Discover more from Mr. and Mrs. Psmith’s Bookshelf
REVIEW: Cooking at Home, by David Chang
Cooking at Home: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (And Love My Microwave), by David Chang and Priya Krishna (Clarkson Potter, 2021).
I am, I think, a pretty good cook. I’ve improved over the years — I chop faster than I used to, I multitask better (both in the sense of making multiple dishes at once and in the sense of preventing my growing brood of belligerents from destroying themselves and/or one another and/or my house while I cook), and I’ve developed a good sense of what kinds of things my family likes to eat and what’s too fussy for our lifestyle. But I still mostly cook the way I saw my parents cook when I was a kid, which goes something like this:
Sit down with a cookbook, or sometimes a printout or a page clipped from the newspaper. Make a list of the dishes you are planning to cook.
Make a list of the ingredients for those dishes, then make sure you have them all in the house. Go shopping if you don’t.
Follow the recipe with as much precision as you can currently muster.
There are, of course, variations: when I had a toddler and lived two blocks from the grocery store, I used to decide each morning what we would eat and our shopping trip would occupy my small person for a satisfying chunk of pre-naptime. When shopping meant a ten-minute drive, I planned a week’s worth of meals at a time and tried to repeat ingredients that come in batches too big for one dish (what am I doing with the rest of the cilantro? ooh, let’s look in the Indian1 cookbook). And of course even this kind of cooking assumes a body of background knowledge: the difference between a chopped onion and a minced one (and whether it matters for this particular recipe), what properly browned meat looks like, how to check the amount of liquid in your measuring cup at eye level instead of looking down at the counter. But the basic idea is that all the thinking has been done ahead of time, either by you or by the recipe writer. When it’s actually time to cook, all you have to do is follow the instructions.
This is not the only way to cook.
I do love recipes — I read cookbooks for fun sometimes, and not for the chatty little blurbs about the time the author set her kitchen on fire — but I have always envied that other way of cooking, the kind where you have food in your house and you look at it and put it together and somehow produce a delicious meal. I’m closer than I used to be — where as a newlywed I would have looked up a recipe for roasted broccoli, I now happily chop whatever roastable vegetables we have on hand and throw them in the oven while something else cooks (and ooh, maybe we should grate some parmesan on it when it comes out? a little lemon?) — because you can’t follow instructions for a solid decade-plus without internalizing some of the rules.
David Chang is, of course, way ahead of me.
He’s a chef’s chef, described in a dedicated chapter of Anthony Bourdain’s 2011 Medium Raw as a sort of volatile high-stress bad boy who didn’t think he’d make it to thirty. He’s done better than Bourdain since then, ending up with a wife, two adorable kids, and live-in in-laws whom he fed in an Airbnb for the first year of the pandemic. (He’s also made it to 45.) He’s got a thriving restaurant, prepared food, and media empire. But most relevantly, he’s saved me at least a decade in my journey to being able to cook without recipes.
It was really Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat that put me onto cooking as an activity that went beyond following a recipe (if you haven’t read it, you should). Her advice is invaluable and her recipes very good (if more complicated than an average weeknight at the Psmiths can usually accommodate)…but they’re, well, recipes. Cooking at Home gives similar advice (how do you tell when something has been salted enough? what sorts of things can be added to a broth or a braise or a salad?) and then puts it into practice. There are no recipes. Instead there are techniques and explanations. Take this sort of cut of meat, Chang says, and then, depending on how much time and attention you have (this is clearly written by someone who lives with a toddler), either roast or boil it — here’s how to tell when it’s done — and then… He explains the shortcuts and tradeoffs and when precision really matters (spoiler: hardly ever), and sometimes he talks about the differences between how he makes something at home and how he’d make it in a restaurant.
If you spend a few years making several braises a week, you’ll eventually figure out what they have in common. You might not articulate it clearly, even to yourself, but you’ll have a sense of what cuts of meat are good braised, what kinds of other things get added and when, what combinations of flavors work together. Cooking at Home fast-forwards through the years of data collection directly to the heuristics, presented in the context of a particular dish. It’s a fabulous teaching technique: here is the principle, which I have derived from experience, and here is how I apply it in this case. Okay, now here’s another case, and another, until you can see how you too might apply these principles in your own cases.
Chang’s parents are Korean immigrants and his coauthor’s are from India2 (there’s a bit where he describes one dish as “my version of white people food”), so the dishes he describes are heavy on the gochujaru and ssamjang. His food is probably great; I wouldn't know, because I haven't made any of it. What I have made is a goat and orzo soup with resolutely French flavors (because I had Worcestershire sauce and shallots and Dijon mustard in the fridge), a roasted pork butt we ate sliced on brioche with some zhuzhed-up barbecue sauce, and something that sort of wanted to be brisket phở if it was made by Italians. They were all delicious. But most importantly, I've taken inspiration from Chang's fast-and-loose approach to cooking temperature, his advice on how to test doneness (does it feel like a memory foam mattress?), and permission to use my recipes as inspiration rather than instruction. (I could have done this without reading the book but the fact remains that I didn't.)
Why would you want to cook like this? Well, for one thing, it’s freeing. Those of us who don’t put a high priority on the morning entertainment of a two-year-old (or have a nice grocery store a pleasant puddle-stomping walk away) too often become the slaves of our meal planning ambitions. Yes, that baked pasta sounded delicious! But it’s an unexpectedly beautiful day and you would much rather take the dog for a long walk in the sunshine than be in your kitchen early enough to bake it for ninety minutes. Or perhaps you’ve had a sudden dinner invitation from a friend, or the sink has broken and you don’t want to make any more mess while you wait for the plumber, or you’ve just had such a day that you can’t bear to cook. Fine! This is why God gave us takeout. But then what happens to your ingredients? If you’re lucky, you can push everything back a day on your schedule. But if your plan, like mine, was constructed around your family’s various activities, the weather, the fasts of the church, and more, you may not be able to do that. If I miss the chicken soup I was going to make on a cold and rainy Tuesday, I will have to wait until Saturday to have another chance to cook it — by which time the chicken may not be very nice any more. Of course, I can always freeze the chicken. Or I can pull out my cookbooks and look for a chicken recipe I can whip together on Thursday, when I have only a short time to make dinner, and shop again for any additional ingredients. But wouldn’t it be easier to look critically at what you have in the pantry, fridge, and freezer and rearrange your plan on the fly? Take some of what was going to be in Tuesday’s soup and combine it with some of the vegetables from Wednesday’s pasta for a big grain bowl (the children can pick and choose their favorites), then do a quick sauté of the chicken with some sausage and serve it with bread and salad on your rushed Thursday. Do you have time to make a pan sauce? Absolutely not, dip your bread in the skillet juices like a normal person.
But the second (and more important) reason to cook this way is that we ought to think about our food. Food is a fundamental human pleasure, a communal experience, an inescapable reminder of our corporeal nature, and your cooking should respect the role the food will play. This doesn’t mean you need to meditate on your chicken’s lived experience as you sauté, but a few stray thoughts on the sun and grass and bugs that led to this chickeniness, and how nicely it’s amplified by the rosemary, wouldn’t go amiss. The things you are making, and the things you are making them from, are important. They matter. Cooked food is the foundation of civilization, the thing that let our hominin ancestors shrink their guts and grow their brains, the purpose of the very heart of your home. Why does everyone always end up in the kitchen? For the same reason the Latin “focus” means hearth.
Turning even a cheap cut of meat or a wilted vegetable into something wholesome and satisfying should be a source of pride not only at your thrifty housekeeping but also at how you have rescued some tiny corner of the physical world from the second law of thermodynamics. Creation is full of beauty and wonder and it can be seen in the kitchen as easily as anywhere else. If you’ve ever tried to bake a vegan cake, you know what a perfect little treasure of fats, proteins, and emulsifiers a chicken egg really is. There is a sort of cooking that is the moral equivalent of mindlessly shoveling textured vegetable protein into your mouth while working up a repetitive stress injury in the doomscrolling thumb. Shun it.
This is a particularly modern cri de coeur for a particularly modern problem. In a more agricultural society, or one with a less robust food distribution system, it would be impossible not to think about your food because thinking about it would be a matter of survival. Only when our chickens come to us already plucked, gutted, cut apart, and wrapped in plastic do we have to remind ourselves of their chickeniness. But it's no less important for its particularity. Perhaps, as a remedy to a new problem, it's more important.
Another approach that synergizes well with going recipe-free (or at least recipe-lite) is to cook from ingredients first. We took our first tottering steps in this direction in the early days of the pandemic, when it seemed not only safer but easier and cheaper to buy large quantities of frozen beef from restaurant suppliers suddenly selling to the public for the first time. I began shopping for foods based on how long they would last on my shelves, which meant my meal planning was more or less “what can I do with all these cabbages?” (The answer is sauté them with onions until both are caramelized. I am still not tired of this.) These days, our vegetables come from our weekly CSA and our meat is mostly from a local farmer (and more proximately, a chest freezer in the garage stuffed with half a cow and a whole pig). If you have the room to store it, bulk pasture-raised meat is surprisingly inexpensive, as well as tastier, healthier, and more humane. (When we went to pick up our pork, we watched our pig’s surviving companions frolicking in the rain. They oinked at me.) Figuring out what to cook this week means looking in the crisper drawer more than a cookbook, and my list at the grocery store is now something like: milk, bananas, dish soap, yogurt, bagels, that one spice I ran out of.3
Of course, all this meditating on the physicality of your food is easier said than done. Sometimes you just need dinner on the table. Sometimes you need to do your thinking ahead of time, because when you’re cooking you’ll also be quizzing someone on Latin vocabulary and bandaging someone else’s knee and removing the baby from the dishwasher. But the skills you learn from cooking without recipes mean you can be more flexible and improvisational when you do use a recipe. (I almost always have a recipe I’m working from, even if it’s mostly as inspiration — if you replace the quinoa with farro, the parsnips with carrots, change the spices, and add some ground beef, is it even the same recipe? Call it the Salad of Theseus.) The frame of mind this sort of cooking encourages carries over into other walks of life. When we think of our food as more than just fuel, when we practice recognizing the profound interconnectedness of creation and our own role in turning it to honor, we begin to make of our lives something thicker, deeper, sturdier, and better-ordered than they were before.
And delicious, too.
Just kidding, I have five Indian cookbooks. And I use them all.