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Help me find a cookbook for an unadventurous cooking novice...

Okay, apologies, I know this question has been asked and answered a hundred different ways, but I'm looking for a basic, non-overwhelming, cookbook for a a recent retiree, a meat-and-potatoes kind of man who is now picking up kitchen duty a couple of nights a week.

His wife has always done the cooking, and subscribes to all the cooking magazines (Gourmet RIP, Bon Appetit, Cooks Illustrated, CIA) and is an adventurous cook and eater. They have a robust garden, a freezer full of beef, lamb, and pork and a fully-stocked kitchen, (both equipment-wise and grocery-wise)--she'll continue to do all the shopping. But, he has simple "American" tastes and aspirations--no pork in peach chutney, or curried butternut squash for this guy.

I'd like to get him his own basic cookbook, bonus points if it's on the healthy side, instead of the cream-of-mushroom soup side. I'm looking for a book with a basic meatloaf. A basic spaghetti. etc. He doesn't need a grilling book (a. wrong season for that here in the upper Midwest and b. he knows how to grill).

The outcome doesn't need to be gourmet, just edible, especially for his poor wife!

Ideas? Also, I was thinking of given him a manly kitchen apron to go with his cookbook, but if you've got other ideas, I would love to hear them.

Thank you!


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  1. Bittman's How to Cook Everything may be a start. Are you the poor wife?

    3 Replies
        1. re: wattacetti

          I too was going to suggest "How to Cook Everything," but it might be a bit overwhelming, just by its size. What about one of Bittman's slimmer volumes, such as "The Minimalist Cooks Dinner"? I'm quite fond of a good half of the recipes in that one.

        2. I would suggest any of the Junior League cookbooks --- I would think you could easily find them on eBay or Amazon. I would pick Junior League of Savannah or Atlanta or Charleston which has put out countless volumes over the years.

          I suggest this because they are consistently tasty and not complicated recipes that almost anyone could follow. I started learning how to cook on those cookbooks many moons ago....

          And a similar vein is the annual Southern Living cookbooks. Sure - there may be a few traditional Southern dishes in there, but across the board they are, like the Junior League editions, tasty and consistent. I can't imagine you would have difficulty finding any year online at eBay or Amazon. And, I would suspect that the more recent years have more widespread entree choices than say a 1978 volume which might be more Southern focused)

          1 Reply
          1. re: Tehama

            But almost all of those are pretty dependent on cream of whatever.

            1. This one popped into my head first-- "Mrs. Wilkes Boardinghouse Cookbook". It's got plenty of basics, but certainly would please his wife too.
              Also, "Diner -- The Best of American Casual Cooking" by Diane Worthington. This has "blue plate special" kinds of dishes, as well as sides, breakfasts, desserts--if I am picturing this guy accurately I think he'd like this one too.

              1. The red plaid ring binder version Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. The older the better - 50+ years. Look for one on eBay.

                2 Replies
                1. re: greygarious

                  Along the same lines as greygarious's suggestion I recommend the Fanny Farmer Cookbook, published in 1979. I have the 1981 edition. The recipes are very simply written, directions are v. easy to follow, and there are many helpful tips. This is the one cookbook I packed when we went to our rental house in Vermont because it was so useful.

                  Here's a link to one for sale on eBay:

                  1. The Barefoot Contessa Books popped into my head. Fairly simple stuff dressed up to seem a little more fancy than it is, and usually I've had success with the recipes.

                    Also agree with the Bittman book.

                    1. I think a cookbook might be too much for him at this point. Do you have the time to write down complete, simple instructions for making two or three of his favorite foods? It would be a most personal gift that is surely to be appreciated. Out of curiosity, I'm wonder if the poor wife going to be chaning the oil and doing basic repairs on their car?

                      1. I agree with those posters who recommended JOC or BHG. Another suggestion would be the Betty Crocker cookbook. I don't know what the newer editions are like, but the older BCs explain what basic cooking terms mean and show how to do the procedure. I think that's the type of book he'd benefit from--something that has glossaries, basic information on ingredients, etc. You want (IMHO) the type book that was given, when I was growing up, to the new bride who was just learning how to cook but who was going to be responsible for the family meals. Those types of books give the background a neophyte needs. Hence, JOC, BHG, BC or a wonderful book--I think out of print--if you can find a copy of it is The Doubleday Cookbook. And, all of these books include recipes that don't overwhelm with a too-long list of esoteric ingredients and they are simple enough for the cook who is starting out. And plenty of meat-and-potato type recipes in these books, too.

                        One more option--Fanny Farmer is still in print and updated and sounds like it would have the type recipes he'd enjoy.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: Normandie

                          Betty Crocker is a great recommendation. It is a good resource for basics like spaghetti, meatloaf, tuna casserole, and even has a meat chapter describing different cuts of meat and the recipes to go along with them. Our copy was a gift to my mom from my American grandmother (copyright 1969...yikes!). My mom (Japanese) used this book to learn how to make meat and potato style food.

                          1. re: BigSal

                            I have my mother's copy, Sal. It's a 1950 edition and it's funny how accurate the information remains, even though so much about cooking and food has changed since then. As I said, though, I haven't looked at a newer edition, so I don't know how more recent issues compare.

                            When when I want a recipe, something basic or one of the mid-Century classics, I can *always* count on the BC Cookbook. Never fails and the recipes are broken down into easy steps, easy to follow.

                            1. re: Normandie

                              Wow, 1950. Mines a little beaten up, but still in one piece. How about yours? The fact that the recipes are still accurate serves as a great reminder that some of the basics are timeless.

                              1. re: BigSal

                                I haven't seen a new edition of the BC, and the one I had was an edition from the mid-to-late sixties that my mom owned; when I moved out and went to college, that was one of the three cookbooks Mom gave me from her modest collection. So I really did do my first cooking from that book. (Beef stroganoff was one of my "specialties," made me very popular w/the other college kids!)

                                I lost my duct-taped copy when my house flooded; what a sentimental loss that was although I hadn't cooked from it in at least 20 years. I don't know how BC would fare for a novice cook today, but I assume the recipes have been updated along w/the icon!

                        2. Dairy Queen,
                          Let me answer your questions in reverse order. As a guy who has been cooking since he was about 10, I've avoided two types of aprons: first, the "oh, isn't that macho?" apron with the double entendre or the phrase celebrating men as brutish or dumb; second, the frilly, unsubstantial, girl's apron, more suited to fashion than practicality. Instead, get him a denim shop apron, available, I would guess, at Ace Hardware or Home Depot. It is thick, substantial, and covers him from neck to knees. As an added bonus, it has no dippy saying imprinted on it!

                          Cookbookwise, I'd go for "The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook," "The Betty Crocker Cookbook," or "The Joy of Cooking." The first two cookbooks have pictures, which may make them a bit less intimidating. Bittman's book garners lots of praise on these boards and I wouldn't argue with that, but its size could be a bit intimidating to a newbie. I hope that this helps.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: gfr1111

                            My brother loved cooking in an apron that had a tuxedo print on the front. Somehow it was the perfect blend of macho and "notice me" for the male ego.

                          2. The situation you describe is a bit odd in that the wife is an accomplished cook. Presumably they already own some of the cookbooks recommended here - and in any case, couldn't she show him the ropes? You write that he is cooking a couple of nights a week which sounds like she is in charge of the kitchen the other days.

                            1. -How to Cook Everything is a good one.

                              -America's Test Kitchen (the binder one or the Best recipe one)

                              -Cook with Jamie and Jamie at Home are pretty solid books and they'll be a little more exciting than the Better Home and Gardens books.

                              -The River Cottage Meat Book is great for any meat and potatoes kind of guy. I've made probably 10 recipes out of it and they are great. Beware, though, it has quite a few recipes using meats that aren't available here.

                              1. How about "Jacques P├ępin's Complete Techniques".

                                1. Believe it or not, I would recommend a Rachael Ray cookbook - one of the "Thirty Minute Meal" ones. I think there are several of them, so you can peruse them and see which one has recipes your friend and his wife may enjoy.

                                  "Rach" works my nerves like a screaming toddler, but I liked her show in the early days and I think her approach that cooking need not be intimidating, complicated or time-consuming and her use of fresh ingredients combine for good starter lessons.

                                  1. Tough Guys Don't Dice is a great cookbook for men: http://www.amazon.com/Tough-Guys-Dont...

                                    But the other suggestions of Bittman's and Joy of Cooking are also great!

                                    1. Considering you have said the husband is unadventurous and a novice, I would say Bittman's book and Joy of Cooking would be overwhelming, no matter how good they are. I think War and Peace is shorter than either one of those. If you are looking for a basic book with recipes he's actually going to make, then go hyper-commercial, such as one of those Campbell Soup recipe books or one of those bargain-bin four-ingredient cookbooks - with simple, store-bought ingredients and simple recipes. I know the stigmas those carry, but based on how you describe him, he's not going to read an in-depth cookbook anyway.

                                      1. Yes, Bittman's book is big, but if he can get past that, it's a great beginner's book. It's also a book for today and today's cooking methods and eating styles without being faddish. It's practical, accessible, current but not trendy.

                                        1. One of the Good Housekeeping books - the Illustrated Cookbook is especially suited because of the photos - would be good for this as well. Step-by-step instructions, photos, pretty basic American home cooking recipes. I gave a copy to a French friend who was returning to France but wanted to be able to cook American there and she loves it.

                                          1. Hey everyone. Thanks for such terrific ideas. Now, I just have to pick one!

                                            I think I'm leaning towards the Good Housekeeping Illustrated, but I'm going to go to the library and/or bookstore to check them out.

                                            And gfr1111, your suggestion of a denim apron from Home Depot or Ace Hardware is perfect. The point of this is not to demean or humiliate him but make him feel a little more self-sufficient in the kitchen.


                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                              I don't know how much you wanted to spend on this little gift of a culinary future, but you might also consider getting him his own chef's knife, just so he has a bit of his own territory staked out in the kitchen. Altogether might build a nice memory of his first cookbook, apron, and knife... Just him and his goodies tackling the abyss of gastronomic experimentation.

                                            2. My cousin is just starting to cook on his own, and he told me that he gets overwhelmed when there more than 4 ingredients listed.... dinner becomes a frozen burrito or pizza. He'd checked out Bittman's 'How To Cook Everything' from the library but decided against buying a copy of his own because he thought it was too huge.

                                              He likes The American Diner Cookbook, which had a lot of simple recipes for stuff like clam chowder, sloppy joes, omlets, etc. Not the healthiest stuff, but it may be a good place to start.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: suby

                                                You know, I love cookbooks and even I find Bittman's book almost overwhelming. :)

                                                Funnily enough, I thought Rachel Ray's book would be perfect because her original concept --when she was on local television before her food network days--was basically taking 6 "basic" recipes and riffing off of them, so, everything is basically a variation on a pasta, a burger, a pizza, a chili, (I can't really remember what the other two master recipes were) etc. But, there are no pictures, and (don't laugh) a lot of the recipes have foreign-sounding names... So, I think I'm going to pass on that even though, otherwise, that book would be terrific.

                                                Anyway, I'll check out the diner book, thank you!