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Nov 1, 2006 12:02 AM

Starting a Cookbook Collection?

My friend wants to start doing more home cooking. Problem is....she lacks cookbooks. So, for her birthday, she wants cookbooks as gifts. Question is....which ones?

She's mid-30s, NYC urban sophisticate, smart, Cambodian (so Viet/Cambodian recipes not necessary), but very busy. Tell me 5 cookbooks she MUST have.

PS: Though not a deal-breaker, I am a fan of pretty pictures, and I think she may be, too.

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  1. Fanny Farmer Cookbook, Marion Cunningham

    Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan

    All About Braising, Molly Stevens

    The Silver Spoon, published by Phaidon (for lots of pretty pictures)

    How to Cook Everything, Mark Bittman

    1. I think one of Ina Garten's books is a great way to start. Her recipes are unintimidating, usually limited to a single page of text,and the results are great. Plus, there are lots of beautiful photos. I particularly like Barefoot Contessa Parties.

      Donna Hay and Nigella Lawson are two other authors that come to mind for their culinary and visual flair.

      1. Before I would start imposing my favorites on someone I would like to know what the recipient is interested in and wants to focus on. Does she like Italian? I called a moritorium of Italian cookbooks in my collection several years ago. I figures 14 was enough and it is not my go-to everyday sort of thing anyway. Southern cookbooks are a passion and I don't seem to get enough French books either. My collection is vast and varied and from all over the globe but I might suggest the Knopf America Cooks series published in the 90's might be a good starting point. They are regional books covering the US from coast to coast and border to border. Good reads too.

        As to All About Braising, that is an opportunist publishers way to sell more books. Braising is covered in more books than you can imagine. Having one just devoted to that technique is just silly, you could argues the same about baking books but it is totally different and baking does require real technique and skill. Braising is much less exacting.

        7 Replies
        1. re: Candy

          Candy, I know you are on the record with your distaste for this book. And yes, many a publisher has been exploitative. I suggest All About Braising because a) it is a comprehensive look at a technique that to me is underutilized; b) is highly recommended on numerous book review sites; c) has been a cookbook of the month here on CH with numerous helpful posts.

          It is nice that you are thoughtful enought to ask for all that background. Hopefully original poster's response will help others make additional helpful responses.

          1. re: MaspethMaven

            Lots of good suggestions on this thread! In fact, even with my present cookbook collection, I have some books to add to my Christmas list to feed my addiction :)

            Just agreeing with MaspethMaven (and Carblover's comment on the quality of "All About Braising"). In all fairness, I don't think the poster who said it was 'silly' has actually cooked from the book. I really like AAB and it could be a great addition to the variety of books you're considering, especially for the cooler weather, and do-ahead entertaining. Either way, you know your friend the best, so I linked to the quintessential review - the timely thread below on the 'Hounds cooking through "AAB" this month. It should help with your decision, on this particular book at least! (BTW, Hazan's "Essentials" that MM also recommended was Chowhound's October's cookbook of the month so you can check that out too -highly recommend that one also).

            Link to "October 2006 Cookbook of the Month: All About Braising":

          2. re: Candy

            Although braising may represent a few dishes in any given cookbook, AAB is for people who want to focus on and master the technique of braising across various cuisines and ingredients. Braising isn't as exacting as say, baking, but Molly Stevens covers braising in detail that's unparalleled IMO.

            That said, I personally wouldn't choose this book as a gift for the kind of friend the OP is describing. It may be too specialized for a starter and doesn't have the sexiest format or photos IMO.

            I'm thinking that the OP should get at least one restaurant-inspired book that is NY-based. Those that come to mind: Balthazar; Babbo; Les Halles; something by Tom Colicchio, Claudia Fleming, Eric Ripert, Marcus Samuellson, etc. May not be everyday books, but would be nice for entertaining.

            I personally like the Balthazar and Babbo books quite a bit. Recipes work too. Colicchio's Think Like a Chef is good for a beginner too.

            Of course, I'm also partial to West Coast books like Zuni Cafe and Chez Panisse.

            1. re: Carb Lover

              I agree with the above about ABB being an excellent cookbook. I find that I am flipping through it constantly and finding new things I want to try. While Carb Lover makes a great point about the book being too specialized for a beginner with lack of sexy format and pics, this may be the reason why it would be a great book for your friend.

              As CL also pointed out, the detail in the book is "unparalleled" and there is wiggle room for mistakes. Timing is not as essential for braising so the chances of a dish coming out fabulous rises. This will give your friend more confidence in trying other forms of cooking. Moreover, Molly Stevens gives you step by step directions and details that will give your friend guidance as to what the dish looks like at every stage of the cooking process. In addition, her timing is spot on. If she says that it will take 8 minutes to brown, it's 8 minutes. Many other cookbooks don't have that accurate detail. I think it is something that beginners will cherish and appreciate. There is always that modicum of doubt during the cooking process of "am I doing this right" or "did I f**k up and have to start over?" while I am not a beginner cook, I never had that doubt because of her directions. Plus the house will smell great and she can use that to torture her BF, friends and neighbors ;-)Once the temperature drops again on the east coast, braising is a great do ahead way to entertain guests.

              I also think the big yellow Gourmet cookbook is another excellent resource. It has become my go to guide on throwing together a meal. Down side - no pics.

              I've flipped through the new Bon Appetit cookbook and for some reason, it doesn't grab me at all. I don't know why but nothing seems that appealing to me.

              I haven't cooked a lot from the Silver Spoon (I had to return it to the library, damnit) but some of the pics didn't look so appetizing. Also, it's huge and overwhelming to go through. It's also really heavy so I was less inclined to read it in bed. Because of that, I tended not to choose recipes from it.

              Zuni Cafe - beautiful book with delicious recipes. But all the recipes are time consuming so it wouldn't be something your friend could use if she wanted an impromptu dinner.

              Marcella's book - also great but no pics.

              Is their a correlation between the utility of the cookbook with the quality of the pictures?

            2. re: Candy

              Candy--Which Southern Cookbooks do you have? Which is the most comprehensive and authentic to you? [I must say--I have to agree with your All About Braising comment. I am not sure why that book gets so much love on this board...]

              1. re: Ora

                Maybe that book gets so much love on this board because braised food is a lot like comfort food for many people. Just musing.

                1. re: Ora

                  Follow this thread
                  we had a discussion about southern books a couple of days ago.

              2. You don't say what her skill level is. Since I'm assuming because she's a professional and New Yorker, she'll want to do a dinner party soon to show off her new skills...

                Dean and Deluca, because it has a wide range of favorites from around the world, from European to Asian. No pictures but great recipes. I use this book all the time.

                Zuni Cafe. Both for technique and beautiful pictures.

                Chez Panisse Vegetables. For reference and introduction to really opening up flavors in veggies.

                Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Simple, earthy yet sophisticated flavors, by season.

                Desserts by Pierre Hermes. Spectacular food porn and also good reference for classic French baking techniques.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Kishari

                  Dean and Deluca is a very good cookbook, but it doesn't have ANY sweets or desserts and is, therefore, limited.

                2. Good follow-up questions, all! And I appreciate your input. Here's the deal. She's got a sophisticated palate and certainly can follow directions, but, given the fact that she has, and, I think, not one cookbook at home, it's probably safe to say that she's not the next Julia Child. Much of the food she'll be cooking will be for entertaining friends at home, or for cooking things she can make for her (and, perhaps, her boyfriend). I also know that seasonal cookbooks might be a good idea, and that she's probably less concerned about detailed technique than about making stuff that tastes great and look good.

                  The Fanny Farmer certainly was on my list, and I'm tempted to get her Silver Spoon, though I just got it, and although cook quite a bit, find it compelling but a bit overwhelming to tackle. I do think one solid Italian certainly would be good, and I'll reserve decision on the Braising book.

                  Keep 'em coming!!

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: skigirl

                    As a person who is self-taught in cooking (my mom checked out on the subject when I was around 14 and I took matters into my own hands), I would say the books that have been the most formative for me, and the ones that I turn to again and again for all kinds of items are:

                    (1) Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking -- personally, I consider this book an essential -- for one, although it is called "French Cooking" it really should just be called "cooking," as the subjects that Julia covers in detail are extensive, thorough, meticulously detailed, and have remedies for when you mess up. It's a great book for everything from how to make salad dressing to how to cook a potato, perfectly. Definitely get her this one.

                    (2) The Silver Palate or New Basics Cookbook by Julee Ross and Sheila Lukins. Once I got past the beginnings of cooking, these books were great for recipes in a variety of cuisines and for a variety of occasions. I might today sub-out this/these books for others, but for a beginning cook, they were pretty inspirational.

                    (3) Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking -- have yet to make a recipe from this book that didn't come out fabulous, and it provides a great foundation for Italian and Medterranian cooking.

                    (4) Personally, I've looked at my mother's copy of Joy of Cooking about once in the past 20 years. It never inspired me, nor provided me with anything I couldn't find better, elsewhere. For an all-purpose cookbook, I would highly recommend Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Recipes and methods are spot-on and easy to understand, and it really does have just about everything I've ever wanted to make listed in there.

                    (5) Number 5 is a tie for me. I'm torn between a book like Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, or something like "Epicure," which was a Junior League cookbook of my mother's which has great day-to-day recipes. I'd save the specialty cookbooks like Sunday Suppers and Lucques or the Zuni Cafe Cookbook for another time -- while beautiful books, they include pretty complicated recipes, not the best for a novice cook. If I were you, I'd use number five for something fun!

                    Edited to add: Actually, instead of book number five, I'd get her a subscription to a cooking magazine. I've gotten Gourmet for years, Saveur and Cooking Light -- all are good for different reasons, but if I had to pick one today, I'd probably say Saveur.

                    Great gift, by the way!

                    1. re: DanaB

                      I think the idea of a subscription is a great idea; the seasonality of the magazines always has them giving you the right idea at the right time; I happen to like Bon Appetit and think it's good for people who'd like to entertain; I got started on cooking by cooking from BA with grad school friends 20 years ago.

                      1. re: DanaB

                        Saveur, while an excellent magazine for reading, does not, IMHO, have many recipes that would fit into an 'everyday' cooks repertoire. I am an accomplished cook and no slacker, but even I am not interested in tackling Saveur recipes as they tend to utilize ingredients that are hard to find and are very time consuming. It is, however, on the top of my 'Must Read' list as it tells wonderful and insightful stories of cuisines from around the world.

                        1. re: DanaB

                          Wow DanaB, I was typing a list and then I saw yours.... um it was the SAME list!

                        2. re: skigirl

                          Here's a suggestion: if she isn't creeped out by old/other people's stuff, buy used books. Many, many cookbooks are given as gifts and never opened or are very lightly used. I hit library book sales, alibris, amazon, etc. and get great cookbooks for pennies on the dollar. This way, you could get her an entire LIBRARY of books for what you'd pay for a few new ones...can you tell that I love gift-giving gestures of excess? If you want to make it extra-special, order some food-themed bookplates printed with her name, playing into the "library of cookbooks" theme.

                          Another thought: if some part of the country (town, county, area) is special to her, you could get a community cookbook from that area...a Fla Keys cookbook to symbolize a great spring break trip you guys took together, etc.

                          1. re: Hungry Celeste

                            This is an excellent suggestion. We have Half Price Books in our area and I have found numerous cookbooks in near perfect condition for petty prices.