10 NO-FAIL FOODIE GIFTS by Beth Wareham
My business partner and I share a background heavy in food preparation. She is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. Not some soft U.S. outpost; she trained in Paris. Huge Frenchmen screamed at her and her pastry. She got butter in her hair.
Hey, everybody has to scratch an itch and, if your hands are smeared with flour and fat, you have little recourse but to smear some around. At night, she’d wash it off and call the States, enraged: “I’m gonna get that Frenchman,” she’d tell her little brother. No tears. No trembling behind the door of the walk-in larder. Just thoughts and plots of revenge.
My experience in food preparation covered 20 years as a cookbook editor, with three editions of the Joy of Cooking notched into my pencil plus chefs Daniel Boulud and Bobby Flay. (I LOVE Bobby Flay. I fought off endless urges to buy him fleece. I thought the warm kitchens would take care of it.) Al Roker was in there somewhere with barbecue and, when I think of recipes from The Herb Farm outside Seattle, my taste glands activate.
I’m forgetting at least 25 other chefs and cookbook authors I edited, perhaps on purpose. I know what makes a great recipe and I know one that won’t work within 3 seconds of looking at it. Food and bullshit often go hand in hand.
My partner and I rarely cook now. I’ll do a steak over an open fire and she’ll throw lobsters into boiling water, but that’s about it. Maybe this is our revenge: Simplicity. But if we do host a party or take food to someone, we’ll strut our stuff like the high-stepping, high-achieving women we are. Tell me, kid, ever de-boned a chicken? That’s hot Cougar talk.
Below is a list of cookbooks that, should my partner and I ever encounter them in your kitchen, we’d lean in to each other and whisper “real deal,” as we moved past on the tour of your house. These books are cornerstones of the world’s great cuisines. These books will, if you let them, explore a whole culture through the entryway of their food, a place where family, society and spirituality often meet.
These books are the equivalent of a cooking school course and look into a culture, without the screaming Frenchman and the butter:
1. Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
This book is so famous it seems silly to write about it. It blew into the American consciousness in the 1960s and had housewives preparing 7-course French meals for the boss and his wife. Julia trained an entire generation of magnificent chefs as they sat in front of the television in their diapers, watching her magic and dreaming of future meals.
2. The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean by Paula Wolfort
Twenty years or so ago, America discovered the Mediterranean diet and the books haven’t stopped coming since. A particularly healthy cuisine – tomatoes, fish,olive oil, citrus, raw garlic, vegetables, grains – the flavors are sunny, timeless, and satisfying and no one has ever done it better than Paula Wolfort.
3. Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni
I get a lot of phone calls looking for writers to do new Indian cookbooks for the expanding Indian culture in the United States. I always say the same thing: “Why do you need something more than Julie Sahni?” Many don’t know who she is and I suggest if you love Indian food, you get to know her. These complex ancient dishes are brought to life in a simple, vibrant style any cook can master.
4. The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy
I stand by this statement until the grave: Most Mexican cookbooks steal wildly from Diana Kennedy. Part Indiana Jones, part Julia Child, Diana took to Mexico, learning food ways and breaking that cuisine’s code for the North American cook. Her Lifetime Achievement Award for the James Beard Foundation proved that flashy organizations can promote an authentic intellectual on a quest to understand a culture: that’s Diana.
5. The Taste of Country Cooking: The 30th Anniversary Edition by Edna Lewis
When Virginia-born Edna Lewis operated the Café Nicholson in New York City, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were frequent diners. You think Edna knew something about Southern food? Edna was snatched up by Julia Child’s editor for a book the New York Times said “may well be the most entertaining regional cookbook in America.”
6. How to Cook Everything: 30th Anniversary Edition by Mark Bittman
He’s Mr. Minimalist in the New York Times, a persona that matches Mark’s no-nonsense approach to food. This is a big, all-purpose cookbook, much beloved by younger generations, and a perfect gift for those starting a new home. Heavily-branded,there are several versions of How to Cook Everything, including , one to vegetables, and one to just the basics, all good.
7. Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo
Home cooks in the United States haven’t taken to Chinese home cooking as they have other cuisines. Two reasons explain this: Chinese food is extremely heavy on prep work and, our Chinese restaurants are so good. Shopping for and cooking with these exotic ingredients is a rush. So is learning Chinese techniques.
8. The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
After a horrific childhood in wartime Italy, Marcella immigrated to the United States and and later published the go-to book for classic Italian cooking. Now, more than 30 years later, this is still the go-to book for classic Italian cooking. In fact Marcella was to Italy what Julia was to France. Marcella was just grumpier and drank more whisky. This book is full of the simple transcendent food of the Italians. Don’t miss the pork braised in milk.
9. Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia Completely Revised and Updated by Librarie LaRousse
The first edition of this kitchen titan was written in 1938 with a preface by the revered Escoffier. Repeatedly revised, it no longer just covers the deepest secrets of French food: world cuisines have now made it’s pages It was Julia Child’s “desert island book” and any cook that has an inquiring mind will want this reference by his or her side. Weighing in a 8 pounds, Larousse can be used to tone your arms as things bake.
10. The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook:
2,000 Recipes from 20 Years of America’s Most Trusted Cooking Magazine
Another all-purpose cookbook, Cook’s Illustrated always reminds me of the “anal retentive chef” from Saturday Night Live. Recipes are perfect. Hints come at you like tennis balls: Did you know vodka makes your crust more tender WITHOUT adding flavor? But throughout, the recipes work perfectly, are delicious and you learn the “why”of it all, an important thing to learn.