Cookbook helps Geeks get busy in the kitchen

Book Review: "Cooking for Geeks," by Jeff Potter.

So what's a geek? It used to mean an overly bookish, nerdy guy or gal on the social fringe, who is uber-obsessed with technical details.

No more. Contemporary geeks are in a similar mold, except now it is fashionable to be a geek. In the mainstream world, that might include coffee geeks, wine geeks, food geeks and you-name-it geeks.

Today's players might be engineers, programmers, hackers, computer whizzes or techies. Virtual reality is where they hang out. But put them in a kitchen and cookbooks and recipes might as well be written in a foreign language.

Jeff Potter, 32, speaks to that audience in his new book "Cooking for Geeks" (O'Reilly Media, 2010, $34.99). He suggests his readers take a hacking mindset into the kitchen. Be curious, and find ways of solving unexpected problems. He says, "Cooking has the same types of constraints that computer code, hardware and most science disciplines do."

In Mr. Potter's geek world, recipes are the codes. Directions are suggested protocols. Taste is feedback. Mise en place is equivalent to downloading the various bits and bytes needed for the recipe.

The first part of the book gets the newbie familiar with surroundings, the chapters written in terms geeks understand. Readers are encouraged to customize their space by "Initializing the Kitchen" (inventory stuff and arrange it) and "Choosing Inputs" (analyze flavors and ingredients). Midway in the book are discussions of variables such as time, temperature and air. The last chapters address more creative things to do in the kitchen, either with "software" (chemicals) or "hardware" (blowtorches and industrial equipment).

Experiments are scattered throughout the book along with interviews with scientists, chefs, researchers and food bloggers. There are hints, photos, jokes and sketches. The writing is clear, exacting and funny, too.

Mr. Potter, no relation to Harry, studied computer science and visual art at Brown University. By his own admission, he went on to do the cubicle thing, the start-up thing and the entreprenurial thing. Through it all, he was an avid cook, maintaining his stability by cooking for friends.

It shows. He's comfortable and authoritative when discussing knife skills, weight versus volume, food safety, using quality ingredients and using seasonal whole foods, as well as explaining a whole lot of science. Still, this is a good, common-sense cookbook, and the recipes really work.

Here's a sampling on the predictable side: gravlax, scallop seviche, orange bitters and chocolate panna cotta. On the geeky side, using tricks and chemicals: powdered brown butter, foamed scrambled eggs, electrocuted hot dog and 30-minute scrambled eggs.

If anybody is trend spotting, put this energetic and bright young man on a "People to Watch" list.

Pork Chops stuffed with Cheddar Cheese and Poblano Peppers

PG tested

This easy, tasty recipe illustrates Mr. Potter's essay on wet brining.

  • 2 to 4 boneless pork chops
  • 1 poblano pepper,
  • roasted then diced, to equal 1/4 cup
  • 1/4 cup cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly
  • grated black pepper
  • Vegetable oil

In a container, mix 2 tablespoons salt with 4 cups cold water. Stir to dissolve salt. Place pork chops in the brine and refrigerate for an hour. Then remove them from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Lay out the chops on a clean plate to allow them to come to room temperature.

Using a small knife, make a small incision in the side of the chop, pushing the blade into the center of the chop and moving the blade side to side to create a pocket while keeping the "mouth" as small as possible.

Create a filling by combining the poblano, cheese, salt and pepper. Stuff about a tablespoon of filling into each pork chop. Rub the outside of the chops with oil and season with salt and pepper.

Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat to the point where a droplet of water skitters around the pan. Place chops in the pan, cook about 5 minutes per side. The internal temperature should register about 145 degrees. Remove chops from the pan and allow them to rest for 5 minutes. Good served with rosemary mashed potatoes.

Makes 2 to 4 servings.

-- "Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food" by Jeff Potter (O'Reilly, 2010, $34.99)

Marlene Parrish: .


Hot Topic