Cooking by Hand, by Paul Bertolli, executive chef and co-owner of Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland, California, is a curious cookbook that, through twists and turns, weaves together cooking instruction with deeply personal reflections on food memories and essays contemplating the elements that contribute to great cuisine.
When I looked for the book, it was stocked in the “Food Reference” section of the bookstore, wedged in among the various food encyclopedias and dictionaries. This may have been a mistake, but there is a way in which the book might, upon first glance, be confused for a reference work. Dense with text and just a few carefully selected photographs scattered throughout, Cooking by Hand features a rather comprehensive section devoted to crafting salumi, explaining in detail how one may go about make various cured meats, from prosciutto to soppressata, at home. Another lengthy section takes a sweeping view of tomatoes (“Twelve Ways of Looking at Tomatoes”), considering the tomato as the main ingredient for a drink, dessert, appetizer, or the main course. An expansive chapter on fresh pasta provides recipes for all kinds of noodles, from classics like tagliatelle made from white flour and eggs, to other shapes made from semolina, spelt, faro, chestnut, corn flour, and rye.
But Cooking by Hand is really the anti-reference book, emphasizing above all a personal view of cooking and eating that eschews precision in favor of technique. In fact, except where the author deems it absolutely necessary, many of the recipes do not provide exact measurements. At the beginning of the book, Mr. Bertolli writes:
[T]he recipes do not always specify exact measurements. The reason is to encourage an open-ended approach that leads you to consider the options and variables dictated by the moment, to chart your own direction, to develop a feeling for food, in fact to cook. To those accustomed to cooking more to the letter of a recipe, this approach may appear annoying or problematic. If I knew of a better or easier path, I would have recommended it. But experience has shown that the trouble you take will also be your enduring pleasure.
What follows is a discourse on cooking that flows from Mr. Bertolli's personal vision, with an emphasis upon approaches that amplify the essential properties of ingredients. One of the best chapters, on what he calls "Bottom-Up Cooking," discusses the basic technique of pan-roasting meats and vegetables to obtain caramelized scrapings that will provide the base for a multitude of sauces. This Italian method of extracting flavor to create what he calls sugo, is the jumping off point for recipes for broths, roasts, and ragus. Some of the recipes are more complicated than others, but they all share the same approach to deriving flavor.
In a chapter on desserts, Mr. Bertolli looks at building menus around the last course rather than focusing exclusively on the main course. He also focuses on different ways of looking at each course as parts of a greater whole, considering variables such as color, texture, or the contrast of rich and lean. Here, he writes about building a dessert-focused menu around the idea of weight:
The experience of weight in food is both a matter of its actual mass and an expression of the intensity of flavor, the degree of richness, and the feel of food in the mouth. It is not difficult to imagine foods that might be characterized as weighty in the obvious sense. Few people would argue against the way a porterhouse steak with bakes potato or braised pork shoulder with beans tips the scale. Weight as applied to flavor, richness, and mouth feel is more subjective. Such impressions are more apparent when foods are put side by side in a menu. A succession of courses that leaves the good feeling of fullness without torpor balances both of these kinds of weight. And a dessert that ends on a light note is a good way of bringing previously more weight courses into equilibrium.
Occasionally, the philosophical discourse veers into literary devices. For example, in the middle of the book, Mr. Bertolli pens a letter to his young son on the virtues of balsamic vinegar, and the volume closes with a “Conversation with a Glass of Wine.” As the author eats a meal of treviso radicchio, oxtails, pigeon, and panna cotta, he imagines a conversation between each of the courses and the wines he is drinking. The dialogue goes like this when a glass of barolo enters the picture:
PC [Panna Cotta]: I shudder to think what you might do to me.
BAROLO: I’m hardly sure myself.
PC: To thrash delicacy would be a crime. How could one as tough as you possibly make me shine? How about an espresso instead and call it a night?
BAROLO: I’m determined to last this out. Our host has held me through my youth and here I am in middle age, with more to add and still engaged. Take heart and stay awhile, if not to shine at least to smile.
Has Mr. Bertolli gone a little too far here? Perhaps. On a first reading, perusing these sections out of context, they seemed a little over the top. After a second reading, they are, admittedly, still over the top, but it’s difficult to pass judgment on these flourishes when Mr. Bertolli is as earnest as he is throughout Cooking by Hand in expressing his total vision of food.