12.22.2006

Cooking Up a Good Holiday Read

by Jeff Siegel

I have been told that I own entirely too many cookbooks. I mention this not to elicit sympathy (since I don’t believe one can own too many cookbooks), but to establish my credentials to offer the following advice to anyone who is still searching for a holiday gift for people who like to cook.

First, forget about most celebrity chef cookbooks. Almost all of them violate the first rule of recipes (which I learned from reading a cookbook review of a long forgotten celebrity chef): Never trust a recipe written by someone who no longer chops their own onions. The results are rarely worth the effort. Second, do not buy diet cookbooks. Besides the dubious contents – the only way to really lose weight is to eat less and exercise more – they date quickly. Does anyone still use their Dr. Atkins cookbook?
Hence the following, which treat cooking not as a chore or a status symbol, but as something which should be fun:

How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman: Pretentious title, terrific book by the man who writes "The Minimalist" column for The New York Times. There’s a lentil and rice recipe, with grilled onions, that must be tasted to be believed.

Joy of Cooking, 75th anniversary edition: I’m on my third version (still have the other two) of this classic, and this one makes up for the holes in the 1997 effort. Besides, where else will you find an understandable diagram about how to set the table for a dinner party?

The Way to Cook, by Julia Child: This book is her career, encapsulated in 528 pages, and those of us who grew up with Madame on public TV will hear her voice in every recipe.

Beard on Bread, by James Beard: Baking bread does not require the skills of a medieval alchemist, something that all too many bread books imply. Beard’s recipes are simple and straightforward, and produce excellent loaves, especially for the beginner.

Any of Jacques Pepin’s TV series cookbooks: There are about a half-dozen, and each is outstanding. If I had to pick, it would be Cooking with Claudine, which includes crème au chocolat, which takes chocolate pudding where it has never been before.

(Promotional image from Wiley Publishers.)




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2 comments:

Dan said...

Because i work in a newsroom (industry motto: Free books! You get free books!), I've got shelfs of cookbooks. Many of them are interesting... but cooking from a recipe simply isn't the way most of us eat.

What most of us need are references to basic techniques, the right cookware, and a functional pantry. The book that taught me how to do this stayed with my first wife after our divorce, but it was by a writer for the WaPo and it had a list of things that you should always keep on hand. All the meals listed could be assembled in 30 minutes, too.

My list of things I keep stocked has changed over the years, but here's the point: The best cookbooks encourage us to improvise. It's the difference between sight-reading sheet music and jazz.

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