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BY RUSS PARSONS
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Here's the deal: You know a lot about food. You've seen all the shows; you've read all the books. But when it comes to cooking, well, there's a little problem.
It's not that you can't cook; it's just that what you create in your own kitchen doesn't really match up to your aspirations.
Trying to learn to cook by trolling through recipe collections is frustrating.
Even after you've mastered a dish, all you've really learned is how to make that one thing. At that rate, you'll probably be retired before you feel like you've actually mastered the art.
What you need is a book that teaches the basics and hopefully provides some pretty good food while you're learning. Fortunately, there are two new books that aim to do just that.
They are intended for different audiences, but each book accomplishes what it sets out to do--make you a better cook.
The first, aimed at beginners, comes from The Food Network's "How to Boil Water" series, and it delivers a lot of solid culinary advice along with recipes with broad appeal.
On the other hand, for cooks who have mastered the basics and have set their sights on more ambitious terrain, there's Michael Ruhlman's "Ruhlman's Twenty." Its subtitle says it all: "20 Techniques; 100 Recipes; A Cook's Manifesto."
"How to Boil Water" is aimed at the college or immediately post-college crowd. It's got all the flashy colors, funny fonts and well-scrubbed prepster models you might expect.
But there's a lot more to the book than just shiny surfaces. The breakout boxes contain sound information on how to shop for food and store it, and how to set up your first kitchen.
The recipes are a lot better than you would expect from a book aimed at those who have only a limited acquaintance with the kitchen.
The Tuscan chicken with Parmesan, for example, was completely satisfying.
"Ruhlman's Twenty" is aimed at the kind of hard-core cook who might sneer at "How to Boil Water."
And when the author calls this collection a "manifesto," he's not kidding.
Co-author of books with top chefs such as Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert, Ruhlman makes it clear he is going for the ambitious home cook, someone for whom the kitchen is as much a hobbyist's workshop as it is a place of necessity.
The whole premise is that by isolating 20 essential building blocks of cooking, and taking the time to learn about each one, anyone can become a better cook.
He succeeds to a remarkable extent. There is so much good information in "Twenty."
It's clearly the product of years of cooking and thinking about cooking. In fact, the very first building block is titled "Think".
It's the kind of book I can see culinary acolytes taking to bed to read and reread, each time gleaning more information.
For example, the second chapter is exclusively on salting. From the kind of salt to use to the effect of salt on meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. It's an authoritative essay on an aspect of cooking that most recipes wrap up with "season to taste."
Other building blocks include water, onions and acid. Clearly, this level of detail is not aimed at the cook who just wants to impress a date, made clear by Ruhlman's quasi-homestyle recipes given a chef-y twist.
Even simple mac 'n' cheese is bound with soubise--white sauce pureed with plenty of caramelized onions.
And he's not at all shy about calling for ingredients that may be challenging to find. His delicious-sounding winter vegetable garbure is simmered under an 8-inch sheet of bacon rind.
While it sounds amazing, acquiring that rind might be a challenge.
Recipes are not arranged in traditional soup-to-nuts fashion, but as they apply to the essays.
The salt chapter, for example, includes raw zucchini salad (salted to draw out moisture), brined pork chops, preserved lemons, homemade bacon, gravlax and a caramel sundae with extra-coarse salt.
As it happens, when it comes to food lovers just learning to cook, I have a test case of my own at home. No, she didn't just graduate from high school or college, or move out on her own, but my wife just retired from her job. And now, after 30 years of never making much more than breakfast granola and the occasional cheese quesadilla, she's decided to start fixing dinner every now and then.
I gave her a copy of "How to Boil Water" and told her to go crazy. When I got home that night, she'd made chicken with dates and green olives ("Date Night Chicken" in the book), and couscous with carrots and raisins.
She then propped the dishes up on the counter, snapped pictures with her iPhone and sent them to friends.
Next thing you know, she'll be starting a blog.
TUSCAN CHICKEN STEW
Total time: About 1 hour