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Cookbook Review: The $5 Takeout Cookbook

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Mon, Jun 6, 2011 at 7:14 AM

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We must not eat enough takeout. Or so we told ourselves while flipping through The $5 Takeout Cookbook: Good, Cheap Food For When You Want to Eat In as we don't quite understand the concept of actually wanting to cook those often generic takeout versions of "spicy" braised chicken wings (p. 232) and everyday burritos (p. 31) at home.

The concept, we are told in the Introduction, is to resolve the "problem" that takeout delivery isn't cheap. And so this book aims to help those who feel that "replicating the familiar flavors in your favorite Chinese, Thai, Mexican and pizza dishes may feel like an impossible task." Funny, we never thought of cooking takeout as impossible, just somewhat bland.

Then again, much as we thrive on affordable home cooking, we also prefer the farmers market to the grocery store produce aisle, so it's safe to say we are probably not the intended demographic for this cookbook. Nonetheless...

The book is divided into four sections: Mexican, Thai, Pizza and Chinese, each with sub-heads based on ingredients (beef, pork/poultry, vegetables, etc). As to be expected, the recipe titles read like, well, a takeout menu. The "Chinese" food section includes the ubiquitous beef with snow peas, hoisin pork, stir fried rice, and of course, those deep fried pork-water chestnut-bean sprout-stuffed egg rolls.

Making the later can be a time consuming task -- preparing the filling, wrapping each eggroll, and deep-frying them. And so while yes, we agree with the authors that "most of the work lies in the preparation, and you can do that in advance," there is a lot of dancing over the fact that some of these recipes actually do take more time to prepare than one might think on an initial glance. After all, the beauty -- and taste deficiency -- of an efficient takeout restaurant is that so many of the dishes use the same base ingredients. Piles of carrots can be juilienned and pounds of pork can be diced hours in advance to make dozens of different dishes very quickly when that online order comes in. Takeout usually isn't exactly one of those fresh-herbs-chopped-to-order sort of full-flavor dinner moments.

To clarify, it's not that we have something against takeout recipes in general. It's more that we prefer the occasional appearance of those "takeout style sesame noodles" in cookbooks like The Essential New York Times Cookbook (p. 355), where author Amanda Hesser tells us how "it took forever" for her to decide which recipe to include of the takeout noodles that first began appearing on American menus in the 1970s. She then goes on to tell us flavor differences between recipes she tested, why she chose the one she did, and how to freshen it up with modern flavors. You get to know, and appreciate, the takeout noodle then and now.

These are the sort of details that are absent in The $5 Takeout Cookbook. That is to be expected, perhaps, from a book with a back jacket that announces we can "stop paying so much for takeout... [and we] "don't have to give up the foods [we] love just to save some dough!" Well, to each their own microwave-reheatable empanada (p. 46). But to us, half the fun of ordering takeout is the guilty pleasure of occasionally lounging on the sofa in sweatpants and eating a pretty average, deep-fried egg roll that someone else took the time to make. And pretending the next day -- over a lunch of farmers market salad greens -- that takeout meal never happened. But hey, for those who thrive (survive?) on takeout, perhaps this cookbook will be your vision of the perfect sweet-and-sour chicken (p. 83).

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