On Cookbooks

Everyone that cooks regularly will eventually settle on one or two cookbooks that they use frequently, maybe even exclusively. Such books will stand in for the trusted friend or family member, working with you in the kitchen when that person is not around or available.
After a while you understand the author in such a way that you know the recipes you’ve prepared are great, and more importantly, those you haven’t cooked yet will be.
If you don’t have your mother to work with, or professional culinary training, then a cookbook may be your best shot at becoming a good cook.

There are thousands of cookbooks in the known universe that range from useful, professionally, written, and with recipes that will taste utterly delicious, to those that have been written by 6 year old children, seemingly with a taste for few things beyond chicken nuggets and string cheese.
Examples of the former are such indispensable classics as The Joy of Cooking and The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Examples of the latter are far too numerous to list here.

If you are a novice in this area then consider the following suggestions:

  • Genuine chefs, the great ones frequently will work with professional writers to turn their cooking vision into comprehensible, workable recipes. The icons from before the days of food television were especially great. Julia Child, James Beard, Fredy Girardet, are a few of those. I am less enamored of the modern TV “chefs” such as Guy Fierri, Paula Deen, and Rachel Ray. These latter and so many more nowadays certainly have their talents, but mostly it seems to be about showmanship and cult of personality.
  • Certain publishing houses are especially adept at turning out quality cookbooks. Workman is a good example of that. I can’t say they created it, but they certainly brought the modern cookbook, with excellent recipes, sidebars with tips and extra info, and whimsical drawings to new heights. They have worked with first rate chefs such as Rosso and Lukins, Steven Raichlen, and many more.
  • There are lots of cookbook series out there. Some, like the Culinaria series in both paperback and hardcover are superb. The level of writing, the authenticity of the recipes and especially the photography is outstanding! Others such as the Casual Cuisines of the World, and Lonely Planet’s World Food series should be on the shelf of anyone who has even a passing interest in these subjects. They’ve been written, edited and photographed by people who really know what they’re doing. However, many series are less valuable, with poorly written recipes that produce inauthentic and uninspired dishes. With the popularity of food and cooking, even the most plebeian publisher will glom onto a cookbook in the hopes that it will be the next Silver Palate, but those are rare because most cookbooks are very average at best.
  • If you’re at the bookshop looking to buy something new, take a look at a cookbook whose title or author grabs you. Open it either at random or find a recipe you’re familiar with. Look at the ingredient list and see if the recipe directions follow the order of ingredients. Are the measurements in American form or European? Do the recipes seem especially long, or complicated? If it goes on for more than 1 page it might be more than I care to indulge in. Reviews will generally speak in the most glowing terms. If there’s a review on the front or back cover consider who wrote it and your level of respect for the reviewer. If there’s no author credited look to see to whom or what it’s attributed.
  • But just because you haven’t heard of the author, the series, or the reviewer, don’t automatically be put off. I have 300 cookbooks, many of which were written by unknowns that are surprisingly good. In fact, some of them are among my most frequently referenced. The Gourmet’s Guide To Italian Cooking by the less-than- Italian sounding Sonia Allison and Ulrike Bielfeldt, published in 1973 is one that I have used more times than I can remember. Most of the pictures are black and white and it’s only 140 8 x 11 pages but the recipes and the flavors they create are delicious and memorable. One other is The Peasant Gourmet by Jonathan Bartlett. Even more modest than the previously mentioned book, this was printed in 1975, a time when foreign foods hadn’t yet caught on in a big way in the States. It covers a very wide range of countries, styles and dishes and doesn’t even have any photos, yet I still refer to it frequently.
  • At this point I don’t need a lot of cookbooks but when I decide to get something I almost always get them used, either from the second-hand shops or on Amazon. It’s rare that I’ll spend $25-$50 for a cookbook.

So the upshot is, get at least one first rate cookbook for beginners or experts, then branch out, based on the kinds of food you like to eat and that you’d like to learn how to cook. If you follow the above tips you’ll get more winners than losers without spending a great deal of money.

Next time in the cookbook column – Howard Mitcham’s Provincetown Seafood Cookbook

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