These are not the 7 cookbooks you need, and they are not the only 7 you should have, but take my advice – these are definitely 7 books you will want. They range from reference books to general recipes to specific crafts.
1. Some of these are must-haves. On top of the pile is one – The Penguin Companion to Food by Alan Davidson
The ideal reference for cooks, eaters, and anyone who likes to read encyclopedias. Where else will you find Natto on top of Nautilus, and Cherry Plums on a bed of Chervil? Davidson writes with a confidence and humor that is captivating. His food entries make you think he has tried every food in the book (Davidson believes Lancashire to be “one of the best cheeses to make Welsh rabbit”). Other entries show off his philosophical side: “NOAH’S ARK presents many problems for the literal-minded, not least, the food problem. It is indeed difficult to imagine how the logistics could have been handled.”
2. Another reference, but with recipes: How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.
I’ve given this as a gift several times, and use it nearly every day. Originally I was against it – how could the recipes be any good if it tried to cover everything? But I was stupid then. And reading this book, I realize I’m still stupid. Forgot how long to cook soft-boiled eggs? Ratios for pizza dough? How to make an Apple Pandowdy? Bittman has got it. Nothing is too complicated – he is the writer of The Minimalist column for the NYTimes – but many recipes have countless variations. This isn’t so much a recipe book, as it is an ideas book. Flip through for inspiration.
3. The last of the reference, and my favorite – On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee.
I first read about McGee in Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman. McGee is required text for students at the CIA. Want to know what is going on when you brown meat? What is the difference between baking soda and baking powder? Why onions make you cry? Find it in McGee. For those who want to cook – at home or a restaurant – this is a must read, from cover to cover.
4. From Boston local: Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sortun.
Sortun, the one-time chef at Casablanca in Cambridge, and now the chef of Oleana (and the smaller cafe, Sofra) wrote Spice in 2006 and organized it unconventionally. Rather than be set up with Starters, Mains, Sides, Desserts, Sortun divides the book by spice group: Cumin, Coriander, and Cardamom is the first chapter, and the chilies Aleppo, Urfa, and Paprika have their own. Make Oleana favorites like Whipped Feta with Sweet and Hot Peppers, or the irresistable Scallop Pizza with Leeks and Fennel Seed. In the photo above, you can see I’ve tagged pages – I want to make the whole book. Today, I think I’m in the mood for Fenugreek…
5. I’ve said too much already: The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson
Whether it be Headcheese, Ham in Hay, Grilled Marinated Calf’s Heart, or Smoked Eel, Bacon, and Mashed Potatoes, every recipe is brilliant. Check out the previous post for more on St John and Henderson.
6. More meat: Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn
I’ve mentioned this before, too, for Cured Salmon, and Home-made Pickles. It reads like a textbook, but the recipes are far from ordinary. One day I’ll write about my attempt at Foie Gras and Sweetbread Sausage. I can’t wait until I get married as I’ll be getting a smoker (the appliance, not my husband).
7. From the queen: The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters.
My mother gave me this one. I didn’t read it for a while. But once I did, I realized that this book, while full of useful recipes, is also ideal for inspiration. Keep food simple. Cook it the right way. When you want the procedure for a classic, like Caesar Salad or Pesto, the internet can be overwhelmed with variations and bad ideas. But Waters offers her simple, optimized version, exactly what every cook could want. Browse for recipes, but read for creativity.
What are your favorites? Let me know.
A note on book buying: I have linked to Amazon, but buy your books from a local, independent bookstore. You try to do the same with food, so why not with food books, too?