There’s a lot of inspiring stuff flying off the presses lately, and we’re thrilled to make room on our bookshelves -- but not at the expense of that one old favorite. You know, the cookbook whose jacket has gone missing, whose pages are stained with gravy, whose splitting spine is taped together. It’s the one we can always count on for great ideas and practical advice. In that spirit, here are the all-time favorite cookbooks of Times Food staff writers:
Russ Parsons, columnist
Want to know why Richard Olney’s “Simple French Food” is my favorite cookbook? Read the recipes -- the one for onion panade, for example. In fact, just read the first sentence: “Cook the onions, lightly salted, in the butter over a very low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour, keeping them covered for the first 40 minutes.”
In that one brief passage, we get three cooking lessons: Salt the onions from the start to help draw out the moisture so the onions wilt faster. Start them in a cold pan so they melt without scorching. And cover the pan early on to trap the heat, helping retain moisture and keeping the onions from browning.
Even better, the dish is a total knockout. It’s like a transcendent French onion soup -- deeply aromatic, nearly custardy, with a stunning gratineed cap. All this comes from only the humblest ingredients. No fancy foodstuffs, no expensive equipment and no tricky techniques. With Olney’s cuisine, time and care are all that are required to work miracles. There is no more important lesson for a cook to learn than that.
Test Kitchen director
I love poring over cookbooks, but in truth, I rarely follow a recipe to the letter when I’m cooking at home. Unless, that is, it’s from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (co-written with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck). I first opened this book in the early 1970s, and it hasn’t let me down since. The instructions are clear and thorough, the simple line drawings extremely helpful in illustrating cooking tips. Even what might seem like a fancy dish (a charlotte, say) feels doable. One of my all-time favorites is the blender hollandaise sauce; it’s so deliciously foolproof, you can’t help but feel confident that you’re really mastering the art.
S. Irene Virbila,
Judy Rodgers is a consummate chef, and “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” reflects the sensibility behind the intelligent and sensual food at her long-running restaurant in San Francisco.
The writing is wonderful, the selection of recipes smashing. I get hungry just thumbing through it. I’ve cooked from it so much that the pages just naturally fall open at certain recipes, such as the peach crostata, the world’s greatest roast chicken with Tuscan bread salad, or, standing rib roast of pork. The pork has become my fallback for entertaining when I don’t want to spend the whole day in the kitchen. It’s incredibly easy and incredibly satisfying, and a great dish for a beautiful Chianti or Sangiovese.
Barbara Hansen, staff writer
On my first trip to Mexico a couple of decades ago, I discovered a bilingual book that became my bible to Mexican food. “Mexican Cook Book Devoted to American Homes,” by Josefina Velazquez de Leon, first came out in 1956, but nearly half a century (and many reprints) later, it remains a valuable guide.
Velazquez de Leon, the Mexican equivalent of Fannie Farmer, provides practical cooking instructions but also makes her country’s vibrant cuisine come to life. Leafing through the pages, I can practically taste the mole de olla (a fragrant and spicy beef stew and stuffed squash blossoms as they would have been prepared in a traditional kitchen, where clay pots simmer over a wood fire.
Charles Perry, staff writer
In 1968, I was a romantic in the kitchen. All ingredients taste great, I figured, so you could just mix and match. Whee! Some would call this California cuisine before its time. Back then, I thought of French food as a lot of bland, pretentious fripperies. But one night, an old college friend cooked cotelettes de porc au cidre from Elizabeth David’s “French Country Cooking,” and I was awestruck. The unexpected combination -- of browned pork, rosemary, cider, garlic and capers -- really worked.
There was nothing improvisational about it. The dish was as perfect as a Doric column -- despite David’s disdain for giving exact measurements. Today I have hundreds of cookbooks from around the world, but I still find myself going back to David’s rock-solid recipes.
Leslie Brenner, Food editor
Pastry making is not my forte, nor do I have a sweet tooth. That’s why when Lindsey Remolif Shere’s “Chez Panisse Desserts” was published in 1985, I flipped over it. Shere was Chez Panisse’s first pastry chef, and a thread of sophistication runs through her desserts, which are more about flavor than they are about sugar. No one can look into the soul of a fruit the way Shere can: She has an innate sense of what to do with a tangerine (use it to flavor oeufs a la neige). She even coaxes flavor out of cherry or apricot pits to make noyau ice cream. And she pairs figs dipped in caramel with anise or Chartreuse creams. “The herbal flavors complement perfectly the sweet muskiness of the fig,” she writes. What could be more inspired than using Chartreuse (or Calvados or Bourbon or late-harvest Riesling) to finish a meal with an elegant, easy flourish?
Cook the onions, lightly salted, in one-fourth cup butter over a very low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour, keeping them covered for the first 40 minutes. If the heat is low enough and the saucepan of a heavy material, there will be no problem of coloration -- they should begin to caramelize lightly toward the end of an hour’s time, at which point the flame may be turned up slightly and they should be stirred regularly until the entire mass is of a uniformly rich caramel color. Should there be signs of coloration too soon, the flame should be lowered even more, or the heat may be dispersed by separating the pan from the flame with an asbestos pad.
Spread slices of bread thickly with the onions, arrange a layer in the bottom of the casserole, sprinkle over a thick layer of cheese, and repeat the process, packing each layer gently and arranging the bread slices as well as possible to avoid empty spaces. The last layer should be sprinkled only with cheese, and the casserole should not be more than two-thirds full at this point.
Bring the salted water to a boil in the same pan in which the onions were cooked. When it comes to a boil, pour it slowly and very carefully, at one single point against the side of the casserole, permitting the bread to swell and the mass to rise about 1 inch, or until obviously just floating, but no more (if you fear an unsteady hand, carefully ease the tip of a funnel down the side of the casserole to the bottom and pour the boiling water into the funnel).
Cook on top of the stove, uncovered, over a very low heat, the surface maintaining a light, slow bubble for one-half hour. Add, as before, just enough boiling water to be certain that the body of the bread is submerged, sprinkle a bit more cheese over the surface (sprinkle over a teaspoon of Cognac now, if you like), shave about 1 tablespoon butter in paper-thin sheets from a firm cold block of butter, distributing them over the surface and transfer the casserole to a medium oven (325 to 350 degrees) for 1 hour, raising or lowering the temperature, if necessary, after about 40 minutes’ time, depending on how the gratin is developing. The soup should be covered with a richly colored crust of gratin and should be served out with a large spoon onto preheated plates.
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