Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cookbook Roundup! My Current Go-To Sources for Reliably Delicious Recipes...

My mother has always had an extensive collection of cookbooks as far back as I can remember. It started out with a high shelf back by the laundry room and then it became a whole bookcase, and then it expanded beyond the bookcase and took over the cereal shelf (good thing we stopped eating cereal so we had the room!) and now it's grown into a line of books on the counter. The seldom-used microwave's days are certainly numbered.

We obviously can't buy every cookbook that looks interesting so right now we have 4 cookbooks out from the library, and this revolving door of cookbooks amounts to a try-out period. If we like the recipes, we'll renew the book, if we continue to like it, we'll make the investment.

I thought I'd share with you several cookbooks which are absolute classics and ones that I have been spending a lot of time with lately.

Ahem, from the bottom up:

1. The foundation of all of these is the bible of vegetables, Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Our cookbook has stains and bookmarks and notes in the margins and shows signs of considerable wear and tear and love. It's a masterpiece of a cookbook and many of these recipes and techniques have become second nature to me and weekly if not daily dishes that I make. Standout everyday recipes include the Zucchini Coins with Feta (page. 423) and Kale with Olives (pg. 381). This is the first cookbook I'd recommend to anyone whether they are vegetarian or not. When I had a share of a CSA and the vegetables kept coming and coming, this book was a lifesaver. It taught me how to tackle any vegetable and cook it to its full potential. Now that I am gardening and growing my own food, it's a constant companion. It's the most important cookbook I own.

2. This year I have discovered the wealth of information that is Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume One) by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The cookbook has always been a part of my Mom's collection but it took Jamie going to culinary school at the French Culinary Institute to inspire me to crack the book open. I now make the best chicken stock EVER and have perfected the art of the quiche. Both tasks seemed a little overwhelming when I first gave it a go and now I do so with ease. Homemade chicken stock is probably the best thing there is - loaded with nutrients. I like it most when it is freshly made, in a coffee cup with a sprinkle of sea salt. What a treat it is after waiting all those hours while it simmers!

3. Jamie at Home by Jamie Oliver got me so excited to start gardening and now as the season winds down I can look back and really credit this book and this chef for sparking my interest in home grown fruit and vegetables. Jamie asserts that if you are really serious about sourcing the best food you can find in terms of flavor, freshness, quality and organics, you simply have to grow your own. He was right and every day I walk into the garden and harvest the best vegetables I've ever eaten. The book is written by season so you can look ahead and plan what you are going to grow and feast on. There are also gardening tips mixed in as well as important essays about egg production, lambing, hunting and other food issues.

4. Beyond Jamie Oliver, more and more I am looking to England for food inspiration. Spending as much time there as I do, I've learned so much about traditional English food and I can't stress enough how delicious and special this cuisine is! It's gotten an exceedingly unfair reputation and there are some very determined chefs over there doing extraordinary things to overturn this. One such man is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (great name), chef of The River Cottage in Dorset. He cooks, he farms and he educates with a deep reverence to the land and animals who provide his food. It's all about quality, seasonality and flavor. The River Cottage Cookbook is dense and educational, almost a textbook for how to eat well.

5. Alice Waters of the famed Chez Panisse in Berkely, California, has had a lot of praise sent her way, and it's with good reason. I'm just getting to know her food and what I've read and tried out of The Art of Simple Food has been excellent. I've made her scallops with salsa verde and her technique for cooking pork ribs in the oven is PERFECT. Through Deborah Madison I learned that good ingredients prepared simply are more delicious than subpar ingredients prepared lavishly, and Alice Waters takes this beyond vegetables into meat and fish. It's such an assuring notion for those who find recipes complicated and stressful - this doesn't have to be the case! Just get the best ingredients you can find and cook simply. The results will be sublime.

6. And finally, back to England and to a cookbook I currently have out from the library... The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson. First of all, this cookbook is hilarious and so well written that I dare you to read it without cracking a smile. Second, the brined and roasted pork belly is literally to die for. I drool over the memory of eating it... I made it recently for a group of 7 and the table was stunned into some sort of magical culinary trance that was only broken by the occasional crunch crunch CRUNCH that came with chomping on the crackling. Fergus Henderson is the chef at St. John in London, a restaurant I've been lucky enough to feast at. He's cooking brave and important dishes, like the delicious and often imitated bone marrow and parsley salad. It started at St. John though, and so many chefs are looking to Fergus Henderson for inspiration and I can see and taste why - it's an education to read his book and try his recipes!

So, this is my list! What are your current favorites? Any that I simply must get out of the library?


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