Anyone who eats three meals a day should understand why cookbooks outsell sex books three to one. – L. M. Boyd
Cookbooks. I have a few.
I also have some mixed feelings about them.
On the one hand, they can be delightful little journeys around the world, or just around the corner. They can inspire you to new heights of ridiculousness (yes, I have driven to three different grocery stores to find unpasteurized heavy cream to make fresh ricotta – and then found it just a few blocks from my house, and also discovered through experimentation that I DIDN’T EVEN NEED IT), and can lead to greatness (beef tenderloin en croute with leeks vinaigrette? Mai oui!). They are windows to a world that isn’t yours, but you wouldn’t mind if it put its slippers under the bed. The right one will send you straight into the kitchen to slice/grate/pickle/braise your way to Valhalla.
On the other hand, cookbooks will chain you down and keep you coming back for more, like a bad boyfriend. They make you dependent on a particular set of steps, ingredients, and methods. The wrong cookbook will try to convince you that you simply must, must do it (whatever “it” is) the author’s way or your efforts will fail miserably and you will die in ignominy (and hungry). And, as great as that way may be, I *hate* being told what to do. Hate it.
Cookbooks also have a singular ability to drive you nuts when poorly constructed or not well thought out. More than once, I’ve gotten half way through reading a particular recipe, only to be left with having to guess what to do with the bunch of parsley or reserved half-cup of sugar (which I realize is the result of crap editing more than it has to do with the author herself). And, because the author has waxed rhapsodic about enjoying the dish on a deck, with a view, and a chilled glass of flinty white sitting on an artfully restored butcher block table at sunset, I wind up pissed off that I am “enjoying” it in my sweltering kitchen, the remnants of a bottle of (now warm and flat) bubbly water in a Mason jar on the counter, staring at a pile of dirty dishes instead of a vineyard. Fuck.
And they take up a hell of a lot of shelf space.
And they are everywhere around here. They are piled on coffee tables, stuffed into corners, and (despite my half-assed efforts to achieve a semblance of domestic organization worthy of a spread in Dwell) find their way into the shelves reserved specifically for non-food related books (all two of them).
So, even though there are a fair few cookbooks out there that make me idiotic with rage, I’d like to take up a bit of digital space with (yet another) list of those that absolutely rock my world. That changed the way I view food and cooking. If this list was in any way timely and profiled works published only in the last year, I would suggest that we give them an award for pure awesomeness. But (at least this time) this is more of a survey of what’s on my shelf and (more importantly) what’s on my counter, getting down and dirty and (not a little bit) sticky. So, here we go:
Best All Around
Mark Bitman is quite possibly my favorite food guy, ever. And? He wants you to cook. Badly. Not that he wants you to eff up every time you step in front of the stove, rather he is deeply invested in getting a knife in your hand, a whisk in your utensil holder, and a pan on the stove. Moreover, he wants the food you cook to be FOOD. Granted, his columns in the NYTimes have become…curmudgeonly (by his own admission), but his omnibus How to Cook Everything is truly the best book you can have in your kitchen because it provides you with more than recipes. He gives you techniques, and encourages you to step outside the formulas he presents. If you are new to the kitchen, or just need a (really) basic reference, get this.
Best Vegetable (But Not Necessarily Vegetarian)
Yotam Ottolenghi is a genius. No, really, a genius. If you are lucky enough to live in London (or just planning to visit), please please please, go here (there are four: Notting Hill, Islington, Belgravia, and Kensington). And then take your bounty to Green Park (after stopping here for a little light reading) and enjoy your spoils in the golden light of Autumn (because I am picturing you heading over in October, which is my favorite month to land upon their shores). If you aren’t planning to storm the the old sod any time soon, get your hands on his book(s). Nobody has a more beautiful perspective on vegetables, and nobody is combining flavors the way he is. Mr. Ottolenghi, while as committed as the next chef to seasonal and organic, isn’t going to hit you over the head with an Alice Waters-sized sledgehammer about it. He’s more interested in getting YOU interested in making the flora of the land the centerpiece of your meal.
Best for the Devoted Carnivore
The River Cottage Meat Book is, bar none, the best book dealing with the many thorny issues around eating meat. Particularly if you are interested in eating responsibly and sustainably, without pulling a Zuckerberg. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is on his way to becoming an institution in the UK DIY food scene (whatever you are thinking of brewing/preserving/curing/raising – he’s done it first), and rightly so. If you start with The River Cottage Meat Book, make sure you follow up with their handbook series (bread, jam, etc.).
Best “Wait, You Can Do That at Home”?
Charcuterie is enjoying a renaissance, particularly with the Do It Yourself set. And, while there’s a lot of weird information out there (which is hilarious, because it’s a pretty straightforward and classic craft), I suggest that you put on your goggles, prepare to get dirty, and dive into this guide for the self-starter salumieri. While Mark Ruhlman will be mentioned more than once in this post, I humbly suggest that if you are interested (and can get your hands on a pork leg) in hanging your own prosciutto or developing a signature smoked duck, this is the book for you. Ruhlman, in partnership with master salumieri Brian Polcyn and Chef Thomas Keller not only explain the principles and process of creating masterful farce (or “force meat” – the basis of all sausage/salami), but also walk you through the different additives and sanitation concerns you need to keep in mind. Long story short: want to make your own chorizo? Get your hands on a copy of “Charcuterie“.
Best “Well Preserved”
I talked about both of these ladies in a previous post, but I’ll say it again: If you want to make good jam (and who doesn’t?!?), you need to get both Christine Ferber’s Mes Confitures, and for good measure The Blue Chair Fruit book by Rachel Saunders. ‘Nuff said.
If I can’t be Elizabeth David, I would like to be Serena Bass. Times a bajillion.
I really have nothing to say here. Most “celebrity” cookbooks are too heavy on the celebrity, and too light on the cooking. Additionally, my celebrities are probably a bit nerdier than the standard. That said, for pure entertainment, I nominate Anthony Bourdain for the one line in the Les Halles Cookbook: “If you can’t properly roast a chicken then you are one helpless, hopeless, sorry-ass bivalve in an apron. Take that apron off, wrap it around your neck, and hang yourself. You do not deserve to wear the proud garment of generations of hardworking, dedicated cooks. Turn in those clogs, too.” Luckily, the book is also full of great, technique-based formulas, and I’m pretty sure he feels just ever so slightly douche-y, wearing whites for the cover shot, since he hasn’t been in a kitchen for years (a fact that only he holds against himself – once a cook, always a cook I say).
Best Pastry (Reference)
There are about a million books out there that claim to be the end all, be all of baking reference books, but I have to say that James Peterson’s Baking is far and away my favorite. Covering everything from sweet to savory, laminated to short dough, bread to biscuit, and puff to praline, this is my go-to book when I have a question about how to get the job done right. The extensive photo work is a great reference for what it might look like (remember, YOU are the chef, not some book, so you get to decide what the final product should look/taste like), and I have yet to have a formula fail.
Best Pastry (Outside the Bag of AP Flour)
A lot of people have already blogged about this book, so I’m just adding my voice to the chorus. In Good to the Grain, Kim Boyce has done a masterful job of expanding the range of baked goods in the average kitchen. Who knew that rye flour would make such an intense danish dough? Oatmeal sandwich bread? Yeah, it’s now the house staple. And Oh. My. God. The whole wheat chocolate chip cookies? A. Maze. Ing.
Best “Damn, That Girl can BAKE”
I’ve mentioned this chef before as well. Joanne Chang’s Flour is on high rotation in this “lady”‘s kitchen, not only because it’s full of solid formulas, but also because she crosses the Franco-American boundary with ease. A cookbook with everything from craquelin to the world’s best granola ever, by way of a cookie entitled “The Chunky Lola”? Sign. Me. Up.
Best “When You are Ready to Give Up the Recipe and Finally COOK”
And here is where I get back to my original thought: Folks, cookbooks are holding you down until you say “Uncle”. If you only ever buy one more cookbook, ever, make it Ratio by Mark Ruhlman. Having this on your shelf is like having a secret decoder ring to the world of food. It will put a whole new perspective on the cookbooks you do have, and will enable you to better judge what books you buy in the future. It will also save you $60K in culinary school tuition.
Best for the Food Nerd
Harold McGee is the master of all things science in the kitchen. Maillard reactions? He understands them, and wants you to as well (but he’s also gonna let you know that it’s just another word for caramelization). Gluten strands? They are some of his best friends. And best of all? He makes them accessible. Well, OK, the really best thing is that I just found out he LIVES DIRECTLY BEHIND A FRIEND OF MINE. Let the stalking begin! Alright, all I really want is for him to sign my copy of On Food and Cooking. And maybe to cook him dinner.
Best Food Writing – Actual Book
You don’t have to take it from me, you can also listen to the James Beard Awards. By far and away, Gabrielle Hamilton has written the best. book. on. cooking. ever. Blood, Bones, and Butter not only covers the psychological ups/downs/inbetweens of being a chef (in a variety of environments from the home kitchen to renown restaurant), but it is one of the most beautifully, finely written works on the shelf. It’s also one of the few written by a woman chef (a subject she covers eloquently and realistically), which like it or not, is a rare and wonderful thing. She’s a bad ass, and if I can’t be Elizabeth David or Serena Bass, I want to be Gabrielle Hamilton, warts and all.
Best Food Writing – After the Blog to Book
Cleaving, by Julie Powell will change your mind about this fantastic author who doesn’t look or act a thing like Amy Adams. Singularly talented, and singularly effed up in all the right ways.
And there it is. Yep, I glossed over some writers I really love, and read over and over and over again, but if I didn’t give the likes of Nigel Slater (hearts. galore.), MFK Fisher, Julia Child (gasp!), Molly Wizenberg, Deb Perelman, David Lebovitz, and Dan Lepard short shrift (all of whom will get their own posts), we’d be here all night, and there is a glass of wine and two new books (Cooking with Les Dames d’Escoffier and Bacchus and Me) calling my name…