Previous installments of This Week in Reading can be found here. This one is just about cookbooks, and not from this past week, which is cheating. There will be two more installments.
This list makes no attempt at being exhaustive, and is not ranked: these are the cookbooks I use most in my own kitchen, and recommend to others. Reading cookbooks is a glorious, glorious occupation. If you have only 15 spare minutes, there’s no point to picking up a novel, but a cookbook is gulpable in any time increment you may possess. Let’s talk about these, and then SHOWER US WITH YOUR OWN SUGGESTIONS in the comments. I have not used the Ottolenghi cookbooks yet, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
1. The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual: The first thing I look at when I’m at a friend’s house is their cookbooks. If I find myself taking pictures of more than three recipes in a given book, I make myself purchase it, because STUMBLING TOWARDS ETHICS. I would have photographed everything in this one, so it had to come home with me. And now both my parents have their own, tomato-splattered copies in turn. This is fantastic low-drama Italian-American cooking, and you cannot possibly go wrong with it. It’s meaty, but the salad dressings and vegetable recipes leave plenty of scope for people who eat less meat than me (practically everyone.)
2. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lure of the Kitchen: Well, yeah. Harold McGee, man. It’s not really a cookbook, though you will find in it many delightful things to cook, and will make your cooking immeasurably better. It’s a perfect host/hostess gift, but first make sure they don’t have it. If there are tomatoes in their fridge, they don’t have it yet. You can dip in and out at any time, you’ll entrance your friends with pithy details about sardines…honestly, you’ll just feel like a smarter and more together person. It doesn’t have all that preachy Pollan stuff either.
3. The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook: A Treasury of Timeless, Delicious Recipes: I regret I have but one life to devote to evangelizing for cast iron cooking. It makes you feel like a chuckwagon cook. Cast iron is cheap as balls, heats evenly, lasts for the rest of your life, and can create the MOST gorgeous crustiness on things imaginable. And I love searing something in it and then finishing it in the oven without having another stupid pan to wash. Some of the recipes are for random pieces of equipment (stuff for camping and for burying in firepits and so on), but you’ll be able to muddle through most of them with a skillet.
4. Practical Paleo: A Customized Approach to Health and a Whole-Foods Lifestyle and Well Fed: Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat: This is how I eat most of the time. I think the made-up stuff about our ancestors that comes with eating this way is aggravating, I just enjoy eating this way, and I’ve found it dovetails really well with being strong and getting all the things into my face. These cookbooks are definitely “paleo for dummies” in the best possible way, with lots of grocery lists and make-aheads and snacks and so on. If you’re ever trying the Whole30 (which I never have, because I eat cheese and stuff and DGAF), this will help. The good thing, I guess, about paleo-specific cookbooks, is that it’s turned the tide from horrible “low-carb” cookbooks that want you to stir xanthan gum into gravies into being more about cooking non-processed foods. My mother gets horribly ill from even trace amounts of gluten (THAT IS A REAL THING) and paleo cookbooks are great for doing workarounds.
5. My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method: Oh, right. Sometimes you also want to make bread. I make a loaf of bread in my Dutch oven about once a week, and if we have guests, every few days in the winter. This bread, because you make a wetter dough and let it hang out for ages rising on its own, lives a little longer than most homemade bread, so it’s not a total stale brick on day two. It won’t last that long, though. Then tear up the rest and put it in your freezer for breadcrumbs. I’ve gotten similarly great recipes and tips from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.
6. The Tucci Cookbook: Shut up. If Stanley Tucci put together a book about repairing vacuum cleaners, I would buy it and start showing up at strangers’ houses to break and then fix their vacuum cleaners. It’s also a lovely, lovely cookbook of family standards, mostly Italian in nature, and every page of it made me think of THE GREATEST FILM EVER MADE: Big Night. If you do not like Big Night, do not buy this or any cookbook, just sit in a small room chewing on marbles until death comes for you. And look at how handsome and kind he is. Remember him with Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia? Remember how he inspired your parenting choices in Easy A? Remember how you refused to watch The Lovely Bones and so have never had conflicted feelings about him? Remember how he somehow didn’t punch Elisabeth Hasselbeck in the face?
7. Vegetables Every Day: This is the best possible thing you can buy (used copies are like five bucks) to help you avoid having things turn brown and die in your crisper. Now, most vegetables are perfect roasted in olive oil and sea salt, but this book will turn you on to a multitude of variations and tips. When I’m at my mom’s house in the sticks, like now, people are constantly showing up with bunches of greenish things and dirty round things and presenting them to you, and, with this book, I can say “why, thank you!” and not just wait out the clock to compost them.
8. Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe: These are not always the easiest desserts. But, then, the easiest dessert is a spoon and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s “Everything But The…” so you don’t need super-easy dessert cookbooks, do you? Some are! There is a chocolate dessert in here that is so easy and spectacular as to inspire you to invite people over, but some of the things are more fiddly. Worth it, of course. Very much so. This is a great cookbook if you want to really start upping your game. Now, please pay attention to what she has to say about ingredients, and PLEASE get yourself a wee food scale. Baking by weight is a game-changer.
9. Nigella Express: 130 Recipes for Good Food, Fast: I’m a Nigella person. And I’ve never had great success with her baking cookbooks, for whatever reason (I’m at a pretty high altitude, so it can get complicated), but her more everyday books are complete delights. She’s marvelous, too, on cooking for yourself. So many of the cooking-for-one things are dreary, and Nigella understands that coming home and making something perfect and then eating it sloppily in bed with a book is one of life’s great treasures. Bless her, everyone.
10. Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cooking: This is the cookbook I remember most from childhood, although it’s been updated. My father has been cooking Madhur Jaffrey recipes for decades, and as a result I grew up eating a lot of homemade samosas and keema. I’m sure there are more accessible Indian cookbooks or more fusion-y Indian cookbooks, but this will always be my favourite.
Nicole is an Editor of The Toast.