Sunday, March 2, 2014

Navigating the Zoo with a Review Or Two!

Have you ever looked at the cookbook section of a major bookstore?

It's a zoo!

There are thousands of cookbooks out there that cover hundreds of techniques, cuisines, and even entire books devoted to variations on only one kind of food!

Because perusing the cookbook section of can such a pain, I've decided to provide reviews to help you navigate the zoo, and of course, save you from having to keep your computer open every time you want to make something.

BEFORE YOU BUY ANY COOKBOOK, BE PREPARED!  A good one will run you at least 20 or 30 bucks, and if you get a "pretty one", meaning something in hardcover with pictures and maybe even a built in bookmark, you may want to invest in a cookbook holder. A cookbook holder is a plastic or wooden device that will keep the book open while you're working. A good model will also have a plastic or glass barrier that will protect your book from food splatter. This device will run you between 10 and 20 bucks, depending on make and model and should be available in most major bookstores. Not sure what to look for? Here's a picture.

I got mine as a gift from my big brother and find it extremely useful for saving my newest acquisition when I'm trying it out.

That being said, if you want to buy a cookbook, here are the ones I considered indispensable for beginners and seasoned cooks alike.

The Food Substitution Bible, Second Edition by David Joachim (2010) .

Any time you open a cookbook to a particular recipe, you'll find a list of ingredients. The trouble is that many cookbooks, especially, but not exclusively the ethnic ones, require rare and all too often expensive ingredients and/or equipment.
This book is the solution to all that.

Don't have Asafetida Powder? Flip to it in The Food Substitution Bible. I guarantee you'll find at least one substitution for that ingredient that will give you a similar flavor. Recipe calls for use of a food mill? No problem! The book has a solution for that too! And the book begins with a guide on how to use it to boot!

The downsides?

There are no photos, so if you have no idea what the substituting item is, you're screwed.

The other downside is that if you keep to particular diet i.e. Kosher or Vegan, and want a substitution for meat or dairy that fits with your diet, the book won't always provide; for example, the substitution listed for one cheese may be another cheese.

The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide To Culinary Creativity, Based On the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg (2008).

Ever bought an ingredient like a hunk of beef but haven't a clue how cook or flavor it? This book is your friend. While not as neatly structured as The Food Substitution Bible, The Flavor Bible will give you a list of flavorings and cooking methods that compliment any other flavor or ingredient. The trouble is that it doesn't give you actual recipes or guidelines for said cooking method i.e. for how many minutes per pound to cook that cut of beef. Nevertheless, it will give you an idea what to do with that spice or herb you got as a gift, or that chicken that was on sale at the grocery store.

For Those Who Want Actual Recipes...

Joy of Cooking, Eighth Edition, by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker (2006)

Everything I've heard about the book's first author is that she was a widow who wanted to make money.

And who can blame her?

Hell! I admire her for it... especially given that she succeeded.

Originally published in 1931, this book has a recipe for just about everything, from soup, to bread, to roasts, to dessert. It taught me that the difference between potato leek soup and vichyssoise was cream and coldness, and it is the universal cookbook, containing recipes, conversion tables, and even substitutions for common ingredients at the back of the book.

The downsides?

Because it has a recipe for just about everything, it's huge and heavy... which I guess isn't such a disadvantage for anyone into strength training. The other downside is that while there are diagrams, there aren't many pictures in it and the ones included are in black and white, so you'll have no idea what a finished dish should look like.

That being said, this one, along with the next two books I'll mention, make great gifts for anyone starting out on their own or with that special someone. Just be careful they don't already have it as this book has been around since the 30s and often gets passed down from generation to generation.

Jamie's Food Revolution: Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals, by Jamie Oliver (2009)

Epic title aside, this is a great book. It not only contains recipes, but also the occasional storage tips, and lists of equipment and fridge and pantry essentials. The goal of the book is to get people to teach people "how to cook good, honest, affordable food and just generally be a bit more streetwise about cooking," (8). To nail the point home, he features photos of ordinary Brits holding food they prepared from his recipes. My take on it is that he's trying to provide some easy and affordable alternatives to people who know they should be cooking at home but don't as yet have the stones to do it. If you're reading this blog, that clearly isn't you...

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book. Not only is it pretty, due to numerous colour photographs by David Loftus and Chris Terry that make mine look like Rorschach tests, but it also covers a lot of the basics like roasting meats, cooking eggs, basic salads etc. Furthermore, having tried his recipes for Chicken Tikka Masala and Roast Chicken, I can safely say that the recipes in this book deliver in flavour and appearance.

The downsides?

There are some pricey items on his equipment list, like a food processor and a mortar and pestle, and his cupboard ingredients list is a mile long and also contains pricey items like balsamic vinegar. As I went over the list, I couldn't help but ask myself if one really needed four kinds of oil instead of two. I also found a pricey item on his freezer list, frozen shrimp, which I think should only be bought on sale if you're on a budget. On the other hand... with everything on his list, plus a few fresh ingredients, you can presumably make anything in his book.

I wasn't impressed with the dessert recipes, which, as a chocolate and caramel lover, were too few and too uninteresting for me, but I chalk this up to Jamie Oliver's well known concern over the so-called obesity crisis, and maybe a desire to keep the book to a reasonable size...

For as we all know, size matters!

New Complete Techniques, Jacques Pepin (2012)

If I were to choose one book that truly covered almost every cooking method, it would be this one. Originally published in black and white in 1976, Julia Child called it "a treasure" and I can see why. It is THE book of techniques and recipes, covering everything from the basics to more advanced techniques, AND it has step by step instructions and photos to boot! 

So what's the catch?

This book weighs a TON! It's HUGE! And because Pepin is a French Chef, don't expect any Asian or Fusion recipes. Everything is very French and very by the book, pun intended.

How To Be A Domestic Goddess, Baking and The Art of Comfort Cooking, by Nigella Lawson (2000)

I love Nigella. She's beautiful, buxom, with a sweet, lilting British accent that's hard not to love, AND she can cook too!

How To Be a Domestic Goddess is THE baking book for anyone who loves and always wanted to make those extra smooshy brownies but couldn't find the right recipe. This book has it. Along with recipes for cookies, cakes, sweet and savory pies, muffins and cupcakes. The book even has a whole chapter devoted to chocolate! Another thing I like about it is that each recipe contains a recommendation for what cooking vessel to use i.e. brownie pan, muffin pan, springform pan, or baking dish, and how to prepare said vessel.

Sadly, there are downsides to this book.

1. While the book does contain lovely, appetizing photos, there aren't enough, so while you may want to try to make her coconut cake, neither you nor I will have any idea what the finished product should look like.

2. The ingredients are listed by metric weight and volume rather than cups and spoons, making it difficult for rookies to who don't have conversion aps on their phones to try out the recipes.

3. Some of the ingredients, like caster sugar, would seem hard to come by if you're not familiar with substitutions.

Nevertheless, if you're willing to overlook the downsides, this book does deliver recipes that are delicious and beautiful. Flora's Famous Courgette Cake (page  18) turned out to be a delicious and healthy alternative to the sugar and butter heavy birthday cake my Dad usually gets, and pairing with the recipe for homemade  lime curd I found at the back of the book made it even better. Her recipe for brownies produces something chocolatey chewy and delicious... not to mention that it yields at least 2 batches! And her supper onion pie, see my attempt below, lasted all of 10 minutes at a party I served it to.

That being said, if you're willing to overlook the downsides, this is the baking book to have or give as a gift to your apron-wearing, muffin bringing friends.


That should be enough to get you started!

Happy Shopping!


-Samantha R. Gold

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