Cookbooks can be big, and they can be bulky. They all take up some not-insignificant amount of space. So if you, like some of us here, have kitchens that are smaller than you’d like, how do you go about deciding which cookbooks deserve some of that all-too-precious space?
We were chatting about this at work the other day, which got me thinking. I don’t really like following a recipe most of the time. For me, a cookbook is something you flip through, feel inspired by and then set to the side or maybe glance at once you really get cooking.
That said, I have 18 cookbooks at home, which seems excessive but I’m told isn’t really. Out of those 18, there are only six that I assume I’ll keep forever. The others are just sort of hanging out until space considerations force me to send them on their way. So while Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume One, How to Cook Everything, Plenty and the nine other loiterers on my shelf are all lovely books for various reasons, they just aren’t the ones I’m saving if my counter suddenly gets chopped in half.
After thinking for a bit about this, I’ve realized that the cookbooks I keep, and will continue to keep, share some or all of these traits:
- Consistently great recipes that I can pull off
- There’s a strong point of view
- They’re enjoyable to read and use
- They have stunning, inspirational photography
- A focused look at one cuisine, that may or may not be comprehensive
So now let’s get to the keepers. I don’t care to go into an evaluation of each of these books that’s as rigorous as the one advocated by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, PhD, but I would like to share why each has earned a spot on my shelf.
Chocolate & Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen by Clotilde Dusoulier
Let me just get this out now: I’m a Francophile, so good French cookbooks are going to rank high on my list. And this one by Ms. Dusoulier, as I’ve gushed before, is soooooo good. What I love most is how she focuses on modern, everyday French cooking from the point of view of a practical home cook living in the real (not postcard-y) Paris, with average skills and scads of zeal.
There are recipes for hyper-traditional French dishes like boeuf bourguignon and ratatouille, but none of it is intimidating. There are also equally un-intimidating recipes for a curried turkey sandwich, bulgur-stuffed zucchini and a lamb tagine. This cookbook presents the food that’s prepared in a real, multicultural Paris, by real French people who pay bills and work during the day, but who still manage to make feeding themselves and their loved ones a lovely, thoughtful act.
I would say that I’ve made 80% of the recipes in this book, and there is not a single one that I wouldn’t make again. I reach for it over and over, especially when I’m having guests over and I want to serve something that’s slightly unexpected but won’t cause me undue amounts of stress.
Also, this book is lightweight and thin. I can’t imagine ever not having enough space for this little guy.
So this cookbook came out in 2014 and immediately vaulted to the protected space on my shelf. Like Chocolate & Zucchini, it’s filled with modern, everyday versions of French classics as well as dishes representative of France’s diversity.
And oh, the photos! My Paris Kitchen is laden with gorgeous photography of food, places, tools and people. Just flipping through it for a few minutes takes the edge off my near-constant hankering to be wandering through the market streets of Paris.
I’ve been a fan of Mr. Lebovitz’s blog for years because a) he’s basically living my dream and b) his recipes are always so damn good. This book is like a best-of. It’s full of staples and surprises, and I’m especially inspired by his final chapter of essential sauce and condiment recipes. Seriously, all those years I was buying crème fraîche instead of making it? Zut alors!
Lebovitz has a very straightforward, helpful way of presenting recipes that makes them easy to use, unlike another cookbook I love (I’ll get to you in a minute, Joy of Cooking). Plus, it’s packed with about as many funny anecdotes of life in Paris as it is wonderful recipes, so it’s delightful to read even when you have no intention of cooking anything that day.
The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert
I must have been 12 or so when I first encountered North African food. My mom and I had lunch at some mediocre Moroccan restaurant with a hopelessly obvious name like The Kasbah or Marrakech, but still it was enough to completely hook me. (I’ve since been lucky enough to actually go to Marrakech — the real one — and other cities in Morocco to enjoy decidedly better fare.)
This book meets several of my keeper criteria: it’s a comprehensive look at a specific cuisine, and it’s filled to the brim with lush photography and delicious recipes. I have some quibbles with Ms. Wolfert’s tone from time to time (can we just stop calling Morocco “exotic” already?), but the recipes are wonderful. They’re not terribly simple and they do require planning, but the results are always impressive.
Wolfert obviously has a tremendous love for Moroccan cuisine that comes through in her descriptions and interstitial notes. But I especially love how fastidious she is, challenging you to do the work required of this food. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m going to do the work, which is probably why I’ve only made it through about a quarter of the recipes in here, but I appreciate a cookbook writer who insists I take the time to put up my own preserved lemons months in advance. Though if you’re really in a pinch, she does give a recipe for “quick” ones that only take FIVE DAYS to prepare. This is a dedication to authenticity I respect.
There have been many smart reviews written about this cookbook already, and I don’t have much to add to what’s already been written — except to say that I have never been so consistently floored by each recipe I’ve tried in a cookbook, magazine or blog in my life as I have with this book.
Sure, there’s that puffy cover that you may or may not hate, and the ingredient lists are gulp-inducing, but these recipes are other-worldly good. The first thing I ever made from it was the chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice, and it was such a hit at home that as soon as the leftovers were gone (next day), I made it again immediately, and that also disappeared just as quickly. And as a rule, Mr. Natalie doesn’t eat leftovers.
A word about those ingredient lists: yes, they can be intimidating. They are long, and there are things in there that you may never have heard of. But once you are equipped for one of the recipes in this book, you will also have the pantry ingredients for five or six others. Don’t let the ingredient lists stop you.
Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker
When my mom was teaching me how to cook, we used family recipes handwritten on index cards and this book (6th edition) — and that’s it. I inherited our copy when I moved out on my own after college, and though I don’t use it very frequently anymore, I will never get rid of it. The spine is broken, various pages are torn and there are splatters and stains all over it.
To me, this cookbook serves more as an encyclopedia or dictionary than as inspiration. I’ll reach for it if I can’t remember what internal temperature to cook pork to, or if I’ve forgotten how to truss a chicken. (This would only be if I were curious about how to truss a chicken; I can’t imagine ever taking the time to actually do it.) I also find it reassuring to flip through and see the really dated information on skinning porcupine and the like. Having this on my shelf makes me feel confident I could make something tasty with just about any ingredient that comes my way.
Above all, I’m grateful for the way this book forced me to learn one of the most important lessons in cooking: read the damn recipe all the way through before you start doing anything. Because the recipes in this book begin with steps, rather than a list of ingredients, I found it so tempting to just get started when I was learning. Chop these shallots over there, get this skillet hot over here, flip the page and oh! I was supposed to let this meat marinate overnight and I should have already made a brown sauce? Great. Now what?
Nothing teaches an out-on-her-own-for-the-first-time cook to be more prudent than wasting a significant amount of food because she couldn’t be bothered to read a recipe first. Thank you, Irma and Marion!
I Know How to Cook (Je sais cuisiner) by Ginette Mathiot
This cookbook is often described as the French Joy of Cooking — it was first published in 1932 and its purpose was to demystify French cuisine for the average home cook. A few years ago, it was released in English for the first time — edited by Clotilde Dusoulier of Chocolate & Zucchini fame — and so I had to snap it up. Carefully. The thing weighs a ton.
Aside from the absolutely gorgeous photos, what I love most about Mathiot’s book is how dead simple it makes every French recipe out to be. I am not exaggerating when I say that her recipe for boeuf bourguignon is exactly five sentences long. The book’s language is simple and straightforward, making the most complex dishes seem as simple as a minor Ikea assembly job.
Of course, this is a blessing and a curse; a few of the recipes from this book that I’ve tried have turned out just so-so, and I think the brevity of the descriptions is somewhat to blame for that. I don’t know if this is a translation issue. I’ve been meaning to pick up an older copy in French and give those recipes a whirl.
This is going to sound odd, but here goes: I almost don’t care. I love this book because I can page through it and feel inspired to cook a homey, simple French dish of some sort. Whether the recipe I use (if I even use one) comes from this book or the internet is beside the point. I Know How to Cook has inspired me to cook something, and has made me feel like I’m capable of doing it, and that is all I’m asking of it — or any other cookbook I choose to hold onto.
So how many cookbooks do you own right now? What criteria do you use to decide which ones are keepers?