Through the years I have collected many cookbooks and books about food. No, not many – it’s more like a small truckload. My office is overflowing with books. The other day I looked around at my collection, pondering its variety and scope. As an exercise I started to categorize them, picking the ones I like best, as well as the ones I use most, and spent a few moments reflecting on what each book means to me.
I began my list with books that inspire me to take ideas and concepts further in my work. At the top of the list are my books by cook and food writer Elizabeth David, who along with M.F.K. Fisher is among the most influential food writers of the 20th century. At the same time that Fisher was writing in the U.S., David was creating her body of work in the U.K.
David’s books are not cookbooks in the traditional sense but are more like narrative prose, with recipes written in paragraph form. To follow her recipes, one needs to know what she means by a ”thimble full” of this or an ”eggshell full” of that. She is what I call a ”cook’s cook.”
A wonderful storyteller, David says more with three descriptive words than most writers say in an entire paragraph. I own many of her books, including some first editions. On my night table sit the latest works to be published – compiled by Jill Norman, her editor and longtime friend – ”Is There a Nutmeg in the House?” (first published in 2002 by Viking Penguin) and ”South Wind Through the Kitchen, The Best of Elizabeth David” (North Point Press, 1998).
In general I am not a fan of celebrity chefs’ cookbooks. Many of them are ego-driven, some of the recipes do not work, and often these books do not speak to the home cook. I have worked with the recipes of many well-known chefs in photo shoots. They sometimes use ingredients not easy to find in local grocery stores, and involve procedures and equipment with which home cooks are not familiar.
There are notable exceptions. Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, chef-owners of the River Café Restaurant in London, have put out five terrific books on Italian cooking. Their latest, ”Italian Two Easy: Simple Recipes from the London River Café” (Clarks & Potter, 2006), is the sequel to their first book, ”Italian Easy” (Clarks and Potter, 2004). Both volumes contain many simple recipes any cook can follow. The procedures are uncomplicated and generally foolproof. The one critical element is to use the freshest and the best ingredients available. Either of these books would make a great gift for anyone who loves cooking in the Italian style.
As a food professional, I believe it is important to read all significant books about the state of the food we eat, where it comes from and how it is produced, especially those written by knowledgeable people who have done their research. One such book is ”The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” by Michael Pollan (The Penguin Press, 2006). This book has inspired many articles about the quality and flavor of meat from grass-fed cattle (their natural diet) versus that of grain- or corn-fed cattle, and the serious dietary consequences of consuming the latter. Pollan begins his book with the history of corn, and traces the ways in which farming changed drastically in the 1950s when synthetic fertilizers were introduced. He follows each of the food chains that sustain us – industrial food, organic or alternative food and food we forage ourselves – from the source to the final meal. Pollan has written an important and timely book, a must-read for anyone interested in where our food comes from, as well as the health implications of modern food-production methods. His book tells the story clearly and concisely.
Most of the time I rely on cookbooks for recipe ideas. Rarely do I follow the recipe religiously, but rather put my own creative twist on it. There are times, however, when I need to adhere to exact amounts and proportions to make a certain recipe work. Baking is a science, and I do follow such cookbook recipes exactly. There are several reference books I use for this purpose. One is ”Joy of Cooking” by mother-and-daughter team Irma Rombauer and Marion Becker (first published by Bobbs-Merrill Co.). There has been a great deal of controversy over the 1997 version (published by Simon & Schuster), as a lot of the content was updated and changed. A 75th anniversary edition recently was published, but I use the 1975 edition, since it has all the original information and has kept its style and flavor. To delve more deeply into the social history of this book, as well as the personal and professional lives of mother and daughter, I recommend the biography ”Stand Facing the Stove” (Henry Holt and Co., 1996), written by my friend Anne Mendelson, an outstanding food historian.
Two other staples on my reference shelf are ”The New Doubleday Cookbook” by Jean Anderson and Elaine Hanna and ”The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.” For quick definitions of most culinary terms, I have the ”Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst (published by Barron’s) and the ”Wine Lover’s Companion” – a must for all cooks.
When it comes to ethnic cookbooks, there are several authors I respect and admire for content, knowledge of their subject and interesting recipes. Topping my list is Claudia Roden’s new book, ”Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, & Lebanon” (Knopf, 2006). I met Roden a year ago in England at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, where I had the honor of presenting a paper. Then, a few nights ago, I had the pleasure of dining with her in Cambridge. Born and raised in Cairo, she now lives in London, and possesses a broad, deep knowledge and love of food. I have several of her other books, including ”The Good Food of Italy, Region by Region” (Knopf, 1990) and ”Mediterranean Cookery” (Knopf, 1987). Her newest, ”Arabesque,” was first published in Europe and has won several prestigious awards. It is a beautiful book with unique, fascinating and detailed recipes.
Another interesting ethnic cookbook is ”The South America Table: The Flavor and Soul of Authentic Home Cooking from Patagonia to Rio de Janeiro” (Harvard Common Press, 2003) by Maria Baez Kijac. A culinary historian, Kijac spent 15 years researching the world of South American food and covers much of it in the large, extensive preface and introduction. Her recipes are delicious and unusual, and most ingredients can be found in local grocery stores.
Madeleine Kamman’s first book, ”The Making of a Cook” (Weathervane Books, 1977), is a favorite standby of mine. My copy is tattered and torn, with pencil and pen underscoring throughout; it was my textbook when I was her student. Madeleine later wrote an expanded version called ”The New Making of a Cook” (Morrow, 1997), which I’ve never gotten into the habit of using. I still go back to the original. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but it’s also the sense that the information is more concise, and I still rely on my notes in the book.
And what would a food library be without Julia Child? I particularly love her small book, ”Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking” (Knopf, 2000).
For the fun of it
For just good fun, I enjoy traveling with several books. Alan Richman’s ”Fork It Over” (Harper Perennial, 2005) had me laughing out loud on my last vacation. His book is a collection of articles published in Bon Appetit and GQ magazines. Another is James Villas’ ”Between Bites: Memoirs of a Hungry Hedonist” (Wiley, 2002). Villas compiled essays that were published in Town & Country magazine, where he was food and wine editor for 27 years. He tells the story of his adventures as a student living in France and people he met along the way to becoming a food editor. One of the funniest books I have read is ”Out to Lunch” (Penguin Books, 1986) by Paul Levy. (Although out of print, I found several copies available on Amazon.com).
I could go through my whole library, but will save further reflections for future articles. Meanwhile, I’ll end here with recipes from a couple of my favorite books.
Here is a simple, delicious recipe adapted from ”Italian Two Easy: Simple Recipes from the London River Café.” It makes a great first course.
Prosciutto and Radicchio
8 ounces egg tagiatelle
6 slices prosciutto
1 head radicchio
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons rosemary leaves
2 ounces Parmesan
1 stick unsalted butter
Cut the prosciutto and radicchio into ribbons the same width as the tagliatelle. Peel and finely chop the garlic.
Chop the rosemary (see note below). Grate the Parmesan.
Melt half the butter in a thick-bottomed pan. Add the garlic and rosemary and cook for a minute. Add half the radicchio and proscuitto. Cook just to wilt. Remove from heat.
Cook the tagliatelle in boiling salted water until al dente, then drain. Add the rest of the butter and half the Parmesan. Put into the cooked radicchio, then stir in the remaining radicchio and prosciutto. Toss thoroughly and serve with Parmesan.
Do not prechop the rosemary or it will turn black.
Claudia Roden writes, ”The marinade and sauce called chermoula that gives the distinctive flavor to this dish is used in most Moroccan fish dishes, whether fried, steamed, or cooked in a tagine. Every town, every family, has its own special combination of ingredients. Bream, haddock and turbo can also be used.”
Roast Cod with Potatoes and Tomatoes
6 cod fillets (each weighing 7 to 8 ounces) skin left on
For the chermoula marinade and sauce:
2/3 cup chopped cilantro
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground chili powder
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon OR 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 pounds new potatoes
1 pound tomatoes, peeled
Extra virgin olive oil
Slash the skin of the fish in a few places across the thickest part. This ensures that the fish does not curl and cooks evenly. Sprinkle with salt.
Mix all the chermoula ingredients in a dish, and marinate the fish in half the quantity for about 30 minutes.
Peel the potatoes, if you wish, and cut them into slices about ¼ inch thick,, and the tomatoes into slices 1/3 inch thick. Brush the bottom of a baking dish with olive oil, put in the potatoes and tomatoes, and drizzle a little oil on top. Sprinkle with salt, then turn the vegetables so they are well seasoned and lightly coated all over with oil. Put the dish in a very hot oven, preheated to 475 degrees, for 50 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. During the cooking, turn them over once so that the top ones bathe in the juice released by the tomatoes.
Take the potatoes and tomatoes out of the oven, place the fish fillets on top, skin side up, and return dish to the oven. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until the fish is cooked through; it is cooked when the flesh flakes when you cut into the thickest part.
Just before serving, pour the remaining chermoula over the fish, letting it dribble onto the vegetables.
(Published: December 6, 2006)