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 :)

1 comment:

  1. Hi Christy,

    Many thanks for your kind words about our book CULINARY ARTISTRY -- we appreciate your taking the time to spread the word!

    Delicious wishes,
    Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg