COOK. Better. By Nikki Werner and Brandon de Kock. Published by Quivertree Publications, 2014.
In an era when as many cookbooks seem to get published as thrillers, and when the majority of current titles are of a high quality, most writers, cooks and publishers look for some kind of Wow! factor to distinguish their work and attract readers.
In the case of this hardback, there is no attempt to rivet the reader with a stunning cover, amazing food or a glamorous cook. On the contrary, the plain black cover is deliberately devoid of illustration, using lower case letters to give us a one-word title, a one-word sub-title and the writers’names life partners Nikki Werner and Brandon de Kock.
The title page informs us that “this is not a cookbook. It’s a book about cooking.” Ah. But it’s magazine editor Kate Wilson’s foreword that fills in the gaps here, as she recalls time spent with Nikki as she rose up the food editor ranks: long before this young journalist reached culinary heights, she was already a dedicated cook, a food nerd, who passed on her passion for beautiful ingredients and authentic techniques to partner Brandon. Not only did he embrace the alchemy of food with aplomb, but added his yen for its history, making dinner parties in their home quite an occasion.
We learn how, for his 40th birthday, all he wanted was a great pizza. So he and Nikki went to Naples to find it in the city’s top pizzeria. As Kate Wilson remarks, that’s dedication!
In this treasury of information and techniques, the pair set out to share their experiences and much practical research to help keen cooks take their skills from good to great, to arm them with a collection of trustworthy foundation recipes . They have arranged the content into concepts , each with a recipe that best illustrates it. Most readers will be taken aback to see the opening ingredient is – wait for it - popcorn and it is accompanied by a five-step guide to making a batch of perfectly popped puffy corn clouds.
After much ado about knives and chopping, garlic and leaves, followed by making classic vinaigrettes, the “study in simplicity” is their green salad with parmesan and pine nuts – truly hard to beat when made with perfect, fresh ingredients. From there they move on to cooking chicken breast fillets that are moist, perfectly cooked and melt-in-the-mouth tender. This is a recipe I readily identify with as I, too, spent long hours trying to achieve the same result. Nikki’s three-minute chicken involves splitting the breasts horizontally, flattening them to achieve even thickness, lightly flouring them, then cooking them in hot oil for 1 and half minutes each side. White wine is added, the chicken is removed, the wine, briefly cooked, thickens with the flour, and is poured over the chicken. Voila!
Other sections focus on tomato-based sauces, various veggies, white sauce and recipes that use it, including advice on pasta, and mushroom base and variations. Lamb and rib-eye steak feature among the meat know-how, followed by potato, baked, mashed and roasted. The finale stars chocolate ganache, made to be poured generously over vanilla icecream, a classic dessert if there ever was.
Craig Fraser’s photographs of quality, simply styled fare are perfectly in keeping with this stylish compendium of information, presented by a pair who are both passionate and persuasive. The wow! factor will surface when readers produce their own culinary triumphs, and these will please the authors nearly as much as they do the cooks.