A Quarantine Reading and Cooking List
This is a time of reflection for a lot of people. In my case, this can too easily take a turn toward the prosaic: dwelling on the contents of my kitchen cabinets, philosophizing about my sock drawer, and—invariably—about the state of my bookshelves. Prompted by a reader, I started going through my cookbooks to do just that. Cookbooks were my first real culinary instructors. I often say that I learned how to taste from my mother, and how to cook from my cookbooks. As a young man new to America, I felt doubly inept: I knew little about the world and little about cooking.The first cookbooks that I came to love and wanted to hold on to were the ones that gave me insight not just into the humdrum details of how a dish was made, but a real understanding of what made it unique: some unexpected (and not always exotic) spice, some unobservable feat of legerdemain explained just so, an ability to evoke the soul of a dish or a cuisine even if the place it came from was several thousand miles away. This list is not necessarily made up of the most useful, thorough, well-researched, or well-written books on food I’ve read. Though some of them could of course easily claim those titles, that’s not why I love them. This list, is made up of all the books that I come back to repeatedly for reasons that I’ll try to explain but whose appeal goes beyond their many objective merits. Some of them are like a cozy and perfect sweater, others still surprise me with their acumen and culinary insight. But more than these, they each mark a memorable season in my development as a cook and a reader, a roadmap to all the other books in my collection, to the weird and delightful places my hodgepodge culinary education has taken me. And for those of you looking to pick up one or more of these, do look them (and others!) up at your local independent bookstore (here in NYC alone, we have the inestimable Archestratus Books and Foods, Kitchen Arts and Letters, and Bonnie Slotnick to name a couple. A good online resource for older books is ThriftBooks.com.
1) The Food of Morocco, by Paula Wolfert
Which amazing Paula Wolfert book to choose! I struggled over this one. Although I absolutely adore (and venerate) the slightly more anthropological tone (and look) of many of Wolfert’s earlier books (Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco and The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean are two other favorites) there’s something about the accessibility of this later book and its sheer density of wonderful recipes that makes it one I go back to often. Also, after enough years of collecting recipes and cooking, its rare to find a dish that takes you completely by surprise, and yet this book is filled with them. The chicken with caramelized quinces and walnuts is one of the most glorious homemade dishes you could ever hope to cook up and the manner of its preparation (an ingenious mixture of steaming chicken over sweltering onions and then caramelizing it in honey and butter) is so lovely and novel that it makes me smile just to think about it. But the book is rich in every department: its couscouses; its brilliant and simple hack for making lace-thin warqa at home (there’s a brush involved); a stunning tagine of fish slowly braised in a (admittedly laborious, but well-worth-it) tangle of julienned vegetables, preserved lemon, charmoula, and olives. And though I try to be above the glossy appeal of a lot of newer cookbooks, this one is a stunner, with beautiful photography of both the dishes and the places they come from.
Other books by Paula Wolfert that I love: The Cooking of Southwestern France; Paula Wolfert’s World of Food
Other books on Moroccan Food: Traditional Moroccan Cooking by Madame Guinaudeau. Though it’s hard to cook from because of its almost fairy-tale looseness with quantities and instructions, there is also a lovely dreaminess to the recipes in this little volume, including one for a bisteeya for fifteen that lists among its ingredients 30 eggs, 4 ½ lb of flour, and a (sadly unspecified) number of pigeons.
2) All About Braising, by Molly Stevens
This was one of the first cookbooks I ever bought. Braising, in the Western sense, of searing something (meat, fish, vegetables, what have you), and then slowly cooking it in a sealed dish with a little liquid and aromatics, is a heaven-sent technique for beginner cooks. It doesn’t involve a lot of fancy knife work or fussing around a stovetop. It tends to use less expensive cuts of meat (when meat is involved), and the results are the stuff of dreams: unctuous, rich, fall-off-the-bone. Stevens does a great job of explaining the basic principles of braising, pointing out tricks that she likes (use a sheet of parchment to lower the ceiling on your braising dish and to encourage circulation of steam; use a heat diffuser for stove-top braising). I especially enjoy the extensive section on braised vegetables (two stand-outs are the creamy braised Brussels sprouts and the braised shallot confit), something people tend to overlook with braising in favor of big chunks of hard-working cuts of meat. But, never fear, the selection of braised meat dishes is superabundant: wide-ranging and yet basic enough to be approachable. I still resort to the easy grocery list for Stevens’s pork riblets braised in Vietnamese Caramel sauce when I’m in the mood for something Southeast Asian and don’t have the energy to look up a recipe. And the same with her recipes for duck sugo and Moroccan chicken with green olives and preserved lemons. All in all, a workhorse of a book, excellent and incredibly educational for beginners and with plenty of lovely surprises and novel ideas even for more seasoned cooks.
Other Books on Braising: Braise by Daniel Boulud
A slighter book (about half the size in fact), this book dwells less on the technical aspects of braising, but is a fantastic deep-dive into the many permutations and combinations that you can employ with braising—pairing meats with ingredients less common in the American kitchen, like Jerusalem artichokes, plantain, red currants, tripe, tamarind, and more. A real gold mine for unusual braising ideas for cooks already familiar with the general technique.
3) Life and Food in Bengal by Chitrita Banerji
It was hard to decide on just one Indian cookbook to take pride of place in this list, but the one that always makes me happiest to dip into is Chitrita Banerji’s Life and Food in Bengal. (I should add a quick disclaimer that Chitrita is a good friend, though my praise for her book is wholly objective, I can assure you!) I love this book so much largely because it is so resolutely itself and so true to its subject. So many cookbooks on the foods of places outside of the United States are forced into the tricky task of representing a “national” cuisine. It’s not the kind of thing that can really exist anywhere—let alone in a country like India of well over a billion people. And so I’m always delighted when a writer plants a flag for a specific place and makes it their job to share with you all the things they love about it. Banerji’s book is a wonderful collection of recipes, stories, history, culinaria, and general kitchen wisdom. The book documents the foods and seasons in both the Indian state of West Bengal and its neighboring country of Bangladesh. Muslim dishes share the page with Hindu dishes. Treatises on the many ways of preparing the unctuous hilsa follow on discourses on the glories of monsoon vegetables. The recipes are interwoven with the chapters and often introduced with thoughtful and intriguing details about the homes and cooks they come from. Though we can’t get the distinctively Bengali marrow known as the patol here in New York, Banerji’s many recipes for this compact summer squash still make me daydream about being in Bengal digging into a festive spread with her. Or you can try her glorious recipe for kalo jeera bharta, a chutney of nigella seeds, a whole head of tava-roasted garlic, green chili, and mustard oil. Spectacular and pungent with some hot rice and ghee.
Other books on Indian food: Yamuna Devi’s Lord Krishna’s Cuisine
This is a fascinating, handsome volume, drawn from the author’s travels with and time as the personal chef to A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (better known in the US as the Hare Krishnas). Though I’m ordinarily wary of books that try to equate all of Indian cooking with brahmanical tradition, this book manages to present temple cooking as yet another fascinating aspect of Indian culinary culture and does it in a detailed, thorough way—replete with an almost encyclopedic number of ideas for things to do with vegetables (and lentils and breads, and sweets!).
4) Flavor Flours by Alice Medrich
I am, I should admit, a rather terrible baker. Anything that requires any kind of patience or sangfroid (cookie-baking, piping, frosting!) drives me completely bananas. But that doesn’t keep me from having my favorite baking books. And though I do love many of them, one that feels worth singling out is Alice Medrich’s Flavor Flours, dedicated to cooking with gluten-free flours. It’s a beautiful book and immensely useful, not least of all because of how it cleverly demonstrates that switching out wheat for flours like teff, rice, sorghum, buckwheat, and others, can be a gift to the home baker instead of a liability—an opportunity to use the unique tastes and textures of these delicious grains (and nuts) to your advantage in your baking. Medrich’s calm, reassuring tone manages to convey all the technical aspects of baking with gluten-free flours in a commonsense way that allows you to adapt that knowledge to your everyday baking. My particular favorites include her almond and brown rice brownies, buckwheat gingerbread, poppy seed pound cake, and corn flour chiffon cake (to name just a few).
Other books by Alice Medrich: Chewy, Gooey, Crispy, Crunchy
Chewy, Gooey, Crispy, Crunchy is a fantastically intuitive collection of sublime cookies organized by texture. There are few things that cause me more tension than baking cookies (all that waiting and turning trays around!) and yet even I am not immune to this book’s immense charms and usefulness.
Other baking books I love: Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
I’ve included this collection of show-stopping cakes not just because the cakes themselves are so impressive (and delicious) but because the recipes, broken down into manageable steps and with thoughtful and helpful details for the home baker included at every step by the marvelous Dorie Greenspan, are a pleasure to read, and (even for the irreparably terrible bakers among us) a pleasure to make.
5) The Cuisine of Hungary by George Lang
There are few books on food out there that are as hard to pin down, as expansive, and as pleasurable to read as George Lang’s Cuisine of Hungary. I was first drawn to it by its fabulous baize green Harry Ford cover, but opened it to find vastly more treasures. The Cuisine of Hungary is part repository of traditional Hungarian recipes, part cultural and culinary history of the Magyars. But the (other) part that I love best are perhaps the nuggets of collected folk and kitchen wisdom, like the exhortation from a 1674 almanac that reminds homemakers to feed peacocks kiln-dried beans in February to ensure that they will lay eggs speedily. It’s a rather sad trick of fate that so many of the things I want most to cook out of this book are recipes that I’d have no way of recreating in any large city, but still they captivate me: dishes of braised wild goose, stuffed goose neck, chopped hare steak all have a rather magical sound to them. But for every obscure and tantalizing prospect, Lang also has innumerable dishes that are well within reach, like his chicken stuffed with almonds or many of the entries in his exhaustive section on soups. I also love the section on sweet-making—with everything from the deceptively simple-looking kurtöskalács, golden brioche-like chimneys of enriched bread dough cooked on a kind of spit and then sprinkled with sugar, to borsodá, a Hungarian elaboration on the zabaglione that came to Hungary in the fifteenth century.
Other Books on Central European Cooking: The German Cookbook by Mimi Sheraton
Though most of the world knows her as a restaurant critic, I think this may be my favorite book by Sheraton. Expansive, detailed, but never fussy, a wonderful tome dedicated to the true breadth and ingenuity of the German kitchen. Also notable here is the dizzy-making section on German baking.
6) Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin
This is far and away one of my favourites. Not only because it is written with such plain forthrightness and sheer pleasure for the delights of cooking, but also because of the wonderful friendship it documents between these two icons of French cooking in America. Jacques and Julia have such an easy camaraderie, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they seem to disagree about almost everything. Julia prefers white pepper, Jacques likes black. He loves garlic, she thinks he uses too much. And yet, the fondness that each has for the other is immediately palpable. The book takes this idea and uses it to create a singularly useful and even-handed culinary guide. Each recipe is accompanied by a little note from Jacques and Julia. Sometimes they each just offer some little insight into the recipe. Other times they offer their contrasting takes on a dish. Julia likes her lobster roll filled with warm lobster tail meat simply dressed with butter, herbs, and lemon. Jacques’s version is a chilled maximalist affair with mustard, shallots, ketchup, and mayonnaise. And the reader comes out the winner, since both versions are delicious. Classics that I often return to are the truly untoppable free-form apple tart, the pomme de terre macaire, Julia’s Steak Diane, Jacques’s Skillet Duck with Parsnips and Shallots. Oh and so much more besides.
Other books by Julia Child: I particularly love Julia’s later work, when she assumed the role of a kind of impresario of rising culinary talent. As such, Baking with Julia is a great favorite, a real treasure trove of recipes from across the world of American baking.
Other Books by Jacques Pepin: Pepin has scores of wonderful books. And yet, the one that fills me with the most wicked and proprietary pleasure is his compendium on French culinary techniques, La Technique. It can be a little hard to track down the handsome original hardcover edition, in which case I am also rather fond of his more recent Complete Techniques, which comes in a neat and sturdy paperback.
7) ‘Wichcraft by Tom Colicchio and Sisha Ortúzar
Though there’s nothing revolutionary about this book of sandwich recipes, it came into my life at just the right moment to make a permanent mark on my palate and on my pantry game. Those of you who live in New York will know ‘Wichcraft as the once-ubiquitous sandwich shops helmed by Tom Colicchio of Top Chef. (They still exist, though there are far fewer today than then.) What still strikes me about this book is that I opened it expecting a pretty unambitious and by-the-numbers restaurant chain cookbook. But what I found instead was a fantastic source of ideas for easy, delicious, and original dishes. And I say dishes and not sandwiches, since although the recipes are all ostensibly for the latter, the recipes walk you through the preparation for each component—from the proteins to the condiments to the pickles, each usable on its own if you feel so moved. The chopped chickpea salad is still one of my favourite things to make with a can of chickpeas. And I have to thank Colicchio and coauthor Sisha Ortúzar for introducing me to the magical combination of bitter, nutty grilled radicchio and baby-soft, terrazzo-pink mortadella; it’s a pairing that still feels magical to me, especially with the unctuous electricity of a touch of their pistachio vinaigrette. Other favorite recipes are for their confit lemon, smoked chili oil, and their salami sandwich with marinated cauliflower and bitter greens.
Other sandwich shop books to stock your fridge from: The Mile End Cookbook by Noah and Rae Bermanoff
This book (spun off from the fantastic Mile End Deli in New York City) deserves so much more attention on a list like this, but—limited space! Still, I particularly wanted to give it a shout out because it is such a marvelous source of kitchen gems that, once you’ve tried them, will become an irreplaceable part of how you cook. The sandwiches are quite literally life-changing, of course, but I also love and live by their chopped liver, matzo ball soup, and potato salad—and their instructions for homemade gribenes and schmaltz (start with 2 lbs of chicken skin) are my idea of literal heaven.
8) More Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
My (vividly recalled) first encounter with Hazan’s writing was as an extremely inexperienced hand at pasta cookery, struggling to hand roll out an apple-sized ball of dough into a sheet large enough to provide dinner for four hungry adults. Hazan, unlike most cookbook writers, minced no words in her primer on homemade pasta: pasta rolling machines are for quitters. My husband pleaded with me, the guests knocked at the door and were sent for a walk around the block, and only after a small meltdown, was the pasta machine taken out and the evening saved. You’d think this would have turned me against Hazan’s hard-nosed school of Italian cookery. But, though it was a difficult and frustrating experience, I eventually learned to make pasta by hand, and I respected Hazan’s insistence. It is different! Springier and more alive. Hazan can be a tough instructor—she’s incredibly opinionated on a variety of issues, including the use of pasta water to help sauces emulsify and cling (not a fan), refrigeration and freezing (to be avoided when at all possible) menu planning (only ever to be done on the fly when at the market examining the season’s freshest tomatoes, most “bosomy” (her words) eggplants), and so on.
I don’t find all of Hazan’s advice practicable, but I always listen to it and try to understand it, even when I can’t quite achieve the level of perfection she seems to favor. And for my efforts I’ve been rewarded with the gift of her meat braised with onions, her roast duck (prepped with a hair dryer), and her deboned and stuffed chicken, and the varied insights of a truly unique cook and culinary teacher.
Other Books by Marcella Hazan: Everyone already seems to have and love The Classic Italian Cookbook, so I’ll buck the trend and add my other favorite: Marcella Cucina.
Other Books on Italian Food: Flavors of the Riviera by Colman Andrews
Not strictly Italian, but rather spanning Italy and France’s Riviera, this absolute jewel of a book delves deep into the traditions of this region, whose cuisine has been so lamentably oversimplified in the modern imagination.
9) Istanbul and Beyond by Robyn Eckhardt with Photographs by David Hagerman
I’ve raved before about Robyn Eckhardt’s work, so why not do so again here! I’ve followed Eckhardt and her husband Dave Hagerman’s work for well over a decade. I first encountered Robyn’s writing in her blog EatingAsia, which was filled with her closely observed and thoughtful travel and food stories from Penang, China, Turkey, Cambodia, and farther afield. So when I heard that she and Hagerman were publishing a book on Turkish food, I was beyond ecstatic. Turkish food is painfully underrepresented on the global food scene, and especially so in the United States. Istanbul and Beyond opens up a whole world of regional Turkish food and illuminates the traditions and storied delicacies of this fascinating country, overlaid as it is with so many historical influences. The book is a compelling mix of travel narrative, food anthropology, and exquisite and dreamy recipes. Some of my all-time favorites dishes from the book are the imam bayildi, a dish of slow-cooked stuffed eggplants whose name means “the imam fainted” (possibly from how good these are); muhlama, a fondue-like dish of melted cheese and corn flour that will haunt your dreams (in a good way); and piti, a deeply satisfying turmeric-infused lamb and chickpea stew. And Hagerman’s photos only add to the appeal of this gorgeous tome: scenes of daily life set against soaring mountain backdrops, shepherds scrambling over rocks in pursuit of their flocks, women hard at the physical labor of making dried noodles; they all paint a picture of a culinary culture vibrantly, deliciously alive and waiting to be discovered.
Other Books on Turkish Food: Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon by Claudia Roden
Though I wish each of the countries in this book’s title could have gotten their own book-length treatment from the amazing Caudia Roden, the Turkish section of this book is still a wonderful resource, with well-written recipes and a nice primer on the history (more remote and recent both) of Turkish food.
10) The Georgian Feast by Darra Goldstein
I’ve raved about this book before, but as my Russian landlady used to say to me, maslom kashu ne isportish’—you won’t spoil the kasha with butter. Or, more simply, you can’t have too much of a good thing. The Georgian Feast was the first cookbook I ever bought for myself, and in many ways it determined what I would always look for in cookbooks from then on. Darra Goldstein is a master chronicler of food, customs, and fascinating literary-culinary arcana, and it was such a delight to read through and cook through The Georgian Feast that I immediately decided that this is what all books on food ought to aim for. The book (which has been newly reissued in a beautiful twenty-fifth-anniversary edition), is filled with beautiful details about the history, daily life, flavors, and wonderful particularities of Georgian food, and I still open it frequently for meal inspiration, or sometimes just to feel like I’m at some faraway and scenic table in the Caucasus, tucking into a supra with all my favorite dishes: the kharcho, a wonder of a beef soup made tart and fresh by the addition of pureed apricot leather and great quantities of fresh herbs; the charkhlis mkhali, a beet puree enriched with walnuts, fresh herbs, and garlic that I make for (this isn’t an exaggeration) every single dinner party we host; the adjapsandali, a wonderful dish of braised summer vegetables and herbs; the braised green beans with yoghurt. The list is too long and too delicious for me to finish here. Do yourself a favor and track down this treasure of a book and you’ll see what I mean.
Other books by Darra Goldstein: Beyond the North Wind
I’m going to make an exception today and recommend a book that I haven’t read yet. I was almost uncontainably excited for the release of Darra’s new book and book tour. Though the physical book tour had to be cancelled because of the ongoing COVID crisis, if you head to @darra_goldstein, her Instagram account, you can find links to her virtual appearances, and information on how to get your hands on Beyond the North Wind—which is what I’m off to do right now.
11) Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop
You can hardly be interested in food and be unaware of the work of Fuchsia Dunlop, whose books paint a vibrant and compelling portrait of the many cuisines of China. I love so many of her books, but finally decided to include her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook here for the simple reason that it was the first of her books that I read. And so I’ve always returned to it with a feeling for that time—of first learning about the particularities that make Hunanese food so special. It was through the book’s concise but wildly evocative sections on the Hunanese pantry, and on the various elements of the Chinese cooking arts, that I first became familiar with ingredients like camellia oil and concepts like tiao wei, the complex Chinese art of combining flavors. The context Dunlop provides for dishes is never solely culinary (even if such a thing could be said to exist); there is always a rich vein of social history, anthropology, and wonderful human observation running through it all. A reminder that’s particularly apt right now, that people—whether restaurant chefs, duck farmers, or even friends—form the basis of any cuisine. Another feature of note is Dunlop’s riveting descriptions of place; evocations of thunder cracking overhead as she tucks into a meal, or of driving through hills made wine dark by the rain and clouds can’t but add luster to the dishes that accompany them. Some favorite dishes from the book include the steamed sea bream with purple perilla (particularly good if you have an overabundant crop of perilla); stir-fried zucchini with salty duck egg; bowl-steamed eggplant with winter-sacrifice beans and salted greens; and the Liuyang black bean chicken.
Other Books by Fuchsia Dunlop: Land of Fish and Rice
This handsome, beautifully photographed, and wonderfully written book is much too lovely for me to do it justice in brief. I’m still making my way through it, slowly and in wonder, enraptured by such dishes as the extremely grand-sounding eight-treasure stuffed calabash duck.
Other Books on Chinese Food: Madame Chu’s Chinese Cooking School by Grace Zia Chu
My sentimental pick, for Madame Chu’s graciousness, dedication to her students, and her recipe for boneless chicken wings.
12) Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater
I can’t think of anyone else who taps into the quiet yet profound ebb and flow of the English culinary seasons quite like Nigel Slater does. There’s something balm-like about this collection of seasonal recipes. Though I’ve cooked more than my fair share of recipes from it, I’m just as likely to curl up on the sofa on a rainy day and read from it about the pattering of spring snow against the windowpanes or the much-anticipated summer arrival of honey-fleshed Charentais melons. The spare, shadowy photos add a lovely pensive mood to the book, as do Slater’s gentle, soothing deliberations on the virtues of each season as it comes and then slowly takes its leave. Great favorites from this book of great favorites include the pork burgers with lime leaves and cilantro; the chickpeas with harissa, basil, and ham; the roast chicken wings with lemon and cracked pepper; the baked onions with parmesan and cream; and his simple and lovely lemon-frosted pistachio cake.
Other books by Nigel Slater: Tender
This abecedary of vegetables (well near-abecedary: Y, and a few other letters aren’t represented, but who’s counting) is an essential volume for anyone interested in learning more about—and cooking more—vegetables. Slater includes a rather spiffy primer on gardening, composting, and the things that go into growing your own veggies, and then tackles them one by one, talking about the care that goes first into growing them, and then into cooking them. A beautiful thing to hold and read, too, with lovely full-page photographs throughout.
More English loveliness: The Roald Dahl Cookbook by Felicity and Roald Dahl
Though the connection is tenuous here at best, I couldn’t help but include this charming book of recipes, culinary miscellanea, and family anecdotes from the author of some of my favorite children’s books. Perhaps the best thing I learned from this book was that Dahl grew his own giant onions (which often each reached a size of 3 lbs), a fact that I think caused my admiration of him to grow exponentially (well, by 3 lbs at the very least).
13) Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
More than any of the other authors on this list, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi are the ones least in need of introduction. But when I first picked up the UK edition of their debut book, Ottolenghi, they weren’t yet the household names they’ve become in the US. They were still just a twinkle in America’s eye. I had already made their orange polenta cake (brain-breakingly good) from a recipe in the late Gourmet magazine, so when, at a book sale, I spied the minimal black and white cover of the book with the spare sans serif title tucked into one corner, it just seemed like a grand serendipity. And it was such a treat to come upon these gorgeous recipes like found gold. No real anticipation, none of the sensation that would follow them when they made their big splashy debut on these shores soon after, just the sheer and unmediated wonder that is this book. I don’t use it as much as I used to, but that’s also probably because I’ve committed most of the recipes to memory. When my husband and I catered our own wedding, several of the dishes came out of here, another reason why I probably feel an extra special attachment to it. Also, on an objective note, I love the constant love both authors give to the many staff members whose contributions make up the book. It’s rare for restaurant cookbooks to share credit so generously with the people who actually originated the recipes, but here they’re not just credited, but celebrated. Favourite dishes include the orange polenta cake (of course), the cucumber and poppy seed salad, the marinated eggplant with tahini and oregano, the olive oil crackers, and the char-grilled broccoli with chili and garlic. (Oh, and I can’t resist: the Florentines and the pistachio shortbreads.) (And the mixed mushrooms with cinnamon and lemon.)
Other Books by Yotam Ottolenghi: Plenty
There’s a (literal metric) ton of other books by Ottolenghi to choose from, but my favorite is probably Plenty, which distils the feeling of abundance of the first book into a lovely tome on satisfying and beautiful vegetarian dining.
14) How to Roast a Lamb by Michael Psilakis
I don’t usually put much stock in the idea that all home cooks need to cook more like professional chefs. I think each faction (as it were) has its own benefits that the other would be hard pressed to really implement. That said, it’s always useful to pick up tricks wherever you can, and Michael Psilakis’s How to Roast a Lamb is full of artful little things that the home cook can incorporate into their cooking that actually make a great deal of sense and mesh well with the sensibilities and priorities (as I see them anyway), of the home kitchen. Psilakis does a fantastic job of explaining how flavors work together, and how, when you think about the construction of a dish, it pays to consider how to build layers of flavor and texture. The book is deft with some fairly complicated procedures; techniques when they are elaborate are described in just enough detail to push you in the right direction. Psilakis’s graviera dumplings, although a real labor to make, are what I wish all my homemade gnocchi could taste like. Tender, pillowy, and cheese-y—and pairing it with bitter dandelion greens, rich and gamey lamb sausage, pinenuts, and sundried tomatoes creates a raucous and yet wonderfully balanced dish. Other beloved dishes from the book are his seftalia, little caul fat-wrapped Cypriot sausages, his pheasant with spaghetti, and braised rabbit with hilopetes pasta. And I’d be remiss not to mention my single favorite thing from this book—the simple and yet devastatingly powerful (I mean this word in every sense) confit garlic. It’s potent stuff, but so easy to make and I love it on absolutely everything.
Other Books on Greek Food: Falling Cloudberries by Tess Kiros
Though not strictly a Greek cookbook, this was my first introduction to Greek and Cypriot food in recipe form, so I often return to it with fond feeling. Kiros’s dreamy, charming account of her life between South Africa, Cyprus, Finland (and later beyond) makes for a lovely read, and hers is still the recipe I turn to when I crave a bowl of creamy, punchy skordalia (often).
15) Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico by Diana Kennedy
There’s something about Diana Kennedy’s palpable British cool that marries wonderfully with her dedication to the regional cuisines of Mexico. As is so often the case with these entries: I have an embarrassment of riches to contend with. Kennedy is the author of a veritable library of fantastic books, but the one I come back to the most is her Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico. A blurb on a later edition (I have to admit, I have both the 1978 original and the 1990 reissue and consider both essential) proclaims Kennedy the high priestess of Mexican cooking. But there’s little that’s sacerdotal about Kennedy’s flair for hunting down stories, of talking recipes out of people, or her willingness to allow the cuisines of Mexico to speak for themselves. (If she seems almost shaman-like in a video tour of the chiles of her garden—Google it!—then perhaps that’s just something her readers see in her.) Her approach combines the rigor of anthropology with a narrator’s love of sharing—of making accessible. Her descriptions—equally of places and people as of dishes—bring this collection of recipes from throughout Mexico to vivid life. My favourite dishes include the complex and unusual pork with purslane and the pollo enchilado, a terracotta-colored braise of chicken just perking with the subtle flavors of prunes, cinnamon, orange, and ancho chiles.
Other books by Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy. Though not about Mexican food, I love this galavanting recollection of recipes from home and away. “Taramasalata, English style” and “gingersnaps” rub shoulders here with “salpicon de res, estilo Zitácuaro.” Also wonderful and worth a deep-dive is her impressive Oaxaca al Gusto.
Other books on Mexican Food: Libro de cocina del hermano fray Gerónimo de San Pelayo
Though of varying use as an actual cookbook, this slim account of the cooking in a Franciscan friary at the end of the 18th century gives a captivating view of how early missionaries in Mexico ate, with occasional glimpses into clerical life and the ways local ingredients made their way into the kitchen.
16) Cradle of Flavor by James Oseland
I love this book—part travel memoir, part collection of recipes—because of the endearing and relatable coming-of-age story at its heart. It opens with a young Oseland (who would, much later in life, become the editor of Saveur) heading to Indonesia on a lark to visit a college friend. Fresh out of San Francisco, and having never been to Asia before, he quickly falls sick with Dengue fever, but not before being given a portentous reading by a psychic. His visit to Indonesia, she says, has changed something inside him: now he will always come back—it has become a part of him. (The episode always reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s allergic reaction to a cashew fruit in Rio de Janeiro—a mishap that allowed her to meet Lota de Macedo Soares, and delayed her departure from Brazil by some seventeen years.) True to the psychic’s prediction, Oseland stays well beyond the summer he planned, only returning to San Francisco a year later. The book draws from this early year as well as the frequent trips Oseland makes over the course of the next two decades. He points out early that the book is not a true compendium of Indonesian regional cooking—despite being a fair-sized volume it’s too slight for that. Instead, it’s a lovely, captivating account of one person’s travels through a place and his recollections of those of its foods he loves best. Oseland’s wonder at the details of Indonesian cuisine and life—the little rituals that go into the preparation of food, the stories that accompany each dish—are partly so beguiling because he recaptures them as if still in that first blush of feeling. A wonderful introduction to this extraordinary, complex, flavorful, and fascinating cuisine. Favorite dishes include Asiah’s eggplant curry, the fantastically lush beef rendang, the wonderfully simple and aromatic celebration yellow rice, and the Soto king’s chicken soup.
Other Books on Indonesian Food: Indonesian Regional Food and Cookery by Sri Owen
This absolutely essential volume dwells less on Owen’s personal story, tackling head-on, instead, the variety and depth of Indonesia’s many regional cuisines. An invaluable guide for cooks whose appetites for Indonesian food is piqued and who want to dive in deeper.
17) The New Book of Great Desserts by Maida Heatter
As I’ve let on before, I’m not a champion baker, so the appeal of most baking books for me is mostly voyeuristic and therapeutic—I like reading them and fantasizing about eating the things they describe. But with Heatter, and with her New Book of Great Desserts, this armchair habit invariably bubbles over into action. I love her way with recipes—not the austerity of the professional perfectionist, nor the unrelenting folksiness of the home-baking evangelist. Heatter, who was in fact self-trained as a baker, lies somewhere in the middle. Her nose for recipes leads her into every corner—wine tastings, bakeries, recipes received in the mail—but she brings them to her readers not with the air of a returning champion, but of someone eager and delighted to share. Heatter passed away last year at the eminent old age of 102. She only turned to baking professionally in her forties and had her first book come out when she was 58. A lot has been made of the fact that she was an outrageous (and yet always charming) self-promoter, always willing to hype a recipe as the best she’d ever had, or tell readers about what celebrity had contacted her to rave about one of her recipes. In part this is what I like about Heatter’s writer’s persona—it’s like she realizes that diffidence would only get in the way of what she aims to do and so she simply doesn’t bother with it. She’s forthright without being abrasive, sincere without being maudlin, and her recipes, even if they aren’t each and every one of them the masterpieces she made them out to be, were always a fascinating look into how America (and she) baked. Favorites from this book include Mrs. Foster’s Lime Pie and her retro-spectacular grape tart.
Other Books by Maida Heatter: Maida Heatter’s Brand New Book of Great Cookies Heatter’s books all have their seasons, and it’s always this one I reach for come the holidays, for the recipes, and for this blessing that she imparts in it: I wish you happy cookies—and much cookie happiness!
18) The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
What ineffable thing is it that makes someone a good teacher? I’ve never been to the Zuni Café (embarrassingly, I’ve never even been to San Francisco), and when I picked up Judy Rodgers’s cookbook, named for her beloved café, I was unprepared for the ways in which it would change the way I cook. Rodgers, who passed away in 2013, had a marvelous gift for distilling the essence of a dish into a single central idea and getting you to feel its importance—almost palpably—so that even if you lost the recipe or had the book snatched out of your hands by wolves (there’s no other way you’d part with it), you’d always be able to find your way back to that desired end; that perfect emulsion, that ideal balance of flavors, that subtle trick that makes it all come together. Her instructions for making her pearà sauce, an extravagance of coarse bread crumbs bronzed in a pool of rendered marrow and then slowly, oh so slowly, combined with chopped porcini mushrooms and stock is a master class in the importance of letting things happen at their own pace. If you hurry along any of the steps you’ll end up with a sauce that’s either burnt, sloppy, stodgy, or mushy. But if you follow her directions, the bread will first turn a lovely, sapid gold in the beefy marrow fat, then the mushrooms will release their wild, mad aroma of earth and autumn, and then as you painstakingly add in the stock spoon by spoon, the bread will first soak it up and then, eventually, relax and yield into a lush and miraculous emulsion. And when you eat it over a steak, it will bring you to tears. Other remarkable dishes in the book are Catherine’s celery root, the Zuni ricotta gnocchi, the insuperable roast chicken (always salt your meat ahead of time!) and the sorrel and onion panade.
19) The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis
The word “monumental” is perhaps too bombastic and unwieldy to describe a book that is so filled with small, quiet, and exquisite pleasures, but it’s hard to think of another that would do justice to this marvelously moving, and beautiful volume. Though this was in fact Edna Lewis’s second book, it was the first in which she recounted so fully the details, rhythms, and pleasures of her youth in Freetown, a small farming community in Virginia founded by freed slaves, her grandfather among them. Lewis’s account of the food and life of this town within a town fairly shimmers with a sense of calm, of the fleet plenitude of the seasons—come and gone like the brief moment of fresh English peas or the first tender asparagus. Many of the recipes are deceptively simple—buttered beets, panfried sweet potatoes, baked beans—and very rarely do they rely on long lists of ingredients. But there’s a deep care in Lewis’s recipes for the good sense in enjoying the season’s dearest offerings modestly and without distraction. The beets should be picked young and tender and cooked with their skins on so that they don’t lose their precious color, and then tossed quickly with drawn butter. The sweet potatoes are cut into thin slices and quickly pan-steamed in a shimmer of butter, not so that they become crisp, but rather just to condense their sweetness. The beans cook with a minimum of fanfare in a low oven with just a hint of tomato, some chopped onions and salt pork. The unassuming, and yet wildly delicious, recipes included in the book are no less than the foundations of a great American cuisine—honest, simple, seasonal, and elegant.
Other Books on the Food of the American South: Victuals by Ronni Lundy
A thoroughgoing and loving work of culinary scholarship, Lundy’s book documents the traditions (and innovations) of the southern Appalachian mountains the author grew up with. Fried apples and shucky beans mix freely (and winningly) with recipes from acclaimed restaurant chefs.
20) The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz
I do think it’s high (if self-congratulatory) praise that this is the only ice cream book I’ve ever felt I needed. Need is a criterion I don’t often consider when buying cookbooks, so it’s not uncommon for me to buy multiple books on the same subject. And yet,The Perfect Scoop is, true to its name, really just the perfect ice cream book. I first received it when I was new to cooking, and it taught me so many wonderful things about ice cream. Technical things, sure—the effect alcohol will have on the freezing point of your ice cream, how to make a granita with a freezer and a fork—but also other, less fiddly things, like the fact that anise makes a truly remarkable ice cream; that when you’re really in need of some spoiling you should make yourself a batch of Chartreuse ice cream. That even the so-called boring flavors, like vanilla and chocolate, when made with care and good ingredients can be heavenly. And years later, I still find new things in the book. The milk chocolate-Guinness ice cream isn’t something I’d have picked out for myself twelve years ago, but when I make it now, the gentle milk-sweetness of the chocolate and the nutty, malted bitterness of the stout beer send me into veritable ice cream ecstasy.
Other Books by David Lebovitz: In addition to his fantastic blog, which is filled with excellent (and wide-ranging recipes), Lebovitz has a number of other wonderful books, many dealing with aspects of his culinary life in France. Perhaps my favorite, though, is The Sweet Life in Paris, a charming and envy-inducing collection of cultural observations, anecdotes, and homey and delicious recipes.
21) My Bread by Jim Lahey
Although I try as much as the next person to be immune to food trends, I have to admit that I fell hard for Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread. I should disclaim (yet again) that I’m not a terrific baker, and this was even more true when I was first gifted a copy of My Bread by a friend. I had read the hype about the magical recipe that involved no work and produced a crackly, open-crumbed loaf, but I wasn’t convinced. But when I finally relented and started using the book, I found that it did, in fact, bring together a number of fascinating techniques in a clear and easily graspable way. I won’t pretend that My Bread has much (if anything) to offer seasoned bakers, and yet, I think Lahey does a wonderful job of making the idea of a decent loaf of bread a workable reality for a home baker. His instructions for how to handle an extremely wet dough were the first I ever read, and there are little gestures I picked up from his lessons that I still retain in my hands. And though I now have a wider view of what the capabilities of bread are (Sourdough! Whole grains! Non-wheat grains!), I still have a soft spot for this simple, straight-forward and extremely user-friendly book. In addition to the lovely walnut and olive loaves, there are the stecche, slender baguette-like loaves, and the pizzas, which have perhaps been the thing that have stayed closest to my heart. Though they may not seem revolutionary now, Lahey’s sheet pan pizzas—covered simply with onions, cream, and nubs of sausage and baked till singed and golden or with mushrooms that turn dense and black and fantastically evil-looking (to name just two) are still some of the easiest and most delicious things I’ve made in my oven.
Other books on baking bread: Another great title for the general baker is Carol Field’s The Italian Baker, a book I love both for its rigorous exploration of the regional baking of Italy (both sweet and savory) as well as for its careful, detailed, and thoughtful instructions.
22) Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Remolif Shere
Could there be a lovelier book than Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Remolif Shere? This may be the cookbook I’ve most frequently gifted to people. The recipes are simple and perfect and beautifully organized into thoughtful sections based on flavors, so that you have tropical fruit desserts under one heading, nut-based desserts elsewhere, and chocolate all on its own, and so on. The beautiful cover and sweet little illustrations throughout by Wayne Thiebaud add that hint of the extra-special that make this one of my favourite cookbooks—to read through and to cook from. Favourite desserts from here are Craig’s macadamia cake, Lindsey’s almond tart, the lace cookies, the pistachio torte, the Beaumes-de-Venise ice cream, the noyau ice cream, and so many more.
Other Books on Baking: Standard Baking Co. Pastries by Alison Pray and Tara Smith
I once spent a month in the middle of a winter full of blizzards on an island off the coast of Portland, ME, and the high point of every week was the ferry ride into town to pick up groceries and to get a treat from the Standard Baking Co, the elegant and ambitious little bakery right by the pier. Even if you haven’t felt the exquisite relief of biting into one of their treats after coming in from the blistering cold of a Maine winter, you’ll find plenty to delight in in this compact and beautiful book.
23) Taste of Persia by Naomi Duguid
This book, by the illuminating Naomi Duguid, is a remarkable combination of insights into the traditions and realities of the historical Persia and the recipes that make the region’s cooking so distinctive. Duguid’s lens is at once wide and granular—taking in the broad sweep of the distant past of the region, but also shining a light on the near past and present. And though the book doesn’t shy away from the political and social realities of life on the ground in Iran, Kurdistan, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, it always approaches them with care, and through the eyes of the people Duguid encounters and the meals she shares with them. The result is a textured, layered book that speaks to readers on so very many levels and creates a vibrant, rich picture of what life is like in this part of the world that so many in the West are so accustomed to seeing solely through the lens of politics or skewed through newspaper headlines. Favourite dishes from this omnibus of delights include the ajika (the green and the red varieties); the hovivi, a surprising and delicious Armenian “eggless omelette,” the lobahashu, a lush and simple kidney bean pâté (recipe available on the Tiffin site, incidentally); and the many delicious soups, but especially the ash-e-anar, which furnishes a scintillating bowl of emerald verdure that’s the perfect tonic for spring during a lockdown.
Other books by Naomi Duguid: Burma: Rivers of Flavor
This guide to the beautiful and sadly underrepresented cuisine of Burma, is an essential addition to any cook’s collection and filled with recipes you’ll want to make again and again.
24) How to Grill by Steven Raichlen
Like a true city dweller, I crack this book open every time I want to fantasize about having a backyard, or even a wee little balcony, or really, any small corner of space where I could fire up some coals and get a nice barbecue going. And even though these things remain mostly pipe dreams, this book’s appeal remains strong. I first got introduced to Steven Raichlen through his PBS cooking shows. And though it’s tempting to put him in the same category as all the other mad scientist “meat” heads (his collection of smokers, grills, and other barbecuing apparatuses from around the world surely warrants clinical examination), Raichlen’s tone is anything but crazy. He shares his knowledge with a truly lovely (I hate to say it, but almost dorky) eagerness and simplicity. How to Grill doesn’t provide any obscure recipes or use any particularly hard-to-use cuts of meat, but what it does do is provide the reader with a thorough, well-explained guide to the various elements involved in grill cooking. The book is generously supplied with step-by-step illustrations—from how to fire up a batch of coals in a chimney starter to how to barbecue a whole pig. I don’t get to cook from this book as much as I’d like to, alas, but when I finally have that backyard, I’m definitely going to try Raichlen’s whole grilled salmon, rotisserie grill duck, and Cajun smoked turkey.
Other Books by Steven Raichlen: I recommend a comprehensive approach with Raichlen’s work. I love his Barbecue Bible, which is a great resource, as well as his TV shows. In fact his Project Smoke is now available for free on the PBS website.
Other books on meat: In the Charcuterie by Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller Though not about grilling or smoking per se, I love this handsome, well-illustrated, and detailed book on various forms of meat preservation—from terrines to salumi, to confits from the people behind the Fatted Calf Charcuterie.
25) Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen
Very often, I associate the cookbooks that I love most with the things that they introduced me to, and the worlds they opened up for me. I’ve been a huge fan of Andrea Nguyen’s work ever since I picked up Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, her first book, and a wonderful entrée into her fantastic and joyous culinary world. The book itself was a remarkable first glance for me into the fresh, seasonal, and inventive cuisine of Vietnam, and the story of Nguyen’s family’s escape from Saigon and arrival in the United States in the 1970s lends the recipes an even greater resonance. The book is a touching tribute to the ways in which immigrant communities rely on the foods of the countries they’ve left behind to recreate some feeling of home. Nguyen’s description of the ways in which her family’s repertoire of home-cooked immigrant Vietnamese cooking evolved with time and with the growing availability of Vietnamese ingredients in America is a fascinating look into how cuisines change with time and depending on whose custodianship they’re in. Nguyen is a funny, engaging, and practical guide to the cuisines of Vietnam and this book is a wonderful gateway into a world filled with culinary delights. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out her website, Viet World Kitchen, which is filled with recipes, handy tips on seasoning your wok, storing your fish sauce, or picking out lemongrass.
Other books by Andrea Nguyen: I can’t just choose one of her other books, so I’ll recommend both Asian Dumplings as well as her newest book Vietnamese Food Any Day.
Other books on Vietnamese food: Vegetarian Viet Nam by Cameron Stauch
I haven’t had a chance to cook from this smart and resourceful book yet, but I can’t wait till I can get my hands on Southeast Asian ingredients again so that I can try out Stauch’s many recipes that foreground the resourceful and ingenious way that Vietnamese food has with vegetables and herbs.
26) Lidia’s Italy by Lidia Bastianich
I couldn’t think of a more fitting place to end this list than with Lidia’s Italy. How to sum up just how wonderful and welcoming Lidia’s books are? She’s like a fairy godmother of Italian cooking, looking over your shoulder and encouraging you, and all the while teaching you amazing little culinary tricks, recipes, and sharing her vivid love of cooking and food. I’m not even sure how many books by Lidia I own, but I had to choose this one because it’s the book that first taught me how to cook a goose. Eleven years ago, I wanted to cook a goose dinner for the holidays, but all I could get in the way of advice or recipes was one alarming tale of woe after another. One friend even told me that she had had two geese burst into flames in her oven in the middle of prepping for Christmas dinner. I was discouraged until I discovered Lidia’s straightforward, simple, and wonderfully foolproof recipe for goose with mlinzi. It’s not so much the recipe that’s revolutionary (she has you salt, trim, and air dry the bird overnight and prick it all over to help the fat render out, then blast it in a very hot oven, drain off the fat (to avoid explosions), and then basically steam it—it’s a technique that’s not altogether uncommon for large, fatty birds like duck and geese), but her casually encouraging tone that convinces you that maybe cooking this monster bird is actually not that big a deal at all. It worked like a dream, and after eleven consecutive years of cooking it, it still seems a wonder to me. Other favorite recipes from this beautiful collection of regional recipes are the marinated winter squash, the beautiful herb-packed duck sugo, and the potato gnocchi stuffed with prunes.
Other Books by Lidia Bastianich: There really are too many to choose from, but my next favourite is probably Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy.