Cookbooks are for me like women’s shoes: they’re very tempting, but it’s hard to know how much you’ll actually use them until you buy them. Five years later, you’ll look back and see that a quarter were practically never used, another quarter were used, but if they got lost, you wouldn’t even notice, a third were probably worth the price you paid and the remaining 15% are AMAZING and should probably be replaced, given how dirty and run-down they’ve become. Here’s my top 15%.
- The Splendid Table by Lynn Rosetto Kasper: This book has withstood the test of time for me. It has so many delicious and unusual regional recipes that I never come across in Italian restaurants in America and which are not extensively discussed on the internet. At least twice a year, I discover a new “gem” of a recipe in this book. Last week it was an unusual pan bread called Borlengo, described by Rosetto-Kasper as “so thin, it seems transparent, so crisp, you expect it to shatter. Instead, it bends and folds and tastes chewy and crisp at the same time…Its topping…lard, is melted with garlic and rosemary…[and the Borlengo is then] showered with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.” You can see a video of authentic borlengo being made here. My favorite ragu (meat sauce for pasta) also comes from this book. It’s called The Cardinal’s Ragu and is available online here. It’s a great example of “less is more” when it comes to ingredients and is what I use when my make lasagna, which I make using another recipe in the book that calls for spinach pasta and a simple bechamel between layers. No ricotta, no tomato and no mozzarella! My go-to fall dessert comes from this book as well. It is simple, yet elegant: baked pears caramelized with a dark glaze made from reduced grape syrup (called Saba), lemon zest and cinnamon, served with chantilly cream. Nothing further – not even sugar!
- Splendid Soups by James Peterson: This is a “Bible” on soups from around the world. His versions of some of my favorite ethnic soups, such as Thai Tom Ka Gai, Chinese Hot & Sour Soup, and Senegalese Peanut Soup taste amazing and do not shy away from their authentic ingredients, like kaffir lime leaves and dried tiger lilly stems. French classics, like beef, chicken & duck consomme, mushroom veloute, onion soup, vichyssoise and bouillabaisse taste better than I’ve had in restaurants, yet their recipes are surprisingly simple. Where there might be some variation with tradition, as is the case with bouillabaisse or Indian-Style Black Bean soup, which was inspired by a type of dal, Peterson is the first to call out the difference and explain himself. For me, this book is my go-to reference when I have an ingredient and want to know what to do with it. For instance, after I roasted a leg of lamb, I wondered if there were any recipes that use lamb broth or pieces of cooked leftover lamb meat. The index referenced 7 soups, which are native to Arabia, India, Malaysia Morocco and England.
- Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. This book is an encyclopedia of sorts, but one that you will want to read cover to cover. I think it’s best summarized by this review from Ed Uyeshima on Amazon, “…packed with historical facts, literary anecdotes, and food legends passed down through the ages. For instance, when he talks about dairy products in the first chapter, he also brings up the domestication of the goat, the development of Parmesan, the history of ice cream and the best way to clarify butter. But his writing style is never contrived or pedantic and never gets in the way of the intriguing facts he brings to light. There are great illustrations and almost like a textbook, replete with easy-to-follow charts, graphs, and pictures, On the sidebars of each page, McGee shares insights from the likes of Brillat-Savarin, Plutarch and their culinary brethren along with ancient recipes for ash-roasted eggs, stuffed bonito with pennyroyal, and other delicacies. However, his focus is not purely historical, as he examines with great acuity, modern food production, current health risks and an easy-to-understand lesson on atoms, molecules, and the nature of energy.“
- Washoku – Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen by Elizabeth Andoh. This book taught me that there’s so much more to Japanese food than sushi, although there are some recipes. Chapters are devoted to soups, rice, noodles, vegetables, fish, meat and poultry, tofu and eggs and desserts. I highly recommend reading the introduction, which explains the five principles of how to achieve balance of nutrients and aesthetics in traditional japanese cuisine- by creating meals that stimulate all of your senses and use a variety of different cooking methods. I thought I knew how to cook rice…until I read this book. Now my rice is perfect. (And without a rice cooker). One of the first dishes I made I frequently come back to: Hijiki and Carrots, which are braised in a sweet soy sauce and topped with sesame seeds. Two other favorites are the sweet and sour lotus root and Rice Tossed with Salmon Flakes, garnished with fragrant shiso leaves. My only complaint about this book is that the recipes frequently use sugar, although this seems to have been the way Japanese have cooked for centuries. I suspect that the sugars in Japan have some differences from those we use in America, but I haven’t studies this very much.
- Ajanta – Regional Feasts of India by Lachu Moorjani. This is the cookbook from its namesake Berkeley Restaurant – one that I would occasionally leave San Francisco and cross the Bay Bridge to eat at. Each chapter is devoted to another region in India: from the tandoor-cooked kabobs of Punjab to the Portuguese-inspired coastal dishes of Goa to the sour, hot and nutty cuisine of Hyderbad. Within each chapter, a recipe is provided for an appetizer, main dish, side, rice dish, bread and dessert from the region. Though most of the recipes are atypical of what you find in most Indian restaurants, Moorjani is not too proud to include a very nice recipe for the beloved Chicken Makhanwala, also known as “butter chicken.” An unusual dish that I often come back to is Badal Jaam, which are elegant-looking rounds of sliced eggplant topped with a tomato sauce and thickened yogurt. Every summer, I look forward to making one of the okra recipes using fresh okra from the farmer’s market. My only complaint is that the book isn’t bigger. I am sure Moorjani could write a whole book devoted to each region and perhaps also to more focused topics, like biryanis (this book contains only a single biryani recipe). But I’m happy to at least have this (autographed!) gem of a book in my collection.
- Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen by Rick Bayless. This book taught me that Mexican food has as much regional variation, complexity and depth as do the foods from any other country and is not limited to the sort that sustained me through college in California nor to the Tex-Mex I enjoyed while living in Austin, TX. Don’t get me wrong, Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex are great, but you can find recipes for all sorts of burritos and hard-shell tacos and queso dips online. Bayless’ recipes are less fast-foody and more “foodie-ey.” They’re the real deal, like your Mexican friends’ grandmothers used to make. An example is refried beans made by slow-cooking dried pinto beans and then sauteeing and mashing them with onions and garlic sauteed in lard. Bayless’ simple instructions gave me the courage to attempt making real corn tortillas from scratch. Last night I enjoyed a very humble make-ahead rice casserole whose roasted poblano peppers lent it just the right amount of heat. A favorite of our family’s is the Chili-Seasoned Pot Roast. It’s bursting with flavor and reheats well the next day. The chapter on Fiesta food features 5 different moles, each a different color (red, brown, yellow, green, black) as well as a variety of different unusual tamales, such as the banana-leaf-wrapped Juchitan-Style Black Bean Tamales, whose dough is green from having epazote (or cilantro if you can’t find epazote) blended in.
- Bachvergnugen Wie Noch Nie by Christian Teubner and Annette Wolter. I’m sorry to include a book in another language, but it’s absolutely worth learning a little German or using google translate just to bake from this book. That, and you should invest in a small kitchen scale since proportions are by weight, not volume. I’m not much of a baker, nor a connoisseur of things sweet, but the recipes in this book never fail to impress me. We’ve all seen that grimmace on Europeans’ faces after tasting an American dessert, like a cupcake, followed by a comment about it being “too sweet.” Now that I’ve spent some time in Europe, I can tell you that it’s not just about the sugar content. The way that they bake and the ingredients they use are just different. And by different, I mean better, which probably explains why they don’t need to be as sweet. This book taught me that coffee cake doesn’t have to be like that spongy, brown sugar-topped version you see at coffeeshops. German coffee cake is more like a zucchini bread or banana nut loaf in terms of sweetness, form and density. A good example is the simple “nut cake” make with the finely ground up nut of your choice, ideally hazelnuts. Even better is Schokoladenbrot (Chocolate Bread) which is made with a dough that includes ground almonds and grated chocolate. I know that “almond flour” is de rigueur for the ever-growing gluten-free eaters in the US, but for German cooks, almond and other nut flours are a common addition to cakes, but not a replacement for flour. And those crumbles on the American coffee cake? I now know that it’s a poor imitation of the German “streusel,” which is like our cobbler topping but requires only flour, butter and a little sugar – no oats. This topping is frequently used on sheet cakes, such as the yeast-leavened streusel-kuchen (crumble cake). I learned that the real black forest cherry cake uses far less sugar and more kirschwasser (cherry brandy) compared to its sweeter and less inebriating American equivalent. The book also makes use of gooseberries, plums, poppy seeds and marzipan in wonderful ways, such as marzipan as a filling for the delightful Christmas fruit & nut cake/bread from Dresden, called stollen and a concentrated puree of sweetened poppy seeds on some breakfast pastries. The chapters are organized by occasion: 5:00 tea time (meaning afternoon), coffee time (breakfast pastries), Christmas, Sunday cakes, savory snacks, New Year’s Day, Baking for Kids, etc. I especially like the layout – about 2 recipes per page with a photo for every recipe. But in terms of degree of instruction, this book does expect you to know some basics, like what it means to cream butter and sugar, how to rise a yeast dough and how to slice a sheet cake into 3 very thin layers (which is done using thread).
- Michael Pollan’s “Cooked.” Ok, this isn’t really a cookbook. Plus, it’s fairly new, but I think it’s worth mentioning here because it really moved me. Pollan delves into the history and science of cooking with fire (grilling), water (braising and stewing in pots), air (breads) and earth (fermentation) by accompanying masters in each of these areas and sharing many stories in the process. The book is essentially answering the question, “Why should I waste a bunch of time cooking when there’s so many great prepared foods out there, many of which are produced very cost effectively?” Of course it’s a multi-part answer, but I think it’s dead on and gets into some deep-rooted human needs and evolved behaviors. I think this book makes a great gift for anyone. Even a highly experienced cook like myself will likely find themselves motivated to try new recipes and cooking techniques. Personally I found the whole pig barbecue in the first chapter the most alluring, though not for the faint of heart!
- The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer & Marian Rombauer Becker. It’s a classic, as I’m sure everyone knows. My poor mother’s copy of this book was in pieces by the time I left home. I’ve since bought my own copy and use it just as frequently, although I’m much more careful with it. Many of the recipes are timeless and, in my opinion, can’t be improved upon. For instance, the recipe for French crepes is spot on, as are pretty much all of the pancakes/griddle cakes recipes. I’ve tried variations, but I always come back to the Joy of Cooking’s recipes. Same with the Turkey dressing/stuffing, which I make on Thanksgiving and the eggnog, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the supermarket variety. Some of the recipes may even seem progressive or exotic to modern American tastes – such as the recipes for frogs legs, escargot and organ meats, the popularity of which probably comes and goes. The book is very instructive and although it doesn’t have color photos, it includes many helpful diagrams depicting, for instance, how to cut up, stuff or truss a chicken, how to properly whisk a sauce with a double boiler or how to “cut” curds when making your own cheese. If I could own only a single cookbook, this would be it.
That’s my list – please share your cookbook favorites because there’s still time for me to ask for new Christmas presents! I would be especially interested in a good breadmaking book.