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Cookbooks for taking it to the next level?

Hey gang,

I do own a lot of cookbooks these days (as I'm sure all of you do), some classics, some oddities, some strange used-bookstore finds (the little book of big sandwiches is actually a goldmine)... but I'm always trying to notch my food up to the next level. To make my food less 'busy', simpler (does not mean quicker!), but well better at the end of the day.

My tastes lie more french/italian than anything else, though I have cooked an awful lot of indian and thai when the cravings hit me. I'm more looking at technique, doing simple things well, but also 'fussy' things, plating, building a cohesive meal rather than just one thing. Maybe something simpler than The French Laundry.

Some things I do own: les halles, River Cottage Meat, mastering art of french cooking I and II, the new book of middle eastern food, all about braising, molto mario, charcuterie, new spanish table, the old world kitchen, several Jamie Olivers (I know, I know, but there is a few gems to be found in there), Hazen, a CIA manual (I use mostly for diagrams of cutting up chickens, trussing things, etc), on food and cooking.

I'm not afraid of fussy, getting my hands dirty, or finding good ingredients. I'm ok with pickling, jamming, curing (bacon, hams, etc have had some success in my house), smoking (mostly fish) and I'm getting better at deboning/hacking up larger cuts of things (most of the time).

I've been eyeballing reviews of things by ducasse (but which one?), waters (again, which one?), keller (maybe Bouchon?). I'm sure there are others.

Is there one (or several) decent cookbooks out there for the determined amateur wanting to bring the food up to the next level, rather than "quick easy short-cut 20 minutes only" blah cookbooks. I've had several breakthroughs this year and "ah-ha!" moments which have only made me rethink what I'm cooking and how I'm doing it. Food blogs and local restaurants have made me think more about how I present it, and things that work together, rather than just 'following' a recipe. I like to know why.. how... more inspirational works rather than just a list of ingredients and directions.

What was the cookbook that really solidified your cooking skills? I'm trying to become more intuitive with my cooking, better at creating a cohesive meal (or 2-3 courses), less following a checklist of recipes. I mean, this comes naturally just by cooking new things, often, but maybe there is some text(s) that I would find very useful.

A cook's book has been mentioned elsewhere, but I browsed there it and found it wanting. Has anyone had any experience with Jame's Peterson (Cooking, or Sauces, or both?)? Anything by Ducasse worth-while?

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  1. Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goins. Here is the COTM thread:

    Also, Zuni Cafe by Judy Rodgers

    Zuni has great directions and is extremely well written, which makes it accessible to cooks of all abilities. Lucques is a bit fussier but equally as delicious.

    Edited to add: Zuni takes comfort food to a whole different level with a combination of technique and emphasis on fresh ingredients.

    2 Replies
    1. re: beetlebug

      I heartily second the recommendations for Sunday Suppers at Lucques and Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Both have really thorough methodology and spectacular recipes. I would also suggest Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food.

      I would say the book that took me to the "next level," would have to have been Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. While an "oldie," it's still a great resource for technique and food preparation.

      1. re: DanaB

        Me three on Sunday Suppers at Lucques and Zuni Cafe Cookbook, but for Waters books, I'd go with Chez Panisse Vegetables, Chez Panisse Fruit, etc
        I find the new one "The Art of.." too basic for envelope pushing.

        As for your "What was the cookbook that really solidified" question
        Zuni has been a real "tipping point" book for me, pushing and solidifying my own intuitive inclinations.

    2. I recently bought the French laundry/Bouchon set and I did find it inspiring--Bouchon slightly more so. (I found it odd that in FL Keller wrote that he preferred Atlantic salmon to Pacific, especially since I am in Seattle). I made a couple French Laundry recipes--they both tasted great and yes they were fussy. The journey was definitely half the fun.

      Another book I got years ago is called from Simple to Spectacular, by Mark Bittman with Jean-Georges Vongritchen (sp?). they take an ingredient or a dish and make it four ways--from the somplest to most elaborate. there may be an Asian spin in the middle, or whatnot. The recipes are clear and not too fussy, and it is fun to see the different variations on the same there.

      I like Patricia Wells and her Provence cookbooks, she makes good use of what's fresh, which can be motivating.

      I have Peterson's Vegetable book and use it as a reference. I don't make many recipes just straight though.

      ANd a final thought. I have a book by Stephan Pyles on Texas cooking (again from years ago). He has some really fussy recipes, but they can be quite good. But Rick Bayless is still tops for me for Mexican.

      1 Reply
      1. re: cocktailhour

        I second "Simple to Spectacular." It will most certainly help you bring it to the next level. I picked it up after working in the kitchens for some time and it still is the only cookbook I know that does a nice job of replicating the thought process that most cooks start developing via working in a professional kitchen. Excellent for anyone interested in learning how to develop recipes and start thinking like a pro.

        Once you are comfortable with the process of developing your own recipes, the next cookbook to buy would be "Culinary Artistry." It has pages and pages of charts listing flavor combinations that work well. The charts are organized by main ingredient, i.e. shrimp, artichokes, cherries. It's great when you have a lot of one ingredient, have an idea of how you want to prepare it, and just need to know what flavors to add to complement the main ingredient. The authors describe the charts as replicating the knowledge that most professional cooks tend to absorb/intuit after years of cooking. I couldn't agree more.

        "Culinary Artistry" is very much like what you are looking for in terms of it not being just a list of ingredients and a recipe. There are some recipes in it, but I've never used them. Think of it more as a set of guidelines to keep you headed in the right direction.

        Cocktailhour mentioned Rick Bayless and I have to agree that he is tops when it comes to Mexican. His first cookbook changed how I looked at Mexican cooking, but his sauces can be challenging and require a lot of time and equipment. He offers nice suggestions for substituting ingredients and making different variants of each recipe, but his advice is somewhat recipe-specific and I don't think will broaden your horizons in quite the same way as "Simple to Spectacular."

      2. I think I am in a very similar situation, and am looking for the exact same thing as you, although you have articulated it much better than I am able to.

        The only help I can give is that I have Peterson's Essentials of Cooking, and it is spectacular. If he had another book, similar in style but at a more advanced level, I think that would fit the bill. The great thing about Peterson, is that there are only a few actual recipes, but lots of detail on technique and variations.

        I had Bouchon from the library for a while -- it's really good, with solid well-written recipes. I learned some technique from it (e.g. pate choux), but it is still more single-recipe driven than what I was looking for.

        Anyway, I hope you get some good suggestions.

        1. I don't know whether you're into this, but Heidi Swanson's "Super Natural Cooking" has pushed me outside of "the box" and taught me a lot about cooking with more wholesome ingredients. The book is chock-full of recipes, but also provides useful (and motivating) education on how to substitute healthier wholesome ingredients into your old-stanby favorite recipes. My personal favorite is the one on making risotto with barley instead of rice for a more nutritious yet equally satisfying meal.

          2 Replies
          1. re: rouxmaker

            I find barley 'risotto' not just to be equally satisfying, but all-around better!

            1. re: rouxmaker

              that's the direction my interest -- and cooking -- is taking me lately: cooking wholesome, whole grain, low glycemic, and seasonal/local foods.
              Couldn't agree more about barley. Good and good for you! I make w/ dried shitakes -- easy to reconstitute and so healthy.

            2. No apologies for Jamie Oliver--I think he's done wonders for British cooking, and his books are really good. Nothing wrong with making real food simple.

              I really don't do books that are very exacting about step-by-step directions; I need to be a little more intuitive. I'd recommend another Brit, Nigel Slater. His book Appetite is really good for promoting intuitive cooking. Recipes are very good but uncomplicated, and each one gives a couple of variations that you can play around with.

              Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything does something similar, with suggested variations and menus.

              I also love the River Cafe books, particularly the Green one, because it gives me good ideas for vegetarian cooking. I'm not a vegetarian, but I like to limit my meat consumption. That book has been fantastic in that regard.

              1. In addition to the recommendations from the previous posters, check out Bistro Laurent Tourondel: New American Bistro Cooking; if you have interest in TFL cookfook you'll love this one and I think it's a bit more approachable. Stunning photography and great recipes.

                1. I recently asked a friend of mine a similar question (he is an executive chef at a NYC restaurant) and he suggested Tom Colicchio's "Think Like a Chef." It's more a technique book than anything, but you expressed an interest in going back to basics and simplifying. He discusses techniques, and then offers recipes. I have only wishfully flipped through it, but it looked great, and amazon.com reviews by foodie sounding folks sound promising...

                  Have fun cookbook shopping!

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: aspiringourmet

                    I think that is a wonderful book - I know TDQ asked me a while back why I think so and I never replied. I'll try to pull out the book, but as you say, it covers both techniques - as applied to different proteins - and also ingredient combinations. I wouldn't say it's more a technique book though - the recipes really are fabulous, though I agree that the discussions about technique are a key part of the usefulness of the book.

                    1. re: MMRuth

                      HA! What a fabulous memory you have. I would love to do Think Like a Chef as COTM one of these months... sounds very interesting.


                    2. English, Todd and Sally Simpson. 1997. The Olive's Table. New York: Simon & Schuster.

                      Bocuse, Paul. 1977. Paul Bocuse's French Cooking. New York: Random House.

                      1. Sally Schneider has a couple of books that might be of interest, 'A New Way to Cook' and 'The improvisational cook'. In the ImpCook, each chapter is organized around an innovative dish or technique and variations. One for example is 'leek noodles' - leeks cut into strips, braised, and finished with a flavored oil (walnut?). Sally has been a guest on The Splendid Table several times. You probably can find some of her recipes there.

                        1. I highly recommend Secret Ingredients: The Magical Process of Combining Flavors (Paperback) by Michael Roberts (Author) -- The recipes are good to great, but the discussion of flavor combining is thought-provoking, easy to follow and unparalleled elsewehre, I think.

                          Another one that really took my cooking to the next level is Real Stew, by Clifford Wright. It's international peasant food that is a pleasure to cook, serve and eat. I also find myself using it as a reference when I am cooking something from another recipe..."how would clifford make bouillibaise?" (His Mediterranean Feast is in a different category, but a fun "bedside tome". )

                          I also love Sunday Suppers - particularly because I live in L.A., near the farmers' markets that Suzanne Goin has access to. I tend to make one or two recipes at a time, not the whole menu. But her menu approach is inspiring and tasty.

                          I also enjoy several Patricia Wells cooksbooks (my go to is Patricia Wells cooks at home.) Someone gave me Simple to Spectacular, and I think I will have to actually start using it next - based on these reviews.

                          I have Sally Schneider New Way to Cook, and although I have tried many recipes over the last few years, nothing "moves" me. Maybe check this one out of the library before buying it?

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: ElissaInPlaya

                            Second the recommendation for Sally Schneider's books, especially The Improv Cook - it has really changed the way I think about cooking.... I am really enjoying New Way to Cook as well, especially as I try to cut back on fats in my cooking. (I curse the day I decided to drop in the doctor's office for a quick cholestoral test. Ignorance was bliss!) Elissa's idea of checking them out in the library first is a good one!

                          2. You don't hear from me very often, but I'm emerging from lurkdom to recommend two cookbooks--decades apart--that can help your cooking step up a notch:

                            *"Michael Field's Cooking School" is unfortunately out of print now. Try to locate a copy and then appreciate the excellent explanations and fine recipes that he has included. This book is like he's in your kitchen, talking to you as you cook.

                            *"Lidia's Family Table"--Lidia Bastianich's recipes are written as meticulously as Julia Child's. Very nice dishes, very clear instructions. I have another of LB's books (Lidia's Italy) that I don't like as much. This one is excellent.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: ChesterhillGirl

                              I too really like Lidia's Family Table. The recipes in it are the closest to the ones I learned while cooking in Florence! She descries a type of dish, and then offers many recipes/variations on it, with alternative suggestions, etc... so the dish is really just a a jumping off point.

                            2. Happy in the Kitchen by Michel Richard. Some good challenges, some wild ideas, texture and results. Fun to cook from and techincally sound. Innovative, but dishes are made with items you'd pick up at the farmer's market. I'll also second Zuni Cafe and also add Shirley Corriher's Cookwise.

                              1. I concur with the Colicchio and Zuni Cafe recommendations. I would also recommend "The New Making of a Cook" by Madeleine Kamman.

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: Richard L

                                  Yes - Kamman's book is a wonderful resource, and one that I ought to use more often.

                                  1. re: MMRuth

                                    MMRuth, are there any other books that you would recommend, either COTM or otherwise? Your depth of knowledge, willingness to branch out, and generosity in sharing help to make this board a great resource, and your recommendations are always helpful.

                                    1. re: bear

                                      I'll try to come up with some other ideas. Are there any particular books that you use now and like?

                                      1. re: MMRuth

                                        I tend to take a bit from here and there (the net, magazines, my own spin on general trends), and feel like I could benefit from being a bit more focused. Like most people my cooking has evolved over the years and in the past I used some classics like Joy of Cooking and modern classics like Silver Palate, but tend now to work with intuition and am a bit too quick to put my own spin on a recipe without trying it first. I cook from many different traditions, but know that good classical technique is the base to start from. Any books that you've found helpful would be great!

                                        1. re: bear

                                          Thanks - I'll post some ideas in the a.m. MMR

                                2. Simply French: Patricia Wells Presents the Cuisine of Joël Robuchon.
                                  A compendium of recipes from or inspired by Robuchon's former three-star restaurant Jamin, with emphasis on the principles that make his cooking special. Some are unbelievably simple, others more involved, some fancy, others homey. Several have become part of my repertoire.

                                  The Chez Panisse cookbooks are worthwhile. Chez Panisse Cooking is probably the most explanatory from a technique standpoint, with Paul Bertolli providing lots of why along with the how.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: carswell

                                    I've got this as well - the grilled chicken with hot mustard is amazing, as is the guinea fowl on a bed of potatoes. I need to explore it more.

                                  2. I find no end of inspiration and fantastic explanation in The Larousse Gastronomique. Where Julia gives you a pretty good selection of recipes that you won't screw up, the Larousse is the opposite. It's encyclopedic, tries to cover all areas of French food, and gives you long descriptions of background and technique alongside very very condensed recipes, usual several for a given dish, and often citing some very old sources in addition to modern ones. If I had to give up all my other books, this is the one I'd keep.

                                    You say you have "Hazen", not sure what that means, but if it doesn't mean Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, go get it.

                                    Paul Bertolli's Cooking By Hand is a must.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: tmso

                                      I absolutely second the Larousse. It is a fantastic resource and a very worthy investment.

                                    2. We think that a very under-rated but fabulous cookbook is The Elements of Taste by Gray Kunz. He has a fascinating way of looking at the different "elements" -- salty, sweet, sour, bitter, etc., and using them to enhance his dishes. Of course we love his amazing short ribs, which we've had at his restaurants, but to actually make the recipe, which has some truly complex parts to it, is to understand the "elements" of taste. Gray hasn't gone for the celebrity thing like so many chefs, but in my opinion he is brilliant and original, and has a lot to teach the home cook.

                                      1. I would say just to keep on doing what you're doing. Surely you've been inspired and had your juices going by reading book, blogs, ect.

                                        Of course, working in a professional kitchen would also be a great experience. Having to be FORCED to have good knife skills, good sanitation and organizational skills would really help you in the home kitchen. You seem to have a good amount of time on your hands; I think it's a viable suggestion. My kitchen etiquette (or lack of) is totally different after working in the kitchen for just a couple weeks.

                                        1. Cordon Bleu's "Professional Cooking" and "Advanced Professional Cooking" have been eye openers for me. Get the trade editons, they're half the price of the student editions.

                                          1. I recently bought Mark Bittman's The Best Recipes in the World and am doing my best to read through it, bookmarking various must-make recipes. It's an enormous compendium of around the works cooking and what I've read so far is really enticing.

                                            But I must say, since I have finally taken Jacques' and Julia's companion book to their PBS program of the late '90's..."Jacques and Julia Cooking at Home" off the shelf I find it to be one of the most complete cookbooks I have ever seen. Two versions of the same recipe from two different perspectives, with techniques to match. The sidebar notes alone are worth their weight in Almas Beluga.