Even though I rarely use recipes, I love them. They provide me with inspiration and ideas for combinations I may never have thought of on my own. I also love cookbooks, especially those that focus on techniques or a cooking philosophy. It’s not unusual to find me spending a Sunday afternoon curled up on the couch with the dog and a cookbook. Today, I’d like to recommend a few cookbooks that I turn to over and over.
First is “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace” by Tamar Adler. This isn’t your typical cookbook. She has modeled it after M.F.K. Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf” and it is thus more like a series of essays about how to eat. Each chapter is organized around a method or ingredient and her guiding philosophy shines through. I think her philosophy could be summed up as ‘Start and keep going.’ I just love her writing. It is beautiful and she really captures cooking – not just eating – as a sensual act. Take care with your cooking and plating and you will be satisfied with less because you have satisfied all your senses, not just taste.
Sprinkled through the chapters are recipes that illustrate the methods or use the ingredients she has just discussed. Reading her descriptions, you can almost taste the dishes. Her writing is reassuring as well. Yes, you’ll make mistakes. It will be okay, there are sections devoted to explaining how to save your mistakes. If your pork chop came out dry, it can be turned into hash. I wish I’d had this book years ago, but I’m not sure I would have truly appreciated it then.
Growing up, vegetables were usually boiled until soggy and served as is. I hated them. Boiled vegetables can be wonderful (see Tamar Adler’s book) if treated correctly, but it took me years to get over my hatred of boiled vegetables. If you grew up like I did, then Susie Middleton’s “Fast, Fresh, & Green” may change your life. This book is all about how to cook vegetables so you want to eat them Each chapter is organized around a specific technique like roasting or sautéing. She gives you a base method/recipe and then several specific recipes as examples. Her Sautéed Sugar Snaps with Salami Crisps is wonderful. I sometimes make it with snow peas.
The principle behind “Ratio” by Michael Ruhlman is that you don’t need a recipe as long as you understand the appropriate ratio behind the dish. He delves into the science of cooking more than Susie Middleton or Tamar Adler. The book is organized like a typical cookbook – Doughs and Batters, Sauces, Sausages, etc and carefully explains the science behind the ratio. This is the book that inspired me to start experimenting when baking and resulted in my Holy Mole brownies.
Another book that investigates the science of cooking is “Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food” by Jeff Potter. I love this book because it, more than any other cookbook I’ve read, encourages you to experiment. Want to test the calibration of your oven, it explains how to use sugar to do so. Why are copper bowls good for making meringues? Potter explains. There are directions to make your own seitan, a DIY sous vide and resources for finding molecular gastronomy supplies like meat glue. I enjoyed the recipe to make brownies using orange peels as a little cup. Fun!
The newest addition to my library is “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking” by Samin Nosrat. Like Adler, she is an alumnae of Chez Panisse. I find Alice Waters insufferable in interviews, but she raises good cookbook authors. This book is all about how to cook – how to use salt and fat and acid and heat to make good food. The first half of the book explains techniques, interspersed with her memories of learning to cook at home and in a restaurant. It almost feels like part memoir. The recipes start after she has explained how to cook. The book is illustrated and the illustrations remind me of Mollie Katzen’s work (excellent vegetarian cookbooks). Every recipe has variations at the end. I used her best pan fried chicken to make pork schnitzel.
Here are three other books that serve as useful references: “Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed” and “Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking” both by Shirley O. Corriher, and, of course, “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker.
If you watched Alton Brown’s “Good Eats”, then Shirley O. Corriher is likely familiar to you. She used to show up and lecture Alton about food science. Unfortunately, her cookbooks read like textbooks and she is giving a lecture. They delve deeply into the science of cooking. If you want to understand how to make a tender pie crust instead of a flaky one, she makes it clear. Each recipe explicitly lists what it is intended to illustrates. They are truly useful references, but not something you want to curl up with on the couch on a rainy day.
“The Joy of Cooking” is an all purpose cookbook. Each chapter and section starts by telling you ‘about’ the method or ingredient. For example ‘About Pancakes’ gives tips for success and is followed by a lot (I mean a lot) of recipes. If you need to know how long and what temperature to use for that four pound roast, “The Joy of Cooking” has got you covered. It is also useful for learning the tips of success (how do I make a good dumpling) and finding a basic recipe that can serve as a base for experimentation, but I rarely make any of the actual recipes here. I just learn what goes into a typical pancake or dumpling or beef stew and go from there.
There are a lot of wonderful cookbooks out there. I hope I’ve introduced you to a few that will help you enjoy cooking as much as I do.