How to Cook Everything , Mark Bittman
If I had to limit myself to one cookbook, this would be it. It’s an encyclopedia of clear, no-fuss treatments for just about anything ingredient you could come across. Bittman’s method for oven-baking catfish has become a staple of my kitchen. (The results belie its time-bending properties. You can pull it off in less than 10 minutes, counting from when you unwrap the fish.)
Low-fat does not have to mean low-interest, this book proves. Harriott offers page after page of inventive flavor combinations and unfussy prep techniques. The vegetarian suggestions are particularly satisfying; the African-inspired butternut squash and sweet potato curry is on regular rotation on my winter menus.
Forever Summer , Nigella Lawson
This collection of ideas for fresh, light meals, divided by course, serves up refreshing flavors. Lawson’s suggestions take many cues from Middle Eastern and Asian cooking. Don’t limit the recipes to summer days. Happiness Soup, laced with fresh lemon and basmati rice, offers a perfect fate for yellow squashes, no matter when they’re harvested. The sensualist confessions that introduce each recipe are a plus.
Tassajara Cooking , Edward Espe Brown
My 70s roots are showing, but so what. This is not so much a recipe collection as a guide to treating vegetables, fruit, and grains with respect and ease. This book introduced me to the delights of sauteeing spinach with fresh strawberries.
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone , Debrah Madison
Madison implicitly solves several oft-recurring dilemmas: How do I get the reluctant to eat their vegetables? What do I do with this intriguing piece of produce I [choose one: picked up at a farmer’s market/couldn’t pass up at the store/found in my co-op delivery basket]? For just about any vegetable you might encounter, Madison provides basic, simple what-to-dos and a handful of more elaborate recipes.
If you make a point to use fresh, locally grown produce, you will also appreciate Madison’s Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America’s Farmer’s Markets . Alternatively, it just might convince you to forego the frozen food aisle for the product department.
The Barbecue Bible! and progeny, by Steven Raichlen
Chef Steven Raichlen has parlayed barbecue lore into a one-man cottage industry. If you can’t train with him at his Barbecue University (not just a PBS series, but an ongoing program, the cost of which is beyond the reach of many of us mere mortals), you can fashion a self-paced course from his books.
To write The Barbecue! Bible , Raichlen researched cooking techniques in 25 countries on five continents. Such passion and drive makes it no surprise that the website for his encyclopedic book is much more than an extended advertisement. The site’s virtues include excerpts such a weekly recipe, monthly destination and the 10 BBQ Commandments (“No. 6: Turn, don’t stab”). Best of all is the opportunity to consult Raichlen himself, who answers visitors’ questions in the Ask the Grilling Guru forum.
How to Grill is just what the title says: the basics of grilling techniques. Which is not to say it’s all simplistic. Exhibit A: portabello mushrooms studded with parmigiano reggiano, pine nuts, and rosemary stalks.
Beer Can Chicken and 74 Other Offbeat Recipes for the Grill details surprisingly appetizing fates on the grill for all manner of beverages, scrambled eggs, desserts, prunes, and other unlikely candidates. The namesake recipe is a hoot to make, and the meat comes out tender enough to justify the effort.
If you are overwhelmed by this coast-to-coast exploration, I’ll make it easy for you: Start with Tex-Mex Rib Eyes Con Mucha Cerveza (p. 197 in my edition). That means “with a lot of beer,” and it’s a hearty, stunning interpretation of a favorite at San Antonio’s legendary Mi Tierra. Oh. My. Gawd.
Raichlen has not completely cornered the barbecue book market. One worthy addition to any fire-cooking library is:
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: An American Roadhouse , John Stage and Nancy Radke
In physical reality, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is a restaurant-cum-blues-joint in Syracuse (the mother ship) and Rochester, NY. Multi-dimensionally it’s a mystique, the object of cultish devotion, and nigh-on a way of life for some. (No T-shirt in my cumulative lifetime collection – which has embraced more, shall we say, distinctive designs than most people’s — has drawn as many comments, and testimonials, as consistently as my wearable trophy from Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.) Co-owner Stage’s recipes give ample testimony why, even to the uninitiated. (The happily blurred photos of smiling people staring down way too much food don’t hurt.) He’s memorialized 100 menu favorites, from every manner of meat to side dishes to desserts. The cole slaw recipe alone will win lasting adulation from your own dining hordes.
Bread & Baking
Tassajara Bread Book , Edward Espe Brown
For my entire adult life, my bread-baking has followed the clear, calming guidance of Brown’s Tassajara Bread Book. A 25th anniversary edition (how time flies!) revitalized his long out-of-print primer in 1995. Using techniques honed while working as a monastery chef, Brown once again outlines basic procedures, then shows how to adapt them, all the while serving up sensible commentary on how life should be lived.
Six Thousand Years of Bread , H.L. Jacobs
The role of bread throughout history, religion, and all levels of society is the surprisingly riveting focus of H.L. Jacob’s 1944 classic, which has been reissued by The Lyons Press. With more than 20 years of research behind it, the tour-de-force narrative traces bread from its beginnings in Egypt (where it served as currency) through the two world wars.
How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking , Nigella Lawson
I bought this book solely on the basis of the cherry-almond loaf cake recipe that was excerpted from it in a New York Times ad. More accurately, I bought it after making the recipe and marveling at the astonishingly short life span of something so rich with butter and ground almonds, wet with cherries, yet almost crunchy. The rest of the book does not disappoint. Lawson’s title may be whimsical, but it’s not laughably off the mark.
Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s Reference , Jill Norman
A work that deserves a place on every serious cook’s reference shelf. Categorizing more than 60 herbs by taste (citrus or tart; bitter or astringent), the photo-studded directory lays out culinary uses and recommended combinations, buying, storing, and growing tips, and recipes for blends, butters, oils, marinades, and sauces.
A Month of Sundaes , Michael Turback
What this serves up is nostalgia – if only for those halcyon days of youth, when it was possible to attack a sundae oblivious to the perils of calories and fat content. If you have a favorite old-fashioned ice cream parlor, past or present, odds are good it rates a mention in this combination history book, travelogue, and recipe collection. Turback chronicles the love affair with ice cream our nation has had since its inception and intersperses his history lesson with heart-stopping recipes from parlors all over the country.
The Asian Grocery Store Demystified , by Linda Bladholm,
is exactly what the title promises. This in-the-know shopping companion decodes ingredients, explains equipment, and identifies the best authentic brands.
Thai Home Cooking , by Robert Carmack & Sompon Nabnian, is a visually appealing, user-friendly introduction to the cuisine, thanks to photographs, large print and, best of all, simple, annotated instructions.
Cracking the Coconut: Classic Thai Home Cooking , Su-Mei Yu
By a California-based restaurateur, Cracking the Coconut offers a greater diversity of recipes than Carmack & Nabnian’s guide (more than 175, and all authentic and easy to follow), as well as their historical and cultural context.
When I was a teenager, a Greek penpal (yes, there’s a story here) responded to my longing for moussaka by sending a hand-printed recipe with painstakingly translated ingredients – and metric measurements frustratingly intact. My inner adolescent and current-age adult cook both have much to appreciate in Kochilas’ exceedingly helpful, comprehensive tome, which sets each recipe in its geographical, cultural, and culinary context.
The Indian Grocery Store Demystified , Linda Bladholm
Like the Asian Grocery Store Demystified, this tall, slender guide divides the store into categories such as breads, legumes, spices, vegetables, and canned goods. For each category it then describes individual products as well as their uses and even recommends specific brands. For years my visits to Indian grocery stores have been guided largely by what I recognized from restaurant menus. Since poring through the book, I feel as if I have a new set of glasses (perhaps a code book would be a better analogy).
Julie Sahni’s Introduction to Indian Cooking provides step-by-step instructions for basic recipes that cover the wide range of the country’s cuisine. It gives the geographic (and, sometimes, historic) background for each dish, as well as serving suggestions. The glossary’s description of common ingredients makes them very accessible to the American reader.
Cocina de la Familia , Marily Tausend
After leading culinary tours through Mexico, cookbook author Tausend decided to explore how the country’s cuisine is evolving in Mexican-American households across the United States. Assisted by Austin-based chef Miguel Ravago (himself a second-generation American), she compiled more than 200 authentic family recipes for Cocina de la Familia. Not only does Tausend explain key ingredients and recommend sources for them; she ventures into light-handed anthropology. Using evocative family vignettes, she places each recipe in its cultural and geographical context — on both sides of the border. This is a cookbook that deserves a place by the reading chair, as well as in the kitchen. A Spanish language edition is available.
The New Book of Middle Eastern Food , Claudia Roden
If history and sociology texts read as captivatingly as this trove of memories, folklore, and fact, liberal arts classes would have much higher enrollment. Roden provides more than 800 tantalizing recipes, with tips on locating ingredients.
First published in 1951, this is a classic among regional cookbooks. It contains all the fixings of a complete and authentic Southern meal, down to beverages (with four variations on Mint Julep), pickles, and dressings. Brown culled its 1,000 recipes from the more than 30,000 she gathered from local and regional cookbooks, governors’ mansions, hotels, and restaurants in all the Southern states. It’s an encyclopedia of culinary history, capturing recipes as actually used by real cooks, each of whom is credited by name and location.
A Gracious Plenty , John T. Edge
The same authenticity pervades. Edge’s lyrical cookbook-cum-cultural-memoir. A project of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at University of Mississippi, it pairs recipes from a cross-section of ethnicities with heart-felt reminiscences from a variety of Southern voices, some food writers, some authors, some just plain folk. The evocative double-duty collection is equally suited for the kitchen shelf and bedside stand.
ã Kathy Biehl 2003