Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times | Terms of Service | Privacy Policy

A little undercover work with cookbooks


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 or P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach,

CA 92652, or via fax at 494-8979.