The Joy of Cookbooks: Top Picks for Fans of Recipes | The Reader’s Shelf

Take pleasure in the joy of making something nourishing and the comfort of convivial authorial company with these go-to cookbooks from the likes of Ina Garten and Edna Lewis.

As so many still struggle to pick up the thread of reading in the face of the pandemic, cookbooks provide double pleasures: the joy of making something nourishing and sustaining and the comfort of convivial authorial company. The members of the CODES committee that selects the best cookbooks of the year gather here to offer cooking and reading suggestions from the books they turn to time and again.
This time of year, I find myself burned out from a barrage of holiday cooking yet still craving comfort foods to get through cold winter nights. That is when I pull out Slow Cooker Revolution: One Test Kitchen, 30 Slow Cookers, 200 Amazing Recipes (America’s Test Kitchen: Random. 2011. ISBN 9781933615691) and let the slow cooker do the work. America’s Test Kitchen has assembled a collection of soups, stews, and other traditional fare along with some unexpected finds. The philosophy behind this book is to utilize the microwave to speed up the cooking of the aromatics, saving time and labor. Don’t fret if you don’t have a microwave—a skillet and a few more minutes will work just fine. Filled with quick tips, suggestions for easy sides, and product recommendations, the recipes are basically foolproof. If that isn’t enough, America’s Test Kitchen has subsequently published a second volume and Healthy Slow Cooker Revolution as well, both filled with even more amazing recipes. COOK THIS: Cassoulet; while the traditional version might take days to make, this flavorful version takes only minutes to prep.
Making Dough: Recipes and Ratios for Perfect Pastries by Russell van Kraayenburg (Quirk Books. 2015. ISBN 9781594748189) educates the reader on how to alter the ratio of flours, fat, and liquid to create 12 master pastry doughs. This science, together with using the requisite tools, measuring ingredients correctly, and working and mixing dough as indicated makes for great results. The useful information is not limited to the pages within the book. The inside front cover lists the master doughs as well as recommendations for the types of pastries each makes. A chart on the back cover offers conversions for measuring ingredients. Most of the recipes include a photo and an abundance of “how to” illustrations with straightforward explanations for every level of baker. Van Kraayenburg adds suggestions for using other fillings, toppings, or ingredients to transform the sweets into even more offerings. I found this cookbook makes a fine addition to any aspiring pastry chef’s collection. COOK THIS: Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie, a nutty, sweet, chocolatey pastry to enjoy any time of year.
Those who enjoy cookbooks as reading experiences as much as instructional manuals will understand the pure pleasure of Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking (Knopf. 2006. ISBN 9780307265609). A mix of memoir, history, and culinary education, it is a book that is as much a story—of place, time, and ethos—as it is a collection of delicious dishes. Lewis’s voice is spellbinding as she evokes the seasonal cooking of her childhood and of Freetown, VA, a tiny dot on the map of the rural landscape of the Piedmont. Her food is remarkably modern; consider her pure simple salad constructed of a few leaves of new-harvest seasonal greens. At the same time, it is foundational. Anyone who grew up watching parents and grandparents cook a vegetable just picked from the garden, tossed with butter and salt, and slid on top of a soft, billowy roll will know Lewis’s simple guidance on Skillet Wild Asparagus. COOK THIS: Busy-Day Cake, a lovely offering that might just become your next go-to bake.
A classic is a classic for a reason. The Silver Palate Cookbook by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso (Workman. 2007. ISBN 9780761145974) came from a long-closed Manhattan takeout shop that was immensely popular in its day. Originally published in 1979, the book has had revisions and updates, but never strays from its basic style. You won’t find current trends represented, and you may want to ignore some of the more 70ish concepts (too much dried fruit in meat dishes for my taste), but for basic discussion of food and technique, and a solid collection of recipes, this is a winner. Salads, appetizers, main dishes, and fabulous desserts; the recipes are clear and ingredients are readily available. There is a scrumptious, if complicated, vegetable terrine, and of course their signature Chicken Marbella. The edition that I have has lovely line drawings; newer ones have colored photos. Sidebars offer suggested menus and personal tips “from the Silver Palate notebook.” COOK THIS: My favorite go-to autumnal recipe, Chunky Apple Walnut cake.
There is a sameness about Ina Garten’s cookbooks. Size, shape, and general appearance can give them a sense of place on your shelf. One may be enough to own, and I suggest Barefoot Contessa at Home: Everyday Recipes You’ll Make Over and Over Again (Clarkson Potter. 2006. ISBN 9781400054343). If you watch her on TV, you expect a warm, conversational style in the instructions, and her books deliver exactly that. She highlights local seasonal ingredients, though all recipes can be made year-round, and even though it is a small selection, the full gamut of courses is represented. What makes Garten’s recipes so useful is their flexibility. I have made many of them, but hardly ever the way they were written. Less butter, more spice, swap one kind of pepper for another, and the dishes come out just fine. There is a great Jalapeño Cheddar Cornbread that works with half the butter, different proportions of cornmeal and flour, and green chilis. COOK THIS: Make the Garlic and Herb Tomatoes, summer or winter; you won’t be disappointed.

This column was contributed by Sarah Tansley, Chicago P.L.; Sharon Rothman, White Plains P.L., NY; Neal Wyatt, LJ; and Danise Hoover, Brooklyn, NY. Annotations are in the order given.

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