Tuesday, August 12, 2008


As I've probably mentioned before, I made it to about 25 before I learned to cook. I lived in the dorms in college, so ate at the dining hall, and went off to law school basically able to make pasta and nuke frozen food. I would TRY to cook and I kept scorching things, which is a problem when you're on a student budget. (To this day, I have no idea why I kept scorching things, except that lack of experience in cooking makes things not turn out even when you follow directions.)

My mother sort-of tried to teach me to cook, but I had no interest and she's lefty and couldn't stand to watch me wield a knife wrong-handed. Frankly, nobody can stand to watch me wield one right-handed ... I am klutzy. (Got a band-aid on right now.)

So around 25, after I got married, it occurred to me that I could not go my entire life eating food that came in frozen boxes. Mr. McGee is actually a very good cook, but he had a pair of problematic beliefs: 1) if you don't use every pot and utensil in the kitchen, you're doing it wrong; and 2) he who cooks shall not clean. I realized very quickly I was getting the raw end of this deal since all I could make were one-pot meals AND I clean as I go. So I started learning to cook in self-defense.

Now I'm a pretty competent cook, and I even enjoy cooking for people (I'm still pretty lazy when it's just me). A friend was asking me what cookbooks I learned from, and we got off on a cookbooky tangent, so I present the cookbooks I learned from and cook from:

My very first cookbook was The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook. I actually own the edition that link goes to -- I got it free with my bedspread -- but I vastly prefer the one my mom got me when I was in junior high that has all the pictures at the front and is just much, much better. My new edition never gets used; my old edition opens directly to the pages with the cakes I make the most often. (Like many non-cooks, I was actually a pretty good baker, since baking is just following directions. However, due to my clumsy, my frosting jobs always look like crap.) Part of what makes this a fun cookbook is all the instructions on how to set a table for, like, a state dinner, and fold your napkins into swans. It's not a "how to boil water" basic text, but it's a good all-rounder.

One that DOES start with how to boil water is The Seventeen Cookbook, from 1964, from Seventeen Magazine. It starts with boiling water and "what is a sauce pan?"* and works up to cooking for the prom. There's some good recipes in here, and very clear instructions for beginners, but really the fun of it is the cultural glimpse into the past: What to make for the boy who carries your books, what to cook for your sock hop, all that.

One of the things that perplexed me when I started to cook was that the cookbooks were very helpful for making Beef Wellington, but how did people cook every single night without turning to prepackaged crap or spending hours at it? How to Cook Without a Book to the rescue. She explains principles and how to vary recipes to taste and what you can change and what you can't -- all those things good cooks just KNOW and so can't explain to you. She gives you little poems you can memorize to cook various dishes to, but what was really useful to me was the how and why of cooking by ear. (I look up the recipes I want. In the book. It's a lie!)

Seeing how much knowing the "how and why" helped me, I moved on to the James Beard Award-winning On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (and learned what a James Beard Award was!). It's a hefty, but it basically explains the science (and some history and mythology for good measure) of everything you do in the kitchen. It is one of my favorite books ever and I tortured Mr. McGee with tidbits from it for MONTHS as I read it. For some people this will be dull, but if your brain works like mine and you like the how and why, this made me a better cook than anything else I read.

Far and away the cookbooks we cook out of the MOST, however, are the More-With-Less Cookbook and its companion volume, Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook. (Spring for the spiral bound, trust me.) I pimp these books so much the Mennonites should pay me royalties; I give them as wedding presents all the time. More with Less is full of simple, healthy, tasty recipes of basic, everyday foods. The cookbook has a philosophy of simple eating and eating low on the food chain. Extending the Table is collected recipes from all over the world -- not what you'd get at an Ethiopian restaurant, but what you'd eat at someone's home in Ethiopia. We cook almost exclusively out of these two and highlight and annotate the crap out of them. (When we give them as a gift to someone we know really well, we like to write in some of our annotations and highlights to make it more personal.) I absolutely ADORE these books and you MUST own them.

Finally, I recently acquired the epic How To Cook Everything. Lots of explanations of basics, lots of recipe variations. Good for going, "Now what the heck am I going to do with 8 turnips?" Far too much reliance on the food processor (meh), but really good for meat dishes and things like that -- I can think, "I have two frozen chicken breasts and a spice rack -- what can I do with that?" and find the answer in here. It's too new for me to say it's a must-have, but I think it'll turn out that way in the end.

What cookbooks can't you live without?


*True story: It took me like a decade to figure out what a saucepan was. Stove-top cooking vessels came in two categories, as far as I knew: Pot and Pan. A PAN was obviously something flat, like a frying pan, but the instructions in the recipes obviously were not contemplating a skillet or frying pan (and the recipes ended badly when thusly attempted) so I was stumped. They really should call it a sauce POT. The secondary question is why I never used a dictionary but I guess it mostly occurred to me to wonder when covered in sauce.


Donna/Doxy/LyricFox said...

License to Grill. That's The Bible.
Thrill of the Grill. That's The Apocrypha.

Honestly, I've never had a bad meal out of the first one, and the second gave me some serious help when I left Dallas with its wonderful ethnic markets and moved to Waco and had to learn to cook a new cuisine. And the recipes aren't just grilling, so don't be mislead.

Non-grilling would be Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, and Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

My Flock Rocks! said...

Cooking has always come very easy for me probably because I like to eat. I have collected cookbooks over the years but look more at the pictures and try to create the recipes on my own. I guess that would tell you that I am not good at following directions.

Jennifer said...

I really like "The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook." America's test kitchen is the show that is related to Cook's Illustrated magazine.
It's really good for basic things like, umm.. how long do I boil potatoes for mashed potatoes?
I also love Cooking Light magazine and usually make several recipes from each issue.
I love the original "Cooky book" too, and it's interesting to see how tastes have changed over the years. (Dates used to be so popular!)

Angie said...

One of my favorites is How To Boil Water from the Food Network. I tend to give it as a shower gift. It has new takes on all the classics. And it does tell you how to boil water. My absolute favorite is the CIA textbook. It covers EVERYTHING.

Highpockets said...

I’d have to add The joy of Cooking. Its been edited and updated over the years to change with the times. 2006 was the 75th anniversary, but the tried and true edition I have is from 1964, it was my parents and they let me have it when I bought them a new copy. I never embark on a new culinary adventure without consulting “Mrs. Joy” first. When you are learning to cook it’s great because you start with the idea to make something, eggs benedict, you get out “Mrs. Joy” and look it up in the index, you go to page 724, you read the recipe, it says something like, “Poach two eggs, See About Eggs, page 296” you go to 296 you read about eggs, you go back to 724, you keep reading the recipe, “make hollandaise sauce, page 671” you go to 671 where it tells you how to make hollandaise with the advice to “See About Sauces, page 601” , go to 601 read about sauces, you go back to 724 “make English muffin page 982”, blah, blah, “about Muffins see page such and such.” By this point you’ve made a PB&J for breakfast cuz it’s 11:30, but tomorrow you are going to have Eggs Benedict!

Star said...

Seconding the Joy of Cooking rec. I don't use the actual recipes that much, but it has a lot of very useful information about techniques and cooking basics. It's currently helping me freeze all my CSA veg before it goes bad so that we'll have yummy local produce all winter too!

For baking, Mr. Star swears by Breaking Bread With Father Dominic and other books by the same author. These are the books he learned to bake from, so they're good for beginners (and Father Dom is fantastic at making learning to bake non-threatening), but there's also plenty of variety in the recipes for those who wish to branch out more.

Zulu said...

I have a "Favorite Brand Name 4 Ingredient Cookbook" that I've been using. I'm just learning how to cook and it's a perfect starter book. The recipes are very simple and it's basically idiot-proof (and I should know). The recipes always include brand names (like Campbell's or Velveeta) so I guess it's to help guide those who are used to eating soup and macaroni and cheese for dinner into more advanced territory. Like learning to swim with water wings, I suppose.