Friday, September 13, 2002

A Few of My Favorite Cookbooks

Note: this is one of a series of cooking articles I'd started posting before I had the blog set up. I turned them into blog entries to keep them on the site.

Truthfully, I rely very heavily on my collection of old cookbooks for most basic cooking. You can't beat the old Better Homes & Gardens notebook-style cookbooks (pre-1960) for an all-purpose great cookbook. And if you can find
a complete set, the Women's Day Encyclopedia of Cooking is not easy to get, but is a comprehensive, 13-volume encyclopedia (they weren't kidding when they named it). I learned how to cook out of my family's copy, and after
years of looking managed to find my own set. It's not really that difficult to find good basics like these with just a little time spent checking out thrift stores, flea markets, or of course, eBay.
But there are plenty of good cookbooks in print today, although there's an overwhelming number of them! Here's a few I've found incredibly useful.

First up is On Rice, as mentioned in Lesson Four. I love rice, and this has tons and tons of one-dish meals, with something for everyone. I've made probably at least half of the recipes in here by now (although I confess to tweaking them a lot of the time -- I do love shortcuts!) There's also a lot of great information on all the different kinds of rice, and there's even dessert recipes! I have yet to try one of them, but someday I'll need that comforting rice pudding, I'm sure!!

the Visual Food Encyclopedia is a super reference -- it has become a total supplement to my Women's Day Encyclopedia of Cooking because while it isn't nearly as in-depth (after all, it's just one book, not 13 volumes!) it does have good basic info on a ton of fresh ingredients, the recipes are more modern and simple, and it's full of the most amazingly beautiful full-color paintings. Ever wondered exactly what a ripe mango was supposed to look like? Well, now you can know.

I probably cook Japanese food a good percentage of the time, although I lean more towards the home-cooking side than anything you'd really find in a restaurant. Two of my most essential references are The Book Of Japanese Cooking and Japanese Family-Style Recipes. Both have great pictures, easy-to-follow directions and no ingredients should be too difficult to track down. I'd have to say, if you only get one though, go for the Book of Japanese Cooking.

Who doesn't love restaurant cookbooks? I have loads of vintage ones, and it's still a healthy division of the cookbook sections. But I have to confess I've never gotten one of the award winning modern books like The French Laundry Cookbook. I just can't get into that style of cooking myself, although I'd be perfectly happy to eat there! No, for me it's the retro-styled official cookbooks like those from Lundy's, Junior's, or the Brown Derby. Maybe partly because they're usually good reads as well as good cookbooks!

Speaking of retro cookbooks, a lot of the old standbys are still around. You can pick up the current edition of the standard Better Homes & Gardens book, still in the 3-ring binder but modernized and updated. I already have two (30s and 50s editions) so I can't justify adding this one, but every kitchen should have at least one edition of this classic. I've never bought one myself, but I'm sure the basic info is still just as good. And if you want modern, or healthier recipes, it would probably do you more good than a vintage copy. And while you're at it, you can get modern versions of two other classics: the Good Housekeeping and Betty Crocker cookbooks, or, even cooler, a new reprinted edition of the 1950 Betty
cookbook, exactly like the one I have -- just new and clean.

Sometimes I don't want to cook, but I want to read about food and cooking. The ultimate food writer is of course M.F.K. Fisher, and her Art of Eating is a great introductory volume containing five of her early works. Another writer I like is Betty Fussell whose My Kitchen Wars is about all sort of things (but it does all come back to the kitchen). For a more modern viewpoint, check out either of Anthony Bourdain's books -- Kitchen Confidential is a must-read for anyone who's either worked in a restaurant or wanted to, and A Cook's Tour is a really enjoyable read about food and eating all over the world. Plus, the guy liked comics growing up, so that's a mark in the plus column as far as I'm concerned.

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