Monday, December 5, 2011

F&C Rewind: By The Book: A Cook's List of Essentials

At this time of year, it becomes very challenging to focus for an hour or two on producing a new post.  As such, I like to pull out particularly poignant posts and put them back up to keep you interested!  Since it is the gift-giving time of the year, I thought it'd be apropos to re-run my list of favorite or must-have cookbooks to add to your arsenal.  In revisiting this piece, I found that while I have since added many more to my collection, those I originally chose for The Top still retain their standings.  Bon appetit!
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" 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.  

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, Ducasse, 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 you're 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 (*$136 today-R.A.L.).

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 readCraig 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 particular cookbook, it is personal and you don't owe it to anyone to explain why.  The above mentioned 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?      

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