I’m headed off on vacation this week, so I’ll take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy, safe, and overindulgent Thanksgiving. And I’d like to thank you for your readership, both here and over at my day job.
I’m often asked to recommend a cookbook for readers – maybe for a novice, maybe as a wedding gift for someone, maybe for someone changing his/her diet – but I haven’t done an omnibus cookbook post in two years. With a few really strong new ones entering my collection this year, it seemed like a good time to revisit the subject.
Just for background, I’m mostly a self-taught home cook. I’ve never taken a cooking class. When I was in grad school, I was free every day around 2 or 3 pm, while my wife, a preschool teacher at the time, would get home at 5:30 and be exhausted, assuming she hadn’t caught one virus or another from the kids, so I took over the cooking. At first, I was pretty awful at it, both in terms of the end product and in my capacity to injure myself through fire or blade. I must have really enjoyed the process, though, because as opposed to my usual habit of giving up on anything I wasn’t good at the first time, I decided to figure out how not to suck at cooking.
My two main sources of early cooking instruction were Alton Brown’s Good Eats TV series and the 1997 edition of the classic American cookbook Joy of Cooking. With Good Eats airing in repeats on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel, you can just set up your DVR to record them rather than buying the overpriced DVD sets, but the companion books, starting with Good Eats: The Early Years, are worth owning for the revised (usually re-tested) recipes and the commentary on each episode. Brown’s techniques always revolve around sound science and increased efficiency, whether it’s a faster way of doing something or a way to reuse an existing kitchen tool for a new purpose. He’s goofy – belching yeast sock-puppets are just never not funny – but always educational. And of all of his recipes that I’ve tried (more than I can count), only one, the squash dumplings, didn’t work for me, and that was fixed in the companion book.
Joy of Cooking is always my first recommendation for people who are either just learning to cook or who are looking for one cookbook to rule them all. There are many editions available and there are some wide variations from one to the next, but the ’97 version has served me extremely well for its tremendous breadth of recipes – that’s still my go-to book even for Italian classics like pesto Genovese or shrimp scampi – and for the clear, logical recipes. For this edition, the publisher hired food writers to rewrite most of the recipes in the book, losing the folksy prose that charmed readers of earlier editions, but ensuring that the recipes were easy to follow and worked properly. Each recipe in Joy lists the ingredients in bold face at the point in the recipe where they’re used, rather than listing them all at the top. If you don’t succumb to the temptation to skip your mise en place – prepping and measuring ingredients before you start any cooking – this makes it much easier to follow the recipes and reduces the odds that you’ll skip an ingredient.
If you’re interested in preserving fruits or vegetables, I have used Joy of Cooking: All About Canning & Preserving for nearly a decade. It’s out of print but amazon has used copies for $4 and up at that link.
The new essential cookbook that I recommend to readers of any experience level is Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto, a book I own myself and have given away as a gift. Its recipes require a slightly higher skill level than Joy, but Ruhlman’s twenty section essays – on basic techniques like poaching, braising, and frying, or core ingredients like onions, eggs, and salt – build up your knowledge on each subejct from the ground up. It’s the kind of book that might intimidate a rookie but, if you try some of the recipes, will leave you impressed with your own capabilities. I reviewed Ruhlman’s Twenty in full last November.
(I should say I’m a firm believer in the adage that if you can read, you can cook. Cooking is not an innate skill that some of us have and some of us lack. It takes attention, it takes patience, it helps if you understand some basic math and science, but at its heart, cooking is about following instructions. Follow those, and you’ll produce something worth eating.)
Ruhlman’s earlier book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, is another must-have but is for intermediate home cooks and above because it makes assumptions about the reader’s experience and comfort level with certain techniques or foods. The book’s recipes are largely presented as ratios that can be scaled up to produce the desired quantity. If you want to make biscuits, you need 3 parts flour to 1 part fat to 2 parts liquid. The specifics are largely up to you, and there are brief discussions of your options, but again, Ruhlman is largely assuming you know how a biscuit or a Hollandaise or pâte à choux and is describing each recipe in terms of its foundation.
For anyone looking to eat more vegetables, whether or not you’re a vegetarian, I now have two strong recommendations. One is Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, which I reviewed in September. Ottolenghi isn’t a vegetarian but every recipe in this book is, with vegetables always the star ingredients, often augmented by butter and/or cheese, but mostly prepared in ways that evoke the essential flavors of the central vegetable. Cutting and browning endives in butter and a little sugar before coating them with cheese and bread crumbs and baking them helps bring out some of this chicory relative’s sugars while taming its strong bitter flavors to a point where the cheese (gruyere or talleggio) can at least compete for your attention. I’ve also found his mixed sauteed mushroom recipe, with soft goat cheese used in lieu of sour cream, to be a great hearty sauce over fresh whole-wheat papparedelle for a warm winter main course.
The other vegetable-centric cookbook is Nigel Slater’s Tender, easily the most beautifully shot cookbook in my collection. Slater is a very famous food writer in England who has just a small cult following here, but Tender deserves a much wider audience for its focus on vegetables from seed to table. His gardening advice hasn’t helped me much because you can’t get a much wider gap between soil types than England and Arizona, but his dishes, many of which do contain meat but still accentuate the vegetables, are subtle showstoppers, turning some very ordinary veg – the more mundane and kid-unfriendly the plant, the more Slater seems to adore it – into warm, glowing, gorgeous dishes. Tender is the book that got me to buy and cook an actual pumpkin (not from a can), a process that, with about a tablespoon of added brown sugar led to this:
Warm pumpkin scone with pecan butter twitter.com/keithlaw/statu…
— keithlaw (@keithlaw) November 3, 2012
For the advanced home cook – or even the professional – in your life, go for The Flavor Bible, which isn’t a cookbook at all. The authors, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, interviewed dozens of professional chefs about what ingredients went well together, and tabulated the results in this book. Look up an ingredient in The Flavor Bible and you’ll find a long list of good partners, with ingredients that were mentioned more often earning bolded entries. For example, parsnips are in season right now in much of the country, and the parsnip entry first says they should always be cooked, and work well when baked, boiled, braised, fried, grilled, mashed, pureed, roasted, or steamed. When the authors asked chefs about parsnips, the most-mentioned ingredients were butter (including browned butter) and nutmeg, both appearing in bold, capital letters. Bolded entries, mentioned less often than those two ingredients, include apples, chives, cream, curry, garlic, ginger, maple syrup, olive oil, parsley (a relative of parsnip and carrots), pepper, potatoes, sage, salt (duh), brown sugar, thyme, and root vegetables. The entry also includes about fifty other ingredients that work well with parsnip and were mentioned at least once by the interviewed chefs, and then concludes with five “flavor affinities,” combinations like parsnips + honey + mustard or parsnips + butter + cream + potatoes. Some entries have “Holy Grail” pairings, marked with an asterisk and mentioned by a large portion of the chefs they interviewed, like plums and Armagnac or lamb and rosemary, and some entries have “avoid” sections, like parsley and dessert. There are even sections for national cuisines – if you want to know what flavors work well in Afghan or Eastern European cuisines, for example, they’ve got you covered. What The Flavor Bible doesn’t do, however, is tell you what to do with these pairings. There are assorted quotes from celebrity chefs describing specific dishes, but the book contains no recipes. They assume you have the recipes and techniques and are looking for inspiration.
The best book I’ve found for desserts, and one of only two America’s Test Kitchen books I own, is Baking Illustrated, which has most of the basic desserts you’d want to make, including a pie crust (for lattice tops, like the one in my Twitter avatar, but functional in any pie) that works as reliably as any I’ve ever tried. The writing can be cloying, especially when they go into more detail on failed kitchen experiments than I ever needed (if you’re going to describe something that didn’t work, at least make it funny), but the recipes work and their pumpkin pie is bar none the best I have ever tasted, one I make at least once every year.
For bread baking, I am an unabashed acolyte of Peter Reinhart and own several of his books, including The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Whole Grain Breads (most of the same breads as the first book, but in whole-wheat, multi-grain, and 50/50 variations), and the more accessible Artisan Breads Every Day. His pizza doughs are pretty foolproof; I add a tablespoon of vital wheat gluten to his 100% whole wheat pizza dough and it’s strong enough to stretch it to translucency without tearing. (Sometimes I tear it anyway because I’m clumsy like that.) His pain a l’ancienne white-flour baguettes from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice are absurdly easy if you have a stand mixer or food processor (this Cuisinart model is the current version of the one I’ve used for fifteen years) and never fail to get raves when I bring them to friends. I’ve made his focaccia, his cinnamon rolls, his struan, his challah, his pitas, and his wild yeast starter, which I kept going for about a year and a half until we packed up the house in Massachusetts. His books even have recipes for international breads like pumpernickel, panettone, hutzelbrot, and stollen, as well as Ethiopian injera and crackers like lavash and graham. Go with Artisan if you’re a bread-baking rookie, or the others if you have more experience or want books that will focus on baker’s ratios and allow for more ingredient substitutions. I reviewed the first two books at length back in 2009.
Three more quick recommendations:
* If you have a slow cooker, go with ATK’s Slow Cooker Revolution. I don’t own the full book, but have a magazine version they sold when the book first came out, including about a third of the main book’s recipes, and they’ve all worked on the first try, including a surprisingly flavorful bolognese sauce that makes enough to freeze for one or two future meals (you lose a little texture, but the flavors remain strong), a beef burgundy stew that gave us about three dinners’ worth, and a white chicken chili that is surprisingly low in fat.
* If you want a celebrity cookbook, just because, the best I own – and I’m thinking household-name celebrities – is actually Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill Cookbook. I’ve eaten at Mesa Grill three times, once in Manhattan and twice in Vegas, and every dish I have eaten at those restaurants is in here and easy to reproduce at home. The blue- and yellow-corn muffins are decadent.
* Finally, one that doesn’t fit anywhere else: Julia Child’s slim $11 book Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, which does, indeed, include wisdom from the woman who introduced America to French cooking – but whose most famous cookbooks haven’t aged well, at least not to my eyes. This book focuses on the bare essentials in the kitchen, including the basic vinaigrette formula I’ve been using for years, mother sauce formulas, simple instructions for roasting or braising major cuts of meat, souffles, breads, custard, and even baking-powder biscuits so you can make strawberry shortcakes.