Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Building a library...

When I was upstate last weekend I did some cookbook shopping – one of the only kinds of shopping it is important to do on a full stomach. I bought a couple of books to add to my NY library, which made the collection a grand total of four. But then friendly brown box came in the mail this morning; and then there were five.

I miss a lot of the cookbooks that I left in London, particularly my collection of Nigella Lawson's books and, now that it's springtime, my River Cafe Two Easy by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers which contains lots of great ideas for fresh vegetables, antipasti, pasta and fish. I rarely follow a recipe word for word (though I'm sure this is not a good thing) so I don't miss having particular recipes, but I do miss the inspiration that a flip through a great cookbook can give. The only "inspirational" type book that I have here in New York is Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries. The photos themselves could melt in your mouth, and as the focus is on seasonal eating, it's great for a quick peruse before or after a trip to the farmer's market.

I feel that every recipe collection should have a basic "methods" cookbook which will actually teach you how to make things, no matter how competent you think you might be. Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything fills this position in my NY collection, appropriately since he is a food writer for The New York Times. His cookbook is a modern take on the basics, and contains a refreshing mix of multicultural recipes. The "pasta" section, for instance, contains authentic recipes for penne arrabbiata, cold soba noodles and pad thai. Clear black and white illustrations explain the most complicated steps visually, and there are lists of basics gadgets and tools that are necessary, and others that are not. Other cookbooks that can the same purpose as this in a recipe collection include The Fanny Farmer Cookbook and Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course to name just a few. I find that allegiance to these cookbooks is often passed down through generations, hence the sustained popularity of seasoned classics such as The Joy of Cooking which are regularly updated.

An outdated retro-classic was one of my two purchases last weekend. The 1963 edition of The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook shows its age with recipes like "Chicken a la King Surprise" containing just one package of frozen chicken a la king, 4 bread slices and sharp cheese spread. I will not be making that any time soon. There are also guidelines for the "glamourous serving" of vegetables, in fact the whole book encourages you to "serve with a flair" - see the "Snowy Orange Cup" on the right. Not my cup of tea either. However, there are recipes for old stand-bys that I will try, like candied sweet potatoes and a coffee cake which, surprisingly, contains fresh ground cardamom seeds. That's more like it.

The other two books in my collection are part cookbook, part memoir, and both are in my pile of books to read. M.F.K. Fisher's With Bold Knife and Fork contains foodie anecdotes and a few recipes, and follows the structure of a traditional cookbook from appetizers to drinks and desserts. Barbara Kingsolver's new book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle retells the story of her family's quest to eat locally for a year. Reviews to follow.

7 comments:

Genevieve said...

the best and (only) food type memoir book i have ever read is Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl, but I do want to read more - so thanks for the recommendation!!

***Joanna*** said...

Genevieve - Thanks for your recommendation too! I'll add that to my wish list.

Anonymous said...

Where would you find frozen chicken a la king ? I think its worth trying..

emma said...

generally speaking the word "surprise" in a recipe is a dangerous sign I find........ often followed by the dreaded "take one can of ......." brrrrrrr

J said...

I would agree and further recommend Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Saphires, about being the NYT food critic! Very insightful and quite humourous. She goes undercover by investing in a collection of wigs and costumes to see how different kinds of people are treated in 'top' restaurants.

I also love Shoba Narayan's Monsoon Diary, about her culinary upbringing in Chennai and the culture shock of moving to the US. A very quick read, and just thinking of it makes me want a masala dosa...

Amy said...

I saw Chicken a la King in a can at Publix yesterday. Now *that* is wrong. How can you truly enjoy making it if you can't savor in stirring the butter and the cream? Sinful.

I LOVE that Joy of Cooking cover. Awesome retro find. And although you couldn't hear it, I said that with flair.

***Joanna*** said...

Thanks for all of your thoughts! If you have your heart set on trying the "Surprise", Stouffers has chicken a la king in the freezer section here in the U.S. - see it on their website. I wouldn't buy it canned either, Amy, but thanks for letting us know you can get it at Publix.

I've had no luck sourcing it ready-made in the UK but not to worry. I think that making it homemade is the only way to go, especially since it is very simple. Check out this recipe from the Food Network Kitchens, which updates the classic with kosher salt, freshly ground pepper, shiitake mushrooms and the option of using creme fraiche. It sounds much more appealing.

j - I've often thought of purchasing Ruth Reichl's book, but I've never heard of Monsoon Diary. I'll put them on my wishlist too. Now you'll have me dreaming of Masala Dosas all day.