I have a LOT of cookbooks, collected throughout the years, on a bookshelf in the dining room. Yesterday, one of my daughter’s friends asked a reasonable question: “Do you use all those?”
The answer was, not surprisingly, “No.”
Some cookbooks were gifts from friends who think of me and think “cookbook.” Some of the spines on those don’t appear to have been opened, although some others have a recipe or two that I go back to over and over again. Stephen Langlois’ Prairie: Cuisine from the Heartland is one of those, a gift from my Midwestern mother-in-law when I joined the family. The book opens automatically to Kansas City Strip Steaks with Herbed Maytag Blue Cheese Sauce. That one recipe secures its place on the shelf forever.
Other cookbooks were souvenirs of trips where the local cuisine had a dish that we wanted to be able to make at home. I bought Jan Robinson’s Ship to Shore after a trip to Barbados. I bought it for the Vanity Punch recipe – it’s a classic rum punch – but found the recipes from ships’ galleys fit my little Manhattan apartment so perfectly that it got a real workout for a while. Now it only comes off the shelf for cocktails and appetizers, though. Time has marched on.
So which are the work horse cookbooks of my current kitchen? Looking at the shelf, they’re easy to locate, battered and splattered and loved to dog-ears:
Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker’s Joy of Cooking. This is the present I give as a shower gift to young couples who are just starting out in the kitchen, because it has a basic recipe for virtually anything you bring home from the market.
Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. That book is out at least 2 or 3 nights a week. I love how every Bittman recipe is a starting point for endless variation on a theme. Having the book in the house helps me face the farmer’s market without fear, knowing that whatever beautiful veggie I bring home, I’ll have a recipe for it!
Anne Sheasby’s The Ultimate Soup Bible. This gorgeous Barnes & Noble title looks like a coffee table book, but has 400 soup recipes from around the world. It’s the kind of book you love having when your kid grabs “Malaysia” for the school’s international food fair. It even has a brilliant section of cold soups for summer. Sadly out of print now, if you find a copy, buy it!
Diane Seed’ Top 100 Pasta Sauces and Andrew Schloss with Ken Bookman’s While the Pasta Cooks share the pasta work horse chores. Seed’s book is a thin but comprehensive look at Italy’s regional pasta sauces – traditional and superb. Schloss’ book is the opposite – he often turns to non-traditional ingredients in his quick-fix dishes. It’s a great way to reduce your meat budget, while still getting the flavor, as in a pasta dish ½ pound of fish easily feeds a family of four.
Finally, Lorna Sass’ Pressure Perfect, recommended by a colleague when I invested in a pressure cooker, has become my go-to weeknight comfort food guide, for things like ribs, or stew or bean dishes. I cannot believe I lived without a pressure cooker for so long. Sass’ comprehensive guide to dried beans in the pressure cooker – which are so much tastier than canned – have earned it a place on my dining room bookshelf.
So how about you? What cookbooks can’t you live without? I’d love to hear about them!
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