Zero Review: Approach

I’m an engineer and I can’t help but approach my review as I would an engineering task. What’s the problem? The book is expensive and on one know if it’s worth it. And, for some reason, folks have decided I can figure that out. How will we know when we’re done? Well, that one is pretty easy. Once I’ve got through every recipe and weighed it against some criteria of “worth,” I can make a judgement. How will we measure that the solution solves the problem? Measurement, oh, measurement. Always fun to debate. I’ve lost more arguments in technical meetings over how we’ll decide something is “good” than I can count. (Also lost many about definitions of so-called “common” terms but that’s a topic for another time.)

What Makes a Cookbook Worth Buying

For some people, cookbooks are about fantasy. They show us a glimpse into the kitchen at a fancy restaurant or into the Barefoot Contessa’s house in the Hamptons. It’s not a life we’ll likely ever had, but we could. It lets us dream. Maybe this is why you’d buy Zero, for the idea of it. If that’s the case, do your own evaluation as I don’t live in your head nor you in mine. What I find to be my ideal is very different from yours.

For some people, cookbooks are about inspiration. You flip through and maybe you make a recipe or two, but mostly it inspires you to do more. Bake more bread. Try out your Nana’s recipe for meatballs. Eat outdoors. It’s a jumping off point for things already on your “someday” list – or adds to it. It inspired me to try more things in the kitchen, as the non-cook in my family. Heck, I even used the sous vide for something other than making cold brew or setting it up for my husband to make something. Again, I can’t help you decide if this will inspire you or not. Your head != my head. (It’s weird in there, full of Disney lyrics and a childhood fear off the vacuum cleaner.)

For some people, the cookbook is about the recipes. You buy the book to actually make things from it and eat/drink them. That’s how I’m approaching the book. Do I want to and can I easily get the stuff to make the recipes?

The Criteria

Each recipe will be graded on the following:

  • Equipment Needed
    • Does a typical person already own all they needed? (Rating of A)
    • Do you have to buy a few investment items to make these things? (Rating of B)
    • Does only a very well-equipped home kitchen have these things? (Full disclosure: My household falls into the last category.) (Rating of C)
  • Ingredients Needed
    • Go to an average grocery store – using Publix Supermarket for comparison but think your typical Giant, Safeway, King Sooper (Rating of A)
    • Go to a better grocery store – using Whole Foods for comparison (Rating of B)
    • Go online – unless you live in a town with a ton of specialty stores, you’ll need to jump online for this (Rating of C)
  • Techniques Needed
    • Anyone can do it – think someone who has made things like boxed mac and cheese and has to Google what “spatchcock” means (after giggling) (Rating of A+)
    • I can do it – okay, so you don’t know me, probably. I don’t like to cook but have basic knife skills, can bake things that are just mix and pour, can make a roast chicken with the “cover in butter and herbs and cook to temperature” technique. If you’ve ever successfully made a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, you are me. (Rating of A)
    • My husband can do it – He loves to cook and has been doing it for years. He’s the type to make bread from scratch to use to make stuffing from scratch for Thanksgiving. We own over 500 cookbooks. (Rating of B)
    • Only my neighbor could do it – He’s an Art Institute-trained chef who now works on the Operations side of things but, again, trained chef. (Rating of C)
  • Sounds Good Factor
    • Good to almost everyone – Ask ten people (who like cocktails) on the street if something sounds good, and you’ll get 8 or 9 affirmatives. (Rating of A)
    • Good to the not-very-picky – I hate vinegar and asparagus and mushrooms so consider myself a picky eater. I’d not be in this category. Think odd but not extremely odd ingredients for cocktails. (Rating of B)
    • Good to the adventurous – If you try things like Parmesan gelato or the world’s hottest salsa, you’re in this category. Nothing scares you when it comes to food except foodborne pathogens. (Rating of C)

We’ll use the good ‘ole letter grade to GPA translation (A+ = 4.5, A = 4, B = 3, C = 2) to get a number score then do a weighted average as follows:

Final score = (Equipment + Ingredients + Technique + 2 x Sounds Good) / 5

Once I get to the end of the book, I’ll tally up all the scores and come up with a master Worth Buying the Book (WBTB for short, ’cause engineering LIVES for acronyms) score. And, yes, I’ll probably make up a Google Sheets of the ratings for those with no attention span / my fellow data-lovers.

Tomorrow: The first two recipes to whet our appetites. You may even run off and make them right after reading.

Nine hundred and ninety-five

Nine hundred and ninety-five. We have made 995 different recipes since January, 2012. I know this because we use Eat Your Books, a service that is sort of the Ravelry of cookbooks.

It’s actually a really cool idea. People volunteer to index cookbooks, listing each recipe and its ingredients (without the amounts, of course). You can add books and even magazines or blogs that you own and add it to your bookshelf then, when you’re looking for something, search their database for an ingredient or only Thai main dishes. There’s also a bookmarking tool which we use for things we want to make, things we’ve made, what we’ll make this week and next week, and even have lists for my and Squirms’s favorites. Once we make something, we add a star rating out of 5 – a 4 is required to go on the make again list and a 5 means we’re still talking about it a few days later – and add comments about modifications made or how we think it could be better. (You pay $25 bucks a year for unlimited adding of recipe sources and bookmark lists which is really cheap for the quality of service, especially if you own…268 cookbooks like us.)

Like I said before, we use it for meal planning. Usually on Friday nights, we (ok, usually just Matt) sit down and think about what sort of thing we want for dinner the next week. Sometimes, it’s very specific like pork schnitzel or maybe a focus on one ethnicity like last week where we almost exclusively had Southeast Asian fare. Then we start to look through recipes like the things we’re thinking of and, after consulting the cookbooks themselves to make sure a planned weeknight dinner won’t take three hours or require trips to more than two different grocery stores. Eventually, we tag five or six dinners worth of dishes to the “This Week” bookmark group and make a list of what we have to buy to make those meals in a combination of Matt’s little ruled notebook and the Wegmans app (if you shop at Wegmans, use their app – it is AMAZING, even telling you prices, aisle, and nutritional information for each item). We hit the farmer’s market most Saturday mornings for veggies and meat, then fill in the holes at some combination of Wegmans, the part-Asian part-Latino grocery store, and sometimes other stores for more specialty ingredients.

Anyway, I have this crazy dream of being the one to make the 1,000th recipe which will probably be in the next couple days or so, with our tendency to make about half old recipes and half new recipes each week. I’m not going to try to engineer this – our meal planning often goes awry at least once a week, especially ones like this one when we’ve got stuff going on two days after work and planning a trip – but it would be cool to have it be me, She Who Rarely Cooks be the one to make that 1,000th dish. Stayed tuned, because I plan to ramble about what that 1,000th recipe is – and am hoping it’s not something super boring or embarrassing.

(The folks at Eat Your Books didn’t pay me anything to write about them. Like everything I’ve ever written about on here, I’m just rambling about something I’ve enjoyed. Though I would take free stuff that a brand owner would think I’m interested in.)