24 September 2011

Weekend Cooking: Review & Giveaway: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.


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.

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School at Powell's
The Kitchen Counter Cooking School at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Penguin USA / Viking, October 2011
ISBN-13: 9780670023004


TheBookGirl 9/24/11, 6:21 AM  

I think I fall somewhere between the second and the third group. I'm much more comfortable baking than cooking; I'm really not good at the improvisational thing.

A cookbook without pictures is sort of a deal breaker for me. I need to see what the recipe is supposed to look like and aside from that, I just like looking at pictures of food, lol.

I would appreciate the "cheat sheet" though.

Louise 9/24/11, 7:46 AM  

I do love your joint review. It was fun to read. Sounds like it was fun to do too. I would certainly love a knife skills class. I still remember when I finally got how to chop an onion. Basic I know, but gee it makes a world of difference when you know you can control and predict how it's going to come out. I always mean to make vinaigrettes, but then get too lazy. We've found an amazing caramelized balsamic a few years ago and can just drizzle that on by itself. It's fabulous.

caite 9/24/11, 8:00 AM  

I am in that middle group too...but I would aspire to be one of those who can look at some ingredients and make something wonderful from them.
But it will never happen.

Marg 9/24/11, 8:02 AM  

Thanks again Candace! This was a lot of fun to do!

Can I ask what the purple vegetables are? They look a bit like zucchini maybe?

Beth F 9/24/11, 8:07 AM  

Hi Marg! They are young eggplants.

Beth 9/24/11, 8:25 AM  

It's interesting to read your two perspectives on this book!

Beth S. 9/24/11, 8:27 AM  

I'm reading this book right now and enjoying it so far.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 9/24/11, 8:46 AM  

What a great, great review/conversation format - I love it!

I'm in the second group, so the book would be a good fit for my needs. The videos sound informative and confidence-building ... two more "supplies" that help in the kitchen :)

Michelle 9/24/11, 9:09 AM  

That's some serious produce you have there! Looks like a full days worth of cooking.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) 9/24/11, 9:17 AM  

Oh this is lovely ladies! Thanks so much for collaborating on this.

Jesse 9/24/11, 9:19 AM  

What a clever way to write a book review! A great realization of what book blogging and community is all about. Awesome!

Carol @ There's Always Thyme to Cook 9/24/11, 10:33 AM  

Loved the way you two did the review, thoroughly enjoyed it. I think I fall in between all three categories at times. I'm a decent, imaginative cook, although some recipes I find intimidating. And I can be lazy, not to mention I don't read through recipes, I skim and screw up and then have to save it, LOL! The book sounds like a good read although I do prefer a picture here and there.

Zibilee 9/24/11, 10:50 AM  

This is such a wonderful joint review, and reading it felt like I was sitting with the two of you listening to you chat about the book and cooking tips that you liked. I am going to have to think about adding this book to my collection, as it seems creative and may in fact inspire me to take some chances in the kitchen that I haven't taken before.

Beth Hoffman 9/24/11, 11:24 AM  

I soooo enjoyed reading this. The photograph of the produce is fabulous!

Happy weekend.

Nan 9/24/11, 12:56 PM  

I LOVE reading both your entries, and both your thoughts in each one. Fantastic. And I think Kathleen Flinn is my new best friend. Honestly, I just love her. I love that spirit. The two videos I've now seen - the pomodoro pasta and the vinaigrette were so good. I love it when chefs/cooks reassure the rest of us that we can do it! And we can. Somewhere I read that people use a mix because it always comes out the same. That's the mindset that needs to go. It's fine, in fact even great and fun, for cakes or anything to come out different each time. That's what makes it real. Authentic. You can see that this is really my passion, can't you. :<) Thanks, you two. This was such fun.

Nan 9/24/11, 12:58 PM  

Oh, and I'm pleased to know BF is really Candace. I don't know why, but I always like knowing someone's real name.

JoAnn 9/24/11, 2:27 PM  

Joint reviews are so much fun to read... and I'm positively drooling over your produce photo!

Karen White 9/24/11, 3:27 PM  

Great joint review! In some ways (with baking and vegetables) I am in the same category as you, Beth. But I'm a beginner with cooking meats. I think I could probably learn some useful stuff from this book. I started my little food blog as a way to encourage other parents to cook from scratch - which is so much more healthful, and not really all that hard. There is more chopping (I'm like you Beth, I like to have it all done before I start) and definitely more dish washing, but the rewards are great, and I think if you take a Zen approach to all the steps then it can be stress relieving as well!

Belle Wong 9/24/11, 5:03 PM  

I really enjoyed both parts of this review. I wonder how I'd like this book - I don't think I'd fit into the totally inexperienced group but I wouldn't say I'm in the middle group either since I haven't done much cooking in the past three years. Ward cooks just like you do, Candace - he preps everything beforehand. He finds all the chopping to be meditative!

natalie @ book, line, and sinker 9/24/11, 5:09 PM  

love the idea of a joint review--especially marg's colloquialisms (trolley for grocery cart/wagon), etc. i'm the worst of all worlds. i have ALL the gadgets--i love williams-sonoma--but am a nightmare in the kitchen. i try to follow recipes but am starting to think that i can't follow simple directions. i can bake a few things and i do have 4 or 5 go-to meals, but beyond that it's going to be trouble. listen, it took me THREE tries to make silly pizzas on a stick. if that's not a red flag, i'm not sure what is.

Joy Weese Moll 9/24/11, 6:27 PM  

This joint review was so much fun to read! This is probably not a cookbook I need, since I already do things like cut up chickens and make my own salad dressings, but I do like the philosophy that seems to underlie. I want a lot more people to know how easy and how much fun it is to make a salad dressing!

Margot 9/24/11, 9:10 PM  

I enjoyed your joint reviews. I've seen the videos and really liked them. She seems to be a very good communicator.

Uniflame 9/25/11, 6:57 AM  

It is an interesting review to read :) I am already cooking from scratch a whole lot, but I don't do it all the time. Simply because sometimes it is just easier to heat up soup then to make it yourself, for example ;)

Heather 9/25/11, 11:51 AM  

I enjoyed reading both posts and comparing your answers.

I also only use two or three of my fav knives. Definitely buy the best you can afford.

I have been cooking with my son this past summer. He now texts me from college asking for the occasional recipe guidence. Wow, such progress. He hates buying icky food at school and much prefers to take his own.

Little Nell 9/25/11, 12:34 PM  

I’ve only just discovered Weekend Cooking, but I’m looking forward to joining in again and visiting some of the other participants.

Vasilly 9/25/11, 4:23 PM  

Great post. Like I wrote on Marg's post, this book has some flaws but it sounds really helpful. I can't wait to look at the videos. Please enter me in the contest.

Peaceful Reader 9/25/11, 7:34 PM  

I haven't popped over to Marg's site but I love the back and forth conversation here. Excellent post idea. I would love the flavor cheat sheet. I think I fall somewhere in the middle and I already make everything from scratch but I think the videos could be helpful.

Julie Goucher 9/26/11, 2:34 AM  

I love the joint review. I have just commented on Marg's blog that I saw a reference to it on another blog, so is this the book of the season? I am off to explore Amazon, but suspect that it will not be available in the UK just yet. As to what sort of cook I am, I fall into all three categories!

Jane of Australia 9/26/11, 9:57 PM  

Great book review, love your work girls.
I am very late getting here but I am here

Gwendolyn B. 9/28/11, 4:15 PM  

This was a fun way to do a review -- I can see that you enjoyed doing it and I certainly enjoyed reading it. Nice job!

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