Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cook Book Drama

I only have 48 cookbooks. I feel kind of bad admitting that, and I'm not sure how to overcome this problem in a quick way. I use the internet a lot and look up recipes there, but the thing I find bothersome about cookbooks is that they only have the recipes they came with in them. While that can be nice, I crave constant reading material, and of the cookery kind.

A few years ago my husband bought me my first copy of the Joy of Cooking, and I have read it. I'm not saying that I have skimmed it and looked at the recipes, no, I have read it, cover to cover. The bonus of this kind of nerdom is that I know more about cooking than the average bear. Though you have to admit that not many bears cook...

As I was going through my cookbooks I realized that I am missing two. One is on loan to a friend, and I will be asking for it back. That is the gourmet slow cooker book. Full of good ideas and terrific technique. The other one I can't find is called Urban Italian, and it's OK. My husband brought it to me from his work. It's not the best cookbook and is full of snobbery and high ideas about humble food. Though many of the recipes are quite good, the rest of the book isn't worth reading.

There are three things that make a cookbook worth having: 1. Good recipes, 2. Good technique, 3. Interesting side reading or information about cooking/food. I like lots of pictures in my cookbooks. My mother prefers her to have lots of words, but I am a very visual person, and I find pictures and diagrams to be very helpful when explaining a tricky technique. This comes to mind from recent cooking adventures.

I know I haven't been blogging very much, but I have been mostly making cookies and then learning the wonders of Asian Dumplings. I don't need to recopy recipes for things you can find all over the place (cookies) and once I master dumplings I'll blog about those. The reason I bring this up is because folding dumplings can be tricky and the technique needs to be very carefully explained and diagrammed. The book that my husband bought me for Christmas is called Asian Dumplings by Nguyen. For the last three days dinner has been dumplings, fried dumplings, pan fried dumplings, steamed dumplings, baked dumplings, hand rolled dough, store bought dough, cooked fillings, raw fillings, meat fillings, vegetarian fillings, vegan dumplings, carnivorous dumplings, well you get the idea.

The point being, this book made it into the 'Good Cook Book Stack' TM, patent pending and I have only had this cookbook for a week.

It has everything on the list: 1, 2, 3. And the pictures and diagrams are good.

Now I also have cookbooks that I don't like. I won't get rid of them, mostly because I haven't thought about it. When I go through the list I see four of the five books were given to me, and that makes it less easy to get rid of them. The reason these books are bad are for a couple of reasons: 1. They don't have good pictures. 2. The recipes are lacking in depth and character. 3. The general information given isn't very interesting. 4. These books are lacking in good technique.

Not to say that the unmentioned canning book (from my husband's work, I actually feel sorry for the author, I don't think it will go very far) has basic canning instructions that are avaliable on the internet and the back of the jars you buy in the store. Another one is from a large Swedish furniture company, it has good pictures but the recipes are so boring. They lack imagination and technique. And flavor.

On another note, I do have cookbooks I have never used that are quite good. The Nero Wolf Cookbook by Rex Stout, it is full of goodness, but it's not a light way to cook and many of the ingredients are hard to find. It's also involved, and full of cream and butter and goodness. It has excellent ideas and technique, and the anecdotes are from some of my favorite books. All in all a good read, I've also read that one too.

What I will give you here is a short list of cookbooks that I have and have deemed really good. It is not complete. Mostly I was thinking you would like a smattering of what I regularly work with. I will also give you directions on how to pick out a cookbook in the store. Unfortunately many of them are probably out of print.

The Joy of Cooking
The Best Ever Curry Cookbook by Bahjekar
Korean Table by Chung and Samuels
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
Complete Comfort Foods by Atkinson
I Love Crab Cakes by Tom Douglas
Concina Mexicana by Cadena
an uncovered old book published by Ball, a home guide to canning

How to pick out a good cook book, in a short amount of time.

Open the book and look through the pictures, there should be pictures of the ingredients, steps and techniques as well
as many of the finished products. The pictures should look authentic to the recipes.

Look at the recipes, are they really different, or are they variations of the same thing? Is there a good prevailing theme to the book or is it too broad to really be helpful? A basic cook book should have a few basic recipes in it, with lots of technique. An ethnic cookbook should give examples of the different dishes, with good clear technique without trying to give too many recipes at one time. It should also have enough recipes to help you make several meals without repetition. A very specific book, like one for cookies or dumplings should have several basic recipes a few variations and very good technique.

Look at the techniques, are they clear or do you see directions that say things like 'place the filling in the center, now fold over and into a triangle!' These directions appear in a book I own on how to fold samosas out of a giant rectangle. You should have a good idea of what to do by looking at the pictures and reading the directions.

Lastly you should use your common sense. I have never bought a cupcake book. I own the Joy of Cooking and the interwebs. You are wasting your money buying a hundred cake recipes, they are all basically the same, cake decorations tend to be very simple and can be found on Martha Stewart's website. You don't need a book to tell you how to make chocolate chip cookies, you need a book that tells you how to make things you don't know how to make. I guess if you are looking for a basic cookbook any major book would work. If you you're looking for something specific, make sure it is something that really merits a book on technique, the techniques are worth purchasing, and it's not information that is easily avaliable from free sources.

1 comment:

  1. I guess, really, the point I'm trying to make is how many times have you made chocolate chip cookies? I've been making them literally since I was five years old (with my mom at first), I don't need a recipe, I just know how to make them and my cookies always come out fantastic, so why would I buy a cook book for that? That would be a useless cookbook, for anyone. All chocolate chip cookie recipes are the same. If they contain 'other things' it's not chocolate chip cookies.