The company of cookbooks
With Christmas just around the corner, I was going to get all deep and write about the theme of ‘home’; how the term can take on different meanings and how some seriously great fiction has been written around the subject.
But then I got the head cold from hell and just couldn’t muster up the necessary enthusiasm. So instead, I thought of that other, funner, Christmas theme: food. With parties and potlucks and, of course, the big day itself, it’s that awesome time of year when food abounds. If you’re like me, you give yourself license to indulge through the dark days of December. If you’re not, well, we can’t be friends!
So let’s talk food writing and cookbooks. This genre is huge and growing. Since writing my own cookbooks and talking them up at markets, I’ve discovered what a lot of people like and want in a cookbook. Photos! We love looking at food photos and dream of making - and eating -the recipes. Whether we ever make them or not is almost beside the point. There’s a primordial comfort in reading about and looking at food, and the details of turning that list of ingredients into a lovingly-prepared feast for family and friends.
Our approach to food has changed over the years with availability our grandmothers never dreamed about. As a result, North American food culture is about more than meat and potatoes. Cookbooks showcase the aspirational aspect of flavours through cooking techniques, equipment, celebrity chefs, and an abundance of fresh ingredients throughout the year. Aren’t we lucky?!
So hard as it is to decide what to cook for dinner, it was equally hard to pick just a few books. But here are some that have influenced me over the years, those that I go-to regularly, and others I just plain loved reading.
PLENTY by Yotam Ottolenghi
Renowned chef and co-owner of boutique food shops in London, Ottolenghi created a sumptuous book, as beautiful to look at as to cook from. Although not a vegetarian, the book is a collection of his vegetarian columns written for the Guardian newspaper. Divided into food groups such as mushrooms, pulses, grains, and squashes, it’s a feast for the eyes and is heavily influenced by his Arabian and European roots. If you’re a city dweller, then no problem. But ingredient lists are often long and complicated, not easily transferable from the trendy streets of London to rural southern Alberta Rockies. But still worth drooling over.
THUG KITCHEN 101 by Matt Holloway & Michelle Davis
The best-selling Thug Kitchen series is so much fun to read you don’t even need to cook anything. But do because they are delicious and amazing. The pairing of slang-heavy admonitions with big, bright, nutritious recipes is visceral in its appeal. There’s been a bit of a backlash against the authors - a white couple living in Hollywood - attempting to emulate working class persons of colour. But if, like me, you’re more concerned with the food than the politics, there’s some mother f—ing great dishes here.
THE JOY OF COOKING by Irma S. Rombauer & Marion R. Becker
Clearly dating myself, this was one of my first cookbooks and is still a go-to for the basics. Looking to know exactly where the fish fork goes on a formal place setting or when to remove the sherry glass accompanying the soup? The Joy has you covered. It was a staple for decades and I’ve referred to it many times for guidance. How else would I know how to bard a guinea hen after I’ve plucked and singed it?
KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL: ADVENTURES IN THE CULINARY UNDERBELLY by Anthony Bourdain
Fans around the world grieved when news hit of Bourdain’s passing in 2018. Celebrity chef, restauranteur, and host of numerous world-travel and culinary shows, he was also naturally talented as a writer. His first book is a very funny, urbane expose of what it’s really like to be a professional chef. With sparkling wit, Bourdain pulls back the curtain on high-end New York kitchens, the drugs and partying that go with the territory and the toll it exacts. Gripping, mesmerizing stories with tons of mouth-watering food liberally sprinkled throughout. Made me want to cook the whole time!
HEALTHY ITALIAN COOKING by Emanuel’s Stucchi
Don’t be fooled by the title - this book is based on the traditional Italian diet that has always included a great many healthy ingredients - vegetables, aromatic herbs, and carbohydrates such as pasta and rice that is almost vegetarian by default. Recipes range from simple appetizers such as broccoli bruschetta to substantial main courses such as eggplant caponata, and sides such as iced tomatoes. (Hungry yet?) Some are classics from the heart of the countryside, others are newer innovations reflecting current international trends.There is also a glorious photographic glossary of all the staples of an Italian pantry.
THE VEGETARIAN EPICURE by Anna Thomas
One of the things I love best about this book is how she categorized the recipes. There are sauces & salads, stews & casseroles, but she’s also well-travelled and included ethnic sections such as Mexican, Indian, Spanish, and Italian dishes. Whether the dish is simple or complex, the recipes are easy to follow and a wonderful source of inspiration. After decades of vegetarianism, this book always inspires me beyond my usual horizons.
MY LIFE IN FRANCE by Julia Child
Where would we be without the doyenne of French cooking? The autobiography of American diplomat’s wife turned chef extraordinaire focuses on her early years in Paris in 1948. Learning everything she could about her adopted country’s cuisine (everything’s better with butter!), Child went on to become a household name on both sides of the pond with her cookbooks and her fabulously successful TV show. Her voice is lively and humorous just like her character, and her stories about France and its people captivates and entertains. I was hungry throughout the whole book!
OH SHE GLOWS by Angela Liddon
Self-taught chef and blogger, Liddon shows how you can eat vegan and explore ingredients you’d probably otherwise not cook with. Pictures, recipes and ingredients - it’s all about family. With approachable, well-tested and flavourful recipes, the book is packed with nourishing plant-based dishes as well as a helpful list of kitchen tools and appliances, how to stock your pantry, and general tips and tricks. Who really needs meat anyway?
And because we really can’t talk about food without mentioning beverages, another favourite is THE COCKTAIL HANDBOOK by Maria Constantinople. Grouped by type of spirit with photos of each drink, it includes mixing method and recommended glass, as well as essentials of the well stocked bar, gadgets and gizmos, and how to make those cute little garnishes.
I know this list barely scratches the surface and there are so many worthy books out there about foods, chefs and the rest of us who love to cook - and eat! Let me know what some of your favs are and maybe I’ll revisit the genre down the road.
Thanks to everyone who reads these blogs of mine. I truly hope you enjoy them - feel free to share and comment. Have a wonderful holiday season, no matter who’s cooking! May you share laughter and love this Christmas and may you find a good book (or two) tucked under the tree! Merry Christmas and we’ll chat again in the New Year.
Until next time, happy reading!
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