those steps to know how each variable will affect the results. Bertolli walks you through every aspect, helping you understand when you would use semolina or farro flour, eggs or just water, and make the dough wet or dry, thick or thin… and what sauces and condiments each would naturally pair with. Amazing stuff.
In my next post, I’ll show you pumpkin ravioli I made using his instructions. And in the meantime, here’s the book on Amazon if you’d like a copy.
[ps. to my vegetarian pals: this book has a couple chapters and lots of recipes that are just utterly meaty. Don't let that stop you from getting it though. It really is one of the most remarkable cookbooks I've ever read.]