An Ode to My Favorite Cookbooks

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©. K Martinko -- The cookbooks that are used most often in my kitchen

These books have guided me along the path to becoming a comfortable, competent home cook.

I don't have a lot of cookbooks, but the ones I do have are precious. Once in a while, it occurs to me that I should edit my collection to free up shelf space, but then I look at the titles, the worn pages, the pencilled notes, and I reconsider.

These cookbooks are a part of me. Some have traveled from my childhood home to student apartments to my own family's house. They have provided sustenance, both mental and physical, for years. They feel like faithful old friends, objects I can turn to in a time of need and know I'll come away satisfied. Others are new, but full of promise. They reflect dietary changes in my life (less meat, more spice) and are a treasure trove of yet-to-be discovered recipe gems.

The oldest cookbook in my collection, by far, is the original Canadian Living cookbook that my mother used when I was small. Published in 1987, nearly everything we ate came out of that book. I have the original book, now in a binder with plastic sleeves, but I reach for it only to make Christmas classics like thimble cookies, eggnog, and tourtière.

Canadian Living cookbook

© K Martinko - The shortcake recipe is a family favorite.

I've since purchased the updated version, with its pale blue and white cover, which came out in 2004. At the time I was baffled by the exotic ingredients it featured, like hoisin sauce, green curry paste, and chipotle peppers. Now ordinary and available everywhere, my mother had to search long and hard in our small town to find these ingredients.

Being part of an old southern Ontario Mennonite family, I was an early devotee of the More with Less cookbooks. There are now three of these books, the first of which was published 1976 with the goal of "challenging North Americans to consume less so others could eat enough." The recipes are simple, hearty, and budget-friendly. Some are humorously outdated, but it's the perfect book for those last-minute dinners when all I've got is a bunch of beans, some sprouting potatoes, and a few limp veggies. More with Less can get me out of any fix.

The most recent addition to the series, Simply in Season, came out in 2005 but was ahead of its time. With a focus on CSA-type eating, it fits in well with the locavore lingo of the past couple years, and has a recipe for curried kohlrabi and peas that I make over and over again. Keeping it company are the church-compiled cookbooks I've collected over the years; these have some surprisingly awesome recipes, probably because Mennonites are fabulous cooks (but I am slightly biased).

Among the newer additions to my collection are Madhur Jaffrey's Vegetarian India, which I am just as likely to use for simple family dinners as fancy dinner parties, and Food52's A New Way to Dinner, which features weekly meal plans. I thought I'd use the meal planner design more than I do (I find the quantities too small for my family of 5 and very meat-heavy), but the recipes themselves are wonderful.

Then there is my small yet growing vegan collection, which consists of Isa Does It (reviewed here) and Vegan for Everybody (reviewed here). Though my family is not vegan, we use them a lot. It's so helpful to have books that eliminate animal products without relying on eggs and goat cheese, as every obligatory vegetarian section in a conventional cookbooks is wont to do. Especially now that I cannot have dairy, the baking sections of these books will be seeing a lot more use.

I cannot forget Mark Bittman's tome, How to Cook Everything! Given to me as a wedding gift seven years ago by TreeHugger colleagues Lloyd Alter and Kelly Rossiter, the book looks like it has been used for decades already. The covers are falling off and the pages are worn, but that's the sign of a well-loved cookbook. Just last night, I made the greatest (dairy-free!) tahini sauce from this book. It is my husband's kitchen bible.

more of my cookbooks

© K Martinko

Last but not least are my few glorious baking books -- The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum, which initiated my love of slow-rise hearth breads and contains the world's greatest blueberry muffin recipe (which, oddly, makes only 6, so I have to quadruple the recipe anytime I make it), and Home Baking by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford. The latter was a major investment for me in university and gave me so much more than recipes; I traveled the world through the stories and photographs in that book, and still do. (The Portuguese egg tarts, Lebanese tahini swirl pastries, and New York-style calzones are divine.)

These are just a few of the beloved books that have taught and guided me in my journey toward becoming a home cook. Some others are pictured above, as well as my subscriptions to Fine Cooking and Bon Appétit magazines that introduce a dash of interest and novelty each month.

No doubt everyone's collection will look different, but that's precisely why I'm always so curious to take a peek at other people's cookbook shelves when I visit. (If someone has Ottolenghi on their shelf, I'm their instant best friend.) Cookbooks, or lack thereof, say a lot about a person's food preferences and cooking style, which, in turn, says a lot about themselves.

No doubt my collection will grow over time, and whatever minimalist/decluttering kicks invade other areas my household, they are unlikely to affect my cookbook shelf -- unless, of course, it's finally getting rid of that awful Cook with Jamie book that I never should've wasted 50 bucks on so many years ago.

Thanks to Maria's Speidel's article in The Kitchn that inspired my own cookbook introspection.

What are your favorite cookbooks?