At this time of year, all the newspaper food sections offer cookbook gift ideas. Taking that idea, I offer my own favorites. They’re all still in print, although they’re not all shiny new this year. Generally the books recommended by the food editors are recently released, a review copy landed on their desk in the last 12 months, and they pick the best ones so their readers can ask Santa for them. These are just my favorite cookbooks from my own collection, which includes some things my mom bought years ago, along with the shiny new stuff.
A lot of them are huge collections of recipes. I love huge collections of recipes because I read cookbooks like novels, and I like long ones. Also, I find that the huge collections almost always have really good recipes in them, because they’re generally backed by a big name (Dean & DeLuca, Bon Appetit, etc) and those folks have the money to put into recipe testing. That’s not to say that shorter books don’t have good recipes too—they do and I have lots of them. However, often when we’re thinking “gift giving” we’re thinking something pretty substantial, and although a shorter, smaller book may cost the same as a great thumping tome, the great thumping tome is the gift that says “Makes a great doorstop!” No, that’s not it—sorry, it implies “Really Big Gift” and many people are afraid of looking like they didn’t go to enough trouble.
While it is “the thought that counts,” it’s also important that the thought we have is, “What would this person really like?” and honestly try to find something (even if it misses the mark), as opposed to the thought clearly having been, “I needed to get you something, and this step ladder was on sale at the hardware store, and I was there getting some keys made anyway...” So if you’re thinking of a cookbook for someone, I’ve listed some of my favorites below, with why I like them and what kind of cook I think they’d be suited for.
Here, in no particular order, are my suggestions.
The Silver Palate Cookbook, The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, The New Basics: These books are all classics (avoid anything by Julee Rosso alone—Sheila Lukins was the real food authority, Rosso was the marketing gal who gave everything extra polish, and it shows in Rosso’s solo efforts; Lukins' solo efforts, however, are worth checking out). Although all three lean more toward “party” food than everyday offerings, the recipes have stood the test of time. I can remember claiming that their recipes relied too heavily on the black olive (which I did not, and still do not, like, and which, for the record, they don’t actually use that often in their recipes), but after revisiting these books in the last couple of years, I’ve decided I was an obnoxious seventeen-year-old twit, and just what did I know anyway? The recipes are excellent for special occasions, and weekends when there’s some extra time to cook. They have a good range of foods for different meals (breakfasts, lunches, etc.), and their ingredient combinations are interesting without being too out there. It doesn’t hurt that what was groundbreaking in the 1980s has come to be much more common today. When these books were first published, they were startling and even a tad unsettling, but now that you can practically buy dried porcini at the 7-11, their recipes just sound tasty. Most things are fairly time-consuming, but from a technique standpoint they’re accessible to someone with a reasonable knowledge of cooking. They don’t require any equipment more elaborate than a food processor, or a bundt pan.
If asked to rank these books, I’d say New Basics is the first choice, the original Silver Palate Cookbook, and then Silver Palate Good Times. But in truth they’re all great books, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.
Modern Classics I, New Food Fast, Off the Shelf, The Instant Cook: These are my favorite of the books written by Australian cook and food stylist Donna Hay. Some day I’m going to sit down with two similar recipes, one American and one Australian, and figure out just what the Australian ones have that make them different, but for now I can only say that they are. They tend to have more Asian influence (thanks to Australia’s geographic location, and population statistics—in fact, the very best Chinese food I’ve ever had in my life was in Sydney), but even the Italian- or English-inspired dishes have something different about them. They’re simpler, maybe. They use fewer ingredients, but they make every ingredient count. And Donna is the queen of this technique. The pictures in all of her books (one of each recipe, it’s worth noting) are stunning, and will send you rushing out to buy all-white place settings. The wonderful thing is that the look is achievable by anyone who undertakes the recipes. Follow the recipe and look at the picture of how it’s assembled. These books rarely call for fancy pans or equipment, but sometimes the sizing is a little off. For instance, in this country an 8” x 8” pan is the norm, but in Australia it would seem that 9” x 9” is more common. Still, it’s not an insurmountable problem. The ingredient lists in some cases may require a trek to your local Chinatown, or ethnic market, but unless you’re living in the middle of the Kansas wheat fields, 40 miles from the nearest gas station, it shouldn’t be impossible to find the things she calls for. On the plus side, once you know where to get an ingredient, you can just keep going back to that same place.
The one caveat is that, while these books are prepared for an American audience up to a point, they still use terms like “thick cream,” leaving one wondering if they mean what we call heavy or whipping cream, or if they’re referring to the superthick double cream that’s available only rarely in this country, but is readily available in Australia (answer: it’s generally the former). Because of this, and certain oddities of measurement (an Australian tablespoon is equivalent to four American teaspoons, not three, which changes your measurements all the way up the line), these books are probably best for people who already have a pretty good grasp on technique, and can see when an instruction looks like it’s not going to produce the desired results, and compensate for it. But the food is fantastic, and the books are gorgeous.
How to Cook Everything, The Minimalist Cooks Dinner, The Minimalist Cooks at Home: These books are by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman (who has sadly fallen prey to the irksome trend of adopting a cute nickname like Ina Garten “The Barefoot Contessa,” or Jamie Oliver “The Naked Chef”; Bittman’s nickname is slightly more acceptable, since it really just comes from the title of his column, but it’s a cutesy nickname nonetheless). How to Cook Everything is, as the name suggests, a very comprehensive tome that does come across as, in the words of one reviewer, a more hip Joy of Cooking. It has a range of recipes that call for varying degrees of skill and experience, but none of them is beyond someone with a basic knowledge of cooking. Although How to Cook Everything isn’t a book with the “minimalist” concept behind it, it still doesn’t call for gadgetry or ingredients beyond what’s normally found in a standard American kitchen.
The two Minimalist books are both great for dinner ideas. The Minimalist Cooks Dinner actually limits itself to what can be prepared in about 30 to 45 minutes, whereas The Minimalist Cooks at Home has some recipes that are better suited to weekend entertaining-type cooking. Both are very accessible in terms of using commonly available ingredients, and in all three books, Bittman’s chatty I’m-right-here-with-you, it’s-supposed-to-look-like-that style makes them comforting to less skilled cooks.
The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook: Although I had to get past a couple of irritants in this book, it really is a great resource. Put out by the two men who founded Dean & DeLuca (along with cookbook author David Rosengarten), the specialty food store in SoHo, the recipes may be to us today what the Silver Palate ones must have been like in the 1980s—familiar dishes with a twist that may cause the reader to pause and think, “It sounds a little weird, but it just might be tasty.” The ingredients, while in some cases pricey, aren’t necessarily anything that couldn’t be found at a well-stocked supermarket in a decent sized metropolitan area. None of the recipes call for ultra sophisticated gadgets or gizmos. The recipes seem to lean toward Mediterranean-influenced selections (not surprising, since Dean and DeLuca initially concentrated on importing from that area), but offers some choices from other cuisines as well. This book is probably best for fairly experienced cooks, since a novice may look at the recipe titles, and sometimes lengthy ingredient lists, and be intimidated.
Just for the record, the two things that irritated me about this book were that the recipe introductions often refer to “we” or “us” (meaning Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca), when it’s printed in (literal) black and white on the cover that David Rosengarten actually wrote the text, with consultative input from the two men whose names appear in the title. The other thing that got a little tedious was the constant back-patting and credit grabbing for starting trends and introducing new food products to the American market. When you find out that they claim to be responsible for pasta salad, you have to ask yourself 1) if they really did us any favors, and 2) what that macaroni covered with mayonnaise that we all ate as kids at cookouts all summer long was. I’d have to classify it as pasta salad (if a fairly crude version thereof) and call bullshit on their claim that they “invented” pasta salad. Updated, maybe, but not invented.
Cooking 1-2-3: Rosanne Gold has managed to develop literally hundreds of recipes using three ingredients (not counting water, salt, and pepper), and has written several cookbooks, of which this is the most comprehensive. What’s amazing about these books is how good the food actually is. She does call for a few things that may be harder to find (break out your jar of za’atar—assuming you can find it; I’ve never been able to yet), and you may have to actually make something before you make the recipe itself (vanilla sugar, an herb-infused oil). But even so, it’s astonishing what can be accomplished with only three ingredients. These books are for pretty experienced cooks. Because she uses so few ingredients, technique comes much more into focus. The layering of flavors is much more critical, because there are so few components to lend dimension to the finished product. Occasionally I’ll cheat and use broth instead of water, just because I think it will add a little extra flavor that might be lacking otherwise. Also, these recipes can be very time-consuming. Mostly I find them to be great dinner party dishes, with the added conversation-starter tidbit that dinner contains only nine ingredients, or whatever. If you’re having guests who are food fiends, create a menu from these recipes. There’s also a Healthy 1-2-3 and a Low Carb 1-2-3, both of which are equally good, and despite being “healthy” actually have tasty choices.
The Theory and Practice of Good Cooking, James Beard’s American Cookery: I consider these two books to be James Beard’s best. The former is actually the book from which I learned to cook, and would be fabulous for anyone who’s not sure where to start with this whole food thing. Beard was a fanatic for good ingredients treated right, and guides the novice through everything from how to hold a knife, to how to make a sauce Béarnaise. Although it’s an outstanding book, I’d be hesitant to recommend it for more experienced cooks (unless one of their passions—like mine--is collecting primer-type cookbooks). Most experienced cooks already understand the difference between a braise and a roast, and are tired of reading it over and over.
American Cookery is a great companion to Theory and Practice, or a good book for someone who wants a greater understanding of what really constitutes “American food.” There’s no fusion cuisine here—you won’t find a recipe for pot stickers using common ingredients. But if you’re looking for a good recipe for pound cake, this is your source. The techniques involved are fairly easy (Beard wasn’t one for show-offy tricks, either), and the equipment basic. If you’re not a fan of offal (I am not), there are handful of recipes in this book that you’ll never make, and which may even cause you to curl your lip in disgust, but remember that there was a time when people ate everything that could be eaten, and this book reflects that. Although we no longer butcher our own meat, and therefore aren’t left wondering what on earth to do with tongue, sweetbreads, or a whole pig’s head, the men and women who settled this country did, and Beard has recorded what they did with them (no matter how unpalatable they may sound).
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone: Deborah Madison has written a definitive work on vegetarian cooking, and this book is enough to make the most determined carnivore think twice. The nice thing about the book is, almost everything in it could be a side dish to a meat-centric meal, as well as standing as a shining star on its own, or as part of a vegetarian feast. The focus, it’s worth noting, is on vegetarian—while there are a lot of recipes that are truly vegan, if you’re thinking of someone who’s really squeamish about eggs or dairy products, be aware that there are going to be things in this book that they can’t make. The ingredients she calls for are reasonable, maybe requiring a quick trip to an ethnic market, but the book is so extensive that there’s plenty to make even if you can’t (or don’t want to) pick up some of the more unusual spices. She does assume a certain familiarity with cooking, so this book is best for those who have some experience in the kitchen.
The Best of Cooking Light: For anyone who’s trying to eat more healthfully, any of the Cooking Light books would be great. The annual recipe compilations are a bit of a gimmick if you already subscribe to the magazine, and the Best Of books are all recipes from the magazines, but if you know someone who doesn’t subscribe, and is trying to eat less fat and sodium, Cooking Light is a big help. My grandmother used to say, “Anyone can cook well with heavy cream,” and that’s true—because these recipes may call for less of ingredients that generally give structure or strength to a dish, it can be challenging to modify technique to compensate. However, it’s not impossible, and the results are worth it. Ingredients and equipment are both straightforward, and the choices are often old familiar favorites that have been updated and lightened, but not weirdly or excessively so.
The Bon Appetit Cookbook: This is the only one on my list that is shiny and new. Published in time for Christmas 2006, and to coincide with the magazine’s 50th anniversary, this is a collection (a BIG collection) of the best recipes from Bon Appetit over the past 50 years. All the bases are covered, from appetizers to desserts. Some of these things are “company” food, some are easy enough that they could be made for a weeknight dinner. Most of them are interesting without being alienating. You won’t find weird combinations of ingredients, or unheard of spices. The recipe introductions get a little repetitive, since for every recipe that calls for something like chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, they have to tell the reader what they are and where they can be found, but that part can always be skipped over. This is probably a better book for more experienced cooks, since some of the dishes seem like they might be nerve wracking to make, but it could also be a good stepping stone for someone who feels like they’ve mastered the basics and are ready for a challenge. There’s so much to make that the more confident cook could take on something more complex, where the less assured cook could find something that was just a little bit harder to make.