January 12, 2012


Kitchen on Fire! Mastering the Art of Cooking in 12 Weeks (or Less). By Olivier Said and Chef MikeC. Da Capo. $35.

Your Pregnancy Week by Week, 7th Edition. By Glade B. Curtis, M.D., M.P.H., and Judith Schuler, M.S. Da Capo. $15.95.

     What does it say about modern life that even the most straightforward human activities, such as making food and making babies, come with so many guidebooks nowadays? Whatever the answer may be in your particular case, there are some guides that will address pretty much any of your concerns. For cooking, one such is Kitchen on Fire! The title is rather unfortunate – one does not really want a kitchen on fire, thank you – and the coauthor’s name (“Chef MikeC”) simply screams “trendy” rather than “highly competent and helpful.” Get past those elements, though, and what you find here is a book in which both Olivier Said and his coauthor treat readers to many tricks of the professional chef’s trade, presented with clarity and with exceptionally useful photographs that show just what to do and just how food should look during various preparations. The information sequence in the book is drawn from the chefs’ school (called, of course, Kitchen on Fire, although without the exclamation point). There is pretty much everything here, from information on types of knives and how to use them to the specifics of all sorts of cooking techniques: searing, stir-frying, stewing, braising, roasting, broiling, grilling and more. The visual impact of the book is one of its best points: there are cross-references (similar to online hyperlinks) everywhere, in the form of red dots containing white numbers that refer to chapters where readers will find more information on a topic; and in addition to the expected pictures of finished dishes, there are excellent less-often-seen ones, such as different bones for stock, the basics of thickening beurre maniĆ© (a mixture of equal parts flour and softened butter), and the details of making a smoking packet to add flavor to grilled foods. Some of the illustrations are decidedly unusual, such as a full page showing the sizes of various cuts and giving their dimensions: a large cube is shown as ¾ inch on a side, for example, while a shape called paysanne is ½ inch high and wide but only an eighth of an inch thick. Sections called “Tips and Tricks du Chef” offer handy suggestions on teaching yourself techniques and knowing when foods are done as they should be, and each chapter includes recipes that are called “chapter exercises” but are no less delicious for all that. Unlike most “how to” books for the kitchen, this one is not primarily a recipe book, with a little instruction added – the recipes are the natural outgrowth of the techniques taught in the chapters. A reader might pick up the book to find the recipes for roasted fennel and orange salad, citrus-grilled skirt steak and vegetable fajitas, flaky blueberry-ginger scones, vegetable egg rolls with sweet chili sauce, or double cheese and bacon quiche, but it is the context in which those and other recipes are presented, rather than the recipes themselves, that is the main attraction here: 12 pages of “basic shaping methods” for breads, for example, including 60 photographs. Whether you want to work as a chef or just be a better cook at home, a very good place to learn is Kitchen on Fire!

     Your Pregnancy Week by Week doesn’t teach readers how to become pregnant – they presumably know that already, since the book is aimed at mothers-to-be (and, to a lesser extent, fathers-to-be). But this excellent book by Glade B. Curtis and Judith Schuler, now available in a new 7th edition, certainly does make the process from pregnancy to birth (and for the first month or so afterwards) much easier to cope with and understand. New editions of this preeminent guide come out every three years or so, generally without major updates but with new perspectives and information based on the latest scientific research and on changing medical and family attitudes. There is no specific update in the 7th edition, but the approach to difficult subjects continues to be moderated and modulated according to the latest medical thinking. For example, the discussion of pregnancy in women with HIV and AIDS is entirely nonjudgmental and strikes as optimistic a note as possible: “A person is HIV-positive before developing AIDS. This process can take 10 or more years, due to the medications in use at this time. …We know if a woman is in the early course of the illness, she can usually have an uneventful pregnancy, labor and delivery.” Set against this carefully worded bit of reassurance is the sheer volume of pregnancy-related information in the book, including some material that will be anything but reassuring, especially to women who are pregnant for the first time. “In an effort to give you as much information as possible about pregnancy, we do include serious discussions throughout the book that some might find ‘scary.’ The information is not included to frighten you; it’s there to provide facts about particular medical situations that may occur during pregnancy.” The sensitivity and care with which Curtis and Schuler present all information – positive, negative or neutral – remain hallmarks of this fact-packed and thick oversize paperback (nearly 700 pages). The sheer volume of material can be overwhelming; this is the work’s greatest problem. The authors try to cope with information overload by sticking carefully to the week-by-week format, which helps a lot, although readers must remember that every pregnancy is different and not all will reach the stated milestones in the designated weeks. They also spin out snippets of important information into highlighted boxes sprinkled throughout the pages. One such pullout reads, “Be careful with bottled waters – some contain caffeine.” Another notes that taste tests are not enough to determine whether food is hot enough to be safe to eat and recommends using “a quick-reading thermometer to make sure food has reached an interior temperature of 165F,” at which harmful bacteria are killed. Some of these items are short and to the point; others are more extended, such as “You May Be Sexier than You Think,” which contains 13 bullet points giving statements men have made to the authors about why they find a pregnant partner sexy. One example: “Sex during pregnancy often requires some creative thinking on both your parts.” Most of the book, of course, is devoted to weekly changes in fetus and woman, including detailed drawings showing fetal development (some actual size, some designed to highlight particular occurrences). Body changes, nutrition and exercise recommendations, types of testing, alternative-medical approaches to pregnancy, food cravings, “Dad Tips,” and many other subjects are treated here, sometimes at length and sometimes in brief, but always with care and in substantive ways. Few women will have the patience, or the time, to read this book through from start to finish – but there is no need to do so. Your Pregnancy Week by Week, 7th edition, really is a book that you can use on a week-to-week basis, perhaps getting a week or two ahead to learn what you can anticipate in the near future. Reading it provides much of the assurance of a knowledgeable 24-hour-a-day companion who can take you through the many vicissitudes of pregnancy with a firm and knowing hand. Even women who have been pregnant before will benefit from the information here – and those in their first pregnancies will find the book invaluable.

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