Reading Women #4: Lauren Braun Costello and Russell Reich’s Notes on Cooking

Notes on cooking The subtitle, A Short Guide to an Essential Craft, gives the game away—the book’s a largely successful attempt to be the Elements of Style of cooking. Costello (the chef) and Reich (the editor) even emulate Strunk & White, giving blunt, acerbic tips that read like dictums, with additional witty—and equally terse—commentary below each piece of advice. At least the authors know it. From the introduction: “A note dares shamelessly to assert The Truth. It is not weighed down by prevarications or extraneous information; the fat is cut away and only the essence remains.” The book moves briskly from the beginning of a meal’s process to the end stage, so that “Understanding the Recipe” and sections on proper tools and equipment come 30 pages before a specific foodstuff is mentioned. I read Notes on Cooking linearly but it’s just as useful—and as likely to incite arguments—if you thumb through it randomly. Some advice is deeply, obviously practical… but I had never bothered to think it through. (The entirety of #49: “Rotate your product. Shelve your perishables with the newest in the back and the oldest in the front. Habituate yourself to the FIFO system: First In First Out.”) Others are abstract, though Costello and Braun are quick to dismiss gauziness. Some are infuriating if you’re on a recessional budget (#97: “If you won’t drink it, don’t cook with it.” But what the hell am I gonna do with this leftover holiday wine? Throw it out?) And that’s… okay. Costello wants to establish a canon, a gold standard that you can know and then ignore once mastered. To emphasize that she wants to teach you how to think about cooking rather than what to cook, there are no recipes here. (There are appendices, though, with useful food combinations and a “flavor lexicon,” so that you can talk about food more concretely.) The organization and design are both clean and classy; the white space invites marginal notes and meditation. And, of course, fuming—but, then, you did that with Strunk & White, too.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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One Response to Reading Women #4: Lauren Braun Costello and Russell Reich’s Notes on Cooking

  1. Stina says:

    the whole not cooking with a wine you wouldn’t drink is simpler than you’re thinking… the idea being to steer you from using things like salty a** cooking wines…
    I’d say the big thing is once you cook with it the flavor is going to concentrate so if something is unpleasant about it it will become more so… but there are lots of qualities a drinkable-by-someone wine might have that I’m not interested in having from a glass but can still balance with seasonings and clever food pairings… or if the bottle’s been open too long (a phenomena that only occurs when I’m pregnant or something) you generally won’t want to sip it but it likely will still be good for deglazing a pan or tenderizing beef… my basic philosophy is if it’s completely fit for drinking then I will have already drunk it, so it’s lack of use implies it’s not something I would drink… [Case in point, I buy “wild turkey” exclusively for cooking or brining but clearly it’s fit enough for *someone* to drink as evidenced by sales, lol.]
    so before you over think things and toss acceptable items, keep in mind it’s not really got to be that perfect glass of wine by any stretch but if it is foul heat will only serve to amplify it… but I imagine if it were swill you’d have tossed it after opening so basically it is a real simple thing… (and even if there are flaws you can always consider what the flaws are and if you think you can compensate for or balance them before tossing… if you don’t want to toss it but can’t figure out what to do to save it then this is where your budget and your sense of adventure must come to the tipping point; and knowing one will be compromised you might just find yourself okay with tossing the wine if it means you might end up tossing out $$ ingredients along with it after it ruins a dish or that you play with it on cheap ingredients or whathaveyou…)

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