Tuesday, May 18, 2010

By The Book: A Cook's List of Essentials

I've lost track of how many cookbooks I own.  Yet, I always know when one is "missing".  I do know that as I get older, I buy fewer.  But, the other night I thought that it had been some time since I pulled out a cookbook just to peruse the contents for pleasure.  I grabbed the Frog Commissary Cookbook, an oldie, but a goodie.  I had actually just gotten a copy, so while it was published in 1985, it was new to me.  

By all standards of what a cookbook should be, it's one of the best.  It has simple, succinct recipes with quick, informative descriptions of ingredients, methods and dishes that may not have been common knowledge in the "decade of greed".  My favorite part is the "how to" tips in the margins.  I think it's useful to know, for example, the items and quantities to set up a proper bar for a cocktail party of 50.  Or, the essentials of setting up a raw bar, hors d'oeuvres buffet or continental breakfast.  This is real, practical stuff.  The style of food is eclectic and not pretentious.  But, by today's standards, the book would never sell more than 1000 copies.  

You see, it wasn't designed for the coffee table.  More like, it was designed to put your coffee cup on.  Nor does it have full page, glossy, sexy food porn shots.  It doesn't praise the farmer who delivers their eggs, it doesn't feature drawings or paintings from staff, and it doesn't cost $55.  It's a true utilitarian cookbook.  

The Moosewood Cookbook of old is another with easily-soiled, coloring book quality pages, and matching hokey drawings of dancing broccoli from a time when vegetarians weren't so annoying (yeah, I said it).  Another paperback, it may be the gold standard for diverse, non-meat recipes that runs the full gamut of appetizers to desserts.  And, I dare say they're healthy, too.

The Silver Palate is another crossover book that should sit on the shelf of the serious cook.  It too is from an age when the author sought to give not just a broad spectrum of current, creative and healthful recipes, but it came from an accomplished cook who, like Julia Child and James Beard, wrote for the everyday cook.

So, why then, do I have so many cookbooks if I already know how to cook?  I'm trying to figure that out myself.  After much consideration, beyond the obvious answer of "recipes", my collection provides inspiration.

I own every cookbook from Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter, because I admire their style, their philosophy, their creativity and probably above all else,  their discipline.  I can pick up one of their books and feel their unique style ooze out of a phrase of admonishment.  To prepare food at that level requires a certain work ethic and commitment on the part of the chef.  At times, I'll open the books and page through them simply to look at their pictures, presentation or what ingredients they combine.  Maybe even peruse a particular season to get ideas.  Often, I just like to revisit an idea.  But, I rarely prop them open and "cook from them".  They are conceptual books meant for the lover of food and art.  This is the style of cookbook most common on the shelves today. 
In this same genre, I have the Inn at Little Washington books.  Along with Trotter and Keller, they tell of the building of their brand:  the loyalty of their staff, faithful customers and what a unique dining experience they are.  It's like buying the program at the ballgame.  You saw the show, now take the glossy keepsake home for years of enjoyment to come.

Another section of my culinary library is built on the "must haves".  My go-to book for classical Italian is Marcella Hazan, my Japanese, Nobu.  Baking, CIA and Cheese, Steve Jenkins.  Some genres require more than one, and as a Francophile, I own no less than 20 French cookbooks.  Paris cooking is covered by Patricia Wells, while country cooking is beautifully and completely rendered in Anne Willan's recent Country Cooking of France.  I have a rudimentary, yet useful book of recipes from the Basque region (in French).  I have the masters; Blanc, Doucasse, Guerard, Bocuse, Troisgros, Girardet.  Then, cross over into the US for the expats, and I have Ripert, Boulud, Robouchon, Richard, Jean-Georges and Pepin.  

Recipes from Da Fiore of Venice focuses on the gorgeous seafood and regional ingredients of the Veneto.  While the publisher BK (from England) has put out several primers on ethnic cuisine, of which Indian Cuisine has been the most useful to me.

Saveur's three book series on American, Italian and French cuisine is a must for their "real" recipes, grounded in tradition and authenticity.  It doesn't hurt that they have some of the most beautiful photography of any food magazine today.  

Back when I was just a waiter aspiring to take over the world, I bought a copy of Larousse, Gastronomique.  It is the mother of all culinary tomes, both encyclopedia and recipe collection at once.  It has entries on Antonin Careme and Julia Child.  It has the origins of salade nicoise and the proper way to make a vegetable "charlotte".  It's very...old school.  If, on the other hand, you need a reference guide, whether your a newbie or want to check your spelling on a menu, The Food Lover's Companion is the most user-friendly resource on the market.  There are three editions, two editions of the Wine Lover's Companion and now the Cheese Lover's Companion, the last husband-wife collaboration before the founder, Sharon Tyler Herbst passed away just a few years ago.

I suppose if there were one book that was a game-changer for me, it would have to be Gray Kunz "The Elements of Taste".  For an advanced cook, you long for a collection of thoughts and ideas that encompasses and sums up the building and layering of flavors from a conceptual standpoint with examples to back it up.  When this book was released, I read it from cover to cover.  I began to think differently in the way I wrote menus, created dishes, the way I seasoned food and more importantly, the way I corrected my seasonings.  The book is broken into four categories:  Tastes That Push, Tastes That Pull, Tastes That Punctuate and Taste Platforms.  And, rather than arranging food by course or primary ingredient, they identify 14 basic tastes (salty, sweet, floral, herbal, "funky," meaty, etc.).  The binding on my copy is beaten up, the pages slightly stained with wine and demi-glace.  It's the one book I don't loan out anymore, and it's because it's not in print anymore.  New copies on Amazon start at $355 each.

I have several books on only one subject from, pancakes and foie gras, to truffles and duck.  Soups, sauces, shellfish and seafood, mostly by James Peterson.  You need Harold Magee to answer those nagging questions about which boils faster, hot or cold water?  Or, how to hard-boil an egg without the green sulfuric ring around the yolk.  It goes without saying, but Beard and Child belong on your shelves, and should be read.  Craig Claiborne, Deborah Madison and Mario Batali have earned the right.  There are so many other great books- all of which have contributed to the enormous array of talent we experience today.  

Whatever reason you like buying a cookbook, it is personal and you don't owe it to anyone to explain why.  These particular books have broadened my knowledge and creativity in the culinary arts, and I hope you find the list of use.  No matter what your level of cooking, is there ONE cookbook that changed your life?      


Suzanne said...

Hi Robear,
You may think it is funny that I am commenting on this entry. As you and the family know I hate to cook...Sorry! It's just not my thing. I went to use the oven the other day and there were cobwebs inside...no lie. Anyway, years ago I bought a cookbook called The American County Inn and Bed & Breakfast Cookbook. (There are actually 2 volumes)It is my cooking "bible". Simple, tastful recipes that I always have the ingredients for. I wouldn't say it changed my life but it has made it easier! The famous Lhulier 7 layer dip, hot crab and cheese dip..yup...both from this book!!

Food said...

Damn it.. We agree again. Hopefully this won't happen on 2nd Helpings, I don't want anyone to think I am changing my ways.
If I walked into someone's home/kitchen and saw these books I would want to stay for dinner and maybe breakfast if she is cute or I spied leftovers.
I am also a big fan of a few others books: Modern Gastronomy by Herve and any CIA "Professional Chef" textbook, which is great for solving arguments about the current standard way of performing a culinary task. Their recipes are so big I could not imagine making 32oz of beurre blanc or god forbid that butter and egg yolk emulsion.
I have also thought a lot about the "one cookbook that changed my life". It has to be The French Laundry. I someone gave it to me as a gift and I was blown away by the pictures but also the amazing creativity. I stayed up all night reading TFL cover to cover. It was at this point I was humbled and knew I was not nearly as good as I thought I was in the kitchen.

R said...

Suz- how could I forget? They're great books that have contributed to family traditions and good times. Clean out them cobwebs, girl, and put on an apron! ; )
Foodie- I, too, was struck by TFL cookbook. It was a hard choice for "most impactful", since it laid out a philosophy that was uncompromising. I still think of it when I strain my stocks and sauces, or when I'm storing fish or contemplating mis en place. I'm also using my CIA books as "goto" sources, especially the New Pro Chef. One I'm interested in checking out is M. Ruhlman's "Ratio" book; he refers to these ratios in his first book while @ CIA, but it seems he was able to whittle it down. I'm a ratio cooker, now, so I'm intrigued. Thanks for sharing the "thoughts"! Let us know if you have any more books to check out.

Food said...

Knowing you have these books makes me want to come in and eat at UCG. I will be sure and let you know I was there.


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