Cooking may not be a gender-specific activity, but there are some characteristics that follow stereotypes more often than not (read on before you start to object). At least that’s what Steven Raichlen says — and we tend to agree. He’s the guy who has brought us more grilling books than one would think possible (most of the 30 books he’s written, including “Planet Barbecue!” and “Barbecue! Bible”). Now Raichlen directs his considerable culinary knowledge to another subject he’s equally skilled at: teaching men to cook in “Man Made Meals: The Essential Cookbook for Guys” (Workman, 631 pages, $24.95).
As Raichlen takes the reader through a variety of cooking methods in 300 recipes, he intersperses technique and step-by-step photos (how to carve a turkey, how to eat lobster) with an engaging Q&A involving food dudes, from Spanish chef José Andrés to Michael Pollan, Thomas Keller, Stanley Tucci, Andrew Zimmern and even a faux interview with Thomas Jefferson (via an academic). The interviews alone are worth the price of the book as each cook delves deep into what motivates his cooking.
We thought Raichlen should answer some of those same questions himself, which he did in advance of cooking classes he will lead in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Q: What are the three dishes every guy should know how to cook?
A: Every guy should know how to cook a steak. Note I said cook a steak, not grill a steak. Every guy should know how to make an omelet because that’s your solo meal and you’ll never go hungry if you can make an omelet. Every guy should know how to cook a lobster, because if you’re ever in a party in mixed company and there’s a lobster around, it’s certain that the guy will be asked to cook it.
Q: What three techniques should every guy know?
A: A guy should know how to handle a knife, good knifemanship. That means how to chop, how to slice, how to dice, how to sharpen a knife without taking your finger off. Every guy should know how to light and control a grill. Sorry, I’ve got to go back to my roots in that. Every guy should know how to shuck an oyster because, again, if in mixed company, if someone comes up with a bushel of oysters, you’re going to be the one who shucks it.
Q: What three ingredients do you need as a cook (let’s skip the salt and pepper)?
A: First of all, extra-virgin olive oil, You use it as a cooking fat, you use it as a basting mixture, you use it as a sauce, condiment or seasoning. It’s absolutely essential. The second is fresh lemon, ideally Meyer lemon. Again because the zest provides the flavor, the juice provides a second flavor, and there isn’t any food in the world that can’t be brightened by a squeeze of lemon juice. And quite incidentally, if you oversalt something, lemon juice will often bring it back. The third would be some kind of chile or hot sauce. I love fiery foods. I love the way hot sauce electrifies food. With those three ingredients, you can tackle just about anything.
Q: Do you think men and women cook differently?
A: I do. I think there are several differences. One is that men tend to like bigger flavors than women, more assertive flavors. This can lead to many calamities. There’s something I call the Guy Syndrome. It says that if some of something is good, more of it is automatically better, as in 1 tablespoon of Tabasco sauce is great, so add a half a bottle. Or 1 cup of wood chips on your smoker is great every hour, so let’s add 8 cups at once. And that’s not good.
I think when women cook, they think about a meal. When men cook, they think about a dish. What I’m trying to do in “Man Made Meals” is to train men to think about the whole meal. Elaborating on that, when women cook, it’s often out of necessity. I think of my wife and daughter putting a meal on the table five nights a week. When men cook, it’s often a special occasion. Obviously, these are stereotypes. But I think they are kind of true.
Guys also have a unique relationship with simplicity and complexity. In general, we want our food very simple — steaks, fried eggs, sandwiches — until we want it complicated. Then we want chili or barbecue sauce, where we use every ingredient in the spice rack in those dishes.
Q: Why should men know how to cook?
A: So many reasons, for all the phases of life: For the college guy, for self-sufficiency. It’s one of the most basic human needs — to take care of yourself. For seduction. That was one of my questions to the food guys [those interviewed in the book] and almost all observed it’s not so much what you make, but the fact that you can handle yourself in the kitchen. When you become a parent, knowing how to cook is a great way to bond with your kids and delight in your kids. Another important reason, and this was articulated by Michael Pollan: With more and more women in the workplace, if we guys don’t know how to cook, our kids risk never having a home-cooked meal. Another reason is that the best way to eat well is to cook well. You can improve your diet from a taste point of view, from a health point of view, from a healthy-planet point of view, by knowing how to cook and how to shop.
Q: What are the three most common mistakes that guys make when cooking?
A: A common one is not preheating your pan or grill hot enough. Where the magic flavor resides is in that razor’s edge between something cooked darkly — seared brown — or burnt. If you start with a pan that’s not sufficiently preheated, your food will stew rather than brown. So one of the things I always recommend is, if working with a skillet, always preheat it really hot before you add the oil and the food.
Another mistake is that guys almost always overestimate their ability and underestimate how much time food will actually take to prepare. It’s really important to allow more time than you think. Another common mistake — and this overlaps with another point — is to remember you’re not just cooking a dish but cooking a meal. Think of it as having a beginning, middle and end — a protein, vegetable and starch — and that the meal is a whole act and a whole ritual.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste