My first resolution upon moving to Washington state was to learn to cook. Naturally, I turned to the Internet; I'd been downloading and customizing recipes from Gopher as early as 1993. It worked for cheesecake, so why not for other stuff? Results were, charitably, mixed. I made a couple of good pies (and some bad ones). I learned to make the tomato soup and biscuits that comprise the first two entries over on my recipe page. I took a class in vegan Thai cooking and experimented with making my own curries for a while. But mostly I tried to cook Italian. I made baked ziti and vegetable lasagna, which were thoroughly mediocre. I made alfredo sauces that didn't work at all and eventually chanced upon an okay one on the side of a shopping bag. Red sauces were even more hopeless; they never tasted like anything other than hot tomato water. It was discouraging enough that I went back to eating out all the time, or at best, stocking up at Pasta & Company and tossing some storebought sauce on some fettuccini.
When I moved to Massachusetts I decided to try again. By this time I'd added to my repertoire: I could make pasta baked in a creamy red pepper sauce, and potato gatto, and finally found a red sauce recipe I liked. But still, this was a bit like when I'd download a batch of guitar tabs and learn to play the songs. Yes, I could play "Lithium" from start to finish, but I still couldn't really play the instrument: I was just going through the script. Same with the recipes. No matter how many dishes I learned to make, I still couldn't cook the way my father could, throwing together seemingly random concoctions of tuna fish and onions and lemon and various spices, never the same combination twice, and still coming out with something impressive every time. I also found that when I hit the recipe search engines I'd often draw a blank: I didn't know exactly what I wanted. The aforementioned baked pasta and potato gatto I hadn't sought out; I'd just happened across them online. It occurred to me that my best course of action might be to just get an old-fashioned cookbook and work through a large chunk of it. Poking around to see what was available, I happened upon The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook by Jack Bishop, which looked like exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. I found a cheap-ish used copy online and ordered it.
See, I'm a vegetarian, but I don't like what is often thought of as your prototypical "vegetarian food." No tofu for me. No steamed eggplant with soy sauce, no chickpea and beet salad. I like pizza, I like burritos, I like baked pasta dishes. The author of TCIVC seemed to be much more on my wavelength than those that began, "The author was introduced to macrobiotic vegan cuisine by his acupuncturist..." Jack Bishop is not himself a vegetarian; his take is basically this: "I don't want food that makes me happy because of what's not on the plate; I want food that makes me happy because what is there is delicious. And I love vegetables. And I love Italian food, which happens to be one of the few cuisines in the world featuring a lot of classic dishes that just happen not to have any meat. Here are 350 of them."
I haven't made all 350, and never will. Reviewing a cookbook is a bit odd in that unlike other types of books, my judgment is inevitably going to be based on a small fraction of the content. Here is what I've made from this book as of this writing:
Later I also got Bishop's Pasta e Verdura, which presents 140 vegetable sauces for pasta. From this book I've made:
So... how's the food?
Most of the entries on the above list are actually not that great. Or, rather, Bishop and I have quite different tastes in certain respects. Many of these dishes are overwhelmingly rich; the torta, for instance, is in the end a big hunk of herbed cheese you're supposed to eat like cake. The ricotta and basil crespelle is like manicotti only topped with butter instead of red sauce. This sort of heaviness extends to pasta dishes, as Bishop argues that Americans oversauce pasta and insists that it should be moistened by the sauce but little more. I guess I'm just not ready for that much subtlety, because I've found it necessary to halve the amount of pasta indicated for a given quantity of sauce. This is especially imperative for the baked dishes, which come out almost alarmingly dry (though Jennifer has said she preferred it that way). The frittatas left me convinced that I should stick with omelettes (one of the few things I've been able to cook really well for years). The pepper soup was too thin and too smooth; the mascarpone polenta ended up mostly down the sink; I doubt I'll make either the saffron or the spinach risotto again.
That said — Bishop's books have had a transformative effect on my cooking. The recipes themselves may mostly be not to my taste, but I've picked up so much in the way of technique it's astounding. For instance, as I just said, Bishop's risotto recipes haven't all thrilled me — but his tips on how to make it have. Risotto used to be a big stumbling block for me: every now and then I'd get it right, but there were way more misses than hits. It'd take 90 minutes and still be gritty, or turn out brown and sludgy, or just plain not taste good. Now it's perfect every time, thanks to some simple changes like making my own vegetable stock (I'd been using storebought stock from a box or a can and it's just not usable in risotto), keeping that stock hot, and mixing in a pat of butter at the end. Another example: yes, the ricotta and basil crespelles were just way too much dairy for me. But I've been trying and utterly failing to make crêpes for over a decade. Bishop's crespelle batter and approach (two tablespoons, then swirl in the pan) have made them easy... I just lay off the cheese and herbs and fill them with Nutella and bananas instead.
Speaking of herbs: Bishop insists on fresh herbs, and other than the occasional pack of basil leaves or bunch of parsley, I'd relied entirely on dried. No more. Why had nearly all my earlier attempts at sauces, at beans, at vegetables, turned out so flavorless? Because the impact of those teensy little minced leaves is huge, and I'd been clueless about herbs. I'd also failed to recognize just how much the flavor of food relies on salt. In the past I'd often skipped the "salt to taste" lines of recipes, figuring that, hey, I've never been one to reach for the salt shaker at the table, so "no salt" must be my taste! Little did I know as I scowled at my pot of tasteless red water that a teaspoon of salt would turn it into marinara, or that the floret that tasted like nothing except for maybe chlorophyll would, with the application of a little salt, taste like broccoli. And those of you saying "duh" — this is not intuitive. That salt brings out flavor in food without making it taste salty? That's something you have to learn somewhere.
And if you're ever going to go "off script," you have to learn what proportions are about right. What's about the right amount of olive oil to add? Which herb works best, and how much of it? Is this one to start with onions, garlic, or both? (A year ago I automatically dropped onions from any recipe that came my way, since, y'know, bleah! onions! Now this strikes me as not unlike building a house without a foundation. Ring up onions as my culinary conversion experience for 2002.) These are all questions that baffled me before buying these cookbooks. Now I've built up enough muscle memory that I've been able to start chopping and then stop when it feels like enough, working without a recipe, and the results have been anywhere from decent (an oregano-heavy tomato sauce with onions) to amazing (my first but certainly not last attempt at sautéed broccoli, which resulted in the best broccoli I have ever eaten).
So I find that TCIVC was, indeed, exactly the right cookbook for me, for while its table of contents produced few memorable dinners, it was sufficiently tempting to keep me going back for more and thus rack up enough practice to become pretty good at this stuff. And now I'm going to go attempt Linguine with Leeks and Tomatoes.