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!

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