Monday, 24 September 2012

Cookbooks - My Essentials

A few weeks ago when I was in Virginia, I got to hear about the adventures of a sweet friend of mine. She recently moved her life to a teensy island in the Bahamas, much like the one I lived on for a few years straight out of college. It was fun to hear about her life there because it was almost like someone telling me my own story all over again.

One part of her life that came up was how boring the food was. The store only offers the same basic items. Anything beyond those is either too expensive for regular consumption or completely non-existant. I remember filling my suitcase with sesame oil and cumin during trips stateside to take back to my island with me. Fortunately I made two good friends that really took my hand and taught me the ropes of how to feed myself well on an island. One was an American woman who wintered down there in a home only a few minutes from mine. The other was a German vegetarian who lived there because her husband was Bahamian. They helped me see how much you could do with the twelve available vegetables (some fresh, some canned) and locally caught fish. One taught me to think out of the box. The other taught me to read cookbooks.

I've got a number of cookbooks on my shelf. I actually have a few more tucked away in a cabinet, but these are the ones I reference the most. Honestly, with food blogs being so easily accessible they're more than I need. But if I had to tell someone who was learning to cook from scratch (on a teeny tiny island with limited options) what to get here are my top picks:

1. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything - I'm 100% certain you could live with this as your one and only cookbook. It honestly is how to cook everything (pad thai, meatloaf, apple pie, homemade pasta). But even better than that, it's not organized by meal course (appetizer, side dish, entree, etc.) which was a trait that used to frustrate me about cookbooks when I was a beginner. HTCE is organized by food type. For example, there is a chapter on vegetables and it has every vegetable in there in alphabetical order. Want to know how to cook eggplant? Look it up in the vegetable chapter and find a write up on what eggplant is, how to buy it, how to prepare it, what it's good for, and a few recipes that showcase it. I had the original version but the island heat did something to the glue and all the pages fell out. I replaced it with the Tenth Anniversary Edition and I've loved it just as much. It's so full of information that sometimes I just read it before bed. Try it. You'll be totally inspired to cook up something great the next week.

2. Sally Schneider's The Improvisational Cook - This was one I saw in the St Thomas bookstore and begged Seth to get it for me for my birthday. And a few months later he did. It teaches you how to break down recipes. How do you take a recipe for a lemon thyme jam and come up with an original recipe for tangelo tarts? This book will give you the confidence to try. I created a recipe once for homemade peach and honey jello using the skills and thought process this book imparts. There are a lot of words. It's more of a teaching book. Low on the recipes. But it gets the creative juices flowing.

4. Eric Treuille's Bread - This cookbook served me well for my first few years of baking. It has breads from all around the world broken up by type (yeast breads, enriched breads, flat breads, etc.). There are also a few chapters in the beginning about the bread-making process that would be great for beginners to read through. I can't say I've ever had any bread go wrong that I've baked from this book. (Except pita bread...but I can't even get my Syrian grandmother's authentic pita recipe to work for me.) That being said, I'm wondering if one of Peter Reinhart's books (maybe The Bread Baker's Apprentice) may be more extensive replacement. It may or may not be good for a beginner but if you've already got experience with bread it seems like a good next step. I certainly would not be unhappy to unwrap it on Christmas or for a birthday.

And I've got one honorable mention:

4. Cook's Illustrated's The New Best Recipe - I love Cook's Illustrated magazines. Their recipes can be complicated but they never go wrong. But for $30 a year, I figured why not try out their cookbook instead. It's not a comprehensive cookbook like How to Cook Everything but all the recipes that are in there are the best I've found. Don't make it your first cookbook but if you've already got a good basic cookbook, it's a great addition.

I wish I'd had these four cookbooks long ago when I lived in the Bahamas. Well, maybe not the last one. Too many ingredients I'd have had to import. But first three would have gotten me through a lot of years of grilled cheese sandwiches. I was actually able to borrow the Bread book from my friend Penny when she'd go back to the states every summer. It was a lifesaver when I was craving something other than white sandwich bread. Any cookbooks that you can't live without that I missed?

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