|Well worn copies of The Joy of Cooking from the library of Julia Child
on display at theNational Museum of American History (photo from Wikipedia.com)
Title: Joy of Cooking (1975 edition! which is why I’m not linking)
Author: Irma Rombauer
Title: The All New Good Housekeeping Cook Book (this edition or older!)
Author: Susan Westmoreland (ed.)
File Under: Cooking, Life Syllabus
Continuing my answer to dear Chantelle, who asked what a young mother could read in the early years, to get ready for the hard work ahead — some cookbooks for you to read.
After all, being prepared gives you mental toughness. And as the announcers of a Boston Marathon we listened to on the radio one year on the way home from the race kept pointing out, you just can’t measure mental toughness.
There are two kinds of cookbooks.
There are the sexy, photo-rich ones that are all garnish your charred eggplant with pomegranate seeds, make pepper-corn cardamom carrot cake in eighteen steps, stroll down to the farmers’ market to pick up some organic goat burrato for your basil reduction. (And as you know, I love photos, especially of food.)
And then there are cookbooks that will teach you to cook and provide you with basic recipes that you can modify to your heart’s content — including ethnically (so don’t lightly dismiss these even if your culture is different from the mostly American one these books admittedly represent).
It used to be that a bride got a small stack of useful, informative books upon her marriage — and they were the ones she grew up with in her mom’s kitchen anyway — and she was all set. She didn’t know from pomegranates (unless she was Egyptian maybe), but she could make a pie and a stew and a roast.
With the internet, I’m afraid that we’re just pinning recipes and wondering why our crockpot chicken is tasteless; and then buying the sexy cookbooks, which granted are adorable, and in general getting overwhelmed by the stark necessity of meals.
I’m sometimes a little surprised, honestly, that when I say to my readers something like “use any sweet roll recipe” or “look up pot-roasting techniques in a comprehensive cookbook,” you don’t always know what I mean. That is why I’m posting today (and also, dear Chantelle).
So if you are kind of floundering around, grabbing recipes — and in fact thinking in terms of recipes and not in terms of cooking with confidence — and in general just having trouble with meals, I do recommend these books.
They are books to read.
The Joy of Cooking combines recipes, solid analytical information, and a chatty style that can just warm a young woman’s heart. You feel like you’re learning from a friend — but really learning every single thing you need to know about eggs and butter and sugar and cuts of meat at the butcher. And if you should need to know what to do with a haunch of boar or a leg of venison, perchance, you are in luck. There are menu suggestions that can spark a helpful train of thinking for you.
Julia Child is the one who will explain techniques to you. Her Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a correspondence course in technique. It may seem counterproductive to have six embedded recipes for making a spinach dish unless you understand what she’s trying to do — she’s teaching you to fish, not giving you a fish, er, spinach.
In my early days, I made just about everything in Mastering, working my way through, meticulously following her directions. Had there been blogging in those days, Amy Adams would have been playing me in that movie, because I totally did that. (And was a lot nicer to my husband than that awful Julie.)
And I learned to bone and cook a chicken breast to a fare-the-well. I can enrich a sauce. I’m so glad I did, because later, it would have been way harder to spend the time. I literally read all my cookbooks– these and others — from cover to cover, multiple times. I know a tremendous amount of French vocab for food due to this effort.
The Good Housekeeping Cookbook is an inside joke at my house. With my loyalty to the two above cookbooks fairly rock-solid, I admit I looked with a certain scorn upon this one. I’d taste something delish that Sukie had made, but turn up my nose when she said it was from this cookbook. It’s more of a straightforward compendium of recipes, without the systematic approach that I appreciate in the others — so I kept referring to it as “that bad cookbook.”
When I found one for a dollar at a library sale (a library-bound version — ideal in a cookbook!), I made one or two things out of it just to see. Well, it has the virtue of having tasty, tested recipes (yes, like the ones Sukie made)! We all like the recipes we use from this book! So we do recommend it. (Similar books would be The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and Betty Crocker , but I didn’t learn with them — and don’t know about various editions. Yet, if you see them at a yard sale, snatch them up. After all, they are time-tested.)
On a lower tier, but very helpful, is this one: Elegant Meals with Inexpensive Meats. It’s quite small and possibly screams 80s.
But for thirty years I have made the things in it — it’s in tatters. Why? Because it’s methodical and gives you the whys and wherefores, not just the recipes. And if you are committed to figuring out how to living simply, you need instruction in how to save money on meats.
Could you recognize a cut of meat if it were presented to you crosswise rather than lengthwise? Would you still know what kind of heat to use on it? Could you remove the tendon from a piece of otherwise tender chuck steak? Can you tell what a cut is, even if it is given a regional name at the store, just by looking at it? Scheer’s book really helps with all that.
This is my organizing principle for a cookbook: that it teach you something about methods and have preferably time-tested recipes.
I think someone will mention The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook, and in many ways I like their systematic approach. However, often the recipe they end up with is not the one I would suggest. They often use questionable ingredients and way too many steps, appliances, and gadgets. Many times I think that a basic principle of cookery (searing, braising) could have been applied at the outset to arrive at a simpler solution. That said, it is at least a way of education, and so I’m for it. Personally, I would borrow it at the library.
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