Three Essential Cookbooks

June 19th, 2012

The Essentials of Italian Cooking
How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food
The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution

We are voracious cookbook readers and collectors. With the explosion of celebrity chefs, it seems anyone who can prepare a 30-minute-meal now has their own TV show and accompanying cookbook; it’s almost impossible to keep up. Cookbooks, like fashion, come and go but as avid collectors, there are a few that we return to time and time again because the prose is enjoyable, the instructions are clear, their results satisfying, and most of all, they actually advise us on dishes we want to eat. Here are three of our all-time favourites, cookbooks that we consider essential, and have stood the test of time:

The Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
Published 1993 by Knopf

Marcella Hazan did for Italian cuisine what Julia Child did for French, and The Essentials of Italian Cooking is her masterpiece, containing more than 500 recipes – in other words, almost every traditional Italian dish imaginable. This classic, combining and updating The Classic Italian Cookbook and More Italian Cooking which are widely credited with introducing North Americans to authentic Italian food in the 1970s, is the equivalent of a cookery course, guiding novices and accomplished cooks alike through a repertoire that starts with the fundamentals (familiarizing her readers with ingredients, describing their textures and tastes) and moving through soups, pastas, risottos, fish and shellfish, beef, pork, vegetables and dessert, to name just some of the chapters in her book. There are, as might be expected, more than 110 pages of pasta recipes alone – many of these are remarkably simple and speedy but produce surprisingly flavourful dinner options. Hazan often begins her recipes with a paragraph of prose, perhaps giving a bit of history on the dish or the region from which it is derived, or describing what its texture should be; then she launches into a list of ingredients and precise, step-by-step marching orders. The beauty of The Essentials of Italian Cooking is that her recipes are created not “in pursuit of novelty, but of taste” and when followed, they produce admirable results. While it’s certainly not the only guide to Italian cooking we have, it’s the only one you’ll ever really need.

How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food by Nigella Lawson
Published 2000 by Chatto & Windus

Nigella Lawson famously made it desirable for a generation of kitchen-shy women to want to be domestic goddesses. But before her bestseller How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking made her a household name in North America, she wrote the lesser known How to Eat, which The Daily Mail proclaimed “The one book you have to buy this year” when it was first released. The title of this tome says it all – it is as much about enjoyable eating as it is about food preparation and Lawson is open about the fact that she is not a trained chef, rather a home cook, and her primary qualification is as an “eater”. Thus she comes across as a more experienced ally in the galley and her reassuring voice takes away much of the kitchen performance anxiety bewildering those of us who are not so comfortable over the stove. Containing over 350 uncomplicated recipes, Lawson has considerately divided her 500+ page book into useful chapters including “one & two” (on cooking for yourself and perhaps one other), “fast food” (on what to make in a hurry) and “weekend lunch” and “dinner” – providing menus for putting meals together and making entertaining actually seem achievable, even on a weeknight. But her recipes are not the only reason we return to this text again and again. How to Eat is simply a pleasure to read and the author’s sheer joy in cooking and eating is palpable and contagious. You will gorge yourself on Lawson’s prose which will inspire you to enjoy food as much as she does – making it, eating it and sharing it.

The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters
Published 2007 by Clarkson Potter

Alice Waters states her influential philosophy best: “When you have the best and tastiest ingredients, you can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary because it tastes like what it is.” It’s this attitude that causes the East Coast vs. West Coast divide in the culinary world with East Coast chefs deriding those in the West for their plain treatment of ingredients, disdainfully scoffing that with this farm-to-table philosophy, they would put a peach on a plate and call it dessert. But when cooking at home, we’re not aiming to be Michelin-starred chefs – we just want to make delicious dishes with a minimum of fuss, so The Art of Simple Food is a godsend. Queen Alice, as she is affectionately known, has divided her tome into two parts: the first reviews the basics including how to choose fresh ingredients, stock a pantry, and essential cooking techniques; the second has additional recipes building upon part one. This publication feels like having the renowned Chez Panisse founder as your culinary guide, sharing her tips and tricks with you; and it quickly becomes apparent that food does not have to be complicated to taste good. While the book includes chapters on salads, eggs and cheese, poultry and meat, it’s her treatment of vegetables that really shine – with options including Cauliflower Salad with Olives and Capers, Sautéed Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Onions, Moroccan Sweet Potato Salad, and Broccoli Rabe with Garlic and Hot Pepper – Waters treats these ingredients with the same reverence she has for a sirloin steak. This book beautifully captures her principles of good cooking which rely largely on gathering good ingredients, remembering always that “food is precious.”

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