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I'm Just Here for the Food
by Alton Brown

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

As a regular devotee of the Television Food Network, I've been following Alton Brown's Good Eats series for years. The standard "Food TV" formula seems to be educate and entertain: give the audience some good basic techniques and recipes but make it palatable by ladling on copious quantities of personality and flair. Surely no chef has mastered this concept better than Emeril "Bam" Lagasse, who cooks in front of adoring audiences nationwide accompanied by a superb jazz-funk band all his own. Emeril has used his winning ways with audiences to popularize good cooking the way Liberace used his showmanship during the fifties to popularize classical music. A host of other pundits follow the same formula on the network: the jovial Austrian Wolfgang Puck, the "everyone's mom" Sara Moulton, the beefy Italian-American chef Mario Battali, the proud New York fusion chef Bobby Flay, swinging Londoner Jaime Oliver, to name only a few of the best known.

Among the television food gurus, Alton Brown is the thinker, the intellectual, the food physicist, chemist, biologist, and educator. He is also superbly entertaining. He'll pull cherubic food scientist Shirley Corriher out of an Iowa corn field to explain one of his points as easily as he'll pull his batty sister or know-it-all mother out of the woodwork of his Atlanta home for comic effect. You really get a chuckle from Alton (the "AL" rhyming with "pal" rather than "pall"). Even as he entertains, Alton empowers his audience with the zeal of a culinary crusader. Here is a man with a mission. If you haven't yet sprung for cable, all is not lost. The network's web site, www.foodtv.com, sells key sets of Alton's Good Eats episodes on videotape. Here you can purchase, among others, Alton's technically superb episode on cooking steak (sear on the stove over blistering heat in a cast iron skillet, then finish in the oven). The steak episode was the first I ever saw, and is now a jewel in my collection of 93 episodes I've since taped off the cable.

Even more accessible is Alton's new book: I'm Just Here For the Food, subtitled Food + Heat = Cooking. Alton calls himself a "culinary cartographer." He likes metaphors. He tells us that if he gave you directions to his house in "Proustian detail," you'd certainly get there, but, without a map, you couldn't improvise yourself out of a blocked road, or a wrong turn. What's does this metaphor have to do with cooking? It's this: there's a big problem with recipes. They are the driving directions, in tenth-of-a-mile increments. They do not function as a map. They add little knowledge and no perspective. Without a food knowledge base that transcends individual recipes, you will have more failure than success in the kitchen. The truth shall make you free.

Alton Brown has conceived I'm Just Here For the Food as just such a map of cooking's complex terrain. He carefully follows his subtitle, Food + Heat = Cooking, in structuring the book. Instead of organizing the book by types of food (meats, vegetables) or types of dishes (appetizers, main courses, desserts), Alton takes us on a step-by-step journey through every major way to apply heat to food: searing, grilling, broiling, roasting, frying, sautéing, poaching, simmering, boiling, blanching, steaming, braising, stewing, and pressure cooking. He devotes the final third of the book to food-science-rich chapters on brining (with rubs and marinades), sauces, egg cookery, and a final concession to microwave cooking. An extensive appendix with very clear information on cuts of beef and pork (indexed to cooking method), knife and cook tool care, food safety and cleanliness, rounds out the book.

Alton's list of his cooking rules gives a good idea of his philosophy and what his book offers. For most dishes, you don't have to be that precise measuring seasonings, for example. For most dishes, you can try substituting almost any water-based liquid with another. You can switch foods of the same family: scallions for onions; or switch ingredients with similar uses: anchovies for capers. Only in baking (where professionals use the term formula rather than recipe) must you "not fool with Mother Nature." In his television programs and in this book, Alton demands time and again that all tools should multi-task (e.g., a meat cleaver does double duty as a meat tenderizer). The tool that gets the least amount of use in today's kitchen, he remarks, "is the brain." Cooking, he stresses, requires perspective and thought.

Alton gives us both. Take his chapter on roasting. The reason many cooks do not roast is because you cannot learn the technique from a recipe any more easily than you can learn to dance the tango by using stick-on footprint patterns. While most recipes call for adjusting roasting time by weight; Alton shows us that the shape of the roast is the determining factor. The roast doesn't care about how long it stays in the oven; it only cares about how hot it becomes internally. Delightful cartoons show how and how not to insert a roasting thermometer into your meat. We must respect the laws of physics, so Alton stresses that where we place the roast in an oven will dramatically affect the way it cooks.

Alton gives recipes at the end of each section to illustrate the points he proposes in such passionate detail. For roasting, he offers such staples as rib roast, perfect baked potatoes, and meatloaf, but he starts with roast turkey. Ever had a dried out turkey? I thought so. Alton doesn't shy away from controversy. Stuffing is evil, he writes, and basting is equally evil. Stuffing soaks up the meat juices, and extends a turkey's roasting time (and hence drying out time). Basting a turkey is useless, since the skin is waterproof; opening and closing the oven door all the time also increases the cooking (and drying out) time. Alton brines his turkey in a solution of salt, sugar and frozen orange juice concentrate and lets it soak overnight. (He devotes an entire section later in the book to the theory behind brining, which "teaches" the cells of the meat to retain moisture when the meat is later subjected to heat.)

Poultry skin browns because of the fat layers directly beneath the skin, so Alton counsels starting the bird at 500 degrees for half an hour to make sure the browning occurs before the fat has a chance to drip off. You'll then remove the nicely browned bird from the oven, reduce the heat to 350 degrees, cover the turkey breast with aluminum foil (because the legs take longer to cook), insert your roasting thermometer, and finish off the turkey.

I'm Just Here For the Food contains over 80 similarly enlightening recipes, all for basic foods you probably already actually prepare. The absolute cure for diseases like dried out turkey, badly poached fish, or soggy French fries is care, perspective, and a very digestible dose of science. Alton Brown offers us all three in this book and in his superbly conceived television series. His whimsical sense of humor, his cartoons, puppets and the hands that appear out of nowhere bearing essential ingredients, are just amusing little plusses. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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