Friday, December 6, 2013

Tools of the Trade: Cookbooks

Sometimes there is nothing more relaxing for me than to sit down with a cookbook and just read. 

A cookbook is perhaps one of the most important tools a cook can have. More than just a collection of recipes that someone decided to share with us, a cookbook should speak to us and inspire us in some way; either to cook foods we normally wouldn't, or to use a new technique, or use ingredients we may not have otherwise thought to.

The earliest collection of recipes that has survived in Europe is the De re coquinaria, written in Latin. First compiled some time in the First Century, it recorded a mixture of Greek and Roman cuisines but with few details on preparation and cooking. After a long interval, recipe books started to appear in the late 13th Century, in Europe as well as in the Middle East and China. Amazingly, about a hundred survived (though mostly fragmentary) from the age before printing. Most "cookbooks" at that time provided not just recipes but overall instruction for both kitchen technique and household management. In fact, the first cookbook published in America was called "The Compleat Housewife", written by Eliza Smith, an instructional guide to not only cooking but preparing medicinals and home cleaning solutions. It was originally published in London in 1727 and was later modified for the American audience and published here in 1742 where it quickly became a best seller.

Cookbooks are as varied as they come: some are just beautiful to look at, with lovely, mouthwatering photos of food and places (one celebrity chef has sarcastically referred to this as "food porn"); others are instructional, such as Julia Child's "Mastering the Art", detailing step-by-step directions on how to truss a chicken, for instance; others are encyclopedias which explain the ingredients and how best to use and prepare them and perhaps offer some history about where they came from. Celebrity chefs are putting out their own collections of recipes based on their shows. And then there are the specialized cookbooks that focus on just soups, for instance, or just meat, or cooking with chocolate. So, with this vast array of cookbooks to choose from, how do we pick those that we want to include in our collection?

The best cookbooks are simply those that get used. The one with the oil splatters and food stains. In my French cookbook, for example, the page on quiches has butter stains on it because it has been a reliable recipe for me for over 20 years! Some people's cookbooks have been so often used that they are held together with rubber bands. These are the cookbooks we cherish and will pass along to our families. Those that don't capture us should be given away to others or donated to the library. We should keep only those that really inspire us and we should get more of them. It's easy to get stuck in a cooking "rut" where we fall back on the dishes we are comfortable making. It's one thing to make that recipe over and over again because it's great, but do we venture out and try new things? Do we go beyond our comfort zones and risk making something we've never prepared before?

A new cookbook can provide just the inspiration our cooking needs, to steer us in a new direction. The next one I buy will likely be one that inspires me to use seasonal foods and is organized by time of year. So far, I'm really liking Local Flavors by Deborah Madison. I have two other books by this author that I have really enjoyed.

I know there’s always the internet to go to, but for some of us, we like the feel of an actual book in our hands. In that case, dont forget your library if you don’t want to spend any money. There is a book on veggies there that I check out several times a year! I’m always finding new recipes to make from it.

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