Sara Moulton’s “Home Cooking 101” (review)

I was vaguely familiar with Sara Moulton from her show on PBS (I’d watched several episodes where she cooked with other chefs I follow, such as Michele Scicolone and Grace Young, but had never cooked from one of her cookbooks before, so I was excited to try out “Home Cooking 101.” A fantastic illustrated guide to pantry staples and step-by-step prep for more complicated dishes, you’ll learn essential techniques such as making your own stock, preserved lemon slices, how to make homemade ricotta and paneer (it’s easier than you think; once you’ve tried homemade ricotta, you’ll never go back to storebought!), how to bake fish in a parchment bag, how to French a rack of lamb, pounding cutlets and more. Helpful sidebars give additional info and tips and tricks, including herb pairings, how to prepare ingredients, ingredient primers, etc. The numbered step-by-step photos (which get an entire page) are tremendously helpful to learn new techniques such as making spaetzle, crack a coconut, pound cutlets, trimming a rack of lamb, etc.

The book includes chapters on soups and salads, meat, poultry, seafood and vegetarian/vegan entrees, side dishes, “quick and quicker” entrees, more labor-intensive dishes for “when you have time,” and desserts (“something sweet”). One thing that took getting used to was the fact that chapter headers do not have tables of contents, so you will have to refer to the index or bookmark using sticky tabs to quickly locate recipes.

As I have several years’ experience in publishing (including layout in InDesign), I tend to pay close attention to a book’s layout, and the simple, uncluttered layout here (and effective use of color and fonts; recipe titles and ingredients are listed in teal, while steps are in black) works wonderfully. The font size and spacing make this highly readable even from a cookbook holder; all too often, I’ve reviewed books with too-light print or gloss pages that render them unreadable under actual kitchen conditions.

For my first test recipe, I decided to try the salmon baked in a bag. Although I’ve long known of the technique, I’d never tried making it at home; a pity, because know that I know how easy it is, I will certainly be cooking this way more often! You layer thin slices of orange and lemon, sprinkle with rosemary, top with seasoned salmon filets, top with more lemon and orange slices and chopped olives (I used Kalamata since the recommended oil-cured are impossible to find here) and bake; I halved the recipe for two good-sized filets, and it took about 14 minutes. The bonus is that your kitchen doesn’t smell “fishy,” and the fish cooks up perfectly moist, marinated in the citrus juices and a drizzle of olive oil. You could also switch out the orange slices for blood orange and use Meyer lemons; the possibilities are endless! Cleanup is a breeze; simply open the parchment bag, use a spatula to transfer the fish and citrus to a serving platter, and toss the parchment, no mess or pans to clean.

I love the broad range of international influences that abound, from Thai-style chicken salad and Korean BBQ Tofu Tacos to Thai-flavored pumpkin custard, Goan shrimp curry, Japanese (baked eggplant with miso-ginger glaze), French cuisine (duck breasts with warm lentil salad, duck confit, vichyssoise), Latin dishes, and more.

As a longtime vegetarian (now pescetarian, although I eat a vegetarian / vegan diet 90% of the time), I really appreciated a whole chapter devoted to vegetarian and vegan entrees; all too often, vegetarian mains are an afterthought, but here we have Indian eggs with spicy tomato pepper sauce, zucchini patties with garlicky yogurt sauce, spicy greens ravioli, Korean vegetable pancakes, stir-fried tofu, saag paneer, and Korean BBQ tofu tacos to tempt even the most hardened carnivore.

Recipes from guest chefs include many familiar names such as Joanne Chang (Flour, Boston), Hiroko Shimbo, Jacques Torres, Marc Vetri, and stir-fry guru Grace Young. The book is rounded out with online and mail order sources, a handy seasonal produce guide, and metric equivalents.

The one negative is that the book is not bound well; my copy has already split at the seams despite careful handling, and the cardboard cover seems to be on the flimsy side given the book’s weight and bends easily.

Otherwise, I look forward to trying many more recipes from Home Cooking 101 in the weeks and months to come!

(Disclaimer: This review originally published as part of the Amazon Vine program)

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