I feel like the kitchen is an intimidating place. There have been times in the kitchen when I’ve felt inept, judged, and even betrayed (an incident with a wooden spoon and a blender).
Also, each of us has her own relationship to food and I don’t want to go sticking my nose into anyone else’s kitchen without invitation. Food is intimately personal and important. There is a spirituality with food, even for people who would say they are non-spiritual. There is a sense of community and beauty and dolce far niente (“the sweetness of doing nothing”). I’ve had meals which seemed to overcome the power of time, forcing it to pause and wait while we laughed and tasted.
On the flip-side of the coin, I struggle with my relationship to food. That’s one of the reasons I’ve spent time thinking about it and learning to cook. I obsess about food. I think about what I am going to eat at the next meal every moment of every day – sometimes several days in advance. I fantasize. I torture myself trying to be thin. My New Year’s resolution this year was not to weigh myself, because I always want to know my weight, every day, multiple times each day, just in case.
For those reasons, writing a series of blog posts about the kitchen is super intimidating to me. I want to write it, and I want to write it in a sort of instructional way, but a large portion of people who read this blog also cook. They know things and I fear telling people who already know things about the things I know.
Yet, I love food. I love cooking. I think food and cooking are delightful, and I hope to write some delightful posts.
As I can’t seem ever to shut off the Hermione in me, my response to feeling intimidated and vulnerable in the kitchen was to study.
I have read tons of cookbooks and watched tons of cooking shows. I have yet to take a cooking class, but that is high on my list of to-dos when I’m no longer a starving college student.
So… Kate’s rules for cookbooks.
1. Cookbooks should actually be read… cover-to-cover, if possible. For a long time, I was skipping the introductory stuff and looking ahead to the recipes. Recipes are great, but they provide instructions for cooking one dish. Introductions, on the other hand, explain cooking in general. They also usually present a food philosophy, which I think every person ought to have.
2. Cookbooks are not Bibles, nor are they even text books. I used to feel like I was supposed to follow recipes exactly and perfectly on every jot and tittle. Doing that was too stressful for me and it kept me from learning to improvise. It kept me from feeling joy and artistry in the kitchen.
3. Kitchen tools can be like jeans or like wedding dresses, so don’t go buying crap you’ll only use one time. Make sure you know the difference between the items you will use and the ones you won’t before forking out the dough. Most cookbooks include a list of everything everyone ought to have in the kitchen. The lists include items ranging from pots and pans to spices to pantry ingredients to gadgets and gizmos. I read everything on those lists, but I have never, not even one time, had everything on one of those lists. Having that stuff isn’t usually important, because where there is a will, there is a way. It’s better to improvise once, even if you get it wrong, than it is to buy an expensive gadget that’s eventually going to be donated to Goodwill.
4. Use the public library and used book stores before you use Amazon. There is no reason to buy a cookbook unless you know it’s going to be helpful to you. There is also no reason to buy a cookbook new. If you do it right, you are going to dump flour and drip EVOO all over the pages of your favorite cookbooks. Buying them new is a waste of money.
5. Apps and e-books are good for lounging on the couch or in bed, not for the kitchen. Often, you need to look at a recipe RIGHT NOW, not after you wash and dry your hands. It’s better to touch a hard-copy with greasy fingers than it is to touch a screen. If you must use an app or e-book, print stuff out.
6. Have a variety of cookbooks, including one for beginners, one that seems old-fashioned like your grandmother probably used it, one that’s aspirational, one specific to your food philosophy and dietary restrictions, and one that’s sort of niche.
- Everyone should have a cookbook for beginners, because they don’t feel as terrifying as the rest of the cookbook world. They explain techniques that seem intimidating (like blanching), as well as ingredients that seem intimidating (like spaghetti squash). The recipes are foundational and become staples of everyday life. They often replace boxed foods, like mac ‘n’ cheese, and nothing is worse than that powdered Kraft cheese crap that was created in a petri dish.
- When I say old-fashioned, what I mean is Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping Test Kitchen, or something similar. This type of cookbook is usually binder-style, so you can pull out individual recipes. It includes an uncommon variety of recipes concerning both difficulty level and dish-type. They have recipes for dessert rolls that take a million steps to make and for veggie broth, which is super easy. They are easy to navigate: they’re tabbed, with tables of contents for each section. They also include food that works for any and every occasion.
- Aspirational cookbooks are the ones with the recipes you always want to make, but almost never do. They are usually the Julia Child/Wolfgang Puck books that seem great for all of those fancy dinner parties you intend to throw but never do. They are the wedding dresses of the cookbook world, and everyone ought to have one to pull out once every five years and impress people.
- I usually go with vegan cookbooks for my food philosophy/dietary restriction books… even though I’m not a vegan. Half of the recipes in most cookbooks are wasted on me since I only rarely eat fish and eat no other meats. Vegetarian cookbooks are fine, but they seem to spend less time and emphasis on understanding food than vegan ones. Vegan books explain that they’re using nutritional yeast as a cheese substitute, which helps me improvise down the road. Also, it’s easier to add cheese to a vegan recipe than it is to take cheese out of a vegetarian one. Vegan isn’t the only way to go, though. There is a cookbook out there for every food philosophy… keto, paleo, dairy-free, gluten-free, raw, etc…
- When someone asks what your favorite food is, what do you say? Indian food? Israeli? Chinese? Popcorn? Ramen? Coffee? … this is what I mean by niche cookbooks, and what I like about them is the variety they bring to my favorite things. I know how to pop popcorn, but having a cookbook dedicated to popcorn allows me to try new and different things with it AND these types of books are great for hosting. Having a popcorn bar where people choose how to flavor their own food is super fun and easy.
- A note on food memoirs… I don’t like them. They seem to be sort of indulgent navel-gazing that hasn’t helped me at all in my kitchen. That said, there is one book that I would place in this category called The Everlasting Meal. It’s totally helpful and worth it. Plus, the Pima County Public Library has a copy, so you can read it without having to pay anything.
7. Food blogs are great for consulting, but not for reading. I know there are some great food blogs out there. I just don’t really like any of them. Partly, it’s the screen thing. Hard copy is always superior to me. Partly, there are so many of them that it’s hard to separate the good from the bad. Partly, they feel too much like food memoirs. Partly, it’s the fact that good food blogs eventually put out a cookbook anyways.
I know… this thing that you are reading is a blog post. Thank you for reading, but reading a good cookbook would be more worth your time. 🙂
8. Magazines and newspapers that write about food are for consulting. They’re fine. They sometimes have great recipes. I love that the N.Y. Times includes a recipe on their daily briefing, and have read many a recipe they have posted. But they strike me as having similar problems to blogs (minus the navel-gazing usually).
*I suppose if you kept a nice file and printed out the recipes of the Times or a good food blog, it could be as good as having a cookbook, although, I don’t think it would actually save you much money, you should probably laminate them, and you would be lacking a coherent body of recipes that are united under one food philosophy.
9. Ask people in your life for their recipes. I’m not very good about this one. My grandmother, however, used to send me a recipe in every letter or card she ever sent me. I think she would get them for free from somewhere, and they weren’t her type of cooking so she’d mail them off to me. Her type of cooking was more along the lines of: dump sugar, salt, flour in a bowl, add some water, stir for a bit, shape and stick in the over. She just knew how to do things in her kitchen and would try recipes only occasionally. For years, I didn’t think it was exciting to receive her cast-off recipes, but I did keep all of them. I mostly used them as book marks. When I started cooking, though, I also started trying some of the recipes she’d sent me. None of them has struck me as spectacular, but they have been a nice way for me to keep a piece of who she was as she gets older. My mom often laments the fact that my grandmother has reached a stage of life in which she only eats Little Debbie boxed desserts and the occasional microwavable mac ‘n’ cheese. At one time, she was the best cook I knew.
Finally, specific book recommendations.
My number one recommendation is any of the Thug Kitchen books. There are a few different ones, but start with “The Official Cookbook.” It’s the best one. Thug Kitchen books are delightful. The writers curse at you all the time (subtitle: “Eat like you give a fuck”) and they explain exactly the right amount of things. The recipes are wonderful. Hands down, this is the cookbook I have used more than any other.
For niche books, Jerusalem. Again, this one is at the Pima County Library, so free. It’s got a great intro, even getting into how history and geography has played into the food. Plus, it’s got an excellent shakshuka recipe, although, I have to admit, I combined it with the N.Y. Times recipe, mostly because I wanted to do it in a cast-iron pan and stick it in the oven. I’m not a fan of the runny yolk for shakshuka, although I know that’s the way most recipes recommend going, and it’s probably more traditional that way.
For an aspirational food philosophy book, The Wicked Healthy Cookbook. The intro is excellent. It’s got just enough about the writers and their stories to make you feel like you know the philosophy and the the whys behind what you’re doing. Woody Harrelson wrote the foreword. Also, even though the recipes are complex and challenging, they taste amazing and are well worth it in the end. Fair warning, though, this is a situation where the recipes build on each other. The first recipe I tried was for Ninja Nuts… basically almonds that are toasted in the oven after being coated in a sauce. The sauce, mango sriracha caramel, was delicious, but it required that I first make (or buy, I suppose) regular sriracha. It took me a week to make the sriracha itself, because of fermenting, and it took me another three (ish) hours to turn a bit of it into the mango caramel stuff. I felt super accomplished after the fact, though, and Ninja Nuts have become my go-to snack.