Well, so far I’ve managed to write entries for 11 of the 30 days of November, although I readily admit that yesterday’s post was not one of my finest. I honestly thought this would be easier than it is, because a) I would rather write than do almost anything (except read and nap) and b) I think about food and cooking during an improbable number of my waking hours, but it is still hard to come up with something fresh every single day.
Today is a “best and worst” day, and I’ve decided to look at the places where I regularly find great recipes, and the places where I’ve sought and found little to write home about. This is, realize, a highly subjective round up: everyone is looking for something different in terms of types of recipes, level of instruction, presence or absence of photos, etc.. Some of my “favorites” are not books I use often, but which have a couple of spectacularly good recipes which are holy grails in my cooking life. Others are books I look into on a weekly basis. The disappointments are perhaps the most subjective, so please don’t be miffed if I have dissed your personal favorite. That’s what makes the world an interesting place.
Recipe Sources: My Favorites
- How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. (Purchased after receiving a large pay check during the post-deposit “high). I believe that Mr. Bittman is a genius. This book would be perfect for a beginning cook, because it provides the basic information one needs as a springboard for thinking beyond basic when the time comes. Once you have made the basic roast chicken, you can use his suggestions for varying the basting liquid, and some day, you will be able to figure out some of your own based on the techniques used in the original theme and variations. That, my friends, is good teaching. As a non-beginning cook, I value the fact that Mr. Bittman provides enough information to get started, but leaves ample room for personal variation. He also has recipes for many dishes (risottos, stir fries, burritos, foccaccia, panna cotta) and ingredients (lamb shanks, broccoli raab, soba noodles) that have become standard in the repertoire of today’s cook. I can honestly say that this would be my desert island cook book.
- How to Eat by Nigella Lawson. (I have had this for so long I don’t remember buying it, but its literally falling apart). This is not the best cook book in the world for everyone, but I love it. I would buy it again just for the “Taglietelle with Chicken from the Venetian Ghetto” which is to die for. I also just like to read it. Often. I like Nigella; if we lived near each other (preferably in London and not here) we would shop together for fresh cream, chocolate and beautiful, fat tiger shrimp. We would share clothes and have drinks at the bar in the Connaught. But I digress. This is a conversational, instructional, cook book with some fine basics (consomme, risotto, roast chicken) and some dishes involving squid and venison that I will never cook in this life, but I wouldn’t want to be without it in my kitchen or on my bedside table.
- I Like You by Amy Sedaris. (A Christmas gift las year from my perceptive husband). Warning: this is not a family cook book. The recipes are family-friendly, but Ms. Sedaris has created her own little world in this book, and it is not really a world that is appropriate for the inquisitive 10-year-old. That being said, If you enjoy the Sedaris sense of humor (biting, edgy, a bit shocking) this is a book that you should first read from cover to cover, laughing until you think you might throw up. Next, you should use it as a cook book. My “famous” Greek meal of Pastitsio, Greek Beans and Greek Salad comes from this book, and I have used many of her other recipes with great success – Lemon Cake for Lino, Pineapple Upside-down Cake, and (of all things) Bulgogi. I am warning you again that this is not for everybody and that if you even suspect you are easily offended you shouldn’t touch this book with a ten-foot pole. If that’s not an issue for you, though, I think you’ll find this book as amusing, endearing and useful as I do.
- The Silver Palate Cook Book by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins. (I have the original edition, which I
stoleborrowed from my mother). This is my main resource for entertaining, although there are recipes I use for every day family cooking. For parties, at home, or bring-a-dish affairs, I have relied on the Miniature Quiches, Cheese Straws, Phyllo Triangles, Curried Butternut Squash Soup, Chicken Marbella (!), Chili for a Crowd, and more. For household consumption I make (among other things) Potato-Cheese Soup, Peasant Vegetable Soup, Pasta Carbonara and basics like homemade mayonnaise. This is a classic, its charming to look at and read, and you should have it if you don’t. I hear there is a new edition with photos and some updates, which is probably splendid, too.
- The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer. (Bought at a church used book sale for fifty cents). This 1923 gem is not only fun to read, but useful. There are recipes for all manner of things: Thousand Island Dressing, any kind of cake you can imagine (at least 8 kinds of sponge cake, for example), about 50 kinds of sandwich fillings, jams, jellies, 10 kinds of Timbales, and some more exotic and antiquated choices – “Fillets of Halibut a la Hollenden” and “Breast of Quail Lucullus” for example. I consider this to be basic cook book, not everyone would, but you’d be surprised at how inspired you can get by reading descriptions of 50 different sandwich fillings….
- The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers. (A glorious gift from my father-in-law). I have only begun to tap into the vast reservoir of cooking wisdom contained in this book, but I can say that it is a huge inspiration. I will probably not prepare House-Cured Salt Cod, Rabbit with Marsala and Prune-Plums, or Pickled Glasswort, I have learned (am am learning) a great deal about how to choose and use ingredients, make different pastry doughs, roast meats, and master various techniques; the recipe for Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad is a stunner and I am planning to try house-cured meat before the Thanksgiving turkey.
- Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazen. (It should tell you something that I do not actually own this book, but I take it out of the library, copy recipes out by hand and renew it again just because I love it so much). In case you have not yet figured it out, I am Italian by temperament and preference, if not actual genetic composition. I have flirted with Lidia and Mario, checked out Giada, and I yearn for The Silver Spoon, but for now my heart belongs to Marcella who is elegant and restrained, and has taught me how to make many staples including risotto, silky Bolognese, authentic Carbonara, gnocchi, beautiful vegetables with olive oil and garlic.
- allrecipes.com. In all fairness, I get recipes from lots of internet sources, including a number of other blogs, but this is my most reliable sources, and the one with the most breadth of recipes. I like the fact that the recipes are rated by users, and I find both the reviews and the reviewers suggestions to be very useful. If I am in a hurry or on a mission, as opposed to feeling “experimental,” I want to know that the recipe will work, and what, if any adjustments need to be made for optimal results.
- The Magazines: “Food & Wine,” “Cooking Light,” “Saveur,” “Bon Appetit,” “Cook’s Illustrated” and “Gourmet.” So you’re saying to yourself: if she can afford to buy all of those magazines, why doesn’t she just buy the Hazan book?! Good question. I guess its like this: the magazines are either subscriptions, which makes them pretty cheap, or I get them out of my weekly grocery budget – if I can shave the requisite amount off the budget by buying carefully, I get food porn as a reward. I don;t just read these magazines; I devour them and learn and incorporate and percolate and fantasize and (eventually) use what I learned in a variety of ways. The biggest advantage of the magazines is that, after I read them from cover to cover, I go through and cut out the recipes I actually want to use, and recycle the rest of the publication. That way, I have a growing collection of recipes that I can easily keep or discard depending on how they are received, and they span a much wider range of cuisines and techniques than I would ever find in a single cook book.
Recipe Sources: My Least Favorites
- Magazines in the “Taste of Home” Family. I admit that I used to subscribe to, and use both “Taste of Home” and “Light and Tasty,” and that I cooked largely from their pages for many years. God bless ’em for providing cozy, reliable recipes for the home cook, but my family was really at the end of tolerance for the very narrow range of flavors and ideas reflected in the pages of these publications. The recipes tend to rely on processed and convenience foods, and after about 6 months the recipes seem to be variations on the same three or four fundamentals. There is a place for these magazines, but it is no longer in my kitchen.
- The Joy of Cooking 1997 Edition. What were they thinking? I grew up using my mom’s 1970-something edition of “Joy” as a kind of kitchen Bible; if you wanted to know how to boil an egg or make yellow cake from scratch, you looked it up in The Joy of Cooking. This edition unfailingly does not have the basics I seek, or has some odd, “lightened” or otherwise fussed-with version. I can’t bring myself to pitch this because it was a gift, but I can honestly say that I have almost never found a usable recipe when I needed one, and that I fully intend to
stealborrow my mom’s edition one of these days.
- Rachel Ray cook books . Okay; this may be a bit controversial, but so far I have tried two of her books, and many recipes, and I am not getting “yum-os” from my audience. I wanted to like these, I really did, and there are a few recipes I like, but let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t actually pay for these.