When I need to jump start my weekly dinner rotations, there are surprisingly few cookbooks I thumb through as a starting point. The three classic home cooking cookbooks I turn to again and again as a reference point seem to have more than a few things in common:
- They all have a recipe for Shepherd’s Pie that I may have used as the base for the Cottage Shepherd’s Pie I’ve been making for years and posted here a few days ago.
- They were all written or edited for the home cook by acclaimed food writers. These folks also have ties to the iconic and sadly departed Gourmet Magazine: Ruth Reichl was a managing editor, David Rosengarten was a contributing editor and Marion Cunningham a contributor.
- Their recipes work and I’m positive it has something to do with them being written by food geeks. Sometimes when I read random internet recipes, I feel like I’m reading a recipe version of the phone tree game where the end result is missing so many core pieces it just doesn’t make sense. Not so with these cookbooks.
- When I need to bring a cookbook or two to an extended beach or mountain vacation, these are the cookbooks I would turn to. Yes, the internet might be available, but it’s actually less work for me to make a recipe I trust than figure out if a new one will work or not.
- All three cookbooks are tomes to be reckoned with. I actually weighed them: The Dean & Deluca at only 563 pages weighs almost 3 pounds, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook at 874 pages weighs 3 ½ pounds and The Gourmet Cookbook at a staggering 1040 pages weighs almost 4 ½ lbs!
A little more information about the cookbooks:
The Gourmet Cookbook edited by Ruth Reichl was published in 2004. The Gourmet Cookbook doesn’t stray too far from the standard recipe for a dish, but offers an unparalleled consistency to give confidence each recipe will taste as it should. The recipes have been hand selected by Reichl and it shows – there is a diverse and interesting range of recipes with flourishes and the kind of culinary finesse someone who knows their way around a kitchen will appreciate. Yet The Gourmet Cookbook is also basic enough for a beginner to have success. It’s like having many thoroughly researched single subject cookbooks in one – for example 32 pages are devoted to grains and beans, 75 pages to vegetables and over 200 pages to desserts. There many pleasant surprises including a recipe for toasted rice powder for Southeast Asian salads, naan, mapo tofu, and a version of an insanely addictive carrot ginger vinaigrette. The shepherd’s pie recipe in The Gourmet Cookbook calls for ground lamb and includes leeks, pearl onions, white wine, fresh herbs.
The Dean & Deluca Cookbook by David Rosengarten with Joel Dean and Giorgia DeLuca was published in 1996. It’s a vellum covered, simple yet stylishly designed cookbook. David Rosengarten is an acclaimed food writer who
co-hosted one of the first shows on the Food Network in the early 90s. Rosengarten’s food geek influence is obvious in the recipes: there are 2 pages devoted to describing fresh and dried chiles, 3 pages to Asian vegetable, 4 pages to olives and 7 pages to legumes. The only downside to this entertaining reference book is there are no desserts.
I can tell I use the Dean & Deluca Cookbook often because there are many post-its where I have tagged interesting or useful recipes. Many of the recipes in the Dean & Deluca Cookbook you wouldn’t know were from a cookbook written 20 years ago because they would easily be at home in a cookbook written today. Recipes for caldo verde, wheat beer soup, adobo sauce, pomegranate molasses relish, ajvar, potato tortilla, and even kimchi are included. The shepherd’s pie recipe calls for lamb, rosemary, Worcestershire sauce, white wine and is one of the only ones I’ve found that includes corn.
Marion Cunningham’s The Fannie Farmer Cookbook was published in 1990, the year I was married. This 13th edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook completely updates Cunningham’s 12th edition from 1979. It bridges the gap between the food my mom made growing up and the current cooking trends when I started my own family. Written over 25 years ago, it seems like it was still a little behind the food scene at the time when it added microwave cooking, outdoor cooking, vegetarian dishes and “ethnic recipes”.
The Fannie Farmer Cookbook is a bit more stodgy than the other two cookbooks, but it gets the job done. It devotes 50 pages to pantry staples, kitchen equipment, and cooking terms; including how to make yogurt as part of the pantry staple section.
If I’m researching a recipe, Marion’s recipes can provide the backbone for me to support my additional creative touches. As a bonus, I think Cunningham liked baking because there are over 200 pages devoted to desserts, the same number as The Gourmet Cookbook which is 200 pages longer than The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
(I also like this cookbooks because I have great admiration for Marion Cunningham who, like Julia Child, came into her own in her 50s.)
BTW – It so hard to pick just three cookbooks every week that I think I’ll give honorable mention to other cookbooks in the running, if there are any. This week I didn’t include:
- How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman – My husband uses this when he cooks. Which. Is. Rarely. This was also written a few years after The Gourmet Cookbook and if I have to choose between Mark Bittman and Ruth Reichl (which I do!) you now know who I’d choose.
- The New Basics by Rosso & Lukins – Their two earlier cookbooks are really the ones that got me through college and beyond. By the time The New Basics was published in 1989, I was already taking cooking classes at places like the New School in NYC and collecting cookbooks like mad.
- The New Best Recipe from the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated – It kind of belongs in a category by itself for a variety of reasons. I’ll devote a future post to this series.