WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - There are two sides to every cook. Sometimes, you want to use a perfect recipe to create a culinary masterpiece. Other times, you want to improvise and create your own symphony of flavors.
“There's a side of me that wants a perfect holiday turkey, a cheesecake that when baked has no cracks on top, a prime rib that is cooked as well as any done in great steakhouses,” said cookbook author Pam Anderson during an interview at the Greenbrier resort here. She was a featured speaker at the Symposium for Professional Food Writers.
“Cooking on weekends, for guests, or for holidays - it's stressful enough if you're entertaining. You want to get it right.
“Then there's the other side of me that wants to get it on the table. Usually that's 300 times a year,” said the author, who resides in New Hope, Pa., with her husband and two teenage daughters.
Mrs. Anderson, who has written two cookbooks, one for each stance, is an expert at both. “The books have broad appeal for the two different times of our cooking lives,” she said.
The Perfect Recipe (Houghton Mifflin, $27) is a collection of articles Mrs. Anderson wrote for Cook's Illustrated magazine from 1993 to 1998. She was executive editor of the magazine when she left in 1999 after a 12-year collaboration with publisher Christopher Kimball that included Cook's Magazine, which evolved into Cook's Illustrated. The cookbook is written in the style of the magazine, with illustrations, extensive recipe testing, and researching.
In her other cookbook, How to Cook Without a Book (Broadway, $25), Mrs. Anderson starts each chapter (such as “The Big and Bigger Frittata” and “Weeknight Stir-Fries”) with an essay explaining a technique. She then gives a basic recipe with examples of how the formula can change with different variations of ingredients. For example, 10 variations of stir-fries follow the basic recipe. The arrangement is designed to give people the confidence to cook at a glance.
“These can be followed, but are not meant to if you don't want to,” said the author, who grew up in Panama City, Fla.
“Every recipe is virtually 30 minutes [to prepare],” she said. “I thought about what are the things that I like to eat and what things thaw quickly and cook quickly.”
She traces her love of cooking to her childhood. Even then, she had an awareness of recipe writing.
“My first recipe memory is making the `1, 2, 3, 4 step' cake around the holidays with my mother,” she said. “Halfway through, I realized she wasn't following the recipe. She didn't separate the eggs as the recipe said. She used the Auburn [University] cookbook as a culinary cue card.”
That cookbook, written by Auburn University's home economics department, probably was her mother's only cookbook.
From the cookbooks of yesteryear in which minimal information was listed in recipes - often in prose form - because cooks knew how to cream, sift, and fold in ingredients, recipes today have gotten longer, with more ingredients. Many times, the novice cook is overwhelmed.
“Today's recipes assume the cooks know nothing, but when they look at the recipe with all the details, they feel overwhelmed and close the book.”
Behind the scenes, Mrs. Anderson thoroughly tests recipes. “I have this way of researching and testing that ends up gathering 50 to 75 recipes. I analyze them by creating a big chart. I break down each recipe so I'm not seeing a miscellaneous list of ingredients but I'm seeing the big picture.”
Imagine tasting Seared Fish Steaks multiple times. “I test systematically the full range of recipes, 50 to 75 times. It's very hard work,” she said, “and very expensive.”
How to Cook Without a Book lists uncooked relish possibilities, flavored butter possibilities, and pan sauce possibilities, all for fish steaks. In addition, for fish steaks, pork chops, turkey cutlets, and even duck breasts, “there are 25 different sauces and most are interchangeable,” she said.
Thankfully, her meticulous efforts have paid off. Readers like one of my colleagues applaud classics such as Buttermilk Fried Chicken from The Perfect Recipe as well as the Coconut Cream Pie. (That book won an International Association of Culinary Professionals award in 1998.)
Recipes such as Simple Roast Beef Tenderloin served with Parsley Sauce with Cornichons and Capers are suitable for holiday dinners. Chapters titled “Perfect Potato Salad,” “Memorable Meatloaf,” and “Great Greens” contain recipes that are fine for special dinners as well as everyday specials.
How To Cook Without a Book is a finalist for a 2001 James Beard Foundation Award in the general cookbook category. Mrs. Anderson calls the awards, which will be announced April 30 in New York, “the Academy Awards of cookbooks.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Anderson is a food columnist for USA Weekend. In that role, she expects to develop articles and recipes 13 or 14 times a year. “These will be a combination of the two styles,” she said.
A third book, Cook Smart, will be published in spring, 2002.