Some cookbooks teach you technique. Others teach you to love to cook.
The cookbook I first fell in love with wasn’t my first cookbook.
In the late ‘90s, just out of college, I owned one battered copy of The Greens Cookbook, an ideal primer for vegetarians (as I was then). The black bean chili recipe page features watermarks of cumin, paprika, and cayenne from my grimy, greedy young hands, and those beans will be the base of my enchiladas verde for the rest of my life.
But the first cookbook that—let’s be honest, here—smote me was by British food writer Nigel Slater. A friend who worked at Random House gave me a copy of his new book Appetite in the early ‘00s. Here was cooking at its sultriest, messiest, most-unmade-bed glory. The photos glowed; I saw messy cutting boards, aprons tie-dyed with stains from berries, tomatoes and charcoal, and juicy chickens oozing onto serving platters. There were sausages, cut, lolling alongside golden puddles of mustard, pavlovas and fish curries alongside recipes that actually looked doable, and Slater’s encouraging, funny, to-hell-with-it writing.
Here was a cook who didn’t fuss and didn’t pander, but who was as opinionated as a political columnist. If you spy a box of pre-ground pepper in a friend’s home, he wrote, you should pluck it from its perch and hurl it into the trash. (You are doing her a favor by getting her to use the freshly-ground stuff.) Slater’s hyperbole was gorgeous: Cooking was “one of the greatest pleasures you can have with your clothes on.” The “nicest appetizer in the world” is “a little plate of shop-bought potted shrimp and some hot, whole-wheat toast.” Making dinner for one is “a golden opportunity to think of no one but ourselves for once.” I have Slater to thank for my dinners alone with a steak, good red wine, and a sense of satisfaction.
Slater taught me how to cook by the season (before it was de rigueur), and that it’s OK to serve store-bought chocolates for dessert when you’ve sweat over the rest of your guests’ meal. He encouraged me to have a glass of wine before I start doing my prep, which I still do today to make the cooking be the thing I look forward to at day’s end, and not just the dinner.
I remember making my way through these recipes, one at a time. His chicken proved divinely simple, with a garlicky herb butter pushed under the skin to make it special. A friend and I spent a night drinking beer and whipping garlic aioli into existence by hand—no small feat. We boiled little fingerling potatoes and sprinkled them with flaky salt. Our arms ached. It was worth it. The aioli was golden and wobbly, as far a cry from store-bought mayo (which I still love) as one can get.
A section of the introduction that I return to all the time, and which I’ve nearly memorized, is titled “adding flavor—and taking it away.” I think of it as the “what goes with what” part of the book. Slater lists various flavors—mint, vanilla, juniper, capers—alongside the foods “for which they were, I think, put on this earth (but then of course I could be wrong).” Mint is meant for lamb, potatoes, and peas. Nutmeg is intended for milk and potatoes. Juniper goes with pork, rabbit, or cabbage.
The seasoned cook thinks, “Of course.” The novice thinks, “Ooohhh.”
That’s how I felt. A door opened. It is the primary lesson I come back to again and again, a variation on the popular tip to, when stuck, consider which foods grow together—what hails from the same part of the world? But this rudimentary flavor wheel is now where I start. If I’m craving anchovies, I will start thinking about olives, and how to pair them. If I am plucking basil, I wonder if I’ll serve their tomato counterpart raw or cooked.
These days I’m a sophisticated enough cook to know that cilantro can be the base of Indian, Mexican, and Thai dishes alike. But when I began, I was using a little box of pre-ground pepper. The lesson that I should I should use my palate and my intellect, and that I should be ambitious, is one I will cling to.
“What do you want to eat today?” was the title of one chapter. Cooking should also be that simple, that straightforward, and that satisfying.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.