The Cheap-Ass Gourmet Cookbook Shelf
As most of you know by now, one of my on-going projects here is the Cheap-Ass Gourmet series. The purpose of the Cheap-Ass posts is to provide a starting point for readers who are on a tight budget, want to eat healthy, and are a little intimidated about stepping foot into their own kitchen. I try to include recipes for an entire healthy meal, the approximate cost per dinner, how much time you should budget to make it, and instructions on how to use every last bit of whatever you bought to stretch your food dollar as far as it can go. In the comments section of the post on building a Cheap-Ass Pantry, Zic suggested doing a post on cookbooks as a Cheap-Ass companion piece. Like most of Zic’s suggestions, I found this to be a most excellent idea.
I have a lot of cookbooks. When building our house one of the minor additions we asked for was built-in bookshelves for the kitchen. We gave away half of our supply before we moved, and even then we still didn’t have enough room for all of the damn things. I have so many, in fact, that friends and family assume (correctly) that they can’t go wrong giving a cookbook as a birthday or Christmas gift. If they give me one I already own, I give myself permission to exchange it at Powell’s Books for Cooks and invariably walk away with two or three new purchases. Ironically, in the poor, lean days of my early twenties I would sometimes buy a cookbook with money that should have gone to purchase food for the week. So believe me when I say that picking out just a few to recommend to budding chefs is a task most vexing.
Before I begin, however, a quick word on how to use cookbooks on a budget.
Cookbooks are generally on the more expensive side of the book-price spectrum; paying $25 or $35 for one is pretty common. Because of this, I’m a big believer in making use of your public library. It’s free, and you can get a good sense of any cookbook as a whole by trying a few of the recipes. (I still use this method; if I find myself going back and checking out the same book twice I make a note to look for it the next time I’m at a bookstore.) If you have a notebook, you can jot down the recipes you really liked and create your own personalized Cheap-Ass Cookbook for future reference. If you have to buy, buy used – and don’t worry how “nice” it looks. A look through any of my cookbooks will reveal the discoloration of spills and splatters, as well as weak bindings in the areas I reference most. Cookbooks start out as things of pristine beauty, but your favorites will always look shabby eventually.
Also, if you’re new to cooking I really do suggest using cookbooks over Googling recipes online. Anyone can upload a recipe for, say, kung pao chicken, and because of this a great many of them are terrible. As you begin to become familiar with ingredients and processes it will get easier to quickly sift through them to find that potential diamond-in-the-rough. (Also, most cookbooks have introductions, essays, notes or sidebars that are pretty invaluable ways to learn how to perfect your craft.)
The choices below reflect my own personal tastes, of course, but they also reflect the types of cuisines that are relatively simple to prepare and can be made on a budget. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section; finding out about a great book I wasn’t aware of will be quite the reward for having posted this.
I tend to avoid the General Cooking section when I go cookbook browsing; the whole idea of “general cooking” bores me. But that’s to my own detriment – whenever I open one of these books, I always find myself wondering why I don’t open them more often. Just now I opened Cook’s Illustrated New Best Recipe randomly and came across a recipe for Oatmeal with Honeyed Fig Topping, Vanilla and Cinnamon; seriously, how awesome does that sound?
A good general cookbook is usually larger and more expensive than a regional or specialty ingredient type of cookbook. Still, if you’re just starting out they’re pretty invaluable. When I moved into my first apartment out of college my parents (who really didn’t cook, or at least didn’t cook very well) gave me an extra copy of The Silver Palate Cookbook. A lot of its contents were a tad precious for a young single lad, but there was enough basic How-To to make it invaluable. (They also gave me The Joy of Cooking, but I found then – and now – that the recipe selections were too blandly suited for the 1960s for my tastes.) Still, my recommendations for budding chefs today are far more recent works:
- The Beginner Book: How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman ($15.45 at Barnes & Noble) – I’ve owned a copy of this since it was first released back in 1998, and I’m still amazed at the vast scope of Bittman’s undertaking. You could keep yourself busy with this single book for years.
- The Next Step: The New Best Recipe, by The Editors of Cook’s Illustrated ($23.10 at Amazon) – This book is a good reminder that learning to cook is a process. The writers take any given recipe – say, roasting a turkey with stuffing – and try making it in a variety of different ways before settling on a recommendation and recipe. All chefs do this, of course, but there’s something satisfying about reading descriptions of all the failures that led up to the perfect method; it makes everything you’ve ever done wrong in your kitchen feel better.
- Advanced Tastes: Cookwise, by Shirley O. Corriher ($15.27 at Walmart) – The perfect book for the cook who’s also a science geek. Corriher not only teaches you how to cook correctly, she goes into great detail about the science and chemistry that dictate why some pie crusts are flakier than others and the cellular breakdowns that occur with various kinds of meat preparation.
Asian Cuisine Cookbooks
If you’ve never cooked Chinese or Thai, there will be some number of spices, condiments, and other ingredients you’ll need to get started. After that, though, they can be the cheapest and healthiest meals you’ll ever prepare.
- The Beginner Book: Simply Ming One Pot Meals, by Ming Tsai ($20.36 at Barnes & Noble) – Ming’s recipes here are healthy and affordable, and they’re great for weeknight cooking – each dish is an entire meal. He also takes care to write for people who like eating Asian food but are entirely unaware of how to cook it. He has a deft touch at holding your hand throughout the process without coming off as being condescending.
- The Next Step: True Thai, by Victor Sodsook ($19.95 at Amazon) – True story: My wife and I once thought we’d like to learn how to cook authentic Thai food, and so we auctioned off an eight-course Thai dinner at a church fundraiser. It was sold at a ridiculously high price, which made us decide we’d better learn fast. I bought this book on a recommendation from a friend, and have used it ever since. I’m holding my copy right now, and the damn thing smells slightly of coconut milk and lemongrass from having spent so much time next to those to items simmering together on my stove.
- Advanced Tastes: Hot Sour Salty Sweet, by Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid ($29.70 at Amazon) – Along with Oaxaca al Gusto (below), perhaps the most beautiful cookbook I have ever seen. In addition to the stunning photography, Alford and Duguid’s essays about their culinary travels alone are worth pulling this down from the shelves. Plus, it’s filled with authentic regional recipes of dishes I’ve never seen anywhere else before, such as Pork Stew with Bitter Greens (Laos), Duck in Green Curry Paste (Thailand), Khmer Fish Stew with Lemongrass (Cambodia), Dai Beef Tartar with Pepper-Salt (Yunnan) or Plain of Jars Vegetable Soup (Phonsavan).
Mexican Cuisine Cookbooks
Much of what we in the United States think of as being Mexican food really isn’t. In fact, if you live in an urban environment that has a large Latin-American population, my rule of thumb for finding good and authentic fare is as follows: Either go to the cheapest, shoddiest hole-in-the-wall restaurants/stands/carts, or go to the priciest, most high-end joints that label their dishes “Mexican Food.” Everything in-between is best avoided.
- The Beginner Book: Mexican Everyday, Rick Bayless ($18.46 at Walmart) – One of the inherent problems with authentic Mexican cooking is that it can take a long damn time to prepare. In this book, Bayless offers shortcuts that work really, really well – and you still find yourself getting the hang of cooking this type of food. A lot of great no-fuss dishes for your slow cooker, by the way.
- The Next Step: Authentic Mexican, by Rick Bayless ($14.99 at Amazon – ebook) – So, you’ve mastered the simplified versions of moles and masa, and want to learn the more authentic and (usually) slightly better ways to prepare them? This is the book I’d reach for.
- Advanced Tastes: Oaxaca al Gusto, by Diane Kennedy ($40.15 at Overstock.com) – More expensive than everything else I am recommending here, this book is simply amazing. The book is a tribute to the traditional cuisine of a single Mexican state, Oaxaca, and is ridiculously detailed and stunningly beautiful. It’s just astounding on every level.
Other Cookbook Staples at the Kelly House
- Spices of Life, by Nina Simonds ($9.98 at Amazon) – A variety of healthy dishes, mostly with an international flair. (Most worn page: Lemongrass Chicken w/ Green Beans)
- The New American Plate, by the American Institute for Cancer Research (29.95 at Barnes & Noble) – My favorite of that clichéd genre of cookbooks – taking common recipes and slightly tweaking them to make them healthy. (Most worn page: Broiled Asparagus w/ Sesame Sauce)
- Sundays at the Moosewood Restaurant, by the Moosewood Collective ($6.95 at eCrater) – Every Sunday, one of the cooks at the Moosewood collective makes an entire temporary vegetarian menu centered around a particular country or ethnic background; this book is a collection of some of their best offers. (Most worn page: West African Peanut Soup)
- The Farm to Table Cookbook, by Ivy Manning ($14.87 at Amazon) – This book is one of the best things to come out of the Eat Locally movement. (Most worn page: Dal w/ Winter Vegetables)
- The All New Complete Cooking Light Cookbook, by the Editors of Cooking Light ($22.00 from Walmart) – A collection of the best recipes from the ubiquitous magazine you see every time you wait in line at your grocery store. (Most worn page: Turkey Jambalaya)
- The Thrill of the Grill, by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby ($7.50 from Powell’s) – My favorite all-time grilling book, it relies heavily on Caribbean flavors; it also has, hands down, the best Drinks section of any food cookbook I’ve ever seen. (Most worn pages: Grilled Vegetable Gazpacho & Grilled Shrimp w/ Sopressata, Fresh Mozzarella and Basil)
- Smoke & Spice, by Cheryl and Bill Jamison ($12.50 at Powells) – My second all-time favorite barbecue book. (Most worn page: The Renowned Mr. Brown BBQ Pork Butt) (Side note: My favorite barbecue book, Serious Barbecue by Adam Perry Lang, is out of print but is so in demand these days that even used copies demand at least $150. I bought it several years ago on a whim, from a 70%-off table at Borders. Go figure.)
So, fellow members of the Hive Mind, what am I leaving off?