Cookbooks are great — we love that they inspire and teach. Usually, our first is given to us by loved ones. My first practical cookbook was the Alpha-Bakery Children’s Cookbook by Gold Medal Flour. “B is for Banana Bread” was definitely a hit at our house and, judging by all of the nostalgic comments on the internet, we weren’t the only ones with pages stained and stiff with spilled ingredients.
Sentimental reasons aside, my recommendation before investing in your own cookbook collection is to EAT. Good food, bad food, fancy food, street food, it all develops your palate. When learning to cook, having many taste memories acts as a guide, like the picture on the box of a 1,000-piece puzzle.
Naturally, my first attempts at cooking were all flavors that I missed the most, good old home-cooking. That first year living on my own consisted of a lot of calls to mom asking why my version wasn’t tasting like her version or what are the edible parts of this vegetable that I had never seen whole. I learned to cook through trial and error. Based on my experience or, more accurately, to avoid my experience, I recommend this book for cooks just starting out:
Guy Gourmet: Great Chefs’ Best Meals for a Lean & Healthy Body by Adina Steiman & Paul Kita, forward by Thomas Keller
I found this book at work on the free table. From the editors of Men’s Health magazine, at first glance it looks like a novelty or gimmick, maybe even a little sexist. But don’t judge a book by its cover because this one is incredibly informative and intelligently designed, more like a guidebook than a cookbook. Although the book is geared toward men and saturated with male pronouns, being clueless in the kitchen is equal opportunity for both genders.
Everyone needs to know how to properly handle their kitchen “tool kit,” pick and store food properly, and grasp basic nutrition for a healthy body. No recipe in this book is more than one page long, and they range from sophisticated-but-easy dishes to impress a date to healthy protein snacks (even vegetarian) for workouts. They even tackle campfire cooking, strategies to cook for a crowd or holiday, and primers demystifying cheese, alcohol pairings and making your own stock, seasonings, pickles and bitters.
In the forward, Thomas Keller writes, “We become adept at interpreting these recipes into something that is meaningful and personal to us, and in the process we evolve into better cooks ourselves … The resulting successes we encounter through practice and repetition gives us the confidence and the courage to try new things.” Amen. I wish someone had given me this book ten years ago.
As I’ve traveled the world, adventures in local cuisine are now my prized souvenirs. From fresh buttery naan on a rooftop restaurant in India and crunchy mountain ferns in Taiwan to ramen in New York City that takes two days to prepare, food experiences are undeniably influential visceral memories. Few subjects can get the average person more excited than describing the best thing they’ve ever eaten. And that is the kind of excitement that inspires and elevates cooking from survival to art. For home chefs who are ready to take their skills to the next level, I recommend this book:
Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird by Gabriel Rucker and Meredith Erickson
The Pacific Northwest food scene has exploded in the last decade and one of our favorite restaurants is Portland, Oregon’s Le Pigeon, with James Beard Award-winner Gabriel Rucker at the helm. On our first visit, we lined up before opening to snag two of the ten coveted first-come, first-served bar stools around the tiny open kitchen. Our minds and taste buds were ready to be blown and it did not disappoint.
Of course we had to get his cookbook. It’s like hearing a symphony and getting your hands on the music score. All I wanted to do was pull the curtain back and crawl around inside the chef’s brain. How did he construct this cold, semi-solid sauce with so many flavors that I gave up trying to identify them? What makes this simple butter lettuce salad the best one I’ve ever eaten? Where can I get cardamom ice cream to serve with monkey bread at my next party?
Equal parts coffee table book and practical cookbook, the recipes are intertwined with personal pictures and stories of staff, family and friends, which make it as intimate as the restaurant itself. As expected, many recipes sound quite intimidating, including the eponymous roast pigeon and an entire chapter on tongue. However, the authors are very generous teachers, with informational sidebars, quirky illustrations, and how-tos for their pantry oils, stocks and dressings to make sure the recipes are achievable and the flavors are faithful.
So far we’ve made the Pork Shoulder Confit and only that because it is so amazing we keep making it over and over. I’m sure we’ll tackle more of the recipes, but right now I’m much more looking forward to planning a return trip to Le Pigeon for the summer menu!
What do you love about your cookbooks? What kinds of recipes do you use them for? Do any of them have any experiences or memories attached to them?