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James Abbott McNeill Whistler, ‘Nocturne: blue and silver. Battersea Reach’ 1872-1878. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Cookbooks to Really Cook With

I feel nostalgic when I walk through a farmer’s market for a childhood I did not have, wherein the many vegetables, picturesquely growing in gardens and wildly spreading in nearby ditches, would have been common-fare, eaten daily in-season, missed over winter, and ingrained in my diet and thought. In this imaginary world, corns grow side by side with all kinds of beans, which are not so far from wild fiddleheads and asparaguses, and fields of heirloom tomatoes just below the kitchen window, which looks towards a hill where sheep graze. Beyond them, a river, a nice beekeeping neighbor. A vineyard somewhere.

In my defense, I’ve only lived in cities all my life. So my fantasies of vegetables are really fantasies for the final product, a plate of food, a bowl of soup, a pot of stew, and not the dirt and the work. This is an ill omen to me, the separation is, once considered, jarring in its magnitude and meaning.

But nevertheless, I persist in dreaming up new recipes, trying old ones, reinventing classics — because you have to live your fantasy somehow. These cookbooks I’ve listed below helped me get there. They are not coffee-table books, though some of them would also look great in the living room; they will be, by the time you’ve gone through some of the recipes, spotted, spattered, and crinkled up with use.

Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson

Cover of Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson

Baking is essentially so far from cooking that the two are almost disparate, or at least they are in my experience, since I use ‘pinches’ of this and that because it ‘feels right’ when cooking, whereas I’m all mathematics and precision when it comes to a loaf of sourdough. But, for the purposes of this list, let’s consider this wonderful book of recipes and stories by Chad Robertson a cookbook, especially since bakebook hasn’t entered common usage yet. Robertson, the man, the hands, the sleepless nights, behind the Tartine empire give us the basic how-tos of baking a good sourdough; he’s with us from the sourdough starter to an aside on modern ovens to sitting around to the loaf. If you choose this book as your first book on bread making, you will need some extra help here and there, either online or from some other book, as a beginner’s experience of things can only be explained by another beginner. But I think it is nevertheless the book to begin with, as Robertson’s writing makes you want to wake up early in the morning to bake the bread for dinner.

Marcella Cucina by Marcella Hazan

Among Marcella Hazan’s great Italian cookbooks, Marcella Cucina is the most acclaimed, perhaps because it was awarded the James Beard in 1997. Marcella brings together dishes from different regions of Italy and each recipe, each paragraph on food, culture, and flavors come with her great personality. Just watch her chat with Mark Bittman. She knows more than any of us will probably ever know about cooking, yet she tells you it’s all very simple. And, if you listen, it really is.

Lucky Peace Presents POWER VEGETABLES! by Peter Meehan

Lucky Peach’s POWER VEGETABLES! by Peter Meehan

Vegetables: you may very well not want it but you know you need it. Peter Meehan of the acclaimed Lucky Peach food magazine brings you POWER VEGETABLES!: TURBOCHARGED RECIPES FOR VEGETARIANS WITH GUTS, that cookbook you know you need; after reading a few of the recipes, one you know you want. Recipes include ‘Braised Cold Celery Hearts Victor,’ ‘Caponata,’ ‘Vegetable Tex-Mex Shepherd’s Pie,’ and more alongside pantry suggestions that will rig your system into loving vegetables. Finally, with classic Lucky Peach attitude, a lot of the recipes are fuck yous to your mama’s boiled broccoli.

True, I have mentioned these two + Peter Meehan (ah, the formidable six degrees of Peter Meehan) before in these pages. But it was more of an aside, and Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli deserve more than that. For one thing, the meatball recipe as dictated above has garnered me, personally, a certain kind of respect, a certain kind of presence at the dinner table. People look at me differently, as if I’m capable of things. The secrets — sans my personal touches here and there — are available, along with many more, in The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual. With it, you, too, can be a temporary venerable master of the dinner table. 

Jewish Soul Food by Jenna Gur

Jewish cooking needs more PR than you’d think as many, even those initiated into the love of appetizing, pickled herring and onions, hot knishes with hot mustard, often egregiously think that it can be  easily grasped through pastrami, gefilte fish, and matzo balls. Janna Gur shares ethnic Jewish and Arabic foods of Israel made by immigrants in Jewish Soul Food: from Minsk to Marrakech. It’s a fantastic addition to your stack of Joan Natahn, Gil Marks, and Mimi Sheraton (whose writing I also admire), and other more traditionally Jewish-American cookbooks.

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How to Have a Good Time when You’re a Foodie on the Down Low

It’d be nice if we had the means to dine at Alo or Buca on a regular basis and the shameless determination — or at somebody else’s disposal with the very same shameless determination — to cajole and coerce the maitre d’s for reservations. As it were, money’s short and maitre d’s are not known to vouchsafe tables so easily. By the time your or my time comes to dine at such places without having to insult the waitstaff, another joint pops up a few blocks away. But the truth of the matter is, if it is food, or, what everybody’s calling a “culinary experience”, you’re after, you don’t really need to drop that much money to have fun and something to mull over long after. There are plenty of experiences other than delicious, prettily plated, deconstructed-then-reconstructed, includes-some-foam dinner that are not only culinary but also much more exciting.

Let’s say you have a day to spend entirely on food-related things. Say it’s a Sunday of a long weekend and let’s throw in pleasant weather and good tidings all around to make this hypothetical situation as daydream-like as possible.

Start this wondrous day right at the appetizing store — head over to Schmaltz Appetizing for the right kind of bagels and lox. They carry, among other things, nova, pastrami smoked, and acadian salmon, not to mention sturgeon, gefilte fish, gravlax, caviars of various fish, herring, fresh egg salad, chopped liver, and all kinds of cream cheeses — the only essential they seem to be missing is the sable, the fatty, delicious, now very pricey and prized ‘poor-man’s sturgeon.’ Though they do offer a variety of selections, if this is your first time, I recommend pastrami smoked salmon and regular cream cheese on a plain bagel — this is the fundamentals, the touchstone for not only truly appreciating the lox but also for evaluating an appetizing store. The slivers of onion and a few capers on top are on the house.

It’s worth noting that the bagels at Schmaltz, which come from Kiva’s, are no flimsy crusty ones à la Montreal; they belong to that deliciously chewy, thick, and actual-meal variety of New York. Nevertheless, indulge in a pickled herring after the meal to round things out. I rarely if ever say this when it comes to babka but it’s optional at Schmaltz — the last two times I tried, it was rather dry and the chocolate was unevenly spread. So if you’re still hungry, eat another herring. It’s delicious, it’s good for you, it gives you lots of loving and asks for nothing.

Illustration from Lucky Peach by Nick Iluzada & Brian Macduckston

Walk down to Kensington Market and walk right into Good Egg’s many shelves packed with books for those who love to eat, to cook, and to talk about what to eat for dinner over lunch. If you have not yet checked out Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton, the mind and body behind the eponymous restaurant, you should. She’s not the friendliest of kitchen voices. As her cookbook as well as her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, show, she does not shy away from giving you her opinions and edicts: whether it’s radishes with sea salt and sweet butter or salt baked beef tenderloin, there are right ways to do things and you should know them. The book, even when some of its recipes are not home-kitchen friendly, is full of inspirations. If you’re looking to ante up your Asian dishes with the American vernacular game, you can’t go wrong with either 101 Easy Asian Recipes by Peter Meehan and the brains behind Lucky Peach or The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook by Chris Ying and Danny Bowien fame. For a fantastic Italian standard other than Marcella Hazan’s seminal Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, flip through a copy of The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual by the two Frankies and, once again, Peter Meehan.

The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook by Chris Ying

The cookbooks cost upwards to $30 and considering their weights, it’s not the wisest thing to make impulses purchases — after all, the wondrous day still has much to offer. Take mental notes — or discreetly take photos of — recipes you like from these cookbooks. How to use fish sauce, to bring out the magic of fermentation, to brighten with ginger are some things you should take notes on from Meehan and Ying. And personally, the Frankies offer a meatballs with sauce recipe worth getting into a fight with the book purveyors. In Hamilton’s book, look for an asparagus recipe as they are in peak season in April — both white and green varieties are unusually delicious during Spring. When you’ve filched your fill of recipes, grab a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s still Kitchen Confidential to support local book business and your mind alike.

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (2000)

If you have not read Kitchen Confidential yet, this is what you are looking for, even if you don’t know it yet. It’s filthy and romantic and sometimes you want to take a break from it, but you know you will always come back to it. In this way, it’s like that fine medium rare burger deluxe at Joe Jr. on too many nights a week.

By now you’re probably a little peckish and in need of a little sweetness after missing out on that babka. I’ve got you covered: head over — this might take a while — to Neo Coffee Bar for a coffee and a slice of roll cake. The Japanese coffeeshop offers delicious coffee roasted by Toronto’s own de Mello Palheta with subtly sweet roll cakes full of flavor. The Shingen is red beans and gyuhi rice cakes (softer than mochi) with roasted soybean cream; the Matcha & Adzuki is classic combination of the distinct matcha flavor and sweet red beans; and for a classic, try the Pistachio Raspberry. Sit and relax, read your copy of Bourdain, and enjoy. The roll cakes at around $6 aren’t the cheapest sweets out there. But remember that time when you dropped $30 for a mediocre steak frites and it came out with a foot in the well-done zone? That’s right, I saw you.

Otto’s Bierhalle main page

If you’ve read a bit of Bourdain, you’re probably in the mood for some beer. Get on a streetcar and head back west to Otto’s Bierhalle for a pint or two. Though I personally prefer a rowdier and less palm trees ridden beer halls where the lighting and the prices are more conducive to beer-induced silliness, Otto’s has a fine list of drafts you should try. Hofbräu München is a German brewery that opened in 1589 and theirs are some of the best beers one can drink. Otto’s offers two Hofbräus — the Original, a slightly sweet lager, and the Hofbräu Dunkel, a nutty dark larger. Paulaneranother Munich brewery, this one dating back to 1634, is on tap at Otto’s — the Hefeweissbier, or the wheat beer, is slightly more flavorful than common lagers and tastes somewhat like bananas. If you’re looking for something a bit more hoppy, try the citrusy and bitter Stone IPA from the Californian brewery. If you’re in the mood nurse and sip on your beer slowly, go for La Chouffe Golden AleThe Belgian brewery’s cute drunken gnome mascot should be enough warning for both its fruity deliciousness and malicious strength. If you want something in bottles when there is a respectable draft list, I can’t help you.

Tartine’s sourdough photo by Eric Wolfinger from the New York Times

By now you’re happily buzzed or tipsy. This is the perfect time to surreptitiously begin your journey as a journeyman baker/bacteria farmer. When you get home, in a glass or plastic container, put four ounces of whole grain, all-purpose, or rye flour and pour in four ounces of lukewarm filtered water.  Stir until it looks like a thick pancake batter. Cover with a kitchen towel or a cheese cloth. Now you’ve got a sourdough starter going that will, once done, revolutionize your pancake, pizza, morning rolls, and, most importantly, everyday bread game. From then on, you won’t touch pre-packaged bread or even that ACE stuff they sell at the groceries. I recommend reading up on sourdough starters as you go along to find the right one that fits your personal needs.

A day spent like this may very well be costly, what with transportation and roll cakes being $6 and all. But if you do the math, it’s probably a fraction of a dinner with wine at some fancy restaurant. It’s not that a day like this is objectively better than a deconstructed surf & turf + preceding palette cleansing sorbet. It is, rather, that a ‘culinary experience’ can be as humble and mind blowing like a nicely pickled herring or as easy as the surprising texture of red bean in a roll cake. Both are equally good and, in the romantic words of Nick Solares of Eater’s Meat Show, ‘profound and concussive.’ Just so happens that one won’t give your wallet a concussion.

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