Q: So I think I want to start a cookbook collection. Any recommendations for essentials? Probably not the super extravagant ones but I want good staples.
A: Given that I practically inhale them in my sleep, few topics excite me as much as cookbooks. My approach to building a cookbook library moves along three fronts: (1) a handful of “industry standard” reference books that cover core techniques; (2) a medium-sized range of cookbooks with recipes born out of a deep reverence for home cooking and entertaining; and (3) a much larger set of restaurant-y cookbooks that I use for inspiration but rarely cook from. Let’s get Category 1 out of the way. When I was first learning to cook, I relied on the Culinary Institute of America’s The Professional Chef, Schlesinger & Willoughby’s How to Cook Meat, James Peterson’s Fish & Shellfish, and Elizabeth Schneider’s Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini. For Category 3, I tend to buy anything published by Daniel Boulud, Daniel Humm, Thomas Keller, the late Charlie Trotter, and Alice Waters, among others. That leaves us with the meat and potatoes, Category 2. Here are 10 Cookbooks I Can’t Live Without (in alphabetical order):
Dornenburg & Page, Culinary Artistry (1996) – This book was a game-changer for me. It taught me the generalizeable principles of composing a strong dish through selecting seasonal ingredients, compelling flavor combinations, contrasting textures and temperatures, and anticipating how everything will look on the plate.
Thomas Keller, Ad Hoc at Home (2009) – I had to include a Keller. This one is all about cooking for your family, and it begins with a no-frills meal that Keller made for his father just before his death. The book gracefully insists that fine dining can’t hold a candle to lovingly prepared meals at home.
Irene Kuo, The Key to Chinese Cooking (1977) – There are strikingly few Chinese cookbooks featuring recipes that are simultaneously authentic and easy-to-follow. This one is the best. It’s old-school — no photographs — but it doesn’t matter.
Edna Lewis, The Taste of Country Cooking (2006) – Recounting her family’s traditional meals through the course of a year in a farming community of freed slaves, this book has the intimacy of a memoir. I like it because it clearly conveys that the rituals of cooking seasonally are as much about what’s not available as they are about what is. Just because something is available at your local grocery store doesn’t mean you should buy it.
Jim Meehan, The PDT Cocktail Book (2011) – I put a lot of thought and energy into cooking because it’s how I like to show my affection for family and friends. Well-made cocktails have become a big part of how I extend hospitality. Until the new Death & Co. cocktail book comes out, this is my go-to book.
Russell Norman, Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (2012) – There are a lot of great Italian cookbooks out there by people like Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali, and Carlos Mirarchi, but this one is the most elegant and buoyant of them all. Besides reading like a love letter, it captures the giddiness of a traveler discovering “where the locals eat.”
Yotam Ottolenghi, Plenty: Vibrant Recipes (2011) – Popular for good reason. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of “vegetable forward” (not strictly vegetarian) cooking.
Chad Robertson, Tartine Bread (2010) – I don’t bake a lot, but when I do, I like to break a leg with this book. It’s clearly for advanced bakers: using it is like ascending a Himalayan learning curve with a team of seasoned sherpas.
Judy Rodgers, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook (2002) – I had heard a lot about Judy Rodgers before buying this book and I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. But when I made the painfully delicious “Roast Chicken with Bread Salad” that made San Francisco fall in love with Zuni Cafe, I understood. The recipes in this book will become your personal stalwarts.
Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food (2007) – I am above all a disciple of “California cuisine,” and Waters is its head prophet. “Cook Simply, Engaging All Your Senses,” she implores. I listen. This book helped me to internalize the sequence: (1) go to the market, (2) choose the freshest ingredients — those at their peak, (3) then decide how to prepare it, but you won’t have to do much if you’ve chosen well.
What are your favorite cookbooks?