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Cookbook for novice cook who IS adverturesome, healthy, but relatively poor ;-)

My daughter was just ranting about the fact that no one seems to make a cookbook for beginners that is a) healthful; b) easy; and c) doesn't require expensive ingredients or a lot of supplies and tools.

Most "beginner's" books are of the "dump and stir" variety (nasty processed ingredients), or boring (mac and cheese and meatloaf, etc., etc. )...or they are intimidating (like Bittman's How To Cook, which I gave her for her birthday but she says is too frightening.... )

To quote my daughter: "I want a cookbook that will tell you how to make easy, delicious, exciting food when all you have in the house are some potatoes and cans of tuna, and a few spices. I can't keep running to Whole Foods when I have exams, and I can't afford to buy a lot of food and store it in the apartment. It just goes bad."

I thought of Deborah Madison's superb (and under-appreciated) The Savory Way, but beyond that, I'm drawing a blank.

Any other suggestions? She barely knows how to do anything besides omelets, despite (or because of?) growing up surrounded by passionate cooks.

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  1. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Runs the entire gamut of recipes and your daughter will find many that are easy and inexpensive, plus some with pricier ingredients for when she finishes school and is working! I find it more accessible for beginners than Joy of Cooking, though both have good information.

    ETA: along the Deborah Madison lines, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is a good choice. She'll have to use another book for her cans of tuna though!

    5 Replies
    1. re: nofunlatte

      Although I totally agree with the Bittman suggestion, and I gave her that for her birthday, I should have just kept it for myself <g>, as she's "scared of it." It's too big or something. Who knows.

      1. re: Beckyleach

        The size can be daunting! Maybe you can ask her for it back :)

        The red plaid Better Homes and Gardens cookbook might also be a possibility. I had a small softbound copy (w/some color photos) that I used until it got mangled in a move. Or if you can find a copy of the Good Housekeeping cookbook, it might work as well. Yes, some "dump a can of this", but photos of every recipe, plus step-by-step instructions. It's the book I learned to cook from.

        1. re: nofunlatte

          Maybe you can ask her for the Bittman book back, scan/copy select recipes you think she'd enjoy, then regift her a slimmed-down mom/dad-made spiral-bound version of the greatest hits. Just an idea.

        2. re: Beckyleach

          I gave my son, who just graduated from college Bittman's and he really likes it, and he is pretty much a beginner cook who is too busy with his first job to spend a lot of time in the kitchen What he particularly likes is the section that deals with substitutions, as he never has on hand exactly the ingredients called for in the recipes. Try to encourage your daughter to look more closely at Bittmans and show her that even when she does not have exactly the right ingredients she can use the recipes as a guide to cook what she does have.

          Christina Mason's suggestion is also a good one. There are a lot of relatively simple, few ingredient recipes in there, but maybe your daughter just has not dug sufficiently through the book; you might help her find them.
          Also, if there are recipes that you make that she enjoys, be sure to write them down for her, along with whatever helpful hints might assist her the first few times she makes them.

          1. re: masha

            you're right; the bittman book is *great* on substitutions. I always feel "empowered" to deviate with his book; not those fussy books that make you feel like you have to drive over three counties to get just the right ingredient. I also like the idea of "greatest hits" above; I started making books for my kids for Christmas this year (they are 13 and 16). I photocopied out of my cookbooks, or printed out my favorite web recipes, or typed up my own "in my head" recipes and put them in those plastic sleeves in a spiral notebook.

            I gave my daughter "Eat Fresh Food; Awesome Recipes for Teens" for Christmas this year; a bit younger than your demographic, but I like the look of this book; healthy, vegetable-heavy, easy recipes.


      2. The Art of Simple Food, perhaps... at least it is thinner than the Bittman book.

        Of course, I like Batali's Molto Italiano quite a lot.... have some pasta and the basic tomato sauce recipe on hand, and you're halfway done with many of the recipes. But I don't think it is any easier than Bittman's.

        There are some people who just aren't intrigued by cooking.

        2 Replies
        1. re: jaykayen

          why dont you tag some recipes for her in the bittman? that might get her started

          1. re: jaykayen

            I respectfully disagree re: the Art of Simple Food as a recommendation in this situation (although, I agree with you that the book is thinner!)

            I own the Art of Simple Food (it was also a COTM recently and was not universally loved, I'm afraid), and, although I am a fan of Ms. Waters and of Chez Panisse, I think the book is actually directed to a more experienced audience.

            I'm paraphrasing here, but I recall a recipe for pork chops that said something like, "Cook until they are done," with no information about how to tell when they are done or approximately how long that might be.

            I love jen kalb's recommendation (above) to tag some recipes from Bittman.

            Hmmmm...let me think on this question a bit.


          2. America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook (ring binder). Lots of basic stuff and lots of explanations, which I think beginning cooks need/want unless they're naturally gifted. Enough variety to make things interesting, but enough basic stuff that you don't have to run out to the store every time you want to make something.

            1. This is out of print but someone gave it to me a few years ago in paperback and it really is simple and quite healthy (Marian Burros is known for healthy NYTimes food columns) and I don't think it's scary at all...give it a peruse and see if you think it might be good for her:

              2 Replies
              1. re: Val

                Hmmm...well, I'll tell you what, none of the books I was going to recommend (Ellie Krieger's "The Food You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life" or " The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook: Eating Well for Better Health", both of which won the James Beard Foundation Award for "health" cookbook in their respective years) has a single recipe that calls for canned tuna. However, Keep it Simple has two (but none with tuna AND potatoes. :) )

                I even checked "The Frugal Gourmet" (setting aside my icky feelings about Jeff Smith) and, nope, no tuna recipes.


                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                  I agree with the Elie Krieger -- healthy but still delicious and no real outlandish ingredients. All she needs is to get a few recipes under her belt to start feeling confident.

                  Another thought -- given that she's probably already overwhelmed with big books in school, just pick a very basic book on whatever her favorite type of cuisine is that she can pick just a few easy recipes from to become her signature dishes (like a basic Italian).

              2. Mollie Katzen has a new book out called "Get Cooking". Her classics "Moosewood", "Still Life With Menu" etc. are what got me interested in cooking in my 20s. Haven't seen "Get Cooking" myself but I bet it's worth checking out. More info on her website:


                1. Moosewood Simple Suppers might be a good fit. Most recipes have about 5 - 8 ingredients and are quick, healthy and generally inexpensive. I was the assistant for one of the Moosewood chefs during a part of promo tour for the book and their (then) new frozen foods line and was called upon to make a number of recipes from the book for customer samplings. Everything was very tasty and super easy. I have since suggested the book to many people who are at your daughters stage in cooking and it has been well received.

                  1. One of the most straightforward, healthy and really flavorful cookbooks that I have is by Sara Foster (Fresh Every Day). She offers some very easy to follow recipes that don't involve crazy ingredients, and also gives tips on how to make do with what you have. I probably use this cookbook the most out of the shelves of cookbooks I have!

                    1. I very much like my Cook's Illustrated The New Best Recipe - I got it at Costco several years ago for not very expensive. It's not necessarily the healthiest, but because they explain their reasoning behind every choice of ingredient, etc., it lends itself very easily to experimentation (for example, if they talk about adding cream to a soup because the cream really added to the creamy texture, I don't mind subbing in milk or what have you right away because I'm not a fan of anything too creamy...etc.). It served me well as my go-to for a couple of years and then gave me the confidence to start expanding both my cooking and cookbook repertoires.

                      1. Thank you so much, everyone! I've got a nice long list, now, and can start sending them her way. :-)

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Beckyleach

                          How about the "More With Less Cookbook"?

                        2. My first cookbook was Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course. Most Brits will have a copy and I still use it occasionally.


                          3 Replies
                          1. re: greedygirl

                            Should I add this to my Amazon.uk list, gg?

                            1. re: buttertart

                              I'd say probably not as it's really a beginner's cookbook. You can pick it up pretty cheaply though, and no British cookbook collection is truly complete without a Delia! If you were coming in December, I'd say definitely get her Christmas book, which is much loved in my house. You could also have a look at her Winter or Summer Collection.

                              1. re: greedygirl

                                The Winter one was a (relatively speaking) big hit over here a few years ago, made the NYT best of list as I recall. Didn't break down and get it - have seen it at the Strand though...

                          2. Though I agree with all these posts, this is still a tough one because of the words "relatively poor." I have disabled friends who fit that category, and I still haven't found the ideal cookbook for them.
                            The best I have found so far are a simple cookbooks that I got from Daedalus about three years ago: "Help, there's a Kitchen in my Apartment" and "Help, there's a Dining Room in my Apartment." They might still be available from ABEBOOKS or from the used dealers who sell through the on-line book shops.
                            Another great standby is Mary Riesling's "The Tante Marie Cooking School Cookbook." I buy that one whenever I find it used, and there is always someone to pass it on to. A great feature is the way most chapters end with "how to cook _____ without a recipe."
                            For Christmas, I got a copy of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. It's a near miss for what you may be looking for, but worth having a look at. My reservations about it center around a few British ingredients that are hard to find (Marmite and various curry pastes) and an opening chapter on kitchen tools your daughter might find intimidating. In fact, you could eliminate 2/3 of them and still get by for the recipes in the book. Also, it would probably require your daughter to keep a few fresh ingredients around, but I shouldn't think that buying a few vegetables once or twice a week would be burdensome.
                            Beyond that, there are some very good, fast Asian stir fries (including meals that take about 20 minutes to put together), a very good introduction to different kinds of soups, a great section on basic pasta and sauce, some imaginative uses of hamburger (including a Ground Beef Wellington and a Pot Roast Meat Loaf), some fine simple sea-food dishes, a fine breaded chicken breast (or fish) recipe, several basic instructions on dry roasting that would be great for special occasions (including Yorkshire Pudding, which we know as popovers), and a presentation of salads that shows the beginning cook how to make them evolve from very simple to rather fancy.
                            Oliver wrote his book in response to real needs in an industrial town in the north of England, so this is a blue-collar cookbook. He conceived the idea of teaching a few people some basic recipes and getting them to "pass them on" to more people. With people teaching people, imaginative and nutritious meals come easily within the reach of novice cooks. The recipes focus on British working-class favorites. Forunately, most of the food Brits like are also American favorites. I should think the one big difference is that Brits are big on curries, and Americans favor transmogrified pizzas. (British cooking has become very international, and is far from the stodgy cuisine of times past. And while pizza is popular throughout Europe, there are no pizza recipes in this book. For that look to Reinhart's "American Pie.")
                            I'd be curious to find out if someone could work out the cost of eating by following recipes like those in this book as compared to eating fast food, take-out, and frozen prepared food.
                            Other books to consider would include Jacques Pepin's "Fast Food my Way" and Giuliano Hazan's "Every Night Italian."
                            Finally, don't forget the Internet. There are lots of simple recipes and menus posted on various web sites.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Father Kitchen

                              Actually, that Jamie Oliver book (called Jamie's Ministry of Food here in the UK) is a good call. I was chatting to someone at work who has taught himself to cook by working his way through this book.

                            2. Thinking about this a bit more, Nigel Slater's "Real Fast Food" or "The 30-Minute Cook" might fit the bill. Again, these were among my first cookery books, and I've used them a lot. The second one is especially good and the first a bit of a modern classic.