Great Cookbooks

So, you may have noticed that it’s not getting light so early in the morning anymore. That’s too bad! The one thing I dislike most about winter is the short days. But the dark mornings do give me time to do housework, since I can’t take the dogs out for their run until it gets light. That means I just finished dusting my kitchen.

This is a big job. It takes about three days, figuring forty-five minutes per day. The kitchen island is the worst, since I have a lot of cookbooks and about thirty of them are displayed on the kitchen island. All of those books have to be individually dusted and set aside before the island itself can be dusted, and then they all have to be put back. So it’s satisfying to have the whole kitchen dusted and perfect, but I don’t do it, like, every week or anything.

Now, this time, while taking all the books off the island and dusting them, I thought it would be nice to just point out a few of my favorites. Hopefully some of you like to cook, and some of you might like to hear about great cookbooks even if you don’t cook very much. I promise you, none of these books offers merely a collection of naked recipes. Cookbooks that offer nothing but recipes are so boring; at minimum, a cookbook should offer a brief, interesting description about each recipe, the sort of thing that makes you actually want to make the dish, right?

Okay, then! Ten really great cookbooks (and a few extra titles I just wanted to include), in no particular order:

1. One of my favorite books that offers the flavor (if you will) of a particular historical period is Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook by Francine Segan.

Segan offers many period recipes (“Take your Chickens, drawe them and wash them, then breake their bones, and lay them in a platter, then take foure handfuls of fine flower, and lay it on a faire boord, put thereto twelve yolks of Egs, a dish of butter, and a little Saffron; mingle them altogether, and make yout paste therewith. . . .”)

But fear not! Most of the space is taken up by much more do-able contemporary recipes, each with its little comment relating the recipe to the cooking of the era. Like, under Duck Breast with Gooseberries, Segan explains what kinds of fowl were actually eaten by people in Elizabethan England (cranes, really?) and adds that in the original recipe, the duck would have been boiled. Her own version offers the crisp skin we prefer today.

This is a beautiful book, with lots of color pictures of finished dishes and smaller black-and-white pictures of English landscapes, lots of little quotes from Shakespeare’s plays, and lots of snippets of information about the culinary culture of the period. It’s the kind of cookbook I like best – the kind that makes you want to read it from cover to cover, just like a novel. The kind that sets you dreaming of a different time and place. It would go perfectly with a good murder mystery or historical romance set in Elizabethan England.

I haven’t made too many recipes out of this book, but I have made the cover recipe – Almond Saffron Chicken in Bread (that is, a bread bowl). It was attractive and not at all difficult. I did not require diners to wear Elizabethan dress to the table, though that would be a fun idea.

2. Instead of traveling in time, how about a journey in space? For a cookbook that is also almost a travelogue, anything by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid is great. After a minute or so of paralyzed indecision, I picked one of theirs almost at random for this list: Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia. This is the one that traces a journey along the Mekong river, starting in southern China and eventually running winding up with Laos and Vietnam.

Like all their books, the photography is topnotch, and the little anecdotes about their travels add priceless interest to the recipes. This is as much a lovely coffee-table book as a working cookbook – but it is definitely a working cookbook. I’ve made quite a few recipes from this book – it’s this kind of book that makes me keep lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves in the freezer, and of course everyone needs a recipe for sweet coconut rice.

3. In my opinion, the best cuisine in the world is Indian. Alford and Duguid have a book that focuses on Indian food (Mangoes and Curry Leaves), but there are so many fabulous Indian cookbooks out there. I love Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahne, but I must admit that the single Indian cookbook I reach for most often is Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries.

This is because, well, 660 recipes. Whatever ingredient you have in mind, Iyer’s book will probably offer at least half a dozen recipes that focus on that ingredient. Did you just visit an international grocery store and pick up fenugreek greens on a whim? Iyer has plenty of recipes that include fenugreek greens. Are your eggplants producing a LOT of fruit and you’re bored with fried eggplant and eggplant parmigiana? Never fear: Iyers offers dozens of ways to fix eggplant. You can make a different eggplant dish every week all summer. I always add a little note to the book when I try a dish, so I know whether I want to make it again and anything I want to change.

Indian cooking is very approachable, more so (in my opinion) than SE Asian or Chinese. I’m usually very pleased with any Indian dish I make. Sure, there can be lots of spices and flavorings, but once you lay in a supply of those, the actual preparations are often very simple. Granted, I love my Preethi spice grinder, but you can buy all kinds of curry powders and masalas ready-made. And, of course, if you want to emphasize vegetarian cooking, well, no cuisine makes better vegetarian food than Indian. If I were suggesting one Indian cookbook for someone just getting interested in the cuisine, I might suggest something by Madhur Jaffrey instead. But 660 Curries would be a good second title to pick up.

4. I don’t make Chinese food as often as Indian, but when I’m in the mood for Chinese, I usually start by picking up one of my books by Fushia Dunlop – Land of Plenty, say. Dunlop is one of the few (the only?) Western chef to train at the premier Chinese cooking school. I love her sections on ingredients and techniques, I love her anecdotes about cooking and eating in China, I love her notes about Chinese history.

When I was listening to the audiobook The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones I was really pleased to be able to look through Dunlop’s The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, which echoed the history and food featured in Mones’ novel. I don’t always stop with Dunlop – her recipes can be a little too authentic for me; sometimes I want something more aimed at contemporary American tastes – but her books are my favorites for browsing through.

5. I do a lot of baking. I usually make my own yeast breads – rolls or sliced loaves keep just fine in the freezer, and I just thaw bread as I want it. I’m a little lactose intolerant, so I don’t usually have cold cereal for breakfast – instead, I make muffins or scones or pancakes. Muffins freeze just fine, btw, but I like fresh-baked scones, and did you know you can pat scone dough out into a circle, freeze it on the baking sheet, cut the frozen dough into wedges, wrap the wedges in plastic, and then store them frozen, unbaked? Then you can just bake them as you want them. They barely even take longer to bake when you start with frozen dough.

I would get totally bored always making the same kind of muffins or scones or whatever, and the single cookbook that adds the most interest to baking for me is the King Arthur Whole Grain Baking book. I love the way it explains the characteristics of different kinds of grains and flours and I love how different kinds of flour add interest to baked goods. And I love the tips sprinkled through the book – this is where I learned you can freeze scone dough in wedges. My favorite scone is from this book – Coconut Scones – I add the optional chocolate chips, of course! These are very good and very rich.

Now I want scones, but since it’s eight in the evening, I guess I will restrain myself.

I don’t usually use the cookie recipes in this book — I usually want much fancier kinds of cookies for Christmas baking, not simple cookies for ordinary lunches. And I almost never make pies – my mother is the go-to person for pies. But what I can say for sure is that I love the quick breads and the yeast breads, and that I reach first for this cookbook when I’m looking for something interesting to make for breakfast.

6 & 7. While on the subject of baking, if you want an extended education on yeast breads and a whole lot of professional recipes, you really should try The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. Or if cakes are your thing, I am so impressed by Rose’s Heavenly Cakes by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Either of those books will explain why baked goods behave the way they do, why different kinds of flour lead to different outcomes, and how to make seriously perfect baked goods. Plus, both of these are beautiful books, with the kind of presentation that will leave you eager to try the recipes. It’s these kinds of books which prevent me from even considering a permanent low-carb or low-gluten diet.

8. Okay, how about a different kind of focus? For someone like me, who has a small home orchard, it’s really important to be able to find a lot of recipes for peaches, say, or apricots, or plums, without having to search through a lot of recipe cards or books. Nigel Slater’s book Ripe is a great book to turn to when your orchard (or your farmer’s market) suddenly explodes with one or two particular kinds of produce.

It’s not all fruit, but it’s almost all tree crops – stone fruits (peaches, plums, apricots), pomme fruits (apples and pears), and nuts, including chestnuts. Also some fruits that few people grow but that do suddenly glut the market now and then and here and there, like figs. That was handy when my fig tree unexpectedly ripened a bunch of figs midsummer, which fig trees do not generally do in Missouri. Also a few smaller kinds of fruits, like gooseberries or blackberries. It’s all seasonal stuff, and the recipes are appealing and wide-ranging, though oriented more toward the British cook (“golden syrup” is not easily available here, for example). This is a handsome book that will make you swoon away with longing for summer.

9 & 10. And last, some cookbooks are really books of essays with recipes, and some of those are lots of fun to read. Two that probably aren’t that well known, but are my personal favorites, are Tom Harte’s Stirring Words and Al Sicherman’s Caramel Knowledge.

Tom Harte’s essays, usually including a bit of historical trivia and a nice turn of phrase, are all collected at the front of the book (the recipes cited in the essays are in the back). Aphrodisiacs, Baklava, Romantic Dinners (“They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I don’t know how true that is, but I do know that if my wife is going to whisper something soft and sweet in my ear, I’d just as soon she say ‘lemon meringue pie.’”) Sugarplums (“I must have read the poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ hundreds of times – even had to memorize it for a school play when I was in the first grade. And yet, despite all those readings, I never thought much about what sugarplums are, let alone why they were dancing.”) Harte’s recipes are inviting, reliably good, and decidedly biased towards desserts. I really liked the lemon bars with a layer of chocolate in them. I need to make those again.

Al Sicherman’s essays have the recipes integrated into each essay. They’re collected from the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, and if he ever had another book of collected essays published, I wish I knew about it, because these are the funniest cooking essays I’ve ever read. The one on how impossible it is to get popovers to fail is hilarious! Especially because of the reader who then sent Sicherman a box of hocky-puck-like popovers which had failed to pop. There’s a great cookoff between Sicherman and a colleague – she made three Viennese desserts and he made three French desserts, and in the end they had to agree to disagree about which country’s desserts are the best.

Sicherman is the kind of guy who would, during National Hot Dog Month, make a full menu in which every dish featured hot dogs. This was before Iron Chef started doing that kind of thing. Then there was the Food In A Cloud menu. And the rhyming recipes – that’ll make you laugh out loud. My all-time favorite is probably the British Mystery Dinner, though. I *think* I got all the references. The whole thing – recipes and all – is written in various murder mystery styles. “Depend upon it; people and potted shrimps are much the same everywhere. Even in this small village I have seen the damage caused by mischief and bad recipes. These potted shrimps, now. They remind me of the time young Dora Edwards got into difficulty over a necklace.”

Even if you don’t actually like cooking, Sicherman’s food is usually approachable and comfortable (sometimes it’s just weird) and you might find yourself willing to try some of his recipes. Anyway, what I’m saying is, you should pick up Caramel Knowledge, because it is a lot of fun to read whether or not you cook. And available from venders at Amazon for a very reasonable price! Such an advantage when it comes to out of print books.

So there you go! Ten of my favorites — some I cook out of a LOT and some just every now and then, but all are books I’m glad I have in my library.

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5 thoughts on “Great Cookbooks”

  1. Thank you for this list — there are a lot of really exciting looking things on it! I must confess that cookbooks are a real weakness of mine… Worse than most kinds of books!

  2. “A Bird in the Oven and Then Some” Mindy Fox — 25 ways to roast a chicken, plus side dishes and leftovers. Mmmm leftovers. Also, you can’t beat lapsang-brined chicken with Chinese 5 spice.

    “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” Marcella Hazan. She just died two days ago. She has fantastic recipes. (No spaghetti and meatballs here.)

  3. Hi, Matthew — mine too! That’s why I have over a hundred cookbooks; I KNOW I don’t actually NEED any more, and yet . . .

    Pete, yes, I heard about Marcella Hazan! I guess she was close to ninety, though. I really like her books, yes; she offered nice straightforward recipes for good food — and Italian is the cuisine I like best after Indian. I also like Urban Italian by Andrew Carmellini, though, granted, if someone was just getting into Italian food I’d probably hand them one of my Hazan titles.

    Barbara Kafka is my go-to for roasting anything! I have to admit that lapsang-brined chicken sounds good, though.

  4. The tea-brined chicken recipe is here:
    except you can use five-spice if you have it, rather than gathering the ingredients separately. And it really only takes 24 hours not 48 (The second trip to the fridge is not useful). Also, use loose tea. There’s much better lapsang than Twinings available.

    And the cucumber salad is the best, especially with a little reconstituted dry seaweed instead of salt.

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