The Cheap-Ass Gourmet Cookbook Shelf

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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21 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:

    Ruhlman’s Ratios and Ruhlman’s Twenty are new must-haves. Less “cuisine cookbooks” and more training manuals that will open up a world of possibilities.Report

  2. BlaiseP says:

    I suffered under the abominable Betty Crocker cookbook for years. It was an interesting cookbook, illustrated by Andy Warhol and I followed it to the letter.

    Then came Joy of Cooking. As you point out, what a beginning cook wants more that anything else is a block of instruction on how to think about a family of ingredients. The beginning of each section of JoC was an enlightenment.Report

  3. DRS says:

    Reader’s Digest How-To Book of Healthy Cooking. Accept no substitutes.

    Also, for reading and getting inspired ideas, nothing beats the Silver Palate cookbooks 1 and 2 from many many years ago. The lists of ingredients are huge but it’s great at giving you confidence and tells you interesting stuff about the food.Report

    • DRS in reply to DRS says:

      Oh, Tod, I see you mention the SP cookbook. Good on you. And Cooking Light books are great, although the magazines are a waste of money I think.Report

  4. I believe you’ve mentioned that you don’t bake much, but we find “The Practical Encyclopedia of Baking” by Martha Day is a good starting point. I tend to use it as a way of nailing down the ingredient ratios, then I play willy-nilly with the spices and flavorings.

    I’m so lazy when it comes to recipes. I wing cooking a lot. Often I’ll come up with some flavor combo, then I’ll Google the idea to see if some critical mass of decent-looking recipes use the same or similar ingredients (the “is this cracked-out?” screening step) and go from there. (The lamb roasting in the oven right now was seasoned thusly.) My cookbooks are criminally under-utilized.Report

    • zic in reply to Russell Saunders says:

      Doc, I think this is common of many cooks.

      I have shelves full of cookbooks; boxes more in storage in the barn. I’ve given away boxes more to a friend who owns a used book store.

      I read cookbooks constantly. Today, sitting by the wood stove as the snow falls outside (we’ve over a foot of fresh powder!), I’ve read pawed through at least four. But I almost never make a recipe from a book. Rather, I read as many variations on a recipe as I can find in my library or on-line. Then, after all that reading, I decide how I want to make the dish. And I know many other folk who do the same thing.

      The true halmark of a great cook is taking a few ingredients, understanding their flavor potential, and knowing the techniques that will bring that potential to life at table. Just following a recipe? That’s okay, good to do sometimes, particularly if you’re learning a new skill. But the heart of cooking rests in here’s-what-I-have, what-can-I-make improvisation.Report

  5. Aaron W says:

    The cookbook “Cooking Know-How” is my most-used cookbook. It contains a bunch of “base” recipes for common dishes in cuisine from around the world, but suggests tons of different variations you can try on a single technique. It’s not exactly for true beginners, but it’s a good “intermediate” cookbook. I like it because I can use it to take whatever is sitting around the kitchen and make it into delicious food if I don’t feel particularly inspired on my own that night.Report

  6. Mike Dwyer says:

    For the true beginner I would give “How to Boil Water” which was produced by the Food Network. This is how-to-make-a-grilled-cheese-sandwich basic.

    For the solid cook that wants to take their game to the next level, I love Ruhlman’s The Elements of Cooking.

    I think Ruhlman is becoming a theme in these comments for good reason. He has done a lot to elevate cooking. His charcuterie book has a special place on my shelf.Report

  7. zic says:

    Cookbooks. Love. I read them the way my grandmother used to read romance novels.

    For beginning cooks just getting their sea legs under them in a galley kitchen, I’d recommend Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food. I particularly love this cookbook. Waters broke it in to two parts; the first goes through basic cooking techniques, everything from making a salad dressing to braising, and explains the techniques clearly and simply; the fussiness of most books is left out, and she never assumes the cook has knowledge he or she might not have. The second half is filled with beautiful, simple recipes, all with a focus on bringing out flavor. The introductory chapters also have great guides on stocking a pantry and the tools a cook might need. Waters has a long, delicious career in food, and this book is definitely her crowning achievement.

    I love Bittman, also. For cheap-ass cooks who also want to eat nutritiously, there’s “The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living.” Faced with the health-crisis his own cooking and eating habits had caused; Bittman revamped, and gives his results here. I love his approach to beans. Learning the habits he presents here as a basis for diet.

    I’m married to an Italian. And we love Italian food. Any book by Marcella Hazen is worth a place in your cooking library, but I especially love The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. This book has some seriously good eating between it’s covers.

    French food, too, get’s over-wrought, often focusing on heavy sauces instead of intensifying flavors. Which is so sad, because la petite femme I grew up with worked so hard to find flavor in humble ingredients. Richard Olney’s slim volume, Simple French Food is a wonder, not only to cook from, but to read. I stumbled on this book only a few years ago, and jaded a cook as I am, read it cover to cover three times, amazed and in awe of Olney’s awareness of the taste and qualities of taste that bring pleasure to the table. I also adore his book, Lulu’s Provencial Table, but I would consider it a bonus book, not an essential.

    Now many people love The Joy of Cooking. I’m not one of those people. And I’ve read it, cover to cover, cooked from it many, many times. It just doesn’t get the joy part happening for me. I’d recommend The Fannie Farmer Cookbook instead. She doesn’t keep you crazy flipping from page to page, the writing seems a bit clearer, techniques seem explained a bit better. I fully expect many to disagree with me, too.

    Every home should have a good vegetarian cookbook. Meat, wonderful as it is, seems like it should be more a grace note to our tables, not the center of our meals. And if you’re cooking cheap-ass, this is even more essential. There are hundreds of good vegetarian cookbooks. But my favorite is Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Every few weeks, I find myself just reading this book, usually recipes involving an ingredient I’m planning to cook, as spring board for inspiration. Thankfully, the price has come down on this; my first hardcover was $50, and you can get it on Amazon in paperback for under $20 now.

    (That said, I’m a believer in investing in hardcover cookbooks if I like the book and know I’ll use it for many years. If I’m not certain I want to make the investment, I’ll borrow the book from the library first.)

    I like to understand what’s going on when I cook; the science of it. So one book I consider absolutely essential, though there’s nary a recipe in it, is Harold McGee’s “On Fook and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Younger son and I are both experimental cook, always looking to refine, to change, the challenge. We’re not afraid to fail spectacularly in the kitchen. Thanks to this book, failures are less likely.

    For wealth of recipe spanning time, it’s hard to beat The New York Times Cookbook, edited by Amanda Hesser. I’ve previously owned news paper cookbooks – the NYT, Boston Globe, etc. They’ve never lasted the shelf purges. Not good enough to keep as reference, not used enough to justify the space they take. This fat volume is a gem, and I recommend it. Hesser’s a gifted food writer/cook, and I also love her book, The Cook and the Gardener, though I wouldn’t consider it an essential (unless you grow a vegetable garden, then I definitely would).

    I have a lot of bread-baking books. It’s rather amazing; flour, water, salt, and yeast. And the possibilities are seemingly endless. I’ve another coming in the mail this week, one that I ordered because of a review complaining that it’s shy on recipes. Yeah, all technique, all talk. That’s the book for me. If I like it, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, my #1 favorite is Local Breads by Daniel Leader. Great techniques well explained for making European artisan breads at home. These recipes/methods produce incredible results. Note: some specialized equipment — a pizza stone and peel, a heavy cast-iron pan that you don’t mind rusting a bit, are required. These recipes are all for sourdough breads; and if you’re not sure you want to keep a culture alive, I can understand. It’s like have another kid in the house. The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart is a great alternative. You’ll still need the pizza stone, but there’s plenty of yeasted recipes, and terrific instruction.

    Some others that I love:

    Spice by Ana Sortun
    The Foods of Spain and Arabesque by Claudia Roden.
    A Mediterranean Feast by Clifford A. Wright (as much history as cookbook).
    Anything by MFF Fischer, not cookbooks so much as food writing.

    Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray. Read this book if you can find a copy. Gray ran away with a sculptor, followed him all around the Mediterranean basin, wherever the marble was. Food was often scarce, often foraged. The first chapter is on the source of flame. One talks of the day a still blew up. It will change your view of cooking forever; a modern (well, 1960’s) look at the days of yore; here’s what folk think they miss.Report

    • zic in reply to zic says:

      And one more: Really, really cheap-ass cooks forage. I’m not a cheap ass cook, I believe in spending money on food (rather then clothing or dozens of other things most people buy); the notion that cheaper food is better bothers me a lot.

      But I forage. A lot. And that old foraging classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons, if you can find a copy, for it’s out of print, is worth some room on you shelf.Report

    • Russell Saunders in reply to zic says:

      Hey, zic. As I was mashing herbs together last night for my made-up lamb marinade (which turned out quite well, if I do say so myself), I found myself thinking “I wish zic were here to ask if these will work well together and, and to tell me if I should be doing something differently.”Report

      • zic in reply to Russell Saunders says:

        I’m really glad it came out well. Please tell, what was in it?

        When in doubt, I use my nose. Thankfully, genetics gifted me with an abundant one. I start with my base herb, mash it a bit, and then smell; while doing so, I’ll pinch the next on next to my nose the the already mashed. Does it smell good? OK. Go ahead. Not so good? Hold back.

        Trust the nose.Report

        • Russell Saunders in reply to zic says:

          Garlic, rosemary, juniper berries and oregano. (I wasn’t entirely sure if the oregano and rosemary would work together for lamb, so I did my usual “Google it to see if there are recipes out there that use the combo” for reassurance. There were.) For some reason, I am determined to find a good use for the juniper berries that I bought on a whim a little while ago, but have often been disappointed. However, last night seemed to work well. I think the key to getting the flavor out was to let everything sit in the olive oil for a good long while before applying to the meat.Report

    • Kim in reply to zic says:

      My pizza dough tends to sour in the fridge. If you are looking for a Frenchy style light sourdough, and not a San Francisco beerbelly style sourdough (seriously, they carried their bread on their bellies), it seems to suit.Report

      • zic in reply to Kim says:

        Funny thing about sourdough cultures; you may start with a specific culture, San Francisco for instance, but over time, they always revert to the active yeasts native to your home. They develop the flavor of where you live.

        Typically, the difference between a French-style lighter culture and San Francisco beer-belly culture is actually the amount of time the dough’s allowed to ferment. The French tend to use cultures when they’re just active, and still sweet tasting. The heavier cultures are allowed to fully ripen, a cycle where the yeast produce alcohol for one layer of flavor, and then the bacteria that eat the alcohol and turn it into vinegar (hence the ‘sour’ flavor) are allowed to go through a full fermentation cycle. A briefer ferment will always produce a sweeter bread, a longer, a more sour. With your pizza dough, the sweeter taste is likely due to a mono culture of yeast, without the acetic bacilli present that digest the alcohol.Report

      • zic in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Thank you, I loved that.

        And Paul Bertolli (who made the sausage); I forgot Paul. His book Cooking by Hand. Perfect in every way; from the chapter on making pasta to tomatoes to what to do with a whole pig. When his son was born, he had wooden barrels made to age balsamico; when the child reaches 25, he’ll have his own, hand-crafted by his father for a quarter century. This book is a serious, beautiful look at how someone who spends his life thinking about food thinks about food; it should be considered one of the classics.Report

  8. Patrick Cahalan says:

    As an addendum to this post, I would recommend that if you’re finding yourself really getting into the swing of things after cooking your first three dishes and you want to step back for one second from batting practice and go sit in a dugout with a ten thousand year old baseball scout who has a face like a foot and still chainsmokes… buy these:

    Any one of ’em.

    The America’s Test Kitchen folk take to cooking like Thomas Edison took to making lightbulbs. Come up with 1000 ideas that sound like they might work, and then try them all. And then tell you which ones worked, and which ones didn’t.

    But most importantly, they tell you why they think the ones that didn’t work didn’t work. So you can say to yourself, “Gee, I’ve always thought that everybody made chili without enough zing to it, and they say that this one failed recipe traded too much flavor for heat. Heck with that, I want the heat!”

    It’s like having someone who reads a bunch of cookbooks walk through how they tackled the problem you’re having.Report