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Dec 10, 2012 10:03 AM

COTM: What makes a COTM great? Your all-time favourite COTMs and why you enjoyed them.

A few of us got into a discussion about getting into a COTM slump. Not being inspired to cook or, cooking but not being inspired by results. This got us thinking about what makes for a great COTM?

With a new year of nominations ahead of us, this seems like an opportune time to reflect on all the COTMs of years past and to share our thoughts on what it was about those special selections that seemed to inspire us.

Here’s a link to the historical COTM thread where you’ll see all the books of COTMs past:

Here’s to a slump-free 2013!!

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  1. A lot of cookbooks are like music albums. You buy them for only one or two selections and the rest of the content is mediocre or worthless.

    1. I'm looking forward to this discussion. I'm not sure we'll come out with a definitive answer, because cooking is subject to so many personal whims and necessities. I think I'll have more to add later, but for now, here's a few factors that come into play for me:

      1. Time, I think is a big factor for many us juggling jobs, family commitments, travel, and other hobbies. The key is striking a balance. I don't want "quick & easy" recipes, as I find few of these that appeal to me. But when time is really a factor, I will tend to cook my own food, either off the cuff or from memory, rather than follow a recipe. Just the act of following a recipe slows the process. Ideally, the book might have a mix of things that can be put together quickly on a weeknight, and more involved recipes or slowing cooking recipes.

      2. Ingredients. Once again, it seems to be a matter of striking a balance between being too practical, and boring, or being unattainable. I am willing to seek out unusual ingredients and mail order if necessary. It helps if the hard-to-find stuff is something that keeps well or can be frozen or dried. Books that try too hard to have only easy-to-find ingredients tend to seem unauthentic and dull.

      3. Specificity. Giant books that are supposed to have everything (I'm thinking the NYT cookbook here) tend to be unappealing to me. It's just too much to digest in one month. On the other hand, a book can be more specific, like Fish Without a Doubt, and that can present a problem as well. The same goes for single-cuisine cookbooks, but some of them seem to work really well for me, and some don't. It just seems to be a matter of how much of that single cuisine I want to eat in one month.

      4. Diet and other restrictions. We have some COTMers who don't eat much meat. Or who don't eat some kinds of meat. I eat all kinds of meat, but I can't eat large quantities. There's also the question of how many people you are cooking for. I'm cooking for one or two. Given that, and that I like only small portions of meat (3-4 oz), I like dishes where the meat is broken down into small portions (or can be after cooking) that freeze well. I don't want to end up with a lot of leftovers in the fridge that I am struggling to use up.

      Some months that worked really well for me:

      Grace Young month - I think a lot of us refer to this one as a great month. Why? Well, it was a specific cuisine, although a broad treatment of it, when you consider the Sky's Edge book had recipes from all over the world. Most recipes were doable on a weeknight. And ingredients were obtainable, but varied.

      Nigel Slater month - I don't know, but I found his books so easy to cook from. The food was good, varied, and once again, largely doable on a weeknight.

      Planet Barbecue! - This is probably to meat oriented and technique specific for some, but I love to grill, and I loved this book because of the large variety of flavors available with recipes from around the world.

      My Calabria - Specific to one cuisine, but very friendly food to make and eat. I also tend to prefer cookbooks that are personal, labors of love, so to speak. And this was definitely in that category.

      Food of Spain - I realize this didn't resonate with everyone, but it did with me. My participation was limited that month due to a lot of travel, but this is exactly the kind of book that works for me.

      World Vegetarian - great variety, recipes from around the world, some better than others, but generally appealing to me.

      Paula Wolfert (2010) - Some of her recipes are quite involved, but always worth it.

      Ottolenghi month - Different enough to be interesting. I had at least one flop from this book (a big flop), but when I look back through it, there were several hits. Being a successful COTM is not all about hits, it's more about being inspired to cook.

      The Homesick Texan - I would have much preferred doing a Tex-Mex book by another author. I disagreed with this author a lot, but I did cook a lot from this book. Once again, it strikes the balance between exotic (for some, not me really) and accessible. Even though I ended up not liking the book much, it did get me to participate, and generated lively discussion.

      I think we are supposed to accentuate the positive in this thread, but a few books that really didn't work for me: Current COTM (Nigella, HTE), The Essential NY Times Cookbook (just too massive and broad), Greenspan, Around My French Table (not sure why), Gourmet (same problem as the NYT book).

      Looking forward to seeing everyone's comments.

      26 Replies
      1. re: MelMM

        I like the way you've laid out some of the issues MelMM, and am going to think about it overnight and try to pull together a more cohesive answer than I'd be able to give off the top of my hat right now.

        1. re: LulusMom

          Pretty sure I am just scratching the surface, as I wrote that off-the-cuff. Looking forward to what you and others have to say.

        2. re: MelMM

          Despite their immense size and broadness, ENYTC and Gourmet have been among my favorite CoTMs! If you sit down with the book, a glass of wine and a stack of post-its, ENYTC is a great read. Results consistently excellent. Honing in on specific recipes required a strategy and some discipline, but EYB was a great help in finding and tracking recipes. I had to do it in two steps, though. Perusing the book and tagging recipes, then going through all of the tags and noting them in EYB, but I do both of those steps with most COTMs these days anyway. And funnily enough, I thought ENYTC was a very regional book, almost as much as Louisiana Kitchen or BAY'A. So very East Coast.

          Gourmet was easier to dip into for me in terms of finding recipes because of the lists in the back. Results were almost always stellar. I keep coming back to this book when I need something reliable and "modern."

          And while it's true you can't fully absorb either of these books in a month, at least you've forced yourself to spend some time with a very worthy book and hopefully developed a trust with the book that makes you want to come back to it when the month is over.

          Other favorites: Dunlop, Ottolenghi, FWAD, Vietnamese month, Grace Young, Flexitarian Table. I'm even going to throw Italian Easy out there even though I really had a hard time with those books early on (due to poor editing of U.S. edition), though I eventually learned to let go, which turned out to be a valuable lesson for me in a strange sort of way.

          For me, the best months are those where there is an intersection of (think venn diagram): a book with recipes that consistently deliver delicious results; lots of supportive and encouraging group participation (the minute any kind of negativity sets in, I'm out--I do this for fun and negativity is not fun for me. Plus, now I just feel like a loser for liking the book and/or nominating or voting for it. Sorry for imposing How To Eat on all of you.); and having time enough to immerse myself in the book.

          Funnily enough, even though having sufficient time to participate is one of my major criteria, I don't really find "quick and easy" books appealing because those books seem like mere collections of recipes for me, rather than cookbooks.

          Sitting down with the book and the proverbial glass of wine is almost as important to me as actually cooking from the book. For instance, I don't think I cooked much, if anything, from Cradle of Flavor, yet I read almost the entire book, which I found worthwhile. However, because I didn't cook much from it, I don't list it as one of my favorites, but I have fond memories.

          You can find quick and easy recipes in most (though not all: Goin, I'm looking at you) cookbooks. If I have time to devote to COTM, I'll be able to ferret out the "quick and easy" recipes. Honestly, for me, ingredient sourcing is the bigger challenge. If I have time to do a big shop for specialized ingredients at the beginning of the month as I did for Dunlop or Vietnamese month, I'm going to be fine, even if the recipes are more involved or complex. But if it's going to be a constant and ongoing search for specialized ingredients involving stops at multiple markets and long, thoughtful conversations with the butcher or cheesemonger, I seldom have time for that these days, AND still have time to read the book with my proverbial glass of wine AND cook from the book, not to mention driving and parking in the foot of snow that dumped in my lap this past weekend. I wish I had more time for ingredient sourcing as the hunt used to be part of the fun.

          Most of my favorite books are pre-baby, and that's just due to my inability to commit chunks of time to COTM in the way I prefer to commit.


          1. re: The Dairy Queen

            P.S. I wish we wouldn't be so quick to drive a stake into the heart of a cookbook. I've just come off of three weeks of my household being very very sick, helping a friend through a family emergency, and having a close family member in the hospital (still actually), and a big snowstorm. It's only the 11th of the month and I come back to the COTM, ready to dive into a book I'm really looking forward to and discover that everyone already hates this book I really would like to enjoy because, you know, they already have a roast chicken recipe they like, or a trifle recipe that works, or a go to recipe for Vietnamese bun salad. Totally took the wind out of my sails and this thread will most certainly suck any other life energy out of HTE month. I almost feel like we need to make a pact to withhold our "meta" discussion of a book until the month is over. I used to be able to dive into a book on the first of every month. I don't have that luxury of scheduling any more and I cannot tell you the number of times lately I've tried to join COTM later in the month only to discover the book has already been declared dead.


            1. re: The Dairy Queen

              I think you'll enjoy HTE. It's a very very nice book to read with a glass of wine. I really enjoyed Nigella's writing. I don't have a problem with the basic recipes because I don't cook this type of food. (I'm kiwi chinese so I grew up with this sort of food, but not as home cooking). For example, I don't know how to make custard, mayonnaise or merignue. HTE has inspired me to try custard and meringue this month. Another problem I have is the recipes tend to be for large groups, 6-8. And the latter chapters are all laid out as meals which makes it harder to find things to cook. I thought it'd be a great COTM to have all of us pick out the gems. But it seems most aren't very enthusiastic about the book. Which is a shame.

              1. re: lilham

                I'm already enjoying reading through the book (a few recent waits in the doctors office), and really do want to pick some recipes to cook. You are Kiwi Chinese? You live in New Zealand? One of my favorite places on earth! (Do you have a recipe for raspberry lamingtons, please?!)

                I do plan on trying a few recipes, including the roast chicken even though I have two never-fail roast chicken recipes that I love. We have roast chicken at least a couple times a month. Might as well try it slightly differently.


                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                  I'm now living in the UK. I've never tried making lamingtons but it's one of those things I've been meaning to try my hands on for ages. The other being pavlova.

                  1. re: lilham

                    Nigella gives great pavlova. It's easy and delicious.

                  2. re: The Dairy Queen

                    I *think* I have some sort of Lamington recipe in my Donna Hay sweets book (which I love). Don't think it is raspberry though.

                    I am not at all put off by this book, and in no way would ever blame whoever it was who suggested a book even if I was. I'm making two more meals from it this week. I really like NL's writing style and have found enough things that interest me and sound doable to make me happy. My big problem is that December is such an overwhelming month that very little real cooking gets done. I liked it (and I know this is not universally felt) when we used this month to do re-visits of favorites. That way we didn't feel as rushed to try things from a new book.

                    For me it has been the rest of this year that has been a problem. That is partly because there was a lot of traveling happening (either my husband or me or all of us) which means not much cooking, or else I just wasn't much interested in the book/s.

                    1. re: LulusMom

                      There seem to be a lot of chocolate lamington recipes out's the raspberry that seems elusive. So, if there's a raspberry one, bring it on.

                      I know what you mean about December being such a tough month. I'm hope to slide into 2013 with Nigella's "low fat" recipes... and maybe because I'm so familiar with it from picking and poking through it in December I'll have a few of those low fat recipes in mind for January?


                      1. re: The Dairy Queen

                        Just checked and you're absolutely right - they're chocolate lamingtons. Sorry!

                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                          I think I've got recipes for both chocolate and raspberry lamingtons in my Alison Holst cake book. But it's not indexed on EYB. If I'm to make them, her recipes will be the ones I go to. She's considered a kiwi classic.

                          1. re: lilham

                            Interesting! Maybe I'll be on the lookout for that book and/or recipe!

                            No worries LLM--thank you for checking!


                            1. re: The Dairy Queen

                              By the way I assumed you were refering to the pink lamingtons. Maybe that's why you have problems finding recipes for them?

                              Edit: I mean I've always just called them pink lamingtons. But maybe you are thinking of something fancier than 'generic pink'!

                              1. re: lilham

                                Hmmm...that's interesting. I did not know they were called pink lamingtons. Perhaps that's my problem right there!


                            2. re: lilham

                              Oh yeah, pink lamingtons brings up a lot of hits in a google search!


                    2. re: The Dairy Queen

                      I agree that it is disheartening when people start panning the book so early in the month. Especially when there have been many positive recipe reports. If you don't like a book, don't cook from it, but I do think we should refrain from dampening others' potential enjoyment and enthusiasm so early in the month. (by the way, I am all for panning a book at the end of the month or during nomination discussions, and I also think we should post negative reviews of recipes if we have a bad experience. But these types of comments seem very different to me than global book-bashing before the month is half over).

                      1. re: Westminstress

                        I don't think people are really "panning" HTE. There are quite a few of us, including me, who have commented that we aren't finding ourselves inspired by the book, or are having a hard time finding things we want to make. This is not the same as saying it's a bad book. "Clicking" with a particular book is a personal thing. We aren't going to all love the same books. I loved cooking out of Planet Barbecue!, but I realize for some people a book like that holds very little interest, and I don't have any problem with them saying so, whether it's in the nominating process, or during the cooking month, or after. I haven't seen anyone posting anything along the lines of "This book sucks". It's always something more on the lines of "This isn't working for me." I see a big difference there.

                        1. re: MelMM

                          Of course no one said "this book sucks" or would ever say anything like that! COTM'ers are too kind for that. Also, I think COTM'ers place a high a value on COTM as a community within the community and wouldn't engage in that kind of meanness or hostility. But, because we all value and respect each other's opinions so much, when you see a piling on of a half a dozen "this book is not for me" posts, it dampens the enthusiasm, I think. As I've said, I've made those kinds of comments early in the month in the past (Bon Appetit Y'all comes to mind as do Bittman and Italian Easy. I eventually did come around on the latter. In hindsight, I wish I'd tried harder on Willis and Bittman. And I'm not in any way saying you should try harder with HTE, I'm just saying thinking back, I wish I had with those two particular books.)

                          Anyway, one of the things I value so much about this community is everyone's willingness to share their honest opinions, even when they are less than positive, and so I can't really complain about that. I just wish there were a way to insulate a fledging COTM from the tide of negative opinions early in the month.


                          1. re: The Dairy Queen

                            I'm not an avid COTM'er (in part because of lack of time) and I do see a disconnect here between people who really have the time to dedicated to a COTM - learning a new cuisine, sourcing ingredients, etc. and those who are maybe more pressed for time and aren't necessarily looking for involved recipes. I tend to jump in when it's a cookbook I already own as a refresher and inspiration to cook out of a cookbook I have, but I also know that not everyone looks at it the same way.

                            I'm a little saddened by the response to HTE - I've had it for years and it's one of my favorite cookbooks, but I realize that my style and requirements isn't everyone's - I've had Plenty for over a year and have cooked exactly one recipe from it. I love looking at it but all the recipes make me feel tired. I do feel like some of the negativity is distaste for Nigella's celebrity, which is unfortunate, though a lot of it is stylistic.

                            I think one way to address it is to try to have a separate commentary cookbook A gentle guideline that the recipe threads are recipe reviews, and general commentary (I don't want to make anything from the book, I don't like the style, etc.) should be part of a meta thread that people can read after the fact.

                            1. re: Savour

                              You summed up my thoughts exactly. I love cookbooks, but I am not an avid COTMer. I only participate if 1) I already own the book 2) it's on my lust after list and just needed that last push or 3) most of the recipes are on the web. With full time work and a toddler, I'm mostly after cookbooks that inspire me but doesn't require a lot of effort. (I go to a chinese and indian grocer regularly. So that type of exotic ingredient is ok for me as long as they keep well). I guess that's why I'm so smitten with Mighty Spice and very intersted in Charles Phan Vietnamese cooking.

                              I actually quite enjoy HTE, even though I'm cooking one or maybe two recipes from it a week. That's the most I could do anyway. (That's the reason I don't want to buy many of the COTMs. I don't think I'll cook more than a handful of recipes from it). There are a lot of fairly simple recipes in it for busy cooks. It's been neglected on my bookcase because it looks intimidating. Because of COTM, I've read through Basics, One & Two, Fast Food, and am now reading Weekend Lunches. I've marked many recipes I'd like to try. It has also put NL's Kitchen on my Amazon wishlist, as multiple hounds have said it's good, and it looks like it has many 30min meals in it.

                              1. re: lilham

                                Just so you know, I personally think cooking one or two recipes a week from a COTM is putting in plenty of effort. Nothing at all to scoff at! I think for most of us, if we did that and ended up cooking 8 new dishes in a month (especially from a formerly under-used cookbook that had just been sitting around) we'd be thrilled. That is about the amount I try for, although i don't always succeed, what with date nights, husband being away, etc.

                            2. re: The Dairy Queen

                              <"Of course no one said "this book sucks" or would ever say anything like that! COTM'ers are too kind for that. Also, I think COTM'ers place a high a value on COTM as a community within the community and wouldn't engage in that kind of meanness or hostility.">

                              Right... Plus, I Hate that word. We've cooked several recipes we liked very much from HTE. It was just the one, a rigatoni with cream, that I had trouble with and it was all my own fault. But some books are just more exciting than others, I think. I'm thinking the first Ottolenghi, or Every Grain of Rice for instance... and for me the Nogel Slater books.

                              Perhaps we can make a silent pledge to ourselves not to voice our displeasure too early in the month?? (I'm thinking of myself here)

                              1. re: Gio

                                Thank you Gio, Lilham, and Savour for your thoughtful comments.

                                (and before I go on, lilham, I completely agree with LulusMom that 2 recipes per week is outstanding! I would love to do at least one per week, actually!)

                                And, Gio, I really dislike that word, too, and try not to use it.

                                Honestly, I don't know what the answer is. And forgive me if I'm being fickle and/or contradicting what I said above... On the one hand, it is vitally important that we all be honest about our impressions and experiences with these books. Otherwise, what's the point? We make a major investment of time and money and shelf-space to participate in COTM. Even if you borrow the book from your library, you're still purchasing ingredients and subjecting yourself and your families to whatever you cook from the book... No need to go broke torturing yourself with meals you are unhappy with!

                                And while I've said that I'm discouraged by early negative impressions of a book, there might be a zillion others (including lurkers) whose sensibilities are closer to someone who doesn't like a particular book than to mine. So, for the benefit of all of those folks, maybe it's crucial to get the news out early on.

                                So, I hate to put a virtual gag on people saying, "don't be honest about the book if your thoughts are negative" or even "don't be honest about the book EARLY if your thoughts are negative"..but just realize that part of the appeal of the book for everyone in any month is the "cooking in community".

                                If a bunch of people are announcing that they are fleeing COTM in a particular month, it's less fun for those who remain behind because they lose the sense of community.

                                So, I think it's absolutely okay to say, "I'm not inspired by this book and here's why...". You might get some helpful feedback from people about how to get inspired by the book and/or your thoughts might be helpful to likeminded people.

                                But (and I'm not suggesting anyone has done this, though I regret to say I think I actually have once or twice in the past) I guess it would be nice if people refrained from declaring that they are DONE cooking from this book. That just gives the impression to people that they will be cooking alone.

                                So share your thoughts, share them early, share them honestly, but refrain if at all possible from declaring that you're quitting for the month.

                                I don't know.

                                I think Savour's suggestion of a separate thread is an interesting one (I still wish the COTM coordinator would set up a specific "post-mortem" thread at the beginning of the month that is linked in the master thread for people to share their overall impressions at the end of the month) but I'm not sure I have the self-control not to read it! HA!

                                Sorry, I probably haven't illuminated anything, have I?


                          2. re: Westminstress

                            Honestly, I've done this in the past, been very negative about a book early on, and I now regret it, realizing maybe I wasn't giving the book a chance, but maybe also was making it hard to let other people give the book a chance, especially people who join in later in the month for whatever reason.

                            But yes, you absolutely must report your recipe results accurately, even if (especially if!) your results are inedibly bad. I'm not saying you have to cook from a book that doesn't inspire you or continue to cook from a book whose recipes have let you down, or even keep quiet about a book, just be aware that too much "overall" criticism of a book early in the month can really turn a month sour.

                            And thank you for your kind words. I'm looking forward to 2013 where everything is sunny and bright and shiny and new!


                          3. re: The Dairy Queen

                            P.S. sorry youre going through a tough time, TDQ. Hope it gets better soon!