Inspired by Megan McArdle’s recommendations, I decided to put up a post about some of my favorite cookbooks. (I know I haven’t done much food-blogging in the past few weeks, but our digital camera took an untimely fall a couple of months ago. And a recipe without a photo is like creme brulée without the hard sugar crust. Speaking of which, I finally bought a propane torch! If I can get serviceable photos off my new cell phone, I’ll do a brulée post soon.)

On to the cookbooks.

1) Joy of Cooking

This has been a staple in my family’s kitchens for a long time. I love it. It’s packed with basic techniques, and canonical recipes for just about any dish you can imagine. It’s a great reference and a great place to find inspiration. I like Betty Crocker, but I prefer The Joy. Every kitchen needs a “go-to” cookbook for the basics, and this is mine.

2) The Professional Chef

I know this one is a stretch for the home cook, but I love it. It’s the core textbook used at the Culinary Institute of America. It’s not just a collection of recipes, it’s a textbook on how to cook. There’s no great prose, but there is a wealth of information. (Most of the recipes are designed for a professional kitchen, so I use them as guides only. I don’t often make soup to serve 20.)

3) The Larousse Gastronomique

The definitive reference cookbook. It’s literally an encyclopedia. Entries are arranged alphabetically, going from (in my older 1988 edition) abaisse to zuppa Inglese. (a sheet of rolled-out pastry and sponge cake soaked in Kirsch.) The new edition has expanded coverage of world cuisine but the focus is still on French and continental cooking.

4) The Sauce Bible

It’s, well, it’s the sauce Bible. It’s also another book intended for a professional audience. Like The Professional Chef, the recipes are designed for professional kitchens and the quantities can be… large. But I wanted it for technique, history, and culinary education and it delivers on each of those.

5) The Splendid Table

This is my favorite non-reference cookbook. It’s a culinary tour through Northern Italy. This is one to get for the recipes. From a grand Tortellini pie, to a simple pasta with balsamic vinegar, to a Brodetto that continues to amaze me, this is a fabulous cookbook. Kaspar has a wonderful style, and this is a great one to read too. Just a great book.

6) My Mexico

This is a new cookbook, given to me by my wonderful friends, Adam and Elina, as a wedding present. I still haven’t gotten though all of it, this is a cookbook to read. It’s just great food-writing. Some of the recipes (like the one for banana vinegar) can be a little daunting, but I think they’ll be well worth the effort. I haven’t tried to make the banana vinegar yet because I’m sure Jamie won’t be pleased with me leaving 4 pounds of bananas to rot in a bowl for 3 weeks….

7) ?????

I have a bunch of other good cookbooks, but none others that I’m sure are truly great cookbooks. And in some cases, I really like my cookbooks, but I’d love to see more. That’s particularly true when it comes to styles of food. For exampe, I have Creole Feast, and it’s great. The recipes are fantastic. But there are no photos, and there’s very little on technique or history. Truly great cookbooks give you recipes, teach you the history of the dish, and bring you into someone else’s kitchen to see it made. I love Creole Feast, but I don’t think it’s the definitive New Orleans cookbook. I’m still looking for that.

There are other great cookbooks I’m searching for. For example, I haven’t yet found the ultimate Thai cookbook, or the great New Mexican cookbook. I haven’t found the perfect English cookbook either. Ok… so some searches may take longer than others. But I’m still searching, and that’s where the fun is.

Cookbooks are great because they’re read and re-read. They’re books you thumb through again and again. They’re books that are used, and if they’re good, used often. My favorite fiction is dog-eared. But my favorite cookbooks are worn, beaten, and broken.

A great cookbook has torn pages, pages that stick together, pages that are stained with the recipe they describe. The jackets are loose and the spine is broken Often intentionally; a cookbook should lay flat on the counter! In some of my cookbooks I know where my favorite recipes are because the book falls open naturally to those pages.

What are your favorite cookbooks? Have a recommendation?


3 thoughts on “Cookbooks!

  1. Hey! Great post idea. (I also meant to tell you I liked your movie post a lot, oh the comments I made in my head as I read it, and also your Thanksgiving post was lovely, and – also I am so so so lazy so I didn’t.)I’ve never found an ultimate Thai cookbook either, but I found a website from Kasma Loha-unchit which I have liked – she has cookbooks but I’ve never seen either of them. In particular I liked her “Balancing Flavours: An Exercise” – link is here: got a copy of Bittman’s How to Cook Everything a few years ago and it is a great book for beginnerish cooks who just want to eat something good fairly soon.My most battered cookbook, with oil spatters and tomato stains and all, is called Seasons of The Italian Kitchen by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca. I’ve made only a few of the recipes within but they were all very good and are now staples. Taught me about the lovely and changeable nature of the tomato. I have a remaindered cookbook which I have never read, though I’ve perused bits of it. I like to plan to read it someday, and bought a bottle of green chartreuse in its honor. Its called The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth written by Roy Andries de Groot, published in 1973. The author journeyed to an alpine valley in search of the makers of La Grande Chartreuse – he found an inn there and the cookbook was born from that. It has plenty of recipes from the inn but it is also a wonderful snapshot in time.

  2. Thanks, I’ll have to check out the Italian cookbook! I also liked the essay on flavor balancing. I’ve been making Pad Thai recently and I think I’m starting to get the sauce down. The note about sugar is very true. I find that adding a dash of sweet (honey, sugar, molasses, fruit juice, alcohol) does wonders for almost any dish, from Pad Thai to beef stew. The trick of course, is to add slowly and not to over-do it.

  3. Hey, I’m so glad you liked the Mexican cookbook! I’ve been looking for a Thai book myself. This is one I’m considering after doing some Amazon review reading, “Cracking the Coconut.” I have yet to check it out in person for the real test though. Right now I’ve been enjoying both of Tyler’s books because they’re international and totally doable without scrimping on authenticity and without too many unnecessary steps. Adam and I made tuna sashimi in wonton crisps-our addition, and the Vietnamese spring rolls for a dinner party group we’ve been part of for the last year. Also been on a Turkish kick (lamb shanks w/ pomegranite, quince and lemon-think sweet/sour sauce. Now, I just have to figure out some other similair meat besides lamb shank. I think I’m in love. On occasion, I”ll open up the Lumiere cookbook and I’m dying to try something from Zakarian’s Town/Country. My two recent favorites are Kunz’s The Elements of Taste and Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sortun. I love the way both of these books are structured, very unique. I highly recommend looking at these last two. The next time Adam and I are in Boston, I really want to go to Sortun’s restaurant.

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