Today's standard format for cookbooks is a recipe for ultimate intimidation: a mathematical formula accompanied by beautiful, close-up photographs of the prepared meal taken on a DSLR camera. With such detailed requirements and high expectations, novice cooks might bemoan their shameful results and end up forgetting that cooking can actually be enjoyable—and take less time than it does to order take-out. Indie publisher Ulysses Press and designer Katie Shelly throw all the "rules" out the window with "Picture Cook,"a book of 50 recipes that are explained through colorful illustrations, rather than text. Shelly—a self-taught cook who works at NYC's Cooper Hewitt Museum as a graphics and video producer—merges her love for good food with her design-minded nature to make things simple, easy and fun.
Drawing recipes and keeping them to a page doesn't necessarily mean the content is dumbed down. Recipes range from everyday staples like smoothies and sweet potato fries to more complex dishes such as North African stew and Chilean Aji Pebre salsa. Rather, Shelly uses illustration as her medium to demonstrate that one should experiment and play in the kitchen, and not worry about getting things exactly right.
Shelly explained to CH the origin of the book: "A friend was telling me her recipe for eggplant parmesan over the phone so I could make it that night and I was taking down notes. She said, 'OK, first thing you do is get out three bowls and put breadcrumbs in one, flour in the other and egg in the third.' Being an artsy sort of nerd, I drew the three bowls rather than transcribe the words she was saying and continued to draw her spoken instructions in pictures. I didn't think much of it until that night when I was cooking, I found the illustration to be much easier to follow than written text." Inspired by this pictorial format, Shelly made a PDF "cookbook" of 10 drawn recipes and emailed it out to friends—that PDF would eventually grow into the book.
"I learned bits and pieces from different people over time, especially various roommates," Shelly says of her culinary education. "The first time I really tried cooking anything was sophomore year in college, when my friend Kate hosted a potluck. I tried to make mashed potatoes and failed miserably; it came out like this awful, tepid slush strewn with hard chunks. In that moment, I said to myself, 'OK, time to figure out how to cook—lest I continue embarrassing myself like this forever.' So I kept going to Kate's potlucks—watching my friends as they cooked—and slowly I got pretty good at cooking, even started to enjoy it."
"My friends in school were the 'art kids,' and I have a theory that artists make good cooks. There's a fearlessness and a willingness to experiment—and fail," she continues. "This is the sensibility that drives 'Picture Cook,' which emphasizes a loose and improvisational approach to the kitchen. No fussiness, no being a slave to the recipe."
Other highlights of the book include a detailed tutorial on knife skills and charts that show multiple variations for tacos, omelets and more. In between recipes Shelly offers helpful advice in the form of drawings, such as the best way to peel ginger (use the edge of a spoon) or suggesting coconut milk or yogurt instead of milk in a smoothie for a "tangy" flavor. Be sure to check out the helpful index in the back that indicates which recipes are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free and/or no sugar added. "Picture Cook" doesn't let you make any more excuses to not cook dinner (or dessert) tonight.
"Picture Cook" is available in hardcover from Amazon for $14; a Kindle edition is also available for $10. A portion of the purchases supports Just Food, an NYC-based non-profit that helps farms and communities make fresh food more accessible.
Lead photo by Nara Shin, all other images courtesy of Ulysses Press/Katie Shelly