These books get down to the bare-bones of home cooking.
Few things get me as excited as a pile of brand new cookbooks. They take up a position of prominence in my house, getting moved from the cookbook stand in the kitchen, to the dining table for me to flip through while eating a solitary lunch, to my bedside table for late-night reading.
I keep a flow of interesting new cookbooks coming into my home by reserving them online at the library. This saves me money and prevents the house from getting too cluttered, and introduces me to all kinds of wonderful home cooks and chefs the world over. I learn techniques, recipes, and stories that get absorbed into my own home-cooking practice.The latest batch has been interesting, three books that take drastically different approaches to food, but all of which share a common goal to increase the frequency of home-cooking. I'd like to give a brief rundown of each in hopes that you, too, will take some time to check out these books.
1. Repertoire: All the Recipes You Need by Jessica Battilana (Little, Brown & Co, 2018)
Battilana is a long-time food writer who believes in the need to build up a cooking repertoire. Just as musicians have a repertoire of music to play at weddings and funerals, so cooks should have a repertoire of recipes handy for making meals for every occasion. She writes,
"The truth is that home cooks don't need hundreds of recipes in their arsenals. A few dozen good ones and the knowledge and freedom that cooking them frequently gives you are all you really need.
A good recipe behaves; it makes you a promise and keeps it. It turns you into a magician capable of transforming ingredients into a meal that has doing one of those little kitchen dances between stove and sink. A good recipe never grow old – it changes with you."
There are only three categories in this book – starters, mains, sweets – but they're jam-packed with wildly diverse and delicious recipes, from sweet corn fritters and avocado-citrus salad to tortilla soup, broccoli rabe and mozzarella calzones, and a selection of meatball variants. The sweets list is decadent – hand pies, pavlova, several layer cakes, and cookies.
I've made a number of the recipes already and have to say they're great. This is a book I'd add to my 'buy ASAP' list because constantly renewing it at the library just won't cut it.
2. Where Cooking Begins: Uncomplicated Recipes to Make You a Great Cook by Carla Lalli Music (Clarkson Potter, 2019)
Lalli Music is the food director at Bon Appétit, so when she writes a cookbook, it's kind of a big deal. I've seen this one referenced in numerous places, so thought I should take a look. It turned out to be different than I expected, but great.
The goal of the book is to set one up for cooking success, from the pantry organization and grocery shopping stages to what Lalli Music says are the 7 basic techniques for cooking everything: sauté, pan-roast, steam, boil/simmer, confit, slow-roast, and pastry dough:
"If you accept my assurances that basically all foods can be cooked in a finite, manageable number of ways, you will never again find yourself hesitating over an enticing but unfamiliar ingredient."
She makes some intriguing suggestions at the beginning, arguing in defence of small-batch cooking (which I'd never heard before), saying it leads to wasted ingredients, monotony, and a sense of enslavement to the plan. She advocates for a well-stocked kitchen that allows one to riff on recipes daily, based on what you feel like picking up on the way home from work. (This works better in an urban setting and if you don't have small children.)
She also suggests "a new way to shop," outsourcing the purchase of pantry essentials to the Internet and only spending time selecting the "quality-variable" ingredients that are central to the meal, i.e. produce, bread, meat, seafood, etc. Again, this works much better in a city than in my rural town, where Internet grocery shopping is non-existent.
Recipes are divided into sections: produce, eggs, pasta and grains, all manner of meats, and basic sweets. A great book I'd add to my 'buy eventually' list!
3. Dinner for Everyone: 100 Iconic Dishes Made 3 Ways – Easy, Vegan, or Perfect for Company by Mark Bittman (Clarkson Potter, 2019)
Good old Bittman has churned out yet another one! I'm a long-time fan, but this book stumped me somewhat. I felt the title was misleading. There are 100 menu categories, each with three recipes, but I'd assumed they'd be the same recipe, tweaked according to the easy, vegan, and company requirements. That's not the case. Some are completely different.
For example, the Thai Curry section consists of green fish curry (easy), Massaman-style tofu curry (vegan), and Thai curried drumsticks (perfect for company). The Schnitzel section has Pork Katsu (easy), Squash Schnitzel (vegan), and Wiener Schnitzel with Green Sauce (company). Tacos consists of shrimp tacos, crunchy peanut tacos, and carne aside tacos with homemade corn tortillas.
The recipes themselves are straightforward and delicious, as we've all come to expect from Bittman over the years, but I'd hoped for a more flexitarian approach – as in, start with a single vegan base, add this to make it everyday omnivore, and then jazz it up this way for guests.
Nevertheless, the basic practices for which he's become known still shine through: Use oil, butter, or animal fat to make food taste better. All you need is salt and pepper when you have good ingredients. You only need a few basic kitchen tools to prepare great food. As much as I enjoyed this book and will be renewing it a few times from the library, I don't think I'll be adding it to my 'buy' list.