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Cookbook Review

Sometimes all a dish needs is common sense

Dead-easy approach draws big flavors

By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / February 16, 2011

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You may have heard of California’s Deep Springs College founded in 1917, an obscure, exclusive two-year school-on-a-ranch that graduates just a dozen young men each year. Students have a practical curriculum alongside the academic one. They milk cows, irrigate fields, butcher, fix machinery. And they cook. One graduate went on to cook for a living, and then to publish a cookbook, which is how we arrive at Tom Hudgens’s “The Commonsense Kitchen.’’

Of course, no one has a monopoly on common sense, especially in the kitchen, where there are as many shortcuts and smart tips as there are cooks. Common sense is the “halves’’ bucket in your fridge, where you put a half an onion, a peeled lemon, or half of anything else you want to use first. It’s throwing your vegetable trimmings in a stockpot.

Still, Hudgens has a common-sense way of coaxing flavor into and from ingredients, which gives his book something of an edge over many similar basic cookbooks. Over a week of testing, I found myself warming to his slightly offbeat techniques.

It’s not easy to make tofu sing, but Hudgens does just that in curry tofu salad by letting the curd absorb flavor from oil permeated with garlic, ginger, mushrooms, and curry, before combining it with fresh vegetables. He skillet-dries chickpeas in a salad with tomatoes, lemon, and mint, so they too will pick up flavor. Crushed juniper berries infused in water are added to butter so that an ordinary cabbage braise comes to life.

There are simple, pleasing texture juxtapositions too. Sauteed kale and corn turns out to be a very easy way to eat kale, as sweet fresh corn kernels transform the ultimate good-for-you greens into something less austere. For scallion buttermilk potatoes, you sweat chopped scallions in half-and-half, add warm buttermilk (like many of these rather old-fashioned dishes, it’s not for those on a diet), and crush the peels and all with a wooden spoon. A crunch-filled cucumber salad is nothing but chunks tossed in white balsamic vinegar and basil, yet it’s a perfectly refreshing solution for hurried nights.

Protein recipes are slow but simple. Cured pork chops bathe overnight in brown sugar brine, taking on the character of soy, sage, parsley, bay, and juniper. Even the fierce heat of a grill can’t drive off that much moisture, so you can get a righteous sear on the outside while the meat stays spectacularly succulent. Marmalade chicken operates on the same principle: Chicken pieces take an overnight brine, then get tossed in marmalade and baked. This dead-easy approach results in pan juices so tasty you might be tempted to drink them down neat.

There’s a long list of countrified desserts. Plum crumb cake is really an easy fruit cobbler, made with buttermilk and almond extract rather than the regular milk and vanilla you might be accustomed to using. Regardless, it’s good enough to have your family squabbling over the leftovers.

The recipes can, at times, be a bit plain, as if the author assumes you have such a superabundance of common sense yourself that you don’t really need his help. Some are little more than a fleeting paragraph explaining how you can alter or build on a preceding base recipe. An acquaintance of mine, upon paging through “The Commonsense Kitchen,’’ gave the book two thumbs down for this very reason, maintaining that a blueberry pie, for example, cannot be considered merely a variation of an apple pie.

It’s true that even an experienced home cook will sometimes be looking for more guidance. Or, if you’re an ambitious, entertaining sort, you might prefer to work from a glossy, five-star volume with ingredients lists as long as your arm. But “The Commonsense Kitchen’’ is a welcome reminder that sometimes, you don’t have to.

And finally, the notion that a bunch of teenagers could be persuaded to produce food of this quality — well, you have to admit it’s tantalizing. As a parent, you might be wondering just what sort of self-sufficiency four years of college buys you, at a time when a bachelor’s degree is no guarantee of employment.

So while you’re paying a textbook bill that equals a month’s rent, you can throw this book in on top. At least, when your son or daughter graduates and moves back in, he or she just might be able to do the cooking.

T. Susan Chang can be reached at admin@tsusanchang.com.

Related

THE COMMONSENSE KITCHEN: 500 Recipes + Lessons for a Hand-Crafted Life By Tom Hudgens

Chronicle Books, 608 pp., $35