Michael Ruhlman is talking about writing two new cookbooks with just 20 recipes each. A challenge? Yes, but freedom too.
"It frees me from writing 200 recipes. I've done that,'' says the Cleveland-based author and food authority. "I don't even like cookbooks, ... and I've written a dozen of them." (Ruhlman has, according to the texts listed inside his books and on his website, ruhlman.com, written or co-authored some 19 books on cooking or chefs or professional cooks, plus four works of general nonfiction.)
His latest works: "Ruhlman's How to Braise," released in February, and "Ruhlman's How to Roast," published last October, both cost $25 and are published by Little, Brown and Co.. They both share the subtitle: "Foolproof techniques and recipes for the home cook." Having just 20 recipes in each book helps him achieve that.
"It frees me to talk about what I think is important," he says. "Great cooking is reliant on technique. I want to make cooking easier."
So, when you turn to the first recipe in the "Roast" book, for chicken, this is what you get (complete with capitalized bold face words):
How to roast a chicken
1 (4-pound/1.8-kilogram) chicken, trussed
PREHEAT the oven to 450F/230C (or 425F/220C if you have convection); if your oven hasn't been cleaned recently or your kitchen has bad ventilation, use 425F/220C.
RINSE the bird under cold water and let the water drain off. RAIN salt down onto the bird, covering it completely.
PUT the bird, breast side up, in an ovenproof skillet or other low-sided pan and ROAST it for 1 hour.
REMOVE the bird to a cutting board and LET it sit there for 15 to 20 minutes, and then CARVE and SERVE.
Admirably terse, fitting from a man who thinks we are "awash" in recipes. What follows, though, might be called the real "meat" of the dish — the techniques you need to pull it off. There are eight full-color photographs over two pages on how to truss a chicken; three pages of "The Finer Points," which range from the ideal weight for a chicken to the "why" of trussing to choosing the right roasting temperature to resting the finished bird; eight more full-color photographs, again arrayed across two pages, showing how to cut up a whole roasted chicken; and a gorgeous shot of a golden, trussed bird happily bubbling away in its rendered fat inside a black iron skillet.
Other recipes in "Roast" and "Braise" are more conventionally presented, but expect to find detailed technique notes at the start of each book and photographs liberally sprinkled through the pages. Ruhlman's wife, Donna Turner Ruhlman, is a photographer and took the shots as he proceeded to make the recipes.
"So much of cooking is visual,'' Ruhlman says. "I'm grateful for the process photography, it gives people confidence they're moving in the right direction."
Technique and lots of explanatory photographs also are found in the author's 2011 cookbook, "Ruhlman's Twenty," whose subtitle was "20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook's Manifesto." The how-to series, Ruhlman says, allows him to explore techniques in a way he couldn't with "Twenty" and allows would-be readers interested in just one technique, say roasting, to get what they want.
Two more volumes in this Little, Brown and Co. series are planned for a joint release in 2016: "Ruhlman's How to Saute" and "Ruhlman's How to Grill."
After that — well, it's still up in the air. Ruhlman says there's talk of a how-to book on sous vide or how to preserve foods.
"I'd like to do how to poach," he adds. I'd like to have all five cooking techniques."
Hot and sour braised duck legs with orange zest and chilies
Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
"This is a Chinese-style dish, but it features a great all-purpose technique that can be used for any duck legs, regardless of the flavors you add,'' writes Michael Ruhlman about this recipe in "Ruhlman's How to Braise." He likes to use some of the rendered duck fat in making the sauce. Ruhlman suggests pairing the duck with "basmati or jasmine rice and stir-fried snow peas or bok choy, seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil."
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 green onions, roughly chopped
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1/2 Spanish onion, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, smashed with the flat side of a knife
5 discs fresh ginger, each 1/4-inch thick
Kosher salt, about 1/2 teaspoon total
4 duck legs (with thighs)
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 star anise
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons chili paste with garlic
2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon five-spice powder
6 to 10 dried red chilies
1 piece (1-inch long) ginger, peeled, grated
4 cloves garlic, smashed with the flat side of a knife, minced
2 green onions, sliced on a bias
Cornstarch slurry, optional, see note
1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. For the duck, heat the oil in a Dutch oven set over medium-high heat. Add the green onions, carrots, onion, garlic, ginger and an aggressive pinch or 2 of salt; cook the vegetables until softened, a few minutes.
2. Using a vegetable peeler, take off as much of the orange zest as you can, trying to take as little of the white pith with it as possible. If the peels are wider than 1/2 inch, cut them down. Juice the orange.
3. Season the duck legs with salt and pepper; nestle them into the vegetables. Add the wine, half the orange juice, a third of the orange zest, the star anise and the bay leaves; heat the liquid to a simmer. Cover, place in the oven and cook until the duck is firm but tender, about 90 minutes.
4. Transfer the duck to a skillet while you prepare the sauce. Turn on your broiler.
5. For the sauce, strain the braising liquid into a fat separator. Pour off the defatted liquid into a bowl or large measuring cup. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the fat to make the sauce, if you wish.
6. Add the vinegar, hoisin sauce, chili paste with garlic, fish sauce, remaining orange juice, powdered sugar, and five-spice powder to the defatted liquid; stir to combine. Set aside.
7. In a wok or skillet, heat the reserved duck fat (or 3 tablespoons vegetable oil) over high heat. (Turn on your hood fan if you have one). Saute the chilies until they blacken. Add the ginger, garlic and green onions; stir-fry until cooked, 30 seconds or so. Add the remaining orange zest; stir-fry, 30 seconds. Add the braising liquid sauce mixture. Bring it to a simmer; turn the heat to low.
8. Put the duck beneath the broiler to crisp the skin. When the skin is browned and crisp, return the sauce to a simmer, add the duck, and gently turn the legs in the sauce to coat. If you prefer a thicker sauce, add the slurry as desired. (Depending on how thick or loose you want your sauce, the powdered sugar may have enough cornstarch in it to obviate the need for the slurry.) Serve.
Note: For the cornstarch slurry, mix equal parts cornstarch and water to make a mixture that has the consistency of heavy cream. Add slowly to the sauce until desired texture is reached.
Nutrition information per serving: 611 calories, 33 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 182 mg cholesterol, 35 g carbohydrates, 45 g protein, 1,181 mg sodium, 9 g fiber