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Today marks a first for Beth Fish Reads: I have written my first-ever joint book review. The idea came from Marg from Adventures of an Intrepid Reader, and she couldn't have picked a better book review to collaborate on. We are different cooks, in different stages of our lives, and living on different sides of the world. Thanks to modern technology, our conversation about Kathleen Flinn's The Kitchen Counter Cooking School couldn't have gone more smoothly.
So here's how it works: The first part of our review appears on Marg's blog. So you need to run over there and see what we have to say. The second part is right here. We are both sharing our thoughts and photos. We're also each hosting a giveaway.
There's lots to read, so let's get started. First, the photos I've shared here show the produce I picked up at the farmers' market this week and a few items I bought at the grocery store. All the produce (there were a lot more apples than shown) will be eaten by the end of the week--and there are just two of us. I have a well-stocked pantry and freezer, so I didn't have too much extra to get at the store this week. (Click on the photos to see them full size.)
As you learned from Marg, Flinn came up with the idea for her cooking school and book when she approached a stranger in the grocery store. After introducing us to her nine students (ranging in age from 23 to 61), Flinn writes about the lessons she presented to the wannabe cooks. Each chapter focuses on a particular technique or ingredient and ends with a recipe.
Me: Who do you think Flinn is writing to? People who never cook? People who want to improve their cooking skills? Were you inspired to get cooking from scratch?
Marg: I am not sure that I was "inspired" to get cooking from scratch, but I started thinking about it at least. There’s a big difference! I think that there are three distinct groups of cooks--there are those who are really good cooks, who can look at a group of ingredients in the cupboard and come up with something fabulous and they enjoy the whole cooking experience. This book isn’t really for them.
The next group are the people who can cook a little bit but who for whatever reason don’t do it all the time. I would see myself as being in this group, and so there were definitely things in this book for me to try. For example, as I mentioned before the pasta side dishes, pancakes, and another example is vinaigrette. I have never, ever made a vinaigrette before. Every summer I buy bottles of salad dressing. At the end of every summer I throw out practically full bottles! Maybe with just knowing the 'formula' I would be able to just make small batches that would actually get used. Maybe.
The third group, in my opinion, are people who are completely intimidated by cooking and so really need to start from the basics. This is probably the target audience for the book, but my question would be would someone who has no interest at all in cooking even pick the book up?
Me: I agree. I think I fit more in the first group. I was looking for something new and didn’t really find it. I can see how the second group of cooks would really benefit. Vinaigrette is something I do make myself. Flinn’s vinaigrette video really emphasizes how easy it is to make your own. I always add some mustard, garlic, and an herb and vary the type of vinegar. I love her trick of using up the mustard in the jar! That was totally new to me. (Click the link to see the video.)
Marg: I would think that running seasons of classes in the same way she did with the group that are in the book would be more likely to work for these types of cooks, but then that limits the exposure of the message to a group of 10 or so people each time. In some way the message is pretty similar to the one that Jamie Oliver has tried to get out through his Food Revolution series but obviously he has a much bigger 'name' and audience.
Me: Oh good point about Jamie Oliver. I didn’t make that connection. But yes, very similar. The idea is important: If you make it yourself, then it will be more healthful and contain less chemicals. I also think that if you can get your kids to help cook then they become less picky eaters; if they made it, they’ll want to eat it.
I must say I was surprised by how many of the students were thankful for the knife skills class. This surprises me. Although I think knowing which knife or how many knives to own is very useful, I wonder if most everyday cooks and their families really care about achieving the perfect dice or julienne.
Marg: This was one of the videos that my son and I watched and he was very excited because it tallied with what they had been taught at school recently! I have a drawer full of knives, but I really only use a couple. I really should just get rid of the really cheap ones that I have that were given to us as a set years ago and buy another really good knife and just have the couple that I use there! I do think that chopping is something that intimidates nervous cooks. Whenever you watch the cooking shows that are so prevalent on TV, the cooks chop through mounds of vegies in no time at all and end up with everything perfectly evenly diced and sliced and straight away people will go I can’t do that and so not even try!
Me: Ahhh. I see. I don’t chop everything with a chef’s flare, but I have never really minding chopping. I usually prepare all my ingredients before I start cooking. First, it makes the actual cooking process go more smoothly. Second, it means I’m not frantically trying to get the zucchini chopped before the onion burns. Finally, it gives me a chance to make sure I actually have all the ingredients, so I can make substitutions if I’m out of something.
I admit to skimming some of the chapters, but I thought maybe the students' families took to the new foods and ways of cooking pretty quickly. And, in fact, they were all still off canned and boxed goods a few months later. Do you think that’s realistic?
Marg: If you knew that someone who had been teaching you this class was coming wouldn't you make sure that it looked as though you were doing everything right? Actually, that might be a bit harsh. I think if you have grown more confident in your skills and have really experienced the difference in terms of saving money and taste you would be more likely to actually keep doing it. What do they say about habits--it takes something like six weeks to form a new one?
Me: Ha! Yes, I would want to impress the teacher if she were coming back to assess my kitchen and have a meal with me. On the other hand, if you learn how easy it is to bake a cake, then maybe you wouldn’t by a box mix anymore.
The recipes all look good and easy enough to follow, but I think the most helpful part of the book is her " 'Cheat Sheet' to Flavor Profiles." Here is where readers can get creative in the kitchen and turn a plain chicken meal, for example, into something great. Do you think you’d use these flavor combinations to create your own recipes?
Marg: I think I skimmed over that section. Will have to have a look at that bit again! I do think that I might refer back to certain sections occasionally particularly seeing as my son is very interested in cooking at the moment and I really want to encourage that whilst he is still engaged and interested.
I did miss not having any photos for the recipes. I know that you can have fabulous cookbooks without any images, but it certainly helps. There are the supplemental features like the videos that can be found on her website, but I would like to see a few more of these and maybe some other recipes etc added to her site so that it becomes an evolving site that you could visit regularly to get new ideas and tips.
Me: I thought the videos were very helpful--they really drove home the point that cooking can be fast and easy. I love the idea of an evolving site. I’d especially like to see some seasonal recipes that use fresh vegetables in the winter months. (Click the link for Flinn's video channel.)
Some final thoughts: To be honest, I wasn't very enthusiastic about The Kitchen Counter Cooking School until I started talking with Marg. Through her, I saw how helpful the book really is. She also encouraged me to watch the videos, which I thought were a wonderful supplement to the book.
Giveaway: Thanks to the publisher I have one copy of Kathleen Flinn's The Kitchen Counter Cooking School to give away to one of my readers. You also get a cool kitchen magnet (shown at the right; click to enlarge). To enter, fill in the form and I'll pick a winner on October 3. This giveaway is open to those with a U.S./Canadian mailing address only.
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