My love affair with cookbooks began years ago. When I first moved out on my own, my cooking skills amounted to making rice, baking potatoes and opening cans. There were no food shows on TV, no internet recipe searching, and if you didn’t learn to cook from a family member, you went to the book store and read cookbooks! At least that’s what I did. I loved paging through them, reading and dreaming. My husband laughs at how I read cookbooks like they are a novel. Part of it is loving good food of course, but opening a cookbook can also open a new world.
When I was in college, I had a student job where I worked with a wonderful young lady from India. Befriending her and learning about her world made me curious about Indian food, which is to this day one of my favorites. I then traveled to India, which was amazing, delicious and eye opening. When I got home, I didn’t want to let go of that experience, so I went on the hunt for a cookbook! The first Indian cookbook I bought was The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi. It came out in 1987, so unlike most current cookbooks with their glossy, well-styled photos, it has no photos at all. Instead it is a 700 page bible of Indian vegetarian cooking (much of India is vegetarian). When I got this book it seemed very exotic, with ingredients I hadn’t heard of, or that weren’t readily available in grocery stores at the time, like fresh ginger root, curry leaves and the spice mixture garam masala, all of which are easy to find now.
One recipe I love making is a non-leavened bread called “Griddle-Fried Potato-Stuffed Whole Wheat Bread” (page 121). It’s a simple dough, rolled out and stuffed with a spiced potato mixture, then pan fried. I really felt like I achieved something special and exotic when I first made that dish.
My first all purpose cookbook was the 1990 edition of The New York Times Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne. As you can tell from my much used copy, I turned to this book for reference so many times, it fell apart! I tried to tape it together for awhile, but now just leave it as is. Again, there are no pictures, and no recipe descriptions. Just page after page of the best recipes of all kinds, including dessert. I made his Banana Tea Bread (page 650) so many times the binding finally broke on that page. I made my first ever roux for the cream sauce in his Pasta with Chicken and Mushrooms (page 478), which made me feel like such an accomplished cook. And being a Northern girl, I had no family reference for making fried chicken. Although Craig Claiborne was the food guru at the New York Times for years, he was from the south, and loved that style of cooking. On page 136 of the book, I learned to marinate the chicken in milk and Tabasco sauce before frying. It was a revelation!
I like collecting cookbooks from cuisines I enjoy, places I’ve visited, or want to visit, and also cookbooks that reflect my heritage, which is mainly Scandinavian. My favorites in the Scandinavian category are from Beatrice Ojakangas. She is an incredibly knowledgeable and prolific writer from Duluth, MN. I especially turn to her books around the holidays, when I’m thinking of home. Her Swedish meatball recipe is the best!
I also love baking cookbooks. Everything I know about baking I learned from books! Baking is very different from cooking because the recipes are very much about the science of how all the ingredients interact. There isn’t as much room for experimentation, but there is something so rewarding and zen like about the process! Both my husband and my son have huge sweet tooths, and there is nothing better than seeing how happy they are when I make homemade cookies or birthday cakes.
Cookbooks that fall into the “celebrity chef” category are a huge draw for people, and I’m no exception. Sometimes you buy a cookbook because you are a fan of a particular TV show. For me this includes Giada de Laurentis, Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman) and Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa). They all have very reliable and delicious recipes that reflect their lives and heritage. Their cookbooks are always beautifully shot too, so unlike the first cookbooks I bought that had no photos at all, these books are fun to look through for the food photography alone! Another type of celebrity chef are those who have serious reputations and are well-known because of the restaurants they run or own. Some examples I like are Charles Phan of the famed Slanted Door Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco and The Family Meal from Ferran Adria, who ran the legendary elBulli restaurant in Spain (now closed), known as the best restaurant in the world.
While looking through cookbooks is less convenient than having the internet at your fingertips, they are great for giving you new ideas. If you pick up a cookbook to look for a roasted chicken recipe, you might instead see Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic (page 113) in Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris. This is a delicious recipe and you’ll enjoy trying something new. Your family will probably appreciate it if you mix things up now and then too! Cookbooks can open up your culinary world in a much different way than internet searching alone.
I do use my cookbooks for the recipes of course, but I also admit that I like collecting them! Open up just about any cupboard, look at any bookshelf in my house and you will see cookbooks. I feel inspired just having them around me. I love standing in the cookbook section at book stores, or looking on Amazon, just admiring and adding titles to my wish list. Every February I look forward to a huge used book sale in Phoenix where I find lots of books on my list, and lots that weren’t!
In this cookbook section, I hope to highlight some of my favorite cookbooks, test out some recipes, and inspire you to start your own collection!