The James Beard Awards are the self-proclaimed “Oscars of the Food World”. This is true, except they aren’t televised (that we know of), there is no promise of high-profile celebrity face offs (although the relationship between Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain can get volatile sometimes), and the media-coverage they receive is typically limited to culinary mags and foodie blogs. If you’ve never heard of them, don’t beat yourself up. A lot of the honors they bestow don’t translate to gastro-civilians. Best Restaurant Architect? Clearly, an insider award. But one category that did catch our eye, however, was Best Cookbook. We’ve been trying to learn how to cook with varying degrees of success for years. Although our attempts have made us wise enough to know that when they say “a teaspoon” of baking soda, they mean it, we still feel like we could be better.
In pursuit of Julia caliber excellence, we plan to spend the next two weeks trying recipes from every cookbook nominated for an award (or at least every cookbook we can get our hands on). Then, we’ll dole out our own awards without, erm, any of the experience or expertise promised by the James Beard Foundation. Read on for the results of our inaugural run.
The Flavor Bible is not a cookbook in the traditional sense. In all three hundred and seventy nine pages, it does not include a single recipe. Instead it catalogs every imaginable ingredient on the planet and lists the foods that complement said ingredients. Among these pairings, the classics are represented (tomato and basil). But, they also push the envelope (lobster, mango and spinach).
The book’s bare bones format can bring fears of culinary inadequacy to the surface. Ratios become the obvious problem: white chocolate, basil and strawberries might make a memorable dessert, but we can also imagine a memorably nauseating mess in the hands of the wrong cook.
We were intimidated. But after the first chapter, we couldn’t get enough. For three days, we fell asleep with the book on our chest and dreamed of pairing walnuts with anise, dried figs and orange. We finally put the book to good use on Monday night, when a massive head of broccoli threatened to become vegetable sludge in the bottom of our fridge. So we flipped to the B’s and learned that broccoli, olive oil and lemon is a classic flavor combo. We also had some potatoes that were sprouting angry, purple growths and chalky carrot sticks, so we decided to make broccoli-lemon soup. Our roommates loved it. But, it was also 4/20, and we’re not sure that we can take all the credit.
Practicality: 10 We give a high rating to The Flavor Bible for its versatility. Because it includes pretty much every edible substance imaginable (as well as some whose edibility is questionable), it is the perfect tool to clean out the fridge or learn to use an obscure squash you found at the farmer’s market.
Deliciousness: 5 Depends on your skill level/ willingness to experiment
Layout: 8 Easy to follow with the exception of annoying text boxes with blurbs of wisdom from celebrity chefs
Tone: 8 Straightforward. All business. None of this chatty Rachael Ray nonsense. We liked it.
Overall: 7 Although it lacks the type of direction a novice chef normally needs, it encourages its readers to experiment. It’s also a useful resource for adding new dishes to your repertoire. Added bonus: because there are no recipes, you can tell your friends that you just threw dinner together intuitively with only the slightest hint of dishonesty.