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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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