Okay, that was fun, but it feels good to be back to a more modern look and feel with all the bells and whistles.
One question I get when people find out I’m obsessive about food, after “What do you like to cook?”, is “What’s your favorite cookbook?”. I always have trouble with this. There isn’t one magical book that just does everything for me. It’s my obsessive nature – I read cookbooks like novels.
However, I find I’m much more interested in helping people find the right cookbooks for them. This is a personal thing, since the right books for you will change as you grow, become more skilled, and find your flavors. It also opens up a much bigger conversation about tastes, influences, and goals, rather than me trying to sum up everything I believe about food in a sentence or two.
I’ve had two open questions to me about finding the “right” cookbook, which have been waiting for me to answer for an embarrassingly long time. I’d like to answer them here and encourage the readers to chime in with comments about what I got right or wrong, or with questions of their own.
Some general background, first: I tend to categorize cookbooks into three main categories. The first kind are the massive recipe tomes, big books that remind me of the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary that we used growing up. These books tend to focus almost exclusively on recipes, giving enough background information to be functional but really serving a need to be a reference point. The second kind are technique books, ones that focus on how and why cooking works instead of what to cook. For convenience, I put the true cooking theory books in this category. Finally, there are the niche books. These may be everything you wanted to know about Italian, Occitane, or Southeast Uzbekistan cooking, or they might be the end-all-be-all book on cooking kumquats or sea anemone (side note – what’s the plural of anemone?), but they universally go in depth into a single facet of cooking. All of these types of cookbooks are valuable as reference or jumping-off points, one is not better than the other, but that system helps me give a foundation to making recommendations.
On with the show. First up are a newlywed couple – VERY cool people – who enjoy food and are wanting to learn more about cooking. Oh, and they like to eat Italian.
Starting out, everybody needs at least one recipe tome to be a catch-all reference, the one book likely to have what you need, no matter what. I grew up on Joy of Cooking, although now that I’ve browsed the book (and downloaded the iPhone app) I’m a fan of How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Either will get you going towards being comfortable in the kitchen.
Ask about Italian food, and I immediately go to Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian food in America. She is for Italian cooking what Julia Child was to French cooking in this country, and her books couldn’t be more useful or exciting. This will get you out of the rut of thinking of Italian food as spaghetti with meat sauce, lasagna, and pizza, and open your eyes to a whole different range of flavors and a different approach to cooking. In a nutshell, Italian cooking is about choosing great ingredients and really not doing anything to screw them up. Marcella makes this instantly accessible to read and follow along at home.
I haven’t recommended a technique cookbook yet, since these two are great books to get started with and get a good feel for being in the kitchen. I’m not sure what technique book I would recommend yet, as I want to see what’s interesting from these two at first.
The other question… Well, that’ll be for another blog post.