Thursday, December 02, 2010

My fave general purpose cookbooks

The past year and a half saw good updates to a couple of old standby cookbooks. These aren't necessarily the sort of cookbooks you buy to read all the way through or to ogle the food porn photography--indeed there aren't many photos in any of the books listed. Nor are they designed to dive deep on a particular cuisine or food style. Rather, they're big tomes intended to give a taste (so to speak) from a wide swatch through relatively traditional American cooking. Here are four cookbooks I put in this category. Two are the aforementioned newcomers.

The publication of Ruth Reichl's new Gourmet cookbook in September of 2009 turned out to be something of a bittersweet event given that it preceded the cancellation of Gourmet magazine by just a couple of weeks. I have quite a few cookbooks from Gourmet in my collection but the two volume 1960s-vintage reference on my shelf stays there mostly for nostalgia reasons; it's not particularly relevant to me in the types of recipes and ingredients on which it focuses. And that's a general problem with older cookbooks. As Reichl puts it:
Back then things were so different that my editor insisted that I call for ground beef instead of lamb in a classic Greek moussaka; she said not many grocers actually sold lamb. She also worried about the recipe for handmade pasta (too esoteric) and a simple Chinese stir-fry of chicken (what on earth was a wok). She worried when I called for freshly grated Parmesan cheese (most people still used the stuff that came in the green can), fresh garlic (frowned upon in many places) and chiles (too hot, too hot, too hot).
I think it's also the case that the recipes in this book tend toward the simpler and the quicker. They're not dumbed down exactly but they do mostly avoid highly complex foods that require all-day preparation. And that aligns with modern lifestyles as well.

Most of the recipes in this book can be found on the Epicurious website, which is also a good place to see how readers may have modified the original recipes. Even though you can look up the recipes for free though, I find it worthwhile to have a curated and packaged version that I can keep in the kitchen (where, to be sure, the Epicurious application also resides on my iPad).


My existing New York Times cookbook wasn't quite so vintage, with a 1990 copyright date. However, this edition--edited by longtime Times food editor Craig Claiborne--seemed to be a largely incremental update of earlier versions. It was one of my more useful references nonetheless but it still dated back to what was in important ways an earlier era of cooking.

Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook, like Gourmet Today, is explicitly about updating recipes for modern tastes and ingredients (albeit the modern tastes and ingredients associated with locales like Manhattan). However, the book places those updated recipes within the context of the New York Times' recipe files going back to the beginning.

 Thus, while this cookbook certainly contains plenty of "modern" recipes, it also makes a point of reintroducing foods and drinks of the past that may be worth re-examining. And for fans of Craig Claiborne, many of his favorites are still well-represented. (In keeping with the season, his 1958 eggnog concoction is more of a meal than a drink.) This is both a good cookbook and a fun read.


The Cook's Illustrated crew, headed by Chris Kimball, is something of a mini-industry. They have shows on public TV, magazines, a Website that they actually succeed in getting folks like myself to subscribe to (something the New York Times would sincerely love), and a passel of cookbooks that profitably rework and repurpose large swaths of content.

The central conceit of Cook's Illustrated is that everything from recipes to techniques is tested, tested, tested. They're also probably the best-known example of the modern "cooking geek" approach in that they investigate and explain why particular techniques work or don't work. (Alton Brown is another author who focuses on the science of cooking but without the obsessiveness of Cook's Illustrated.)

The Best Recipes is an encyclopedic work and it does a great job of breaking down and illustrating how to do things in the kitchen with something over 1,000 recipes in all. Because it does so much more than just present a bunch of recipes, this has become my go to reference for how to do things in the kitchen and a starting point for how to handle a cut of meat or other ingredient.
If there's a knock on on Cook's Illustrated it's that the whole "we tried 50 different ways of boiling an egg" shtick can get a bit old after a while. More to the point, I find it can result in recipes that are a bit fussy with three types of cheeses grated three different ways and the like. Also be forewarned that large quantities of cream, butter, and the like often seem to play heavily into getting the best tasting result. Still, overall, a great reference and a good bargain given its size.


A lot of people learned cooking from The Joy of Cooking and it's still the standard kitchen reference for many. For my part, I tended to favor modern versions of The Fanny Farmer Cookbook--which traces its origins to the 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook.

Now, to tell the truth, I don't use this as much as I used to. If I want to figure out what to do with some leftovers or make some traditional comfort food, the Internet often has a more complete, albeit less vetted answer. And, as I noted above, Cook's Illustrated is a substantial reference work and generally does a more complete job of explaining both whys and hows. So, in short, this is a less essential reference for me than it once was. However, that said, I still use it and it continues to earn its spot on my close-to-hand bookshelf in the kitchen.
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