Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hittin' the books: Extra Credit

Last week I shared some of the books that I think are essential for the home cook - the ones that teach you the basics, and how to be a better cook. This week I wanted to share three books from my library that aren't just full of good food, but also make for a darn good read. Maybe not everyone would want them, but I sure can't live without them. These are the cookbooks that I love so much I'll just sit around and read them when I'm bored. Because I'm a nerd.

I value this book for the storytelling just as much as for the recipes. In The Taste of Country Cooking, Miss Lewis recounts growing up in Freetown, Virginia (founded by her grandfather and other freed slaves following emancipation in 1865). She shares what life was like in a small rural community, and how the food tied in with that kind of country living. The book and recipes are organized by seasons, and everything is simple and fresh. Each chapter begins with a story of what would happen in the community during that part of the year, and is followed by a handful of menus and their accompanying recipes. This is the way rural America used to eat, back when "local" and "seasonal" weren't buzzwords for foodies - it was just the way of life. For me, Miss Lewis is one of those greats I wish I could have had the privelige of meeting. Although she passed away a few years ago, her writing and recipes continue to inspire me and make me love living in the country that much more. Check out this to-die-for menu from the book:


Ham in Heavy Cream Sauce
Covered Fried Eggs
Pan Fried Sweet Potatoes
Biscuits & Butter
Green Tomato Preserves

If that's not fuel for working the fields I don't know what is... That's just ONE of the many deliciously simple, hearty country meals from this book. If that's the kind of food you're into, then you need to run out and pick up The Taste of Country Cooking.

The Glory of Southern Cooking by James Villas
I've decided that this is a pretty definitive volume on the subject of southern food. Over 375 dishes culled from all over the south - from the hills of Tennessee to the Carolina Lowcountry - there's pretty much any classic southern dish you can think of, including some fairly obscure and nearly forgotten ones. Although he's not quite the storyteller that Miss Lewis was, James Villas offers a brief history for each recipe in the book. A sampling: Jezebel (a spicy-sweet spread), Kenetucky Cheese Pudding, Creole Barbecued Shrimp, Awendaw, Hummingbird Cake, Pickled Peaches, and of course, Mint Juleps. It's like he spoke to every grandmother in the south and got their most beloved recipes. I have made a LOT of dishes from this book, and have yet to be disappointed. I think you'll all love it too!

Martha Stewart's Hors D'Oeuvres Handbook
Stop rolling your eyes...I'm serious about this one. I may not love everything Martha does, but I don't know what I'd do without this book. There's a picture of every single recipe. All of them. This book saved my life when I was catering for the first time, and even if you don't entertain much there are great little bites to bring to parties, or even turn into a fun dinner. There are also a few things that I like to make and give as gifts for the holidays (the Icebox Crackers are perfect for giving, and super easy). The Pretzel Bites are perfect for when you have friends over on college game day, and the cocktail recipes would perk up any girls night in. There's also fantastic advice on planning a party menu, making things ahead, and how to look for the best ingredients. I almost featured it in my list of essential books, and if you enjoy entertaining at all, it SHOULD be in your collection.

Next week: Indian food, Italian food, and celebrity chefs!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hittin' the Books: The Basics

I have a lot of cookbooks. A. Lot. But there are a handful that I keep going back to, and feel like everyone should have. If you enjoy cooking and want to learn more, or want to learn how to do pretty much anything better, these are worthwhile investments.

For a while, I was just grabbing any old book with a pretty cover. As I learned more about who I am in the kitchen and the foods I truly love, I started to become a little more selective. I'd like to share with you what I feel are a few essentials for the home cook and, in the next posts in this series, a few of my personal favorites. (I despise dust jackets and throw them in the trash as soon as I get a book home, so the covers may look a little different than what you will find in the stores)

The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer (mine's the 75th anniversary edition)
You KNOW if a cookbook has been around for 75 years and is still selling, it must be pretty important. This is the book that sparked my imagination and really got me interested in cooking. I was amazed that so many different recipes could be found in one book. The easy-to-read recipe format, along with tons of advice and tips, really make this the home cook's best friend. This is actually the second copy I've owned, because I use it so often and tend to wear it out (even when I'm not using the recipes, I look to it as a reference). I can't say enough about how useful Joy has been. I know it won't disappoint you!

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck
I would be committing a crime against home cookery if I didn't include this book. You may think that you don't care much for french food, but this is so much more than that. Mastering is an excellent manual for basic skills. It's like having Julia herself coach you through what equipment you need, basic knife skills, all the stocks, sauces, and other master recipes of classic French cuisine. These aren't hoity toity recipes- these are the skills that will make you better at any kind of cooking, the skills that people pay upwards of  $25,000 to learn in their first year of culinary school. Cook your way through the first couple of chapters and I promise you will be better at what you do. It's also important to know that the recipes in here aren't really all that fancy, or difficult, or expensive. It's simple, DELICIOUS, and elegant food that you could serve any time.

Baking with Julia by Julia Child, featuring a slew of famous chefs, bakers, and pastry chefs
Can you tell I love Julia? I once had a friend from culinary school tell me I was "like Julia Child, only hip" - possibly the greatest compliment I've ever received, because I want to teach people to cook and love food the way she did. Anyhoo... This book made me a better baker. As far as I'm concerned, if I ever had the chance to teach a baking class for home cooks, this would be my textbook. She starts with basic, master recipes, then expands on them. I spend my summers baking my way through this book from cover to cover, and I'm a better baker for it. If you love cookies, cakes, pastries, and breads, then you need this book. It's the companion to a PBS series by the same name, and I believe it's still available on DVD. Pairing the two would no doubt be even more enriching than the book alone.

I didn't get a picture because my camera batteries died, but for extra credit you could grab a copy of Larousse Gastronomique. This book is for the pros, and the food geeks. It's a comprehensive dictionary/encyclopedia of cooking terms, techniques, ingredients, etc. My mom found me a copy from the 60's at a used bookstore for $15; brand new it's considerably more. I use it when people ask me a random food question, or if I'm unsure of a certain technique. It's also really hefty, so I may or may not use it to press flowers...

Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page
Although aimed at future professionals, I think this is an excellent read for home cooks who yearn to be more creative and cook more intuitively. With tons of input from the best chefs on the planet, they break down what goes into creating a dish, and a menu. There are lists upon lists to reference: foods by season, what goes with what, which herbs compliment this or that, contrasts between ingredients, and so much more. Not to mention the scores of inspiration by the people who do it best. So, you say, it's spring? And beets are in season? I've never done beets, what goes with them? Well let me just turn to page 96 and see what I have handy from that list... You pretty much can't mess it up. The best part is, you'll start to remember this sort of stuff, and throwing things together will no longer involve a book. This is also a HUGE help in the budget department. When I need to do my shopping from the pantry, and don't feel like spending all day looking at my cookbooks, I pull out this book. If I have salmon in the freezer, I'll look at the list of things that go with it and see what I have handy. More than one fantastic improvised dinner has come about this way.

Look who forgot to rotate the picture :)
And finally...
You don't have to get this specific one, but every home cook needs a little guide for substituting ingredients. Ever look at a recipe and think "man, I don't like/can't afford/can't find that ingredient...?" That's what books like this are for. Once I decide I want to make something, I don't want to have to give up on it just because I can't find (for example) juniper berries at the local grocery store. Thanks to a handy substitution guide I know I can toss a little gin in there and call it a day. Run out of baking powder? Well if you have baking soda and cream of tartar laying around, then you don't have to worry. Because this little book told you that would work.

So those are what I think some of the must-haves are- certainly not a comprehensive list...what do you think? Did I leave anything out? Is there a cookbook you couldn't live without? Next Tuesday I'll start sharing some of my favorites that, although not essential basics, I couldn't imagine my kitchen without them :)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Great Beginnings

This is easily the most exciting part of vegetable gardening - when the first fruits of your labor begin to make their appearances. Little tomato nubbins that seem to turn into green globes overnight, the tiniest of beans and pea blossoms, pinkie-sized peppers...It's all so fascinating, and it's a beautiful moment of realization that yes, you are competent with dirt and seed and shovel. It's also a reminder that soon, you will not have to pay out the wazoo for sub-par tomatoes at the store. No, soon you will step out of your back door, pluck one still warm from the sun, and literally taste summer. Even the edibles that grow wild are peeking up at the sun. There are gobs of wild blackberries all around where we live, and Chris brought me the first ripe one two days ago. "There's...thousands...of them," he said with a huge goofy smile, "they'll all be ready in another week or two." Of course we both knew that already, but the excitement of many, many pounds of free berries is just too much to contain...(Ok, not entirely free. One must brave briars and -possibly- snakes to get at them, but they are worth the risks)

I really enjoy taking pictures of our veggies as they grow, and god bless the macro setting on a digital camera. It makes me look like a legitimate photographer sometimes. So here, I present to you, a little photo essay of what are most certainly some great beginnings: