You can find just about any recipe you’re looking for online these days. But ever try actually cooking from one? The actual recipe is buried beneath a lengthy story about how it transformed the author’s life or was part of their childhood or whatever. Meanwhile, pop-up after pop-up keeps bursting onto your screen. I don’t know about you, but my phone locks after 15 seconds of inactivity. Any idea what that means when you’re trying to cook while reading the fine print? You get it.
Then again, I prefer the smell of a newspaper hot off the press, or the feel of a musty old book from the shelf. Hey, if you want to navigate the world from your digital watch, cool. But if you like tangible things, whether it’s vinyl records, paperback novels, friends you can actually touch, you’ll probably like cookbooks.
And there’s several that have been published recently that I imagine you’d like to have in your kitchen library. I want to share a few special ones with you that I am excited to be exploring. So, here we go…
The Dinner Party Project, Natasha Feldman
Feldman has some really decadent recipes – cacio e pepe mac and cheese, charred lemon broccolini and a divine brisket, among dozens of other Jewish delicatessen-inspired dishes. But Natasha’s book is more than about just food and ways to prepare it. She points out that most of her friends were met at dinner parties. And to sit by some of those friends at one of her parties is to understand the power of breaking bread with strangers.
You may be an introvert or think you can’t cook, but this L.A. gal has news about you that even your shrink has yet to unearth. This is as much a self-help book as it is a cookbook. In less-capable hands, it might be called “Cooking for Dummies.” But this is a host/author who understands that her audience is not dumb, just unprepared, overwhelmed, or still recapturing their social life after Covid. It is written with a tone of respect to wherever you’re at in your life. It offers principles for living that go well beyond the table and will make your life better by having read it.
Let’s talk a bit more about that brisket. She calls it her “Be-Your-Own-Bubbe (BYOB, get it?) Jewish Brisket. Feldman calls this her favorite dish. I would too. This is a recipe that goes far beyond a list of ingredients, which are not entirely mysterious. But it’s the attention to detail, the care, the patience that she suggests that turn this thing into a treasure map. Good luck making this perfectly tender, seasoned piece of meat after doing a Google search.
Pulp, A Practical Guide to Cooking with Fruit, by Abra Berens
This is a hefty volume that requires a substantial shelf. You’re wondering how many recipes Berens can concoct around cooking with fruit, right? I’ll spare you the suspense: 215. That’s right, 215 recipes covering the entire spectrum of sweet to savory, simple to complex, delicious to oh my god.
But again, this is more than just a compilation of ingredients put together in a certain order and cooked at a certain temperature. This is a textbook about fruit-bearing plants. It is a magnum opus that if others saw on your shelf would make you appear more sophisticated than you probably are.
From an avocado-infused hummus topped with mint leaves to a beet carpaccio with raspberries and pistachios, the chef makes full use of texture and color to create Instagram-worthy dishes that look almost as delicious as they taste.
The Everlasting Meal Cookbook, Leftovers A-Z, by Tamar Adler
While technically a cookbook, Adler’s book might just as easily find a home in the philosophy section. This is the bible of maximization of food use. Put simply, it’s how to make a noteworthy meal out of leftovers, remnants and whatever’s on hand. In these times of high inflation and rising food prices, this book basically pays for itself.
While housing more than 1,500 recipes, this cookbook is ultimately more about empowering you to make the most of what you have, whether it’s in the kitchen or in life. This is a well-crafted encyclopedia that categorizes sections cogently and makes finding a recipe effortless despite the vast number of them.
There are aspirational cookbooks on my shelf. They look stunning. I never use them. I’m never going to be able to recreate what the Voltaggio brothers put on the table, nor do I have the capacity of putting together a feast per Ben Ford’s directions, and honestly, my quality of dinner guest probably isn’t worth it. Adler’s book, however, is one that is destined to become dog-eared and food-stained.
Meal Prep Magic, Time-Saving Tricks for Stress-Free Cooking, by Catherine McCord
What Marie Kondo is to the closet, Catherine McCord is to the kitchen. Her process is simple: purge, organize, prep and execute. That acronym spells pope, and there does seem to be something religious (cultish?) about McCord’s message. And I’m a convert.
I’m sure there are other recipes out there for sausage and kale soup. And if you want to wade through the pop-ups for a flatter belly or stupid trick that gets rid of warts or whatever, go right ahead. Enjoy your soup. But let me just give you a taste of McCord: “Think of this recipe as a blank canvas. I use kale, but collard greens or Swiss chard work just as well. Same goes for the beans – I like the creaminess white beans add, but red kidney beans or chickpeas or A-OK, too!” She speaks of the dish’s Portuguese origins, explains how to store leftovers and is precise in her cooking guidance. Now make it. She’s more than just an organizer, she’s a cook.
You can’t read this book and not come away a better home cook. And like some of the other books I’ve mentioned, this is life-altering. Her “tricks” ought to be your core values. Don’t just flip to her coconut shrimp recipe – I mean, when you’re ready for some amazing coconut shrimp, OK – but actually read this book. There’s a very good reason it’s not just a post on some internet site.
The bottom line of all this is that cookbooks are not merely recipe books. The best ones provide philosophical meaning about why and what we eat; they inspire us to better ourselves in our daily lives; and they enable us to make our kitchen the beating heart of our homes that the room has historically occupied.
There’s a humorous John Waters quote you may know regarding books in the home of someone that you’re potentially … you know. If you’re unfamiliar with the quote, look it up. I’ll wait. Now, I’d like to amend it a tad to include this overlooked but crucially important form of published writing; to wit, if that person doesn’t have a cookbook, don’t eat with ‘em.
(By the way, gold star if you got the “Twilight Zone” reference in the title.)