Recently I have been asked for some cookbook recommendations, which just happens to be one of my favorite subjects. I love cookbooks. Cookbooks saved my life when I was a kid. Food magazine made so much more sense than the bible, or those silly fairy tales. I also learned how to cook from books. Yes, it’s true.
Sure, I went to culinary school. I did my cooking time with culinary folks who I would rather not think about (as their nasty temperaments still haunt me.) To this day I cannot watch Iron Chef without feeling as though I might have an anxiety attack, or I might puke. Why does a culinary professional feel as though he must be an asshole? What art is in this? And why are we glorifying this? I just don’t know.
Anyhow, I learned from books. I learned from Julia Child whose tight, cheerful voice still rings intimately to me, in the pages of her French culinary volumes. I learned from the Jacques Pepin and Thomas Keller and Tom Douglas. And though I have met some of these people face-to-face, and watched them cook, and smelled the garlic on their breath, and felt the jittery nervousness you feel around famous people, I actually prefer their books.
In their books, I can take my time. I can lean into their expertise at my own leisure. I can take the steps at my own pace, and taste what is happening–which is a way of diving into the evolution of the recipe, and the mind of another chef. Books, whether it’s cookbooks or memoirs or novels, take you to other places. What I love about the cookbook journey, however, is that you can get to travel with another chef travel, and then you can take the journey yourself–down the road of roasted butternut squash with shallots.
Or, I still remember the first large cake I baked, and I taunt myself to temper chocolate from reading a pastry chef’s words. When I did finally go to Napa Valley’s Culinary Institute of America for a French sauces course, (before my formal culinary school) the chef couldn’t believe what I had taught myself. Though I eventually sought training for more legitimacy and a better paragraph on the resume, I don’t know if the cooking school did much beyond make me a faster cook.
These are books I used as a professional chef and books I still cook from now, because the recipes are easy and good.
Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from La Brea Bakery
I know this is a baking book and you might not be a baker, but this is an amazing book for variety of reasons. Nancy Silverton is one of the more creative bakers I have on my shelf. Though there are many classics in this book that you will recognize in other baking volumes, many of her recipes are ideas that formed in her own mind and took an amazing form as she painstakingly worked her ideas out. For example, she hates Rice Krispie treats, and set out to figure out how to fix the problem. Of course, the solution involved homemade marshmallows, which are surprisingly easy to make. And lemon turnovers, which are the very best recipe. I can only make this when I am not on a diet.
Cyndy Pawlcyn’s Mustard’s Grill Napa Valley Cookbook
This restaurant is still growing strong. The food is amazing, and the book is not merely one of those brand extensions, but a real gem of wisdom, Californian fusion food, etc with great techniques, pictures and recipes. The section called Out o’ the Pan, has some of my favorites, including a reliable fish soup with a great red pepper condiment. Though you might not be keen on the Liver Diablo recipe, the recipe is the only way I will eat liver. The desserts are written by the pastry chef and one of the best recipes I have for coconut cream pie is from this book.
Thomas Kellar’s French Laundry Cookbook
This is a big, showy, expensive white book that could sit on your coffee table. Maybe you could take it back and forth, from the kitchen to the living room. I know Thomas Keller is famous now, and he’s become more a personage than a cook. I don’t like the policies at his restaurant, or the lack of choice when you enter his dining room. I don’t like snobbery around food. Now the restaurant effectively tells you what to eat. I hate that. What I do like, however, is that this book is filled with carefully thought out meals. Each recipes has four or five or eight different components, or recipes within the larger recipe. As I cooked through this book I picked up skills, a refinement for preparation of caramelized shallots, for example, from a recipe for monk fish. I use a pine nut crust from a recipe in this book, and my recipe for polenta (with butter and so much cheese) comes from this book. I would say make the investment, and enjoy looking at the pompous pictures, because what is life without a bit of pompousness? Sometimes I read this book and drink too much wine, and afterwards, I have the same satiated feeling I used to get in Paris. It’s stupid but true!
Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook
Last but not least (these are not in order or preference) is this little gem, which is also from a restaurant in New York City. This chef seems like a know-it-all type of guy, the Culinary Institute of America, blah de blah de blah. But he wrote a mean book and he probably runs a mean restaurant. What I like about this book is what I also admired in Kellar’s book–his recipes have components. The Gotham tartar sauce is amazing. I also like the fact that he has sandwich recipes. You got to love a chef that includes recipe for a “Grilled Ham, Smoked Mozzarella and Red Onion Sandwich.” That’s not too snobby, is it? He’s got little sidebars that are sensual descriptions of food, and other sidebars with sunny, helpful cooking hints that make you feel less like a loser for leaving your beans out overnight, or for almost burning the biscuits you carefully mixed. While I am not cooking or serving caviar, you could with this book. You can learn how to braise octopus, and the salad on page 236 is better than good. It’s like the salads I used to be served in Tuscany when I was privileged to live there, and eat seaside.
Tom Douglas, Tom’s Big Dinners
This is my favorite of the local chef’s books. His recipe for Blueberry Cornmeal Crostata is special and when I cook with blueberries this is typically what I make. I don’t love his dining with local celebrities ideal, but his food knowledge is solid, inventive, and current and simple. I also like his Grilled Shrimp with Black Olives skewers. It’s good but simple, if a pain to stuff garlic into those little black holes. I have done so much stuffing in my life, but at least you get to eat the profits of your labors.
There are a dozen other titles I could include. I won’t today. I have to parent. And to make food.