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Monday, September 13, 2010

‘Cooking for Geeks’ light-hearted chem book that sizzles

David Brooks

You’ve got to love a cookbook that tells you how to create an apple pie bearing the Apple computer logo, interviews Adam Savage of “MythBusters” TV fame, details the temperature at which myoglobin begins to denature, and tells how to build an ice-cream maker with Legos.

You’ve got to love it if you read this column, anyway.

“To me, a geek is anybody who’s curious about how things work and doesn’t mind taking a scientific approach to learning how to do things,” said Jeff Potter of Cambridge, Mass., a software engineer whose first book, “Cooking for Geeks,” was just released by technical-publishing giant O’Reilly. “Cooking is one of those things.”

Although it is festooned with recipes for meals as exotic as yam leek soup and as prosaic as mac ’n’ cheese, CFG (geeks love three-letter acronyms) really isn’t a cookbook. It’s a light-hearted chemistry book, with lab projects that you can eat.

Consider, for example, collagen, the connective tissue around muscles and organs. Its texture is radically altered by exposure to heat, which can turn its triple-helix molecular chains into a random mess (“denatured”), a partially linked semi-random mess (“hydrolyzed”) or an even more linked semi-random mess (“coagulated”).

Reading that in a book is one thing; experiencing it in the lab – er, I mean the kitchen – is another. Hence Potter’s recipe for squid bruschetta, because squid is tough unless it’s cooked a very short time, leaving it in the natural state, or a long time, which gets it past denatured into the hydrolized state.

Or, if you prefer, consider something even more basic in both kitchen and lab: weight and volume.

Potter argues that it’s more accurate to weigh out dry ingredients such as flour rather than measuring them by the cup, as is done by pretty much everybody.

And like a good geek, he provides the data to prove it: 10 cups of flour filled by 10 different friends differed in weight by a whopping 31 percent, from 124 grams to 163 grams. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture definition is 125 grams.)

I now have a better explanation why the same meal tastes great one time and crummy the next. (I had been blaming it on sunspots.)

As a man who has created his share of crummy meals, I like Potter’s attitude about cooking, which reflects the hacker credo of “fail fast and move on.”

“I think it’s hard to screw up a meal to the point where you won’t eat it,” he said. (Of course, he never saw the zucchini lasagna that I left in the oven for an extra two hours.)

“But if you do destroy a meal, hopefully you learned something and won’t destroy your meal the same way again,” he said. “To me, ‘failure’ is not going wrong, but not learning when it goes wrong.”

The stereotype for geeks is that they eat uncooked ramen noodles and handfuls of Cap’n Crunch while coding all night in troglodyte mode – not exactly the audience for a 400-page book of recipes.

Potter thinks that stereotype is out of date, however, and the fact that O’Reilly approached him to do the book is a good sign, too. That huge publishing company has hundreds of titles dealing with things like the Mac operating system, the computing language C++ , or weird stuff like the charmingly titled “Manga Guide to Calculus.”

So perhaps Potter is onto something, perhaps the spread of geek culture into the mainstream makes the intersection of software and cookware a ripe area for exploitation.

Even for the ramen-noodle crowd, though, CFG is entertaining. He has short question-and-answer sessions with an interesting collection of folks including Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s chief technology officer, who discuss “modernist cuisine,” and “Mythbuster’s” Adam Savage, who says that his show wants to test the rumor that it’s always safe to eat fresh road kill. “That would be just hilarious – and gross,” he said.

All in all, I doubt that the next gathering of the New Hampshire Linux Users Group will see people serving homemade Beurre Noisette Ice Cream, Scallop Ceviche, or perhaps Salmon Gravlax, which Potter included because it uses vodka as a solvent.

But Potter has certainly opened my eyes. My son, a math major at college, will be getting a copy for Christmas. (I can say that because he never reads my column.)

As for me, it’s a tossup between trying to finally learn the difference between conduction and convection or trying out the recipe for poached pears in red wine. Mmmmmmm …

GraniteGeek runs in the Telegraph on Mondays and online at www.granite David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashua