Best cookbooks 2003-2004: Cooking by Hand

Cooking by Hand (2003)
Paul Bertolli
270 pages, $40

Bertolli is the former chef at Oliveto and [Chez Panisse]( and currently the proprietor of Fra’Mani Handcrafted Salumi. Between that and the title, you won’t be surprised that Cooking By Hand is not a book about meals in minutes. It requires scouring farmer’s markets for specific ingredients for which no subsitutions are given.

This would be obnoxious if not for two things: Bertolli is a superb writer, and the book is a work of art. He’s also a little eccentric: he started a batch of balsamic vinegar when his son was born, in the hopes that the boy will take it over and enjoy it well into his old age. I am imagining a 14-year-old Bertolli Jr. inviting his hoodlum friends over and filling their Super Soakers from the acetaia, but it’s the thought that counts. Bertolli also wrote a short play with characters such as Barolo, Pigeon, and Panna Cotta. One character is listed as:

> *Oxtails: Actually the tail of a cow*

The design of Cooking By Hand is a model that should be studied by every author and designer. It is understated, uses color judiciously, and brings the material to life.

It’s hard to explain what is so appealing about Cooking By Hand without getting philosophical. Many people here in the 21st century, including me, find themselves caught between modernism and some kind of traditionalism. Modernism simultaneously gives us great stuff and a lot of crap. It gives us the Internet and chocolate frozen french fries. The Guggenheim and strip malls. It’s easy to say no to chocolate fries, but often it’s hard to know when to reject modernism’s gifts.

Chefs, I think, are better at balancing modernism and traditionalism than most of us, and Bertolli is especially skilled at this. He stands up for heirloom produce and organic flours and the like, but in his brilliant chapter of charcuterie (“The Whole Hog”), he recommends purchasing a pH meter and a hygrometer, and he uses sodium nitrate in all of his cured meat products. Health issues aside, I have tried many cured meat products with and without nitrates, and nitrates unequivocally improve the flavor of salami, bacon, and certain sausages.

The reason chefs are so good at balancing the new and old ways is that a chef at Bertolli’s level (meaning one who can charge a lot for his food) has one guiding question that helps him navigate this minefield: does it taste better? A couple of years ago I saw Anthony Bourdain give a reading from A Cook’s Tour, and afterwards someone asked him whether he, as a chef, feels a responsibility to use organic and sustainable ingredients. “Sure,” he said, “but as a chef, it’s always first about what tastes great and looks good on the plate.” Most of us don’t and can’t allow ourselves such a simple morality.

If you yearn for the simple life, don’t cure your own meat. But if you want an incredible hybrid of American bacon and pancetta, make Bertolli’s recipe for tesa, on page 202. It calls for 12-1/2 pounds of pork belly. You will also need a specific type of curing salts and a couple of weeks. The pork belly is cured flat (unlike rolled pancetta) with cloves, allspice, nutmeg, juniper berries, garlic, and red wine. Can you taste this yet? Buy your pork belly in one-pound pieces and you can make yourself and eleven of your friends very happy this holiday season. Get to work.