Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Cookbook Review: Tassajara Cooking

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     A couple months back I picked up a new cookbook at Powell’s in downtown Portland I randomly came across while browsing. The book is from the early 1970s, but doesn’t have the kitschy 1970s cookbook feel to it. More of a guide book, this is quite the un-recipe book, to be honest. There are no pictures, but it does offer a good variety of hand-drawn illustrations that show you how to chop a particular vegetable or just a simple image of a kitchen inspired still life.

     Tassajara Cooking is named for the world famous Zen training center founded in California in 1967. The book was a combined effort of the residents, family members, and friends of the Zen Center.

     The back of the book just might be my favorite cover of all time:

This is a book to help you actually cook – a cooking book. The recipes are not for you to follow, they are for you to create, invent, test.
It explains things you need to know, and things to watch out for. There are plenty of things left for you to discover, learn, stumble upon.
You’re on your own.
Together with everything.

     Created by the folks at the San Francisco Zen Center and published by Shambhala, the book is fully vegetarian and divided into five main sections: Beginning, Cooking Vegetables, Other Basic Ingredients, Pumpkin Isn’t Always Pie, and Good Friends.

     The first section offers tips on caring for your kitchen knives, how to tackle some basic cooking techniques, and also offers a brief rundown of common vegetables, grains, and herbs used around the typical vegetarian kitchen.

     Next up is a good section on vegetables – potatoes, leeks, garlic, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, corn, and on and on. This section is broken down into warmer and cooler weather with an oddball section for other stuff. Overall, there are tons of ideas and very basic outlines for a variety of recipes.

     The third section of the book, Other Basic Ingredients, covers fruits, nuts, beans, seeds, dairy, eggs, grains, and pasta. There are some unique ideas on fruit here, so it’s not to be overlooked. The bean and legume area is just as important as well, how to not split your beans while they’re cooking, and cooking times for pressure cookers as well as just an open boil on the stove.

     Pumpkin Isn’t Always Pie takes a slight detour from the rest of the book which focuses more on simple flavors and showcasing the ingredients in their own right. Here, we are given more complex and strong flavors for salads, dressings, soups, stocks, and sauces.

     Lastly, we are given a briefing of some of the true work-horses of the kitchen: our cutting boards, bowls, pans, and the like. Talk about care and storage is brief but loaded with good information like don’t use your kitchen sponge on the floors or your dish towel on your face and hands. Cleaning and care are mostly discussed here with a reminder that ‘cooking makes cleaning possible and cleaning makes cooking possible’.

     What I enjoy most about the book is the emphasis to create simple meals using just what you have on hand before acquiring any additional goods or produce. I’ve leant some cookbooks and recipes out to friends in the past and I heard back they weren’t able to make anything because they were missing one or two of the ingredients. I try to offer advice to substitute things out or just make the dish without, and this is a radical concept to some folks. I feel that the guide book style of cookbooks, like Tassajara Cooking and The Flavor Bible, are best suited for these individuals. Everyone’s comfort level is different in the kitchen and this is a great way to learn to cook rather than learning to follow a recipe.

- Patricia

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