Cooking the Books: How To Cook Everything Perfectly

by Maria Ribas.

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One of the scariest things for all cooks—from first-time pasta boilers to dinner-party maestros—is cooking food until it is done. Not slightly under, and not slightly over. Just done. This is even more important when you buy a piece of local pasture-raised meat, or sublime mussels, or the season’s best eggplant. Perfect local food deserves perfect cooking.

James Peterson, who is the absolute king of the single-subject cookbook, has finally tackled just that. His new book is aptly titled Done., and it promises to tell you exactly how to tell—by sound, smell, look, and feel—when food is perfectly done. It’s a bold claim. Can we really banish the dry-as-dirt turkey, the cardboard pork chop, and the gray-yolked boiled egg?

I was skeptical. I love James Peterson—his book Meat: A Kitchen Education is one of only three books to which I’ve granted permanent coffee table status. That book is a gorgeous, big hardcover, with dark, serious tones, and a thrilling hunk of steak on the cover.

Done. isn’t like that. It’s smaller; it’s bright; it’s snappy; it’s paper-over-board (hardcover without a jacket). Meat is the venerable, respectable chef with an established empire; Done. is the hipster upstart with the hottest food truck.

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But the boldest thing about the book is that it promises to help you cook food perfectly without a thermometer.  That’s right, put away the instant reads. The vast majority of the recipes show you how to detect doneness by the distinct smell a cooked fish will give off, or by the way a chicken breast will bounce back when poked. To cook a local, lovingly raised cut of meat by relying on your senses is scary. But it’s also exciting.

I first tried Peterson’s recipe for sautéing a whole leg of chicken. It turned out to be the best chicken I’ve ever made. Juicy, moist, crisp, and in no need of a sauce.

And it was so easy. His method makes you feel more attuned to your food as it cooks, and more empowered when it works. It also saves you from stabbing your poor dinner with a metal prong and letting all the juices dribble out. Most important, it allows you to cook local food as it was meant to be—tender, moist, and simple. Local food isn’t meant to be drowned in sauces, or hidden in casseroles, or roasted to oblivion. It should be simply prepared and allowed to shine because, after all, a local carrot is the best of all possible carrots. (Name that literary reference…)

As much as I’ve loved Meat, Done. is the book I’ll pick up every time I’m cooking a protein. It makes me feel more confident, more bold, more fearless and ready to cook everything perfectly. So I’m not worrying about chewy salmon or pink chicken anymore. I’m done with all that.

Perfectly Done Haddock

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The fish from our shores is divine, and it deserves to be cooked with care and attention. With Peterson’s method, you can cook flaky, moist, melt-in-your mouth fish. Look for haddock this week—there are gorgeous filets from the Tenacious II ship based in Barnstable at many of the local Whole Foods.  The Tenacious II distributes throughout the state, but if not available at your local store, just ask the fishmonger what’s local. Tuna from Tahiti can wait when there’s gorgeous local haddock to test your new-found doneness skills on!

Serves one

1/3 pound haddock, or other white fish
¼ of a small onion
½ tablespoon butter
¼ cup white wine
Salt
Freshly cracked pepper
Green onions (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Season both sides of the fish with salt and pepper and roughly chop the onion. Melt ½ tablespoon butter in a small ovenproof skillet, then add the fish, skin side up. You want the fish to be crowded into the pan. Add the wine, and once it comes to a boil (2-3 minutes), immediately slip the pan into the oven.

After 1-2 more minutes, you should smell a savory, just-cooked fish smell—that means it’s done. To check, slide a knife between the flakes, or striations, in the flesh. If there is no sign of flaking yet, it’s done.* The fish should bounce back if you press down on the flesh. Garnish with green onions and serve immediately.

*Most recipes will tell you that when the fish flakes it is done, but Peterson recommends pulling it out right before it flakes.

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Maria Ribas is an editor, blogger, and connoisseur of all things pecan pie. By day she acquires and edits cookbooks and lifestyle books, and by night she cooks, writes, and snaps photos for Cooks & Books. She thinks a good cookbook can help anyone create restaurant-worthy meals and take control of how and why they eat. You can find her talking publishing, cooking, and life at www.cooksplusbooks.com

About cooks & books

Book editor & excitable cook
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