Some of my all-time favorite cookbooks:
This is one of those classic American cookbooks with recipes for all the basics. The recipes I use most often from this book are the fried chicken, the pancakes, the basic chocolate cake (and cupcakes) and the vanilla cake as well as the buttercream frostings (try the coffee flavored vanilla frosting on a dark chocolate cupcake and you’ll thank me when you can speak again). I have also probably made every salad and most of the appetizer spreads and dips. I could go on and on but suffice to say that the pages of this book are among the most battered in my cookbook library.
Can you tell I’m a fan of Cook’s Illustrated?
This is my go-to book for week night meals. I have probably made 20-30 recipes from this book with very few disappointments (most of those stemming from recipes that instruct you to microwave chicken breasts. I have just never had that turn out well). One of my favorite things about this book is that it encourages me to think creatively about “dinner” with chapters on main dish salads, eggs for dinner, and “Starting with Leftovers.” I think almost all of them have clocked in pretty close to the 30 minutes advertised although some offer options that will take just a couple minutes longer (like making your own croutons).
You can have your Giada’s and your Lidia’s and your Mario’s; I am committed to Marcella. One of my first tenuous forays into the world of “real” cooking involved a small paperback of Marcella Hazan recipes and my success with those simple, straightforward dishes gave me a lot confidence. I still find her approach to be both serious in its appreciation of good food while at the same time flexible in its understanding that you and I are not going to spend every Sunday making our own pasta and ragus. If you try one thing, make it the Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onions. It is tomatoes (and I use a 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes), 5 tablespoons of butter, and 1 onion, cut in half. Simmer these ingredients for 45 minutes. THAT’S IT. And it is the most delicious, bright and simple sauce you will ever put on pasta.
I understand that Pam used to work for Cook’s Illustrated which explains her approach: find the absolute definitive recipe for a classic American dish. This is another beaten up and abused book on my shelf. Some of my favorites are the Caesar salad, her pasta salads, fried chicken, onion rings and green beans.
I don’t watch too many “tv chefs” but I do like Ina. Once you get beyond hating her for her lifestyle you begin to appreciate her approach, which is somewhere between American comfort food and french elegance and practicality. I do find that the instructions in her books are not always accurate but are easily fixed and the results are worth it. I love the Lemon Chicken with Croutons from this book and Ina’s chicken stock is now my default recipe (mostly because she lets you throw a bunch of chicken and wilty things from your crisper tray into a pot and simmer for 4 hours).
I intended to cook every cake in the this book and, to my credit, I came close. I think I tried more than 60 of the cake recipes as well as many of the frostings, glazes, etc. There were many more hits than misses but definitely some things that just did not work. Nevertheless, I wanted an apprenticeship in cake making and that’s what I got. The books is laid out nicely for such an endeavor as she starts out with some basics and builds on the skills and techniques you learn.
If you live in or near Chicago you’ve probably seen Rick Bayless. He is a fixture at charity events where he often donates his time and he is often at the Green City Market. And of course he owns an award-winning restaurant that you can actually eat at if you know when to go. It’s nice to know that his cookbooks work too. Not only have I made many dishes from this book with great success, but my husband (not an accomplished cook to put it diplomatically) also loves to cook from this book and gets very good results.
Other books about food, chefs, cooking, and eating that I love:
Jacques Pepin is, to me, the “real deal.” I love his cooking, his accent, his approach. But even if I had no idea who he was, or what he was known for I would have loved this book. He tells his story in such a straightforward, unboastful way that you can’t help being won over.
You don’t have to know or care about Julia Child to enjoy this book. You also don’t have to know or care about food or cooking. Julia’s story is, as I’m not the first to point out, very enjoyable but there is so much more to this book. The whole drama surrounding the writing, editing and publishing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking read like a thriller; even knowing that it would all work out in the end I was on the edge of my seat. Another revelation to me was life in France immediately after the War. The France I know is not one of shortages and deprivation and that part of the book gave me a whole new appreciation for the era and the people.
I loved this memoir by Frank Bruni about his disfunctional relationship with food throughout his life and his time as the food critic for the New York Times.
Smart and funny.
So now we’re in the love-him-or-hate-him area and I fall into the former camp. I loved this book for its honesty about why most people should not go into the restaurant business and why I’ll never produce anything out of my kitchen that compares to a 4-star kitchen. I also find him smart and funny and that gets me every time.
Michael Pollen is such a wonderful writer that he can give you, essentially, the history of corn (as he does in this book) and you will like it. Equally compelling (and much shorter) is In Defense of Food, which is about as close to my own philosophy about cooking and eating as any book I’ve read.
As you know, I did not grow up with a legacy of cooking and recipes. I am completely self-taught and didn’t start really cooking until I was in my late 20s. How did I do it? In the beginning I sent away for every free recipe book on the back of things like Dijon mustard and frozen puff pastry. Then I discovered Cook’s Illustrated. This magazine took my cooking to an entirely new level. I learned the basics. I learned the science. I learned why certain fundamental techniques work and how to master them. I learned about good equipment and ingredients. Way back they also did cookbook reviews similar to what I do with this blog and when they stopped I eventually missed it so much I had to do it myself. I still look forward to every issue and it is the one magazine I read cover to cover.