As cooking school should, class commences with kitchen basics: equipment and technique. Here we learn by description, instruction and illustration the fundamental skills that every cook should bring to the kitchen. Pop quiz: name and describe the six basic vegetable cuts. Extra credit: what are two of the four specialty cuts? The answers are on pages 14 -- 15, clearly and beautifully illustrated by both technique and result. And so we go through herbs, spices, onions, garlic and citrus before arriving, as we would in a classroom, at stock and soup.
The basic architecture of the curriculum is modeled on the French method (it is well-known among Stewies that among Martha's own early influences was Mastering the Art of French Cooking), in which fundamental skills lead, step by step, to more advanced ones, and in which technique is not separate from intention or result. Thus, in the section on meat, we learn butcher's cuts (pages 100 -- 104) before we learn cooking them. From this, we learn -- in the best way possible outside of having the opportunity to go to the market with a French grand-mere and then be allowed into la cuisine when you get home -- which cuts beg to be roasted in salt versus which should be pan-seared (extra credit: what's the difference between the plate and the flank?).
Each lesson includes clear, good writing and photography and is followed by recipes that put the skill into action. For example, "How to Roast" (pages 124 -- 126) leads to roasting chicken (page 127), beef tenderloin (page 132), rack of lamb (page 142), etc. Each lesson and recipe is accompanied by essential skills, ingredients or recipes for that dish: the recipe for roasted pork loin (page 134) includes instructions on how to sear and tie the roast (extra credit: what's the name of this technique?); the recipe for roasted turkey (page 149) also teaches how to carve (page 152) and make the gravy (page 154).
Along with the above, teaching areas include eggs, vegetables, pasta, and beans and grains before concluding, as your meal should, with desserts. Even without the guidance on technique, the recipes would make the book a gold mine: when was the last time you saw a shelter cookbook include both coddling and shirring (page 90) in the section on eggs (extra credit: without looking it up, what's the difference between the two?), or teach you how to make pesto with a mortar and pestle (page 379)? Additional highlights include tortellini in brodo, perhaps the ultimate comfort food (page 174), tempura (page 335), rice pilaf (page 414), butter cake with chocolate butter cream (page 428; forming and frosting on page 431). Finally, it is worth noting that, while Martha's Cooking School is centered in American cooking (the closest parallel would be the classic Fannie Farmer), Martha's school of cooking draws from the world table. The book includes these influences, in ways as diverse as teaching how to make dashi (page 60) and wiener schnitzel (page 267), fish tacos (page 276) to stir fry (page 244). And so forth -- you will find something wonderful on whatever page the book opens to.
There are as many summaries of what cooking is as there are cooks, so for everyone who finds this book, as I do, a masterpiece, there will be someone who devalues it. I have heard Martha be accused of being everything from elitist to militant. I for one salute anyone who respects homekeeping enough to turn a kitchen-based catering business into a cultural phenomenon. Yes, if you look for it you can find something to quibble about (extra credit: where is the recipe for basic pound cake? Answer: here). I suspect someone will ask why, for example, we need a recipe for duck breast with orange gastrique (page 262). I would argue that any thought that that skill is arcane or high-falutin' is just exactly why it should be included, preserved, and used. Yes, Martha Stewart's Cooking School is a brand-name product, but it is dedicated -- sincerely -- "to home cooks everywhere," (frontispiece) with the blessing that we always to continue to learn. Though this is not its fundamental intention, Martha Stewart's Cooking School is as much a primer on how to teach cooking as on how to cook. Even if Martha had used her talents in a smaller home ec classroom than the media, who, except perhaps your own grandmother, can you name who is more qualified to do that?