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My Cookbook Canon

April 3, 2014

So I own over 200 cookbooks now. There are some regrets in there (Michael Mina, I'm looking at you and your "The Cookbook"... Arugula foam? Really?), but mostly I am glad to have everything in my collection, if only to look back at how I used to cook (like The Silver Palate Cookbook, by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, which was our bible at the Artichoke Cafe in Albuquerque in 1994... Mmmmm raspberry vinaigrette on EVERYTHING!!!)

 

Here, however, there are the cookbooks I keep going back to, and I believe are in it for the long haul. In no particular order:

 

1) Stir: Mixing it Up in the Italian Tradition, by Barbara Lynch. The bolognese alone is worth the price of the book-- but there are so many good recipes! Brioche pizza, tomato tarte tatin, ham and cheese bites-- her recipes are elegant and rustic at the same time, plus the photography is great. I'm a sucker for great photography...

 

2) Vegetable Literacy, by Deborah Madison. Just got this a few months ago, but it has all the elements of a classic. It is a kind of vegetable encylopedia-- brief explanations of varieties, nutritional value, cooking tips, plus a few recipes that showcase the best "versions" of the vegetable. Obviously, since it is a book about vegetables, most of the recipes are inherentely healthy, but she's not afraid of butter or cream. There is also a section after each vegetable that pairs "good companions" together (Good companions for artichokes include hazelnut oil, tarragon, ricotta salata, capers, lemons, blood oranges and garlic mayonnaise). Plus my friend Kim gave it to me, and even got it inscribed, "Especially for Nina" !

 

3) Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges by Jean-Georges Vongrichten. Authentic Asian food is so amazing and delicious—but the techniques are totally different from the way I learned to cook. I love this book because it takes the “spirit” of the food, but uses classic French techniques and accessible ingredients. There are so many delicious recipes in there that I have made over and over: Shrimp Toasts with Water Chestnuts, Asparagus Salad with Chinese Mustard, Black Sea Bass with Coconut, Grilled Chicken with Kumquat-Lemongrass Dressing...and the Ginger Caramel Chicken Wings are my go-to for any pot luck, BBQ or game day. You can make them spicier or sweeter, depending on the crowd. You can make them way ahead, and they’re almost as good room temp as they are piping hot. Plus, chicken wings are super-cheap, even if you get free-range and hormone-free.

 

4) Ruhlman’s Twenty by Michael Ruhlman. Wanna go to cooking school for $20? Buy this book. I did go to cooking school—for $20,000—and I still learn something SIGNIFICANT every time I open this book. Like, when sautéing mushrooms, DON’T salt them right away. There is so much water in mushrooms, that the second you salt them they release all their juices, and they end up steaming/boiling. Instead, let them sit in the pan for a few minutes and let them caramelize, THEN, add the salt. Or how about the best way to make crispy bacon? Boil it first. Seriously—once Michael Ruhlman tells you the right way to do something, you won’t ever do it another way.

 

5) Meat by James Peterson. Thanksgiving turkey? Perfect Beef Wellington? Best way to tackle a whole tri-tip? How to roll a breast of lamb? The best temp to roast a leg of goat? James answers all questions—even ones I didn’t even know I had--about  meat. When I have a cut of meat I'm not sure how to cook, I start here—or at least double check another recipe against it.

 

6) Flour by Joanne Chang. I don’t eat dessert very often, and I HATE TO BAKE. But since I am a caterer, sometimes I am forced, and I always come here first. Her recipes are mostly creative twists on classics, and they aren’t overly sweet. Most importantly, she has convinced me to WEIGH my ingredients when I bake, instead of MEASURE them. Recipes are so much more foolproof and consistent when you weigh instead of measure. True Story! And her homemade oreos (filled with my dulce de leche, instead of her vanilla buttercream) are one of my most requested desserts on a Fifth Flavor buffet.

 

7) Zuni Café Cookbook, by Judy Rodgers. If I could only save one cookbook from my burning house, it would be this one. Zuni was one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco, and this book is fantastic not only because it includes all of her classics (Zuni Chicken with Bread Salad, Zuni Caesar, Ricotta Gnocchi, Polenta, Espresso Granita…), and not only because all the recipes are like Audrey Hepburn (timeless, gorgeous, refined), but also because the writing is AMAZING. It reads like a novel. Judy Rodgers (who died late last year) was a genius, and it is heartbreaking to think there will be no sequel to this amazing tome.

 

8) Martha Stewart’s Hors D’Oeuvres Handbook by Martha Stewart. It was written in 1999, and I STILL refer to it OFTEN. Great flavor combinations, clever serving ideas, and all the recipes are well-tested. She likes sticks and toothpicks and shot glasses a little more than I do (since I hate them), but you got to hand it to Martha. I dare you to flip through it and not find 20 things you want to eat RIGHT NOW (oh yeah, there is a picture of Every. Single. Recipe. How cool is that?)

 

9) The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. Are you a slave to recipes? Will you not make a dish if you don’t have the called-for cumin? The only way you will ever get better in the kitchen is if you aren’t afraid to improvise. And this is a fantastic way to kick you in the ass. The Flavor Bible isn’t a cookbook per se, it’s a collection of ingredients that (according to hundreds of chefs across the country) go well together. Look up “crab” for instance. It says you should either bake, boil, broil or steam it. It says that there are 97 ingredients that go well with crab… and a few of them, like avocados, lemon, parsley, chives and mayo are “marriages made in heaven”. Now, that’s not a recipe, but just imagine a crab salad with all those ingredients. Pretty effing delish, huh? A great way to start with this book is take a recipe you know really well and swapping out some ingredients in the recipe, for those on the list. You will be utterly amazed at how after just changing one or two ingredients, your old boring chicken dish becomes fresh and exciting again!

 

10) The Gourmet Cookbook edited by Ruth Reichl. Was anyone else devastated when Gourmet Magazine went under? Wasn’t that the best food magazine? And I know you can just go to Epicurious.com and find every single recipe in this collection, but there’s something about knowing Ruth and her team picked these out as The Best of over 50,000 recipes… so whenever I want to make something: chocolate pudding or eggplant parm, cornbread or chicken pot pie—I always start here. No pictures, which is kind of a bummer, but do you really need a picture of lasagne? 

 

I'm interested...What's in your cookbook canon?

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