Posted: 09/28/2008


Cooking Beyond Measure


by Jean Johnson

Reviewed by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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Cooking Beyond Measure: How to Eat Well Without Formal Recipes by Jean Johnson is a nicely presented history of food, dressed up like a cookbook. In saying that, I mean the book is chock-full of recipes but offers lessons not only in cooking but also explains the differences in, for example, organic eggs. The book’s main purpose, however, is to free ambitious cooks from the worrisome job of having to measure everything that goes into a good meal.

Johnson says her book is for “people too busy to do the equivalent of a small chemistry experiment when all they want is good food.”

The book offers great recipes and sidebars on cooking, while also paying homage to the great cooks of past, such as Julia Child and cooks that Johnson has met along the way in her trips around the world, including stops in France, Thailand, Mexico and Jordan.

The book covers breakfasts, soups, salads, starters and sides and a whole lot more.

“There’s a universal appeal about food in tidy bundles you can pick up and eat, especially when they are sunny yellow and crispy crunchy. Just wrap this taco in some waxed paper, and you’re out the door,” is the way Johnson describes Egg and Cheese Tacos, made with cheddar cheese, corn tortillas, a few cilantro fronds, and, of course, eggs. But wait, not just any egg, Cooking Beyond Measure breaks down the science of eggs, noting that the cheapest eggs are those crammed together in cages without enough room to flap their wings; cage free eggs are laid by hens freed from their cages and allowed to roam in barns; and organic eggs are, by U.S.D.A. definition, from hens that supposedly have access to the outside. I chuckled at this description, because it’s sort of like hens that are on parole from prison!

When it comes to Mexican chiles, after roasting them in a medium oven, the best way to “de-skin” them is to wrap the chiles in a big tea towel to steam, then the skins slip off very easily, Johnson writes.

The chapter Starters & Sides offers treats such as Snap Beans with Pesto; Spiced Turnips and Cardamom Almonds; Cashew Cilantro Pesto; and Edouard’s Mother’s Tomatoes. These dishes can be served even before the soup or salad to “open up the meal,” Johnson says.

The book is very international in flavor, as Johnson quotes friends she met throughout her travels, as well as offer recipes from old friends; one in particular Beets and Chives is a dish that was served in 1992 at a memorial service. Johnson notes that with “measure free” cooking, it’s permissible to drizzle more fat on dishes if it pleases your palate and your health can stand it.

Cooking Beyond Measure offers a novel way to dry lettuce or your favorite greens: after washing them, layer out on oversized tea towels, roll quickly and place in the refrigerator for a few hours; afterward you have dry, crisped greens ready to serve in your favorite salad.

One of the main dishes presented in the book is Brita’s Norwegian Salmon Cakes, made famous by Johnson’s grandmother Brita Bjornevald Johnson and which contain no starchy filler or eggs but which still come out light and tender. The recipe, which isn’t really a recipe, calls for boning and skinning a fresh salmon; afterward putting the flesh through a meat grinder twice. Then it’s beaten for a while, using a big bowl and wooden spoon; diluted with milk, a little at a time until it gets like thick mush. The mixture is seasoned with salt and nutmeg; beaten some more, and as it gets thicker, more milk is added, being careful to remove any tiny, white membranes that form. The cakes are finally browned in a little oil, until they reach the desired firmness.

The book wraps up with Blue Moon Apricots, Cheese Plates, Baked Pears with Caramelized Goat Cheese and Lime, among other goodies.

Johnson gives a bit of background as she explores dishes from various regions, but the emphasis of the book is to always have fun and cook to your heart’s delight!

Cooking Beyond Measure: How to Eat Well Without Formal Recipes is available now from Seventy-Sixth Avenue Press in Portland, Ore.

For more info, call 503.577.0668 or email

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a writer and film critic in Chicago.

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