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Our cookbook of the week is Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook by Sohla El-Waylly.
Writing a cookbook wasn’t always the dream for chef, recipe developer and video producer Sohla El-Waylly. She set her sights early on having a “big, fancy restaurant.” As a child growing up in Los Angeles, she created play venues where she seated her guests and even took a drafting class with the express purpose of drawing up actual blueprints.
Sohla and her husband, Ham El-Waylly (a fellow chef, recipe developer and video creator), opened Hail Mary in Brooklyn in March 2016. When the reimagined diner closed in February 2017, she made the move to food media, developing recipes and writing for publications such as Serious Eats and Bon Appétit.
“After (my restaurant closed), I let go of all my hopes and dreams, basically,” says Sohla, laughing. “And I just wanted to work in food in whatever capacity, and I took whatever opportunities came my way and just took what jobs felt fun and exciting. And (writing a cookbook) felt like a really fun, exciting thing to dive into. So I just went for it. And it was really scary working on a book. But I put a lot into it, and I hope it paid off.”
Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook (Alfred A. Knopf, 2023) is a different kind of cookbook. With more than 200 recipes spanning 578 pages, it’s brimming with the whys and hows of cooking. Chapters are devoted to foundational techniques; each recipe is a lesson. (It’s akin to the James Beard Award-winning Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat, who wrote Start Here’s foreword.)
In the book, Sohla gives equal time to savoury and pastry, believing that learning both makes for a more well-rounded experience in the kitchen. There are times in savoury cooking when precision is vital and moments in baking where it’s better to be loose, she highlights. When you understand the fundamentals, you can combine the two more seamlessly.
“Pastry gets no respect in kitchens,” says Sohla. When she was a pastry chef, colleagues would unplug her freezer, take her mise en place (prepped ingredients), use her station and leave it covered with chicken. “I would get into so many fights. I had to be so aggressive. And I don’t know why pastry gets such little respect, because there’s so much cool technique, and also, more importantly, you can’t have a good meal without a dessert.”
People tend to put themselves in one of two boxes: cooking or baking. But why limit yourself? Sohla wants people to let go of the kitchen binary, have fun and learn how to do everything. “It’s all impressive. It’s all important.”
Endlessly asking, “Why?” got Sohla into trouble as a kid, but now she considers it her “superpower.” This way of thinking underpins Start Here — she explains the underlying principles and food science so that cooks can apply what they’ve learned beyond specific recipes.
“I grew up in a time when you were just supposed to do what you’re supposed to when people tell you. And that’s what it was like in the restaurants I went to. No one could explain to me, ‘Why do I need to add this hydrocolloid to the blender in this way?’ And then you have to remember, ‘This is what you do with gel, and this is what you do with xanthan gum.’ And it’s so much rote memorization. Knowing what these things are and how they work made it so much easier for me to use them properly. But I think that’s true for all culinary techniques.”
Starting her career in food media at Serious Eats was helpful, says Sohla, because of the website’s focus on science, testing and explaining concepts thoroughly. When writing Start Here, she approached each of the 12 chapters as she did a Serious Eats article.
For example, in the second chapter, Temperature Management 101, Sohla illustrates how you can learn all you need to know about managing heat and time from cooking eggs, such as boiling, frying, low heat and high heat. “And it’s so low stakes because eggs are cheap, and you have breakfast every day.” (If you watched Dan Levy’s reality show, The Big Brunch, you probably already know that Sohla loves breakfast. She was one of the series’ resident judges and recently launched a three-part Breakfast All Day MasterClass.) In the sixth chapter, she shows how to use dry heat to brown food by encouraging caramelization and the Maillard reaction, and in the ninth, she explains how to create silky-smooth custards and puddings, whether thickening with acid, gelatin, eggs, starch or eggs and starch.
I was really focused on trying to make the kind of book I wish I had when I started. The kind of culinary school I wish I went to.
Narrowing down the techniques to 12 was a challenging task, says Sohla. Some core cooking methods, such as deep-frying, grilling and stir-frying, didn’t make the cut. Instead, she focused on the topics she believes are essential to routinely making great meals. She adds that only some people have a wok or wok burner, and deep-frying isn’t necessarily an everyday occurrence.
“I was really focused on trying to make the kind of book I wish I had when I started. The kind of culinary school I wish I went to. So, I was thinking about how it would have been great for me to have learned. I don’t know if that’s going to work for everybody. That’s why I think if you want to jump around in the book and make it your own, you totally should. But it’s just what made sense in my head. Learning things in this order with this structure really works for me.”
Sohla thinks of herself as a cook first and can see a direct line from her years of training kitchen staff to her approach with Start Here and her video projects, such as the History Channel’s Ancient Recipes with Sohla. Working in a restaurant is “teaching non-stop,” she says. She recalls her experience as a pastry chef at two Brooklyn restaurants, Battersby and Dover. Managing the bread and pastry programs for both was a challenge; she spent her days running back and forth from one to the other, showing staff how to plate all the dishes and form the bread.
Working with several part-time employees instead of two or three full-time, which is ideal, meant Sohla had to tailor her communication to suit various skill levels. “Whenever I do videos, and I’m explaining (things) to people, I try to think about those cooks and how I had to explain stuff to them. And then that’s what got translated into the book. It’s all about teaching,” she says. “Even when you’re in a restaurant, it doesn’t matter how good of a chef you are. If you can’t teach your cooks or train your cooks how to do your dishes, it’s pointless. You’re not a good chef. It’s not really about what you can do. It’s about what you can teach people to do.”
FOUR FAT JAMMY EGG TACOS
Makes: 8 tacos
Active: 30 minutes | Total: 30 minutes
Easy | Vegetarian | Gluten-free
4 large eggs
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup roughly chopped nuts, such as almonds, cashews and/or hazelnuts
1 tsp chili flakes, plus more to taste
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste
1 tsp grated lemon zest
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
8 corn tortillas
1 medium avocado, sliced
Spider (or slotted spoon)
Cook the eggs: Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil and fill a medium bowl with cool water and ice. Using a spider (or slotted spoon), lower the eggs into the boiling water, cover and set a timer for 7 minutes. (If the boiling becomes too vigorous, turn down the heat. You want gentle bubbles or else the eggs will knock into one another and crack.)
When the timer is up, use the spider (or slotted spoon) to lift out the eggs. Lightly crack each egg with the back of a spoon and transfer to the ice bath. Let cool slightly in the ice water, about 1 minute. Starting at the blunt end, peel each egg and gently pat dry with a clean kitchen towel.
While the eggs cook: Place a small cast-iron or stainless steel skillet over medium heat. Add the butter and nuts and cook, stirring occasionally, until the nuts and butter become deeply browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the chili flakes, lemon juice, lemon zest and parsley and season generously with kosher salt. Taste and add more chili, lemon and salt as needed — it should be aggressively spicy, tart and salty to cut through the fat.
Once the eggs are cooked and peeled: Warm the tortillas over a burner, in a hot dry pan, or wrapped in a damp towel in a microwave for 15 seconds.
Divide the sliced avocado among the tortillas. Cut the eggs into quarters and place 2 quarters on each tortilla. Spoon the nuts and brown butter sauce over the eggs, season with flaky salt and serve right away.
With Radishes & Nuoc Cham
Active: 10 minutes | Total: 40 minutes
Easy | Gluten-free
For the salmon & radishes:
1 large bunch radishes with tops (about 12 oz/340 g)
2 tbsp neutral oil
2 tsp plus a large pinch of kosher salt, plus more as needed
One 24-oz (670-g) skin-on salmon fillet
For the nuoc cham:
2 tbsp boiling water
2 tbsp granulated sugar, plus more to taste
2 garlic cloves, finely grated
2 Thai green or red chilies, finely chopped
3 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice (about 3 limes), plus more to taste
2 tbsp fish sauce
Cilantro leaves and stems, roughly chopped
Position a rack in the centre of the oven and heat to 425F (220C). Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
Separate the greens from the radishes, wash and thoroughly dry both. Cut the radishes in half and trim the greens of any dry, wilted, or yellow leaves. Place the radishes and greens in a bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of the oil and a large pinch of salt. Spread onto one side of the prepared sheet pan. (Reserve the bowl, no need to wash.)
Pat the salmon dry with paper towels. Rub with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and evenly season all sides with the 2 teaspoons kosher salt. Set the salmon on the prepared sheet pan alongside the radishes. (They cook at different rates, so the radishes will be pulled out first.)
Place in the oven and roast until the radish greens are wilted and charred and the radishes are tender and opaque, 12 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the nuoc cham: In the reserved bowl, combine the boiling water, sugar, garlic and chilies and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Add the lime juice and fish sauce. Taste and season with salt and more lime juice or sugar as needed.
When the radishes are done, pull out the sheet pan and transfer the radishes to a platter. Set the broiler to high. Return the salmon to the oven and broil until the skin is crisped, puffed and charred in spots, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes.
Serve the salmon alongside the radishes, top with cilantro, drizzle with some of the nuoc cham and serve the rest on the side. Serve with steamed rice alongside.
SEARED AND BRAISED CHICKEN THIGHS
With Zucchini & Salsa Verde
Active: 30 minutes | Total: 1 hour
Easy | Gluten-free
1 lb (454 g) tomatillos (about 8 medium), husked and roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 medium jalapeño, roughly chopped (seeds removed if you like)
2 medium zucchini
2 tbsp neutral oil
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 30 oz/800 g total)
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 medium poblano peppers, seeded and cut lengthwise into slices
In a blender, combine the tomatillos, garlic and jalapeño and blitz into a smooth puree. (You should not need to add water, the tomatillos have plenty of moisture. Just keep blending and it will get there.)
Cut the zucchini crosswise into 2-inch (5-cm) sections. Cut each section lengthwise into 1/2-inch (1.25-cm) -thick planks. Stack the planks and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch (1.25-cm) -thick sticks (you want them to look like zucchini fries).
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat to 325F (163C).
In a large Dutch oven (or heavy-bottomed ovenproof pot), heat the oil over medium heat until it shimmers, about 2 minutes. Season the chicken thighs with salt and sear, skin-side down, until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Flip the chicken and sear on the other side until browned, 5 to 7 minutes longer. Transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside. (If there’s excess fat in the pot, scoop out and discard all but about 2 tablespoons.)
Add the sliced onion and poblanos to the pot and cook, scraping up any browned bits from the chicken, until translucent and tender, about 10 minutes.
Increase the heat to high, add the tomatillo puree and zucchini and bring to a simmer. Taste and season with salt. Return the chicken to the pot along with any accumulated juices, resting it skin-side up on top of the zucchini so that the skin remains above the surface of the liquid.
Transfer the pot to the oven and bake, uncovered, until the chicken is cooked through and the zucchini is tender, 30 to 35 minutes.
Serve right away with cilantro, sour cream, warm tortillas and lime wedges.
Recipes and images excerpted from Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook ©2023 by Sohla El-Waylly. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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