Hey – yo’ mama was wrong – do play with your food; enjoy making it and eating it.
Cooking is not about recipes; it is about technique and imagination. I am not a top chef and could not be one even if I were nuts enough to want that. I can and do have a ton of fun in the kitchen and (usually) get to eat pretty well. My mother taught me a lot. I was more interested in cooking than my sibs. Mama was an excellent plain cook. Herself was/is also one of the best day-to-day cooks going (even if she is messy), but with the arthritis advancing the cooking falls to me. Just as well I enjoy it.
Cookbooks are just a starting point, but here are a few that I can recommend for the adventurous cook. Most people just dive in and try to follow the recipe. Don’t. Do read what the authors have to say about technique; it will carry over to all your cooking. Use your own imagination and be prepared to fail. Don’t try something elaborate and unfamiliar and/or experimental on a can’t fail occasion.
The Foundation, you gotta’ have these:
1. Rombauer: The Joy of Cooking. Yeah, everyone should have this one. The foundation of day-to-day meals. A bit of everything in there. You can get it all over the place.
2. The Hong Kong & China Gas Co., LTD.: Gas Cookery Book. Mine is the 1964 edition. A real jewel. Half in Chinese, half in English. Designed to teach Chinese cooks about Western food and English cooks about Oriental food. Covers a ton of bases. You can learn Austrian dishes and Korean dishes. I saw several used on Amazon. Worth the effort to get one.
3. Julia Child, Simone Beck: Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Be sure to get both Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume One (1) (Vol 1)
and Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 2. Do I need to say anything? The most necessary book(s) you can have. Just about anything else by Julia is also good.
1. George L. Herter: Bull Cook. Totally full of bull and even more opinionated than I am. Some decent recipes – mostly just fun.
2. Alton Brown: Just about any of Alton’s books are fun. He has all kinds of why and wherefore stuff. I don’t always get his further out techniques to work, but he will inform you and make you think. And some of his wacky ideas are brilliant and new thinking that do work. You just have to try for yourself. Alton Brown: I’m Just Here for the Food and Alton Brown: I’m Just Here for More Food
1. You can get the basics of good bread from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
2. Jeffrey Hamelman: Bread, A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes. If you are serious about your bread, this is the book for you. Don’t be put off by the fact that this is a book by a professional baker – indeed, one of the foremost in the world – or that it is for professional bakers. He also addresses the needs of the home baker. Also don’t fret all the technical stuff at the front of the book, just slog though it and all becomes clear. Actually, even the techno stuff is written clearly and understandably, even if I do sometimes have to read a paragraph twice.
References for the Seriously Addicted:
1. Larousse Gastronomique. – you really gotta’ be a serious food nut. The encyclopedia of food. But you got to be really serious. (Herself Sez: Yeah, we have it – the 1961 version – better than the new one.)
2. Escoffier: The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery. Another one that you only need if you are really serious.
3. Raymond Calvel: Le Gout du Pain (The Taste of Bread). This is the greatest bread authority and baker in the world with his capstone work. Only if you are totally nutso about all the scientific and technical details that the master achieved over the course of a lifetime. Professor Calvel can be seen in action in the DVD edition of The French Chef 2, Disk 3, Episode 5, French Bread. Wow, the man moves with poetry in his hands. Worth getting the set just to see the master make it look beautifully effortless. (You can get it from Netflix or Blockbuster.)
I should mention that I do not take my cookbooks into the kitchen at all. Too easy to get them messed up. I used to photocopy the pages and then just toss the copies when I got them all messed up. Nowadays I use a program called Living Cookbook, from Radium Technologies. This is shareware, not freeware, and you know a program has got to be quite good for me to shuck out the 30 bucks. Anyway, you can type stuff in or just capture it off the Internet, sort, classify, whatever. I just print out whatever I’m interested in. A piece of paper is a whole lot easier to schlep around the kitchen than a book or a computer. Also handy to drag the page(s) to the store to make sure you got all the necessary goodies. You can also do meal planning and grocery lists – if you are that organized – I’m not. Best food program I’ve seen. (They should pay me for all that endorsement!)
Did I leave out your favorite cookbook? Probably. There are 10 tons of cookbooks out there, many of them quite good. These are only a tiny fraction of the books that we have. Herself is a cookbook junkie. I approach things somewhat differently, but we are both bookworms. Don’t get a cookbook just for recipes; the best resource for recipes is the Internet – that’s how you found this! Good cookbooks should illuminate the art and science of food. Most cookbook purchases are impulse buys based on liking the looks of one or two recipes, or the latest by some celebrity chef. Be more rational in your book selection unless you’ve got bucks (and shelf space) to burn.
Does this list lean a little toward French cooking? Yes. I may despise French politics, but let’s be rational, these people made the first true study of cooking going. Their observations are the basis for all the modern food sciences. What they have had to say carries over for all cooking endeavors whether British, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, or what have you. And note – not all French cooking is Haute Cuisine, the Mediterranean French is just as hearty as any Italian, and frequently quite similar in spicing and technique.