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Good reading cookbooks?

I love my cookbooks, but I tend to read them more than I cook out of them! I particularly enjoy cookbooks where the author shares a story or some little caveat with each recipe. Ina Garten does this to some extent in her Barefoot Contessa series, which I love, but I also have a number by Ann Hodgman (Beat This!, etc) that are fun to read because she includes an oftentimes hilarious little snippet with each recipe. Sara Moulton's first cookbook is another great example and fav. I also find these are the ones I go back to most often to cook from, maybe because they sell the recipes to me.

Any good authors I am missing? I need to vary my late night reading! Thanks

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  1. Elizabeth David is my favorite reading in this vein - never made anything of hers!

    1. Here's two (though I must admit I use these for cooking): (1) Georgeanne Brennan, THE FOODS AND FLAVORS OF HAUTE PROVENCE, and (2) Jerry Traunfeld, THE HERBFARM COOKBOOK.

      1. I enjoy the Babbo cookbook for just plain reading, and Aliza Green's "The Bean Bible". "Real Stew" by Clifford Wright is also quite good.

        1. One of my favorite cookbook authors to read is Faith Willinger. Her Red, White and Greens, for one, not only chronicles her life in Italy as wife and mother, but gives the rationale and history behind vegetable dishes not usually written down in Italian households. She calls herself a Born Again Tuscan. I love her for that.

          1. Try "Jewish Cooking in America" by Joan Nathan. The book has won Julia Child and James Beard cookbook awards, and is full of anecdotes and history.

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            1. I find Nigella Lawson's books fun to read.

              For more scientific/informational-type reading, I like Madeleine Kamman's The New Making of a Cook.

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              1. re: marthadumptruck

                I LOVE "How To Eat". Halfway through it, I went on amazon and ordered the other 3 of her books that were out at that point.

                1. re: semmen

                  Agreed about 'How To Eat', it is incredible. All of Nigella's books are a riot and fun, with excellent recipes. But start with 'How to Eat', it is wonderful to read. And relating to the next post. Stitt's book is excellent. And Pat Conroy himself wrote his own cookbook, 'Recipes of My Life' that has many wonderful stories of the type you are looking for. Finally, any cookbook by Jane and Michael Stern are much fun to read.

              2. I enjoyed reading reading Frank Stitt's Southern Table (and if you like Pat Conroy, he did the foreword). I also liked reading the Zuni Cafe cookbook for some odd reason. I lot of "why's" answered, but not in the sometimes pedantic way of ATK.

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                1. re: msbo78

                  Zuni is a good read -- nothing odd about it. You've got a personal narrative introduction, and great technique narrative throughout the the rest of the book. Judy Rodgers is a terrific writer!

                  For personal story books with recipes, I like Colette Rossant. I have "Memories of a Lost Egypt: A Memoir with Recipes", but I think it's released in the USA under a different title. I also like reading Diana Kennedy's Mexico books.

                2. I like to read them all, honestly! I thought Hot Sour Salty Sweet was an interesting read, esp. the historical aspects, + pretty pictures! And I didn't make a thing from it!

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Katie Nell

                    Any of the Alford/Duguid books will fit the bill, and I've recently enjoyed Memories of Phillippine Kitchens, and also Cradle of Flavor (on malaysia/indonesia). Both covered parts of the world I'd like to know more about.

                    1. re: Hungry Celeste

                      Ive read much of Cradle of Flavor and its an interesting account, but I havent decided yet re the quality of his recipes.

                      1. re: jen kalb

                        I haven't cooked out of it much....just a few simple stir fries that turned out fine. I'm planning to tackle the rendang...that will be the test.

                    2. re: Katie Nell

                      You should!! I had the book for years before I started cooking from it. Thanks to chowhound's cookbook of the month club!! Now I'm cooking from it every weekend! :)

                    3. My absolute favourite "good reading" cookbook is Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries. I lost a whole Saturday (not exagerating) because I couldn't put it down.

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                      1. re: Sam Ottawa

                        This is my current favorite in the "reading enjoyment" category, too. I also love Elizabeth David's South Wind Through The Kitchen, which is a "best of" collection.

                        1. re: Sam Ottawa

                          Agreed! Just picked it up. An excellent read. More of a reading cookbook than his prior (and also great) book "Appetite."

                        2. For reading, I enjoyed borrowing Anthony Bourdain's "Les Halles Cookbook" especially his descriptions of the differences between French and American butchering and Hollandaise sauce. That said, I do not revere the guy, and am put off by excess adulation. I'm just glad that someone (emphasis on the word one) is out there and expressing himself like that.

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                          1. re: thinks too much

                            I love this book too, there are even funnies right in the middle of the recipes!

                          2. For something humorous (with plenty of great photos & wild recipes)
                            check out Amy Sedaris' new book, I Like You.

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                            1. re: HillJ

                              Haha! Good choice. This one made me laugh out loud. A lot!

                            2. James Beard's American Cookery has lots of little snippets of interesting info on historical trends and recipes in American cooking

                              1. A Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis
                                Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni
                                New Book of Middle Eastern Cooking by Claudia Roden
                                Mangoes & Curry Leaves by Alford/Diguid
                                Culinaria series--I like to read Caribbean one, cooking from it is dicey
                                Victory Garden Cookbook
                                Cooks Illustrated magazine

                                1. I guess a lot of us are cook brook readers...my all-time favorites tho are Laurie Colwin's cookbooks. They are really short stories that focus around a recipe or two in each chapter. The chapters on Starry Gazy Pie and the one on Black Cake are my favorites!

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                                  1. re: KingsKetz

                                    I'll second, third and fourth Laurie Colwin. More reading books than cookbooks, but a worthwhile addition to every cook's library.

                                    I also like Nigella Lawson for reading, Judy Rodgers and the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and Jane Grigson.

                                    1. re: Amuse Bouches

                                      I, too, love Laurie Colwin's cook books. "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant" is a favorite, as is "Feeding the Multitudes."

                                  2. The Old World Kitchen, The Rich Tradition of European Peasant Cooking by Elisabeth Luard is a great read with equally wonderful recipes. I have been reading / re-reading and cooking from it for years now.
                                    I also highly recommend Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie by Bill Neal. The Sub title says it all: 300 recipes that celebrate the glories of Southern baking- with a generous accompaniment of historical lore.
                                    Many of my "go to" recipes are in this very tattered and splattered cook book.

                                    1. My dad loves Ruth Richel's "Tender At The Bone" and got a great raspberry custard tart recipe out of it. Campanile (a local restaurant here) did a great comfort-foodish dinner based on her food. He's a big fan of MFK Fisher as well.

                                      Patricia Wells "At Home In Provence" can be a little smug (comments along the lines of -- If you're lucky enough to have an olive grove as we do) but her recipes are simple, beautifully flavored and all around yummy and she conveys a sense of local markets and her very attractive home in words and photos. We took this book with us when we spent a summer in Drome and we have a number of go-to-dishes from here -- whole fish roasted in a crust of sea salt fish w/pistou esp tastey (although we use course kosher salt). Also use her tip that the French leave the skins on their onions when making stock which gives the stock a lovely rich ncolor.

                                      Nigel Slater's Appetite is great for inspiring by-the-recipe cooks to be more improvisational. As much about a general philosophy of laid-back lifestyle cooking as about recipes. Philosophy is great and inspiring but I haven't had a huge amount of luck with the recipes I've tried from this particular book. But love other of his recipes I've found elsewhere so perhaps I picked the wrong ones.

                                      Current project -- reading and cooking Mangoes and Curry Leaves which is so much fun. Part cookbook, part travelogue of the greater India region. Great photos, lovely unpretentious writing, great for the arm-chair travelling and has a huge variety of recipes many of which are fast and easy (key consideration for me). A little heavy to read in bed though.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: bite bite

                                        Ha. I keep rereading that line and cracking up: " If you're lucky enough to have an olive grove as we do"

                                        I'm reading a book called Curries and Bugles: A Memoir and Cookbook of the British Raj. The name pretty much describes it. The Anglo author grew up in India during the end of hte British colonial period. The recipes are Anglo Indian. I haven't actually cooked anything from it yet, but it is definitely fun to read. Julie Sahni's cookbooks (Classic Indian Cooking, Classic Indian Vegetarian cooking, etc. ) are amazing to read; not so much quippy as just really interesting about the food. Also, the recipes are great. Not fast though.

                                        1. re: gnosh

                                          "Curries and Bugles," -- know I know what I'm getting my mom for her birthday. She's fascinated with the era and food is such a fun way to explore history.

                                      2. This is not a cookbook response but... I have a subscription to Cook's Illustrated and find that it is a great source of in depth articles on cooking and food related issues. Highly recommend!

                                        1. I also love to read cookbooks!

                                          I enjoyed Zarela Martinez' "Food from My Heart," which chronicles her life growing up in Mexico along with her favorite recipes. I second the recommendation for Judy Rodger's Zuni Cafe Cookbook, which contains many anecdotes as well as recipes and instructions.

                                          For food writing with recipes, I've enjoyed pretty much everything I've read by M.F.K. Fisher and Laurie Colwin.

                                          1. Not exactly a cookbook, and it's kind of old, but I like With Bold Knife and Fork by MFK Fisher (actually, I like all of her food writing and most of it has recipes attached.)

                                            1. Ah, no one writes about food quite like MFK Fisher .

                                              I also love jeffrey steingarten's "the man who ate everything." Learned much from it, too.

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                                              1. re: JenMarie66

                                                It Must Have Been Something I Ate is great too. I think he has gotten funnier with time.

                                              2. Sunday Suppers at Luques by Suzanne Goin is a relatively recent cookbook with header comments before almost every recipe that gives a little anecdote of how the dish came about or who she learned it from. In addition there are short cooking notes. Very inspirational cookbook.

                                                I love the Elizabeth David books for the way the recipes are written and I have made many of the recipes. Her Mussels Bordelaise are heavenly.

                                                1. Think this depends a lot on the kind of food you like as well. I love Deborah Madison's The Savory Way for the tips and stories, though it is one of her lesser known books. Many love reading Nigella but I get sick of her writing really quicky - to me, it feels like empty sensuality. Her recipes are fine though. My fave of MFK Fisher is How to Cook a Wolf, and I also second Elizabeth David, the best by far of any UK cookbook writer I have come across.

                                                  1. On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, 2nd edition.

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                                                    1. re: ChiliDude

                                                      just got On Food and Cooking, and LOVE it for a browsing read - although not a cookbook per se
                                                      It is an encyclopedia! Previous books with a science approach have never appealed to me because they opine "best", which is always a matter of taste, not "science"
                                                      Dear Mr McGee sticks to the facts from what I've read, and he's such a good writer that it's not a bore.

                                                        1. re: pitu

                                                          He goes against convention wisdom about grilling on page 156 in that he suggests frequent turning of meat for even doneness. I have followed his advice with greater success than before using his technique. I turn and rotate steaks on our small charcoal grill.

                                                      1. I agree elizabeth David has some great reading and her recipes are always a fun adventure. Also, "Cafe Beaujolais" by Margaret Fox, an oldy but a goody which is about her place in California in the 80's. I have also recently enjoyed "Scavenger's guide to Haute Cuisine" by Steve Rinella. There are so many more but these are some favorites.

                                                        1. Maida Heatter and Marcella Hazan have great "voices" when they write. Heatter's instructions are detailed, precise and a little folksy--"Carefully pick the foil away, bit by bit. Don't be scared, just cover it up with a sprinkling of powdered sugar if it cracks." Hazan can be stern, but reassuring. She says things like, "Don't be tempted to take the lid off the pot until 20 minutes has passed, then start checking for doneness." Or something like that, as if she's slapping your hand away from the lid handle.

                                                          1. Anything by Anna del Conte.

                                                            1. I can't believe no one has mentioned A Return to Cooking by Eric Ripert. Its really amazing. He hired an artist to do the illustrations and they accompany the recipes, stories and photographs beautifully. In addition to that, he has long passages that accompany each recipe where he shares his passion for certain ingredients, treats us with anctidotes and shares his traveling stories. On my lunch breaks I'll sit in the library and read this cookbook. Its really a treat.

                                                              1. I too am an avid cookbook reader - I read 'em like novels. Problem is, later on when I think of making a particular recipe, I can't remember which book I saw it in! Anyone have any suggestions on how they keep recipes straight (I guess that's a topic for a different thread...)

                                                                As for reading, I love anything by Crescent Dragonwagon (great name!)... She wrote a huge tome on vegetarian cooking a few years ago (that one's on my wish list)... but her 2 previous cookbooks - both entitled with the name of her former B&B in the Ozarks - The Dairy Hollow House - are fabulous reads. Great recipes, too. One's more general, the other is a Soup and Bread book. Her technique for "The Salad" is tops - and is my "go to" technique.

                                                                I also love Ruth Reichl, Jeffrey Steingarten and MFK Fisher for ther general food writing.

                                                                Great topic!

                                                                1. Its amazing how much time you can spend reading simple recipes and fantasizing about them!
                                                                  I have always very much enjoyed Paula Wolfert's books, and her precise description of techniques and ingredients and how the recipe was obtained.
                                                                  Purely for reading, Honey from a Weed (Patience Gray) is a great account of a cooks experience living, in sometimes straitened circumstances in the Mediterranean region.

                                                                  1. I also love any of the Barefoot Contessa's cookbooks...Other suggestions would be Sheila Lukins "USA" cookbook, and "The New Basics" by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins

                                                                    1. I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned John Thorne's Outlaw Cook... haven't read his other books but they look to be great fun too.

                                                                      Also can't let this one go without mentioning Ernest Matthew Mickler's classic White Trash Cooking, which is a sociological survey, cookbook, and excellent read. Don't be offended by the title, it's a warm and honest book.

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                                                                      1. re: pronek

                                                                        If you listen to the delightful interview with a Chowhound moderator (http://www.chow.com/stories/10474 ), John Thorne is what brought Pat Hammond to Chowhound.

                                                                        I agree with Zuni. I read and read from it long before I started cooking from it.

                                                                      2. A Trip to the Beach by Melinda and Robert Blanchard

                                                                        Ever fantasize about leaving the rat race, heading to the islands and open a bistro...........true tale, fun read...a few savory recipes thrown in too!

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                                                                        1. re: HillJ

                                                                          Thanks everyone for the ideas! I don't know where to begin, a fortunate problem.

                                                                          HillJ - I LOVE that book! I highly recommed it as well! GREAT cornbread recipe in it too!

                                                                        2. "kitchen of light" by andreas viestad, a norwegian food writer, is a wonderful read (and has literally breathtakingly beautiful photographs of pristine scandinavian landscapes and adorable little norwegian kids to boot). each recipe has a little intro, but he also includes a few essays about food and life up north. he's really funny, clever and interesting and you learn a lot about food and culture in scandinavia (like the history of gravlax and aquavit, and midsummer fishing parties, and foraging for mushrooms).

                                                                          i also like the sort of authoritarian and mothering voice of marcella hazan's cookbooks, and definitely second the recommendations for nigella lawson and anthony bourdain--i haven't found their recipes to be so fantastic but their writing is hilarious and difficult to put down.

                                                                          1. Madhur Jaffrey, Marcella Hazan, and also Madeleine Kamman (When French Women Cook). Remember when TV cooking shows were actually good?

                                                                            1. Don't miss three books by Elsie Masterton : "The Blueberry Hill Cookbook", "The Blueberry Hill Menu Cookbook", and "The Blueberry Hill Kitchen Notebook" They are out of print but here is a link to some used copies:
                                                                              EM was a "New York city gal" as she said when she and her family moved to Vermont to open a ski resort. She had never cooked and now had an inn full of folks to care for. She became a brilliant cook, and wonderful writer. She should be more widely known.

                                                                              These are wonderful books. Great recipes and cooking tips, WAYYYY ahead of her time (steaming vegetables, al dente pasta, and cheese cake!) . Wonderful writing and written as narratives. Her spring leg of lamb with coffee is incredible. Mark my words: her spaghetti and meatballs is the best meal you will eat.

                                                                              1. The Unprejudiced Palate by Angelo Pellegrini was published in 1947, and it's a classic. Young Italian boy immigrates to Washington state in the early part of the 20th century, is overwhelmed by the bounty around him, and can't understand why his neighbors are so ignorant about good food. He goes on to be an English professor, and write a very chowish book. It's been recently re-published, edited by Ruth Reichl, with an introduction by Mario Batali. Not sure why it needed an editor, but it's a great read.

                                                                                1. As one who definitely focuses on cookbooks for the pleasure of reading, there's one volume that stands so far above the rest that I am surprised that it is not more often seen or discussed. My vote goes for Paul Bertoli's wonderfully crafted book, "Cooking by Hand". It is such an incredible integration of one man's love of tradition, life, family, culture, philosophy, and ultimately dedication to cooking as almost an aesthetic, in it's full philosophical sense, pursuit

                                                                                  It doesn't hurt that he is obviously a very gifted writer. He draws you in with his emotional attachments to food, be it through childhood memories of care packages sent by an Uncle from Italy full of homemade salumi, or hearing in the old country stories of pasta so good that all it needs is a simple dash of olive oil, or with his touching open letter to his newborn son who will one day read about and appreciate the profundity of the present he received when he was born: a set of traditional aceto basalmico barrels in diminishing size for aging vinegar. Initially full of vivid fruit and youth while in its largest barrel, the ripening vinegar will no doubt slowly diminish in volume while increasing in complexity and depth as they both grow older, until they are both of advanced age wherein the vinegar that essentially grew up with him now just occupies the smallest of the barrels. Within lies an elixir so precious as if it were made to consecrate the crowning achievement of having reached old age.

                                                                                  So he pulls you in with his stories, but also with his clear dedication to get to the core of what it takes to get the most out of his ingredients. The food he talks about in his book are not fanciful creations meant to impress by a self-aggrandizing originality or boldness of thought; rather they are honest tastes brought back from old traditions, created perhaps only a few generations past when people still took the care to use that most extravagant of cooking ingredients: time. In fact he opens his book with a most appropriate quote from Elizabeth David: "Good cooking is trouble".

                                                                                  A true aesthete of taste, he takes you along on his own personal, almost zen-like journey to find, for instance, the secret to that pasta so good it only needs olive oil - this is of pasta that tastes of the grain - a pasta so good that it starts with it's ingredients in its most humble form - as grain itself, carefully selected and considered, then painstakenly hand milled and turned into flour.

                                                                                  Reading through his words you will begin to see the world of taste through his eyes, and similarly begin to acclimate to his unique sense of timelessness that pervades his writing. In other writers hands it may seem indulgent to spend a major section of the book on nothing more than the pleasure of seeing a tomato twelve different ways. The only other comparison I can make is with Mas Masumoto's "Four Seasons in Five Senses: Things Worth Savoring", whose almost singular topic is the peach; it will forever change how one looks at a simple peach. And as in Masumoto, one may never look at their ingredients in quite the same way once having experienced reading Bertoli's book.

                                                                                  Where before I had none, now I find my kitchen with no less than three manual grain mills, and a vinegar jar wherein I produce my own red wine vinegar. I am sure that I am not the only reader of his book that has been so influenced, and if this intrigues you in any way, perhaps you will find yourself travelling along on a very similar journey.

                                                                                  Indeed, "good cooking is trouble"...

                                                                                  3 Replies
                                                                                  1. re: cgfan

                                                                                    cgfan, what a great description-thank you!

                                                                                    1. re: HillJ

                                                                                      Thanks for the kind words, HillJ. It really is an amazing and unique cookbook. Are you a fan of this book as well?

                                                                                      1. re: cgfan

                                                                                        yes cgfan, some time ago I bought a copy. You've done a wonderful job of sharing WHY folks should give it a read!

                                                                                  2. Someone I love and have seldom seen mentioned is Jane Grigson - there was a brief profile (and a very nice photo) of her in February Gourmet. She was British, was extremely well-versed in literature, had a wonderful prose style, and her recipes, while somewhat in the Elizabeth David cursory mode, work very well. I own all of her books - the Fruit Book and Vegetable Book are staples, Good Things and Mushroom Feast as well, and for reading, Food with the Famous is particularly fun (history/recipes tied in with various luminaries of the past).
                                                                                    Regret to this day that I didn't lash out and attend a cooking class she held at Macy's in SF in the mid-70's...

                                                                                    1. Laurie Colwin is alot of fun -- recipes w/ stories built around them.
                                                                                      Then there's the genre of novels with recipes inserted -- Nora Ephron's Heartburn. The story that builds to the insertion of the key lime pie is memorable.
                                                                                      And then there's Amanda Hesser -- a good food writer whose Cooking for Mr. Latte is a treat.
                                                                                      For tomato afficiendos like moi, I particularly enjoyed "In praise of tomatoes: a year in the life of a home tomato grower" by Steven Shepherd. Includes a fantastic simple fresh tomato sauce recipe.

                                                                                      1. Paula Wolfert's cookbooks are thoughtful, helpful, and warm. And I love John Thorne and Laurie Colwin. But Julia Child had the unique ability to make you feel like she's standing by your side while you cook, a wonderful feeling, and she urges you never to take things too seriously. "In cooking," she once wrote, "you've got to have a 'what-the-hell' attitude."

                                                                                        1. Anything by James Peterson. I draw a lot from "Vegetables," "Soup," and "Sauces." Encyclopedic yet incredibly accesible and focused on improvization. Good recipes that are designed to get you thinking and creating on your own.

                                                                                          Also, he's a terrific prose stylist. The description of how to clean an Eel from "Soup" is actually one of the funnier things I've ever read.

                                                                                          2 Replies
                                                                                          1. re: m.m.barbee

                                                                                            Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook has provided me with hours of reading enjoyment, also Leslie Newman's Feasts and Leslie Forbes' Remarkable Feasts.

                                                                                            1. re: m.m.barbee

                                                                                              I totally agree--James Peterson rocks! I have NEVER cooked anything from ANY of his books that didn't enthrall me. His tomato gratin with bacon, bread cubes, and cream in VEGETABLES is just out of this world.

                                                                                            2. I love reading Arthur Schwartz, the Food Maven. His wonderful book on New York Food is a classic for just reading, for the recipes and history, and for great photos.His Book on Naples is interesting, extremely well written,and full of great recipes and cooking tidbits. I love his website and newsletter. Arthur is now in Siciliy and writes very descriptive and evocative letters home. He is researching for his next book on Sicily.

                                                                                              1. I truly enjoyed "Consuming Passions" by Michelle Lee West (which you can get for about 1.00 used on amazon.com). More stories of growing up in the south with recipes at the end of each chapter like the ultimate mac & cheese.

                                                                                                Jeffrey Steingarten is good...but I read a chapter and feel exhausted. He is intense but a great read. Bourdain is fascinating as well.

                                                                                                1. Diana Kennedy! I have two of her books ... they're wonderful reading.