Sunday, February 22, 2009

I Hate American Cookbooks

I do almost all my cooking from English recipes. Partly it's because I really like English food. This astonishes many. And I have to admit English food really earned its bad rep. When I first went to the UK in the 60s, I thought the title of Arnold Wesker's Chips with Everything was a joke - until I walked into a cheap cafe in London and saw the menu. Sausage with chips, ham with chips, bacon with chips....spaghetti with chips?

Even in the 80s, the food in your average pub was abysmal. On one long car trip, my husband and I beguiled the hours planning a catering company that would supply good food to pubs.

Now, though, even the pub food is good. And English cooks are at the top of the heap when it comes to a profound appreciation of seasonal ingredients. I regularly clip recipes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the Guardian and Rowley Leigh in the Financial Times, and they're always written with an intense awareness of what tastes best right now (Of course, that's right now in England, which can be frustrating. Recently both have raved over purple sprouting broccoli, a vegetable I've never even seen, let alone tasted).

But there's another reason I prefer English recipes: they don't use cup measures. They use weights. And boy, does that make cooking, and shopping, easier.

Yesterday, trolling the web for a recipe to use up a half a pound of really bland cheddar I'd ordered from my raw milk supplier (if you want good cheese, I now know, don't buy it from a dairy farmer, buy it from a cheesemaker), I came upon one for macaroni and cheese with leeks. It called for a pound of sharp cheddar, and I figured if I bought half a pound of the sharpest cheddar I could find, and mixed the two, it would work. And it did.

But it also called for 5 cups of chopped leeks. Well, just how many leeks is that? Two? Three? Four? Five? Small leeks? Big leeks?

I made a wild guess and bought three pounds of large leeks. It turned out to be one too many, but that's OK - I can always use a spare leek. But had the recipe called for 2 1/2 pounds of leeks - or even for 500 grams (roughly a pound) of chopped leeks, figuring out how much to buy would have been a lot easier.

Or take peppers. A few years ago I made a dish that called for a cup of peppers sliced lengthwise. I don't know what kind of measuring cup the writer was using, but mine was a good inch and a half shorter than the pepper slices, and I was left struggling to read the writer's mind. Come on, I kept saying - just tell me how much it weighs.

American chefs' terror of the scale bewilders me. A scale is neither high-tech (mine has two buttons), nor rare (every cooking supply store sells them) nor expensive (Amazon sells the one I've got for $25). And it makes life easier in countless ways. You can set it for ounces or grams. You can re-set it to zero over and over again, making it magically simple to measure multiple ingredients directly into a bowl without using (or having to wash) every measuring cup in the house.

In a pinch, you can even weigh packages with it.

Lee Gomes, writing last summer in the Wall Street Journal, says it's not the cookbook writers' fault - most of them use scales themselves. The problem, he says, is that cookbook publishers think weights in a recipe will scare readers off.

Come on. Do they really think someone who can figure out a TV remote will be scared off by a two-button scale?

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