FOOD FOR THOUGHT
You can’t judge a book by its cover, especially when it comes to
cookbooks. My shelves are stuffed with more than 50 titles, bought
with the best intentions and a sharp eye for potential booby traps.
But there are only about five books written by a handful of authors
whose kitchen wisdom I admire and whose directions I’m willing to
Does this sound like a bad case of foodie snobbery? I’m not the
only one who has religiously followed directions in a “best-selling”
cookbook, only to end up with something the family dog runs away
Experienced cooks can usually sniff out a bad recipe. But what
about the novice who’s got no means of comparison? It’s enough to
send them out of the kitchen forever.
There’s an overabundance of sources for excellent recipes, ones
that are well-tested, contain complete directions and result in
something you’d be proud to present at your table. While I have my
favorite sources, I decided to check with an expert to see if my
instincts were correct.
Author of “Secrets from a Caterer’s Kitchen,” Nicole Aloni is a
well-known food writer who has more experience under her apron than
I’ll ever hope to have. She offers some very sound advice.
She recommends beginners start with a reliable cookbook and master
a repertoire of simple recipes. You’d be amazed how much can be
learned by perfecting something as basic as baked macaroni and
cheese. Once you know how a dish is put together, you can improvise
when necessary and interpret incomplete directions.
Among Nicole’s favorites are “The Way to Cook” by Julia Child,
“How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food” by Mark
Bittman, and the “Silver Palate” cookbooks by Julee Russo and Sheila
Nicole and I agree that no matter where you stand on the ladder of
culinary skills, you can’t go wrong with anything written by Julia
Child or Jacques Pepin. The first cookbook I ever bought (and still
use often) is “The French Chef Cookbook,” based on 119 programs of
Julia Child’s original TV series. The Grande Dame of the kitchen
leads you step-by-step through everything from complicated French
classics to chicken dinner for four in half an hour. It’s recently
been re-issued in paperback.
I’ve discovered cookbooks written by well-known restaurant owners
are not always reliable. Time spent in their own kitchens has
rendered them clueless to the skills of their readers.
Nicole also has high praise for recipes found in quality cooking
magazines, as they are subjected to more rigorous testing. My
favorites are Bon Appetit and Gourmet. I recently discovered “Cooks
Illustrated” at the local supermarket. Its recipes appeal to all
levels of expertise and include some of the best illustrations I’ve
ever seen. Their cookbook reviews are excellent.
My list of all-time favorites is limited to books with recipes
that teach me something new and supply clear directions resulting in
success every time. And, of course, I want to enjoy reading it.
Besides “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” I really like
“Martha Stewart Living 2002 Annual Recipes.” Organized by season, it
includes recipes for everything from appetizers through desserts and
offers menu suggestions. The book reads like the author speaks on TV:
a no-nonsense approach that takes little for granted.
“The Dean and Deluca Cookbook” by Bob Rosengarten and others
includes some recipes beginners may want to avoid, but very detailed
instructions are provided. What I like most about this book is the
organization by kind of food, broken down into cooking methods and
“Timing is Everything” by Jack Piccolo does not include any
recipes but is a valuable reference for everyone. The section Methods
of Cooking Food covers baking to stir-frying. The main part of the
book lists every conceivable kind of food, the best methods for
cooking, detailed instructions, and of course the timing. The section
on food storage is one of the most detailed I’ve ever seen.
And, while I generally avoid books by restaurant owners, “The Best
of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking” by Mai Pham is an exception. She
offers much information about commonly-used Asian ingredients. Every
recipe I’ve tried has been a winner.
Isn’t this list terribly short? Overwhelmed by the number of
excellent volumes published in the last few years, I’ve gone on
cookbook overload. But good cooks are the most generous people I
know. I hope you will send me your recommendations and we can put
together a “Top 10" list of cookbooks. Maybe we’ll tempt those on the
sidelines to enter their kitchens and enjoy the process as much as we
* LILLIAN REITER is a Laguna Beach resident. A self-described
“shameless foodie,” she is currently co-authoring a cookbook. She can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach,
CA 92652, or via fax at 494-8979.