Cookbooks and other good sources for recipes
This is a partial list of the books that have been helpful or inspirational to Beez and myself. We lost some of the early books “Cooking for Two,” etc., that really got us started. And I can’t find the Three Rivers Cookbook containing the marinade for butterflied lamb that first got me thinking that I could do some damage on the grill. But we both relied on Erma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking and family recipes handed down by word of mouth and food-stained notes before moving on to Julia Child and other books.
The Home Cook – Alex Guarnaschelli [Clarkson Potter / Publishers: New York, 2017]
This collection of recipes ‘to know by heart,’ began when the author was cooking in Larry Forgione’s restaurant and sat down to the ‘family meal’ (the meal for the cooks and servers before the onslaught of diners begins) and tasted a perfect Parker House Roll just out of the oven – ‘It tasted like pure butter and salt and yeast all at once.” She decided then and there that she would learn how to re-create that flavor. And since then, she has continued to collect recipes which are compelling enough to learn by heart. This cookbook is that collection.
Many of the recipes are from her family – her mother cooks from books and is always learning something new – her father specializes in Chinese cooking – and Alex has developed her own favorites over the years.
The individual recipes include tips and personal notes that make them unlike the cold lists that used to be found in classic cookbooks. Read the headnote to ‘Warm Bar Nuts,’ or ‘My Memory of Larry Forgione’s Cobb Salad,’ or, better yet, ‘My Dad’s Lemon Chicken’ and you’ll be hooked. And the photographs are spectacular, as is the typeface and paper stock.
Get this book, cook from it, and send me a thank-you note. At $35.00 it’s a great investment. The Pasta Putanesca recipe (shown on the cover above) is worth more than that by itself.
There are cookbooks which can be read cover-to-cover even if you have no intention of using the recipes. One of these is the The River Cottage Cookbook, written by the spectacularly-named Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
In spite of Hugh’s enthusiasm, we are not going to raise our own pigs, or keep chickens, or even grow our own vegetables. But Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book (let’s just refer to him as F-W from now on) is well-written and was one of the first to call for dealing with local farmers and livestock breeders, and to emphasize that fresh vegetables and herbs and pigs and chickens raised in non-industrial settings were tastier and healthier and, of course, enjoyed their own not insignificant lives a great deal more.
F-W is a typical, educated British socialist when it comes to attacking capitalism and the “big bosses,” but he is also a great cook and a fearless farmer. I will probably end up using most of his recipes, which he introduces in full evangelistic mode. If you can resist his recipe for ratatouille, you should consider becoming a runway model.
Here are some snippets from his book, to begin with, one which will correct any idea that he is simply a happy-go-lucky hippy:
“A chicken is not ready . . . for the table until you think it is. Pick it up, feel its weight, and feel its breast. If it feels tempting, then you should kill it if you want to.”
“. . . provided they have space, shade, and a warm bed, a pair of pigs need your attention for just a few minutes twice a day. That little bit of contact is invaluable quality time for the pigs, which will help to keep them happy and healthy. The curious and delight thing is discovering just how much that time can do for you.”
“If quality of produce and the interests of the consumer were their overriding concern, the supermarkets would be bending over backward to fill their aisles with the very best of what is seasonal and locally grown. [If you have to buy vegetables in the supermarket] don’t forget who’s really boss] . . . . . . . choose [local] vegetables in preference to imported. If you care about buying in season, let your shopping cart do the talking.”
This cookbook that has grabbed our fancy in 2016, during summer of withering heat and resolutions for healthy eating. The Vegetable Butcher (Cara Mangini) is a cookbook/manual on selecting, storing, preparing and cooking things that the most devout Hindu would not mind eating.
I grew up in an age when we had steak for dinner two or three times a week. But we were not averse to vegetables. And I’m not just talking about baked Idahos to accompany the strip steaks. Mom would steam an artichoke and give it to us with a bowl of herbed, melted butter for an appetizer. Dad taught us to put a slice of raw onion on a slab of Braunschweiger – one of the glories of creation. And left-over steak or roast got chopped up and cooked in a savory mélange of onions, potatoes and peppers that was perfect with a top-dressing of Heinz Ketchup.
But in these latter days vegetables have attained the status of size 2 dresses, Ivy League degrees and Teslas. So it’s nice to learn ways to cook these ‘vengetables’ that will please cowboys as well as metro-sexuals. Consider Cara’s book – it’s got a ton of good recipes and even more good advice.
In this case, you can judge the book by its cover. There is a fetching, but oddly framed cover photo of Ms Mangini from the naso-labial furrow down to the hips. In her right hand she is holding a sizeable cleaver. She is standing over a counter groaning with leeks, radishes, celery root, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, garlic, asparagus and greens. There are beautiful photographs, clear illustrations on slicing, dicing, etc. (including perfect directions for handling that “oyster” of vegetables – the artichoke), and strikingly good recipes – all the better for being simple and easy to cook. [Would I recommend getting this book? For me, after you have one or two or three basic cooking texts, a cookbook is worth buying only if you want to cook your way through at least, say, half the recipes. With Jacques Pépin, Lynn Rosetto Kasper, Francis Mallman and Joe Carroll, which I’ve purchased over the last 7 or so years, I have cooked my way through entire books and we find ourselves coming back to certain of the recipes time and again. We already have 3 “keepers” from Cara, including last week’s keeper of grilled and smothered artichokes, so we’ve gotten our money’s worth.]
The book is also illustrated by Jacques – a pleasant draftsmen of chickens, beans, fish , flowers and pigs. It begins with a Foreward from Anthony Bourdain which might seem strange except that Jacques, with his typical straightforward, uncalculating approach, praised Bourdain in spite of his supposed digs at restaurant practice and, to Bourdain’s thinking, made Kitchen Confidential a success.
I recommend this book, not so much for the recipes from his youth, his training and his current family life, which are scattered through the text, as for the story of a remarkable, self-made man. I use ‘self-made’ in the American-sense of not being born to money. And, indeed, Pépin was born into a working class family with no capital. But, in another sense, he was made by his environment – his Mother owned and operated restaurants, his family and friends and the surrounding culture took food seriously and built family get-togethers, holidays and rites of passage (graduation, marriage, christening) around cooking and sharing food. He was also made by the apprentice system which produced so many great cooks – no recipes, no textbooks, simply observing and emulating the sous-chef or chef for whom you worked, slaved, chopped, cleaned, etc.
There is no man born innocent, and very few of us avoid the pettiness and gossip that seems to characterize our current age. But this autobiography seems to have been written by a man without guile. His agenda is to explain his fortunate life and the great joy his trade and his family have been and to propagate his view of cooking and food.
One reason for this lack of guile and pride is that Pépin still views his profession as that of an artisan – not an artist or a celebrity. At an early age, a string of coincidences led to his becoming chef for the Premier of France but, he notes: “Ours was a heady position but, paradoxically, in the context of that time, not prestigious in any way. Chefs . . . were not looked upon as artists. We were employees of the household.” This partly explains why later, after success in America, he turned down the offer to become White House Chef for the Kennedy’s and went to work for Howard Johnson, instead.
The book will also give you a history of the changes in American cuisine from the 1950’s to the present – the rise of fast food (the logistics of which were invented by Howard Johnson –not Ray Kroc; nouvelle cuisine and the movement toward local produce, simpler recipes and sauces and a nod toward health; and the rise of the celebrity chef-teacher among whom Jacques with his great friend, the loopy-voiced Julia Child, was a pioneer.
Teaqching and traveling, a career he stumbled into as a way to make money after an automobile accident rendered him unable to put in 16 hour days in the kitchen, changed his approach to food. He noticed that a Smithfield ham, cured but not yet cooked, could be a substitute for the cured hams of souther France. He tasted Boston baked beans, corn on the cob, Cajun gumbos and tomales as a traveler and cook, along with fied chicken, mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, okra fritters and pumpkin pin. He became addicted to corn bread club sandwiches, brownies, cheesecake, and ice cram with chcolate fudge.
“In the pricess of my travels and tasting, I was unconsciously moving away from a purely French style of cooking. The rigi culinary constraints that my classical French training had instilled in me were dissolving but provided just enough structe so that could assimilate new ideas without creating silly or absurd recipes. I no longer attempted to label my food as one style or another. I simply cook the way I felt, based on the ingredients at my disposal. That became my definition of American cuisine.” Can you say melting pot? (Not fondue pot.)
I’d like to think that, like Pépin, Barbara, Bily, Andrew, Julia and I keep our serious interest and delight in food under control – somewhere just behind God, family and the Steelers – and please don’t tell me otherwise. But I’m not sure we are quite as sane as this delightful man who learned to cook without any books or recipes, though he has written some of the best cookbooks of his generation – and a very good autobiography.
Cookbooks are better or worse collections of recipes, but rarely are they compelling reading. Jacques Pepin’s Heart & Soul in the Kitchen is a delightful exception.* From the introduction where he explains that these are the dishes he cooks at home for family and friends (‘I don’t want people to come away from my table feeling that they have had some sort of “culinary experience.” I just want them to say . . . , “This was really good.”‘) to his essays on Starters, or How Recipes Are Invented, etc. (his ideas on appetizers changed my approach) to the beautiful pictures and his own artwork, including riotously illustrated menus, you will not be able to put this book down.
And the various recipes have their own introductions. How can you not cook “Chicken Jardiniere,” after this introduction? ‘My mother made this type of stew from the carcass of a raw chicken and its gizzards: I use pancetta instead of gizards for additional flavor and chicken legs which stay moist during the cooking. . . . the vegetables change according to what is in season in my garden. The stew is easy to put together, and it gets better every time you reheat it.’ And I defy you to avoid “Cannellini Bean Dip,” after this: “I like to offer guests a little treat when I’m serving drinks, and this dip is always welcome. My pantry is never without canned beans . . . The garnishes make the dish look more attractive – and more like a classic hummus made with chickpeas.”
Trust me, you need this book more than Jacques needs the money – so just buy it. I will certainly not lend you or anyone else my copy.
*Lynne Rossetto Kasper has also written some books that can be read through – see, e.g., The Italian Country Table.
Kitchen Secrets – this loose-leaf book contained all of our inherited, invented and clipped recipes until maybe 5 years ago. Most of the side dishes for holiday dinners and Maureen Murray’s out-of-this-world Peach Kuchen recipe are in this book, as well as a ton of clipped recipes that fall onto the floor, every time you open it. You can see the burner stain from where we left it sitting on the electric range which we had early in our married life. It contains Thanksgiving and Christmas favorites, PPG-tested recipes cut out from the local paper and fancier items glommed from magazines or television. It became so crammed with unfiled items that I had to create a system of folders to hold all of the new stuff we were trying.
The Joy of Cooking by Irma S.Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker – This is the kind of basic cookbook that everyone used to have in their kitchen. (Craig Claiborne’s NY Times Cookbook and Martha Stewart’s serve the same purpose admirably). Cooking times have changed since this was published – we can eat our parasite-free pork less well-done – but the basics remain the same and you will find recipes for most standard items, European sauces, and an astounding number of desserts. It seems that when the country was less obese, it ate a lot more dessert. Go figure. Most of these recipes hold up quite well.
This is not the classic Julia Child (The Art of French Cooking – the one Amy cooked her way through in the movie “Julia”), but a later, beautifully-illustrated version. This book is worth the price for the basic instruction on soup-making alone. If you have not tried her rice-thickened chicken soup, you do not know how to recover from a cold. These recipes, the soups especially, with all of the chopping and prep, will make you a knife-ninja perforce, if you work through them.
Steve Reichlen’s: The Art of the Grill was purchased, along with shirts, a suit, 2 ties, socks and a three-pack of u-trow at Joseph A. Bank Clothiers when it occupied the space formerly held by the hallowed ‘Cork and Bottle’ restaurant – the scene of the ETNC meetings from which the Dunnings group emerged like a large, tipsy moth. This book is essential, necessary, basic – a book without which the world would not be the same and might, in fact, cease to exist. That is to say, it is up there, just slightly below the Bible, Homer, Plato, Shakespeare and the French village police mysteries of Martin Walker. Reichlen, without being pedantic or complicated, will teach you how to build a fire, how to cook a steak, or burgers, or ribs or a fish, of all things, on the grill. You will not have gotten such good value for your money since you purchased a Lunch bar in 1958 for 3 cents.
Lynn Rosetto Kasper – The Splendid Table and The Italian Country Table – These are essential books, if you want to cook indoors. For a Pittsburgher – heck, for most of the world – Italian cuisine is the best. You should get to know French cooking, as well as Chinese – and Spanish, Mexican and Thai wouldn’t hurt. But, if you want to move beyond the grill and you live in the temperate zone – you must learn how Italians cook. It’s healthy, seasonal, simple and delicious. What more do you want? Everything in this book is good. Combine Tuscan White Beans with Red Onion and Salami with Shepherd’s Salad and you have an interesting, delicious and easy to prepare week-night dinner or light evening snack for those weekends when you need to deflate. Another go-to for us has been the Gamberetti dell’ Adriatico which can be cooked indoors in the winter or outdoors with a grill pan in the summer. You might want to check out the web-site, splendidtable.com, which contains archives of Lynne’s NPR broadcasts.
Anthony Bourdain either works for you or his doesn’t. I appreciate his irreverent attitude toward food – particularly to many of the celebrity chefs of our day. But, at the end of the day, he is a good cook and a superb appreciator of food. And that is what you will find (no recipes) in these books. The fact that Daniel Boulud, Jose Andres and Eric Rippert are his good buddies is enough for me. It is true that he is a sort of high-school progressive, writes in what you might call a flippant-noir style, and is constantly referencing drugs and bodily functions. But he’s nobody’s fool, takes nothing at face value and will introduce you to chefs, regions and restaurants you will not hear about otherwise. Above all, he will confirm what every sensible person knows but may have forgotten in the age of Foodies: some of the best food is cooked at that joint around the corner or at that stand down the street. Oh, and beer is a very good thing.
Francis Mallman – Seven Fires. This is for people who are willing to make cooking a project – who will not take no for an answer when looking for a cast-iron ‘plancha’ in Pittsburgh. This mad-man (if you have access to Netflix – the segment of “Chef’s Table” that features Mallman will confirm that he is loopy to the gills) is in love with wood fires and you will find yourself catching the bug. If all you learn from him is his recipe for grilling spatch-cocked chicken (‘Chicken Chemuin’) or blackened tomatoes or grilled fingerlings, you will thank me for directing you to this book.
I am I not now, nor was I ever, a vegetarian. But this book, aside from being beautiful, has taught me a lot about vegetables, and it contains some very good and many very interesting recipes. Why only “very interesting”? At the end of the day there is a fervor, akin to religion, about vegetarians which makes them take their eye off the only thing that matters in cooking – taste. But Deborah Madison’s Egg Salad with Parsley and Tarragon (she’s not a strict vegetarian) and her Cabbage on Toast are worth the price of the book. Not to go all aesthetic on you, but I think the picture of garlic shoots on the cover is also worth the price of the book.
The chapter on “Your Sense of Taste” alone is worth the price of this book. But Boulud writes well on so much more, mise-en-place, ingredients, cooking from a great tradition, that you’ll want to read the whole book. As a bonus, he throws in his favorite recipes and “The Ten Commandments of a Chef” (sharpen your damn knives, buddy)
For those of us who learned how to cook from books, he has some sensible, if sobering, advice. How do you know when a piece of meat is done? “You will sense that ingredients have been transformed by heat into something sensual and satisfying. This mystical gift of sight and sensation is nothing more than the experience gained from making thousands of dishes so that a simple touch or smell will tell you exactly when something is done. Following a recipe by rote will never allow you to achieve this result. Every living thing is unique and will respond to heat differently. No two lambs, no two ducks . . . are exactly the same. Each must be watched, prodded and smelled until you sense, because you have cooked the recipe a thousand times before, that it is done.” This means that I should be able to cook a hamburger correctly about 40 years after I’m dead.