It’s no secret that I love food and that I love to cook. As far as source material goes, though, I’m about two-thirds winging it and a third recipe-based at this point. But I think it’s only fair to give a nod to the cookbooks that taught me to wing it in the first place.
While I have to acknowledge the influence of Martha Stewart’s TV shows, classics that have trickled down so far in our family that I hardly know who to cite for which recipe or technique (like James Beard and Ina Garten and Julia Child), and a number of foodie blogs that have expanded my palette and my know-how as an adult (Smitten Kitchen, anyone?), the truth is that the cooking of my childhood and young adulthood have mostly been informed by cookbooks, proper.
While there is a laminated notebook of family recipes from sources so divergent and obscure it’s impossible to track their origins, many of my favorite recipes and much of my cooking technique has been gleaned from the following sources.
Veganomicon, The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook, which I just got a new copy of on massive sale at our local closing Borders, is one of the best vegan cookbooks around. Authors Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero were clearly on a mission to help vegans cook without the pre-packaged assistance of soy cheese and Gardenburgers, but the added bonus is that the rest of us non-vegans can also pick up a helpful hint or two about how to cook veggies in a way that is mouthwatering and filling – and find some awesome plant-based protein sources while we’re at it. Say it with me now: no more soggy failed home tofu experiments. Pick up the Veganomicon and you will be vegging it up in high style.
Along the same veg lines, I’m a little disappointed that Williams-Sonoma has stopped selling their line of food-group-based cookbooks, because their Vegetable cookbook by Marlena Spieler has given me some of my favorite vegetable recipes. Also, it taught me how to clean and prepare leeks, which I now cook into everything from quiche to stir fry (as they are currently in season and delicious), so that’s an added bonus. Lucky for you all, the W-S brand cookbooks are still available at Amazon for a while.
Another one I love, which stretches across the veg-omnivore divide with options for all, is The Soup Bible by Debra Mayhew. This thing is gargantuan. It will make you frustrated if you don’t own a food processor (I currently do not, so it’s gathering dust, but I have in the past, and this book put it through its paces). I don’t know if soup is such a big deal to you all, but I went to college in Seattle and just relocated to the foggiest place in California, and there is no lunch I love better than soup and some fresh bread. This has always been the case for me, so The Soup Bible rescued me from a lot of drearily repeated tomato soups and got me understanding this entire corner of culinary arts.
A brand new addition to my cookbook collection is the similarly-titled The Spice Bible by Jane Lawson, which I just received for my birthday this week. What I am already enjoying about this cookbook is that it teaches you the fundamentals of possible uses for these different spices, how to blend flavors, and how to enhance healthy but possibly bland or not-exciting foods with the addition of some well-placed spice. Again, as a vegetarian, I rely a lot on spices and herbs for the flavor that I don’t get from animal fats or animal stock, but I happen to know that even those dishes are improved by some extraordinary application of additional flavor. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
And finally, I couldn’t have been happier when my favorite cookbook growing up, Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, got reprinted a few years ago in its classic form with the original vintage illustrations and photographs. Many of my family’s favorite holiday cooky recipes came from this book, and this is also the book that taught me translatable skills like zesting citrus fruits and adjusting bake times depending on your ingredients and quantities. Plus, it’s such an arcane piece of Americana, I think the book is worth owning for its quirk value alone.
So, sure, my mother’s Christmas Coffee Cake recipe isn’t in any of these books, but I probably wouldn’t understand how to make it if I hadn’t taken a page or two out of some of these other books. Long live the cookbook.