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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:
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/397079

    Also, Zuni Cafe by Judy Rodgers
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/355995

    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.