The Nimble Cook
New Strategies for Great Meals That Make the Most of Your Ingredients
By Ronna Welsh
Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
This is a cookbook that might be too clever for its own good.
Why begin a review this way? Chalk it up to mixed feelings. Dig into “The Nimble Cook,” and you are guaranteed to discover a technique or three that will be new and of use to you, no matter how well acquainted you are with your pots and pans. It could change the way you cook — a result other cookbooks have promised but failed to deliver. However, there is so much to take in that this guide comes across more like a textbook at times.
Author Ronna Welsh is not yet widely known in the food universe. She is thoughtful, eloquent, passionate. This is her first book, edited by heavy hitter Rux Martin and blurbed on its backside by names you trust: Jacques Pépin, Amanda Hesser, Fergus Henderson and Canal House mavens Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. Their endorsements did not happen without good reason.
Welsh spent a decade learning to cook in professional kitchens in America and abroad, without the kick-start of culinary school. During the next 10 years, she taught others how to cook in small classes in her Brooklyn home. Hers was a hands-on, building-blocks approach, and the classes were five hours long.
She learned from her students, too: Single guys seeking basic kitchen skills and parents responsible for feeding their families had the same issues so many cooks face, she realized. They open their refrigerators, stare at edible ingredients and think, “There’s nothing to eat.” Sound familiar?
“We think in terms of dishes and recipes, rather than ingredients,” Welsh says. “Nimble” will teach you to find a leek in that refrigerator and run with it. Braise leeks’ tender white and light-green parts in wine, then combine them with linguine and ricotta; use them in dumplings and meatballs. The tough greens get going, as well: first blanched to soften, then chopped for pesto; creamed as a side dish; and folded into cream cheese for bagels.
An illustrated flow chart helps you imagine the possibilities inherent in leeks, as well as for celery, watermelon and more. Welsh enlisted the artistic talents of Diana Vassar, a former cooking school assistant, whose drawings grace many pages. They reference formally and informally written recipes simple and straightforward, many calling for no more than a handful of items. Welsh’s smarts are most evident in the small improvements you can make. In her methods, a pattern becomes clear: Invest a little effort to reap a greater reward.
You know how to use drippings from your roast chicken to make a pan sauce, perhaps. But have you ever saved them — they keep in cold storage for weeks — to deepen the flavor of a chicken-based soup, whisked them into softened butter for a savory spread on toast, or tossed them with greens? You keep hard-cheese rinds to drop into a stew or sauce, but have you ever made a cheese-rind stock? Bolstered with sherry vinegar and garlic, it is the kitchen ingredient you can call on to enhance risotto and meatless soups.
Welsh offers a lettuce-storage system that beats anything I have ever tried. Instead of stashing a plastic-wrapped head in the crisper drawer, cut it from top to bottom into wedges, through its core. Discard torn or discolored leaves, swish the wedges in ice water and let them drain in a colander. Then, I quote: “To dry, roll out a length of paper towels six times the width of the wedge. Place a wedge facing the lower left corner of the line of towels, core end down, and roll up as you would a bouquet of flowers, tucking in the towels at the bottom and leaving the tops of the leaves loosely exposed. Roll sturdy lettuces like romaine tightly; roll tender ones like red leaf and butter lettuce gently.”
The bundles are refrigerated laid flat, where they will hang out for more than a week. If the cut sides turn a rusty color on the edges, trim that away before you use the lettuce. Hardy greens get similar treatment.
I would be remiss not to mention Welsh’s flavoring of salts, which sounds like a fussy gourmand fool’s errand right up until you taste what a difference they can make in your food. For her Bay Salt, grind 15 large dried bay leaves to a fine powder and combine with a tablespoon of coarse kosher salt. Store in an airtight jar for up to three months. You will sprinkle it on vegetables and seafood, and this alone could make you one of those cooks who get complimented at every neighborhood party.
When even one recipe from a cookbook becomes part of a cook’s DNA, publishers consider that a triumph. I am betting a half dozen “Nimble” techniques and recipes will stand the test of time in my cookery. I poached dried Black Mission figs in balsamic vinegar with citrus juices and whole spices. In addition to pairing them with bacon to top polenta, I tossed them with spiralized beets and whisked up a dressing with tahini and some of their syrup. I always keep shallots on hand, but a few seem to go bad; now I roast them Welsh’s way with sugar and white wine vinegar, and so far I have served them as simple side for chicken and added them to grain bowls. Pickling parsley and sage is not something I’ll do all the time, but I loved adding that technique to my herb kit. Pickled parsley has upped my meatball game, not to mention my tuna salad.
Yet I can also see the downside of the book’s bounty. You could get awfully busy, roasting the green bell pepper cores you may otherwise toss or add to the compost pile. (Seasoned and softened, they can go into sandwiches and relishes. Who knew?) The author’s mission to change our what’s-for-dinner dynamic calls for commitment, and lots of action.
Welsh makes the case, chapter by chapter, that a few extra steps will lead to smarter cooking. In this immediate, shortcut world, deliberate mindfulness does not win the day. And that means “Nimble” is not a book for everyone. But it is for the regular farmers market shopper and community-garden grower. It is for people who don’t want to waste food. It can be an antidote to bagged mixed salad greens and pre-cut, flavorless produce.
It is also for anyone who is willing to learn new kitchen ways. If that is you, then just dip into “Nimble,” rather than dig.
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