Tuesday, April 3, 2007

My Talismans

I'm on the record somewhere that I do not own many cookbooks -I've got about 50 in a home library totaling about 500 books- and most of these are mostly useless to me.

Really, most cookbooks are useless to me.

My eyes glaze over whenever I go into a bookstore and pass through the cookbook section. The aisles and aisles and aisles of lurid glossy rectangular blocks gleaming with the white teeth of TV icons and lifestyle gurus make my blood run cold. If I stop to peruse something, it'll always be to check out a book published by someone I know and respect and who I believe is actually adding something to the body of knowledge of culinary art and technique.

The rest are dross and full of endless variations of recipes that have been around for hundreds of years and use techniques that I learned to master years ago. I mean, why in the name of Vesta would anyone who knows how to slice a piece of bread and put something on it, need to pay for a book with a recipe for bruschettta?

But I'm probably preaching to the choir. I think most of the folks who read me came here through Michael Ruhlman's blog and are mostly pretty accomplished cooks who understand that when it comes to cookbooks, all you really need to have on hand is a few texts to remind you of the basic dishes and techniques and that's it. For novice cooks the story should be about the same: buy a few basic texts that describe a broad range of dishes from whatever repertoire you are trying to learn (be it Japanese, Chinese , French whatever) and few more that emphasize technique. Also buy something that explains what food is and how it cooks.

You can learn more about how to cook from a food science rich book like Harold McGee's, On Food and Cooking than you can from almost any cook book I can think of. That man should get the Nobel Prize for Economics for all the money he's saved cooks from spending on know-nothing cookbooks.

Here's a list of the books I use most often to remind me of what can be done and how to do it. Keep in mind that I'm a Franco-Italo-American process karyotyped cook. I've got foie-gras en terrine, pasta a la bolognese, yeasted bread and pecan pie making in my genome and these books reflect that.

An asterisk denotes a book that I use less but are great for novices.

  • Le Guide Culinaire (1982 ed) by Auguste Escoffier
  • The Joy of Cooking (1964 ed)
  • The Silver Spoon
  • Regional Italian Cooking by Ada Boni*
  • The Bread Baker's Apprentice
  • Professional Baking by Wayne Gisslen
  • Mastering the Art of French Cooking (VI&II) by Julia Child*
  • The New York Times Cook Book by Craig Claiborne
  • CookWise by Shirley Corrihier*
  • On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee
  • Foods A Scientific Approach by Helen Charley and Connie Weaver
Now please don't misread me. I'm not saying these are the only books I use; they are my talismans, books that are almost magical in the way they help me keep my footing in the kitchen.

By the way, I'm thinking of adding another book to my library but am not yet convince that I need it. La Bonne Cuisine looks like it might just be a talisman for me. We'll see.


veron said...

Oh no... another list of cookbooks I will find irresistable to check out. I agree that most cookbooks offer mere variations on a classic recipe but there are also times when a one unveils a recipe so good it makes you cry....

Foie Gras Brulee

Southern said...

Man, since i started cooking this January (at the age of 35...) ive spend huge amounts of cookbooks, and now im gonna have to spend even more.
Must say though, for me, usefull or not, i just love reading cookbooks. Gives me inspiration to cook classic recipes aswell as my own recipes.
YOu could say they serve the same purpose for me that foodblog's do for me.


KitchenKiki said...

Thanks for a good list of the basics.
I love to look at recipes and cookbooks for inspiration. I rarely (if ever) follow a recipe to the letter, unless it is baking--then the chemistry of making it all happens scares me enough that I pay attention.

Sorcha said...

One of my mother-in-law's closest friends has whole bookcases full of cookbooks. Like, at least a thousand. I've often wondered how she can possibly use them all - if you were looking for a specific recipe, how would you find it in all that?

Lou said...

I'd be interested to know what you think of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. For Italian-American food, I go to the source (my family), but for other stuff this has become my go-to book.

Shannon said...

My father gave me loads of cookbooks that were handed down to him by his grandmother. But I always go to a handful of them:

A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden

NYT Cookbook
NYT Menu Cookbook
NYT International Cookbook

Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vols I & II (first editions)

I have newer books, but those are the ones I've turned to the most and I've never been let down.

If I do buy more, it'll be by seasoned chefs like Waters, Pepin, etc.

Ed Bruske said...

You're right, I keep searching cook books for something that touches my soul and most of them fall short. I could draw up a much longer list of very worthwhile books that represent regional cooking approached my knowledgeable, thoughtful cooks. Not talismans, exactly, but good to own. If I had to choose one book that represents cooking the way it ought to be, it would be Patience Gray's "Honey From a Weed."

And you're right again: I did get here from Ruhlman's site.

Tyrone B. said...

I am with you...My only cookbooks (that I kept)were gifts with personal messages wrote in them.

That being said, I did however (don't tell) give away quite a few cookbooks that were given to me after perusing thru them to 'catch' the essence.

Most of the 'books' I keep are food science or technique. Harold being on the top of that list...I bought his second book as well.

You may want to look at The New Kitchen Science by Howard Hillman.

If you have read Harold, then Howard will be a condensed almost quickbook. But that is great for those who can't take too much real science speak.

Bob del Grosso said...

Shannon you wrote

"If I do buy more, it'll be by seasoned chefs like Waters, Pepin, etc"

I don't know about etc :-) but you can't go wrong with Pepin and Alice well I wouldn't read her for technique but her approach is unimpeachable. She is inspiring.

Tyrone b

I'll take a look at Hillman next time I'm in the bookstore. But I'm pretty sure that given that I taught food science and have enough science background to read primary stuff, that McGee is quite enough for me. Besides, I know Harold and feel a collegial obligation to promote his excellent book. It really is the best one of it's kind that I've seen.
I hope that didn't sound arrogant. It might have.

John J. Goddard said...

There are plenty of styles that haven't been covered in cookbooks, but I fear many of them never will be widely available. Tibetan cooking? Uzbek?

More book-buying Americans will need to be more genuinely curious about food, the world and other cultures before publishers give America a greater variety of cookbooks. It's crazy that most Americans have little or no active interest in Russian cuisine, for example. It's gorgeous home cooking. It doesn't contain pungent spices. It's mild and comforting fare. But leave the East Coast and no one cares about it. Remarkable are the similarities between Midwestern American food and the peasant fare of Eastern Europe and Russia, ironically enough.

I would like to get my hands on some down-home recipes from Tuva and Lappland, but I'll probably just have to go there and watch the stuff being made. But that's the best way to learn how to cook, in my opinion: Stand in the kitchen, watch the proportions, timing and technique, then cook it your damn self from memory. After 10 tries, you'll probably get it just right.

I don't like using cookbooks either. For me, they get in the way of the physical joy of the activity of cooking, and calculating flavor and texture outcomes is as much an abstract, non-verbal thing as free jazz. If I want words and linear thought cluttering up my cooking and my food, I'll make alphabet soup.

Funny that I've decided I should start writing cookbooks for others.