I have to admit to a not-so-secret fondness for “best of” lists. I know perfectly well as I am reading them that this is just one person’s (or group’s) opinion about the qualities of whatever is being judged. I know this, and yet time and again I find myself engaging in the entertaining (and really kind of silly) activity of “taking umbrage.” How could “Downton Abbey” make her list and NOT “Game of Thrones”? (Of course, I am a fan of both). No way is Dickens a better writer than Jane Bowles! (Although, actually, he probably is–just don’t get in a time machine and try telling that to my early-twenties self). What makes him think that the Doors were more influential than the Velvet Underground? Who told him he knew anything about music?!! Just WHO does he think he is???!!!
Thus, many delicious hours can be spent while less exciting activities like laundry and regular meals go by the wayside. These days, I try to resist the lure of the list–particularly around this time of year when they seem to pop up everywhere. Though I couldn’t help myself when I saw that Food & Wine magazine had posted a list of the “Best Cookbooks of All Time.” When I clicked on the link, I have to admit to feeling a touch of disappointment. Don’t get me wrong. The cookbooks praised here are no doubt worthy of somebody’s “best of” accolade–just not mine. As regular readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of cookbooks and I have some pretty particular ideas about what makes a good one. More to my taste (so to speak) is The Nine Best Cookbooks of All Time, a list compiled via poll of the editors and readers of the excellent community cooking blog Food 52. Each of these books are the type of essential kitchen reference that you want if you are faced, either due to necessity or sheer desire, with roasting a chicken or making spinach calzone. All but one of these titles is owned by DCPL which makes it possible to take any one of these excellent cookbooks home for a “test drive.” I suspect, though, that sooner or later you may want at least one of these (or more) in your permanent collection. I own several of these books, and have cooked from the ones that I don’t, so I think I can safely recommend this list wholeheartedly.
The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. I own one of the older editions of this book and I refer to it all the time for ideas and basic techniques. I even appreciate the “folksy” anecdotes. All in all, the recipes have stood the test of time and the conversational tone of Joy remains immensely pleasing.
Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison. Madison is a long time champion of elegant vegetarian cooking. In this beautiful volume she celebrates vegetables themselves in all their luscious glory. Vegetables are grouped by family, which helps with substitutions, and the gorgeous pictures are sure to inspire. You may well begin making vegetables the star of your dinner plate!
The Silver Palate Cookbook by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso. Beloved by caterers everywhere, this war horse still has relevance today almost 35 years after it was first published. True, dishes like Ratatouille and Chicken Marbella don’t seem as exotic to us now, but these recipes are no less delicious with the passing of time. The recipe for the Pate Maison alone is worth the cost of the book in my opinion. Alas, DCPL doesn’t own Silver Palate but gently used copies are readily available.
The Fanny Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham. This is an excellent basic American cookbook and one that I use often. There’s nothing fancy here–and that’s kind of the point.
The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century by Amanda Hesser. This book is enormous fun if you, like me, enjoy reading cookbooks. Hesser spent several years cooking her way through every recipe ever published in the New York Times food pages (since the 1850s!) and has compiled the best of them here. Each chapter lists the recipes chronologically. It’s fun to see the evolution of American taste. Hesser’s sharp and witty writing makes the book even more fun. I have made the Salad a la Romaine, the Stuck Pot Rice, and the Pickled Shrimp over and over again–and the sheer deliciousness of the South African casserole, Bobotie, is enough to inspire in me fits of culinary daydreaming. Highly recommended.
How to Cook Everything: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food by Mark Bittman. Truth in advertising! Unless you’re trying to track down a festival dish enjoyed by the residents of a remote village in Papua, New Guinea, or you want the definitive recipe for Crappit Heid (the oats-stuffed cod heads once consumed by Gaelic fishermen), then you’re bound to find what you need here. From arepas to zucchini pancakes (Asian style!), Bittman covers it all. The vegetarian volume is quite simply the most comprehensive vegetarian cookbook that I have ever seen and the recipes are great.
The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. Reading Alice Waters wax lyrical about the pure, angelic beauty of a green salad will provoke either nods of agreement or uncontrollable gnashing of teeth. Still, the deep commitment to the fundamentals of cooking and the freshest ingredients cannot be denied. The recipes are not “easy” per se, but they are all well balanced and capture the essence of Kitchen Pleasure. A modern classic.
The Way to Cook by Julia Child. It’s Julia Child and what else, really, do you need to know?
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman. Perelman has a very winning writing style which is part of what has made her Smitten Kitchen blog so wildly successful. She is also an extremely creative cook with an unerring palate. The big surprise here is that although this isn’t a vegetarian cookbook, the selection of vegetarian recipes is absolutely delicious looking and vegetable-centric with nary an over-cheesed casserole in sight. Reading this book sort of makes me feel like I’m talking to a really good friend.
What cookbooks would you consider the best? Do you have a collection? What do you think of “best of” lists?