Countertop Honors: My Essential Cookbooks

Several people have asked me where I get my recipes from or what cookbooks I recommend. So I decided to put together this post to show you the cookbooks that I use most frequently such that they have earned a spot on the “counter of honor” in my kitchen. While many of my dishes are adaptations or reworkings of published recipes, I refer to these books often for ideas, inspiration, and technique.

Here are the cookbooks in their place of honor with the ceramic “date fund” piggy bank standing guard:

Date Fund Piggy Bank guarding the Most Frequently Used Cookbooks

*Side note: This adorable ceramic piggy bank is where we drop off our spare change each day. When the piggy is full, we’ll use the funds for a special dinner out at a local restaurant.*

First, the basics:

These are the cookbooks that I turn to on a regular basis. On the left is Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. This book shows you how to make batches of bread dough in bulk (yes, that really does say 6 1/2 cups of flour) and store it in the fridge until you need it. And when you do need it, all you have to do is spend about 2 minutes cutting off a piece of dough and shaping it into the loaf you desire, then wait 20-40 minutes for the dough to rest and then bake. With the help of my baking stone, I am able to make all kinds of perfectly crusted breads at the drop of a hat. Company coming for dinner? No problem! Through together a simple boule and enjoy the crisp crust with dinner. No bread for your sandwiches today? Pitas take a mere 7-10 minutes to bake and can be stuffed with all kinds of goodies. This book virtually eliminates the need to buy bread from the store, like, ever, by making it really easy to make homemade bread. I’ve made baguettes, ciabatta, focaccia, sandwich loaves, oatmeal bread, brioche, naan, bagels, and of course, pizza dough. If you have any baking inclination whatsoever, I definitely recommend this book.

Simply in Season, a World Community Cookbook compiled by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-wert, is a must-have if you like to shop at local farmer’s markets. The book is organized by season so each set of sides, salads, entrees, and desserts features the fruit and vegetable bounty that is available during that season. There is also an “all year round” section at the back for things like breads and granolas. The recipes help you decide what to do when you come home with so much lovely produce from the market and worry you’ll never be able to eat it all, or your neighbor brings you a truckload of zucchini from her garden and you don’t know what to do with it (zucchini brownies, anyone?), or you belong to a CSA and get a weekly colorful box full of vegetables you’ve never seen before and are forced to eat seasonally. Though most of the recipes are vegetarian, there are plenty of ideas to help you make the most of your food.

Michael Ruhlman’s unique book, Ratio, was written based on an interview that Ruhlman did with a culinary school professor whose only materials for the class he taught was a 2-page list of ratios that he had his students memorize. The ratios, designed by ingredient weights, show how once you know the basic ratios (bread dough, for example, is five parts flour and three parts water, while biscuit dough is three parts flour, one part fat, and two parts liquid read: milk or buttermilk), you can mix and match types of ingredients and still yield the desired end product. The book takes you through various bread and pastry doughs, pasta, sausages, stocks and sauces, and even custards. And while I don’t use this book every day, it is a nice reference book to have with me in the kitchen.

Next, the superstar cookbooks:

If you didn’t know them already, Jamie Oliver, Giada De Laurentiis, and Joanne Harris are all rather famous and have all made a name for themselves in the culinary world. I call these my superstars because two of the chefs have had their own cooking shows on TV while the other has had two of her books made into movies. Once a week I instruct Alex to pick out a recipe for one of our dinners (this is a great tip, by the way, for those of you who have issued yourselves a moratorium on purchasing cookbooks, and helps to keep things interesting in the kitchen). These “superstars” are usually the books Alex turns to because they are filled with mouth-watering color photos and produce consistently good dishes.

I currently own two of Jamie Oliver’s books: Jamie’s Food Revolution and The Naked Chef Takes Off. Whenever I cook a recipe from either of these books, we like to call it the “Jessalyn and Jamie project” (after this wonderful movie). Jamie’s recipes are quite delicious and celebrate fabulous flavors without being pretentious. In fact, many of the dishes could be considered rustic or peasant foods–foods that have the family digging in together and loving every bite. The food revolution cookbook is the one from which Jamie’s social movement of the same name started, encouraging families to get back to cooking and away from highly processed foods, especially in school food. His work is brilliantly inspiring and I have enjoyed both books tremendously (and the irresistible British accent is a perk, too!)

Giada De Laurentiis’s Everyday Pasta was one of the first cookbooks that Alex bought for me. I love pasta, and I probably make some pasta dish at least once a week. But for those of you who have carbo-phobia, rest assured that this book has something for everyone, including: “light” pastas, “hearty” pastas, and pasta for “special occasions” (i.e., the ones that take a long time to make), and even an antipasti section and a selection of side dishes (from which I have adapted one of my favorite sauteed spinach recipes). All the recipes have Giada’s contemporary Italian signature on them. My mom actually borrowed this book from me and was trying to cook her way through the book. I don’t think she actually finished though because, being even more of a pasta lover than I am, she found her favorites and tended to stick to them. In any case, it comes highly recommended from both my mom and me.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Chocolat, you know Joanne Harris. My French Kitchen is the book she co-wrote with Fran Warde, and it is full of crisp, beautiful photos of rural France. What I love about this book is that it not only contains many classic French dishes adapted for simplicity and an American lifestyle, but also Harris’s own anecdotes and memoir-esque stories of the importance various dishes played in her childhood growing up in France. It makes for a great read and every recipe I have tried has been positively delicious. I made coq au vin and potatoes dauphinois, both of which are still talked about in hushed, reverent tones.

Finally, the reference cookbooks. The big kahunas:

You may recognize Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but the one underneath which is just as comprehensive (if not more) is French Cooking for the American Table by Rene Verdon. Both of these books are tremendously helpful in terms of classic French technique, sauces, and preparation methods. I will say that these books are a bit more advanced: they may overwhelm the novice cook with text, terminology, and complexity of recipes (not to mention, they’re pretty gosh-darn heavy!). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t ever foresee myself making an aspic, but I keep these books close by because they’re classics and I do refer to them often, and also because I like what they represent: an American interest in classic French cooking. In a way, these books make dreams like Le Cordon Bleu more accessible in one’s own kitchen–they give me something to aspire to.

Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s hard to resist the cookbook sections at annual library sales, so in addition to the counter of honor in the kitchen, I also have this in a closet upstairs:

I realize this is borderline “cookbook addict,” but I just wanted to show that I too tend to collect more cookbooks than I know what to do with. Some of them are reference books for things like jam-making, drying foods, and pickling in anticipation of the time that I am able to cultivate an enormously successful home garden. Some are novels with recipes embedded (like these inspiring gems: The Sharper the Knife, the Less you Cry and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). Still others are specialty books on a specific, unusual topic. Oh, and my other favorite TV Chef personality, Emeril Lagasse, makes a couple appearances too.

So, based on the cookbooks I currently own, here’s my advice for making the most of your cookbooks:

1. Keep your cookbooks in two locations. If you’ve got the space, keep the ones you use most frequently in an accessible place in the kitchen, and the special occasion ones in another closet or bookshelf elsewhere in your house–even in a hard-to-reach cabinet. A selection of cookbooks might also make for nice coffee table books or a bit of powder room reading. If you haven’t used these “secondary” cookbooks within a year, sell them or give them away. You can always search for a specific recipe online.
2. Don’t be tied to your cookbooks. While it’s nice to use cookbooks for inspiration, don’t freak out if you don’t have every single ingredient a recipe calls for. Exercise your own creativity by substituting some ingredients for what you have access to. Being by-the-book recipe-obsessed may very well lead to more stress than enjoyment in the kitchen.
3. Find balance in variety. I guess if I had to narrow it down to three cookbooks the average home cook should have in his/her kitchen, I’d recommend: a seasonal cookbook which follows the produce most readily available in each season; a comprehensive technique cookbook (whether French, Italian, American, Asian, Ethiopian, or what have you) that details all the foundation sauces, techniques, and recipes for your favorite type of cuisine–don’t worry if you don’t understand it all right away, just be willing to learn; and a cookbook with beautiful color photos that inspires you to cook and makes you want to try every single dish you see.
4. When you’re in a recipe rut, let someone else choose. If you have too many cookbooks and aren’t ready to part with them, but you know you have no idea what recipes lie hidden within, let someone else choose a recipe for you to make once a week. Whether it’s a spouse, a child, a neighbor, the cashier at the grocery store, or whoever, let that person do the exploring and give you a fresh culinary challenge. I promise it will make your cooking endeavors more exciting, and that special someone will delight in knowing they picked out the evening meal (or dessert, or beverage, you get the idea). And even if you’re not ready to give up total control, see if you can narrow it down to two or three recipes and have your special someone choose from your selections.
5. Forest vs. Trees. If you’re watching a cooking program on TV and you see something you think looks good, don’t be tempted to by that chef’s book, at least not right away. Get online and find the recipe, read the reviews, try it yourself. The internet is a vast resource of recipes for those specific dishes that don’t merit buying a whole cookbook for (like bananas foster, for example). Once you get more experienced, you can use the internet as a research tool to compare the variations that other cooks make on the same recipe, to see which version you like the best.

So those are my essential cookbooks. What about you? What (cook)books can you absolutely not live without? What books inspire you? Which one has been passed down in your family and is splattered with sauce stains? Go ahead and share the books that make the grade for “countertop honors” and any stories that go along with them!

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One thought on “Countertop Honors: My Essential Cookbooks

  1. […] pages of my copy of Simply in Season by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert (one of the cookbooks to which I refer quite frequently). The authors list nearly every fruit or vegetable that is readily available in the U.S. (that is, […]

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