Welcome to our first guest post! I’m super excited to introduce someone who wants to share her home library with you, and what a tasty library it is. The kitchen can be an intimidating place if you’ve just decided that you want to start cooking more of your own meals, and what better person to give advice on the best cookbooks to give you a stress-free start than a cookbook author and food writer? Read about her library and check out our previous home library posts here and here.
Casey Barber is the editor of Good. Food. Stories. as well as a
freelance food writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in
Gourmet Live, Better Homes & Gardens, iVillage, ReadyMade, DRAFT, Time
Out New York, and other print/online publications. She contributes
regularly to Serious Eats as Slice’s New Jersey correspondent. Casey
is the author of the forthcoming cookbook Classic Snacks Made from
Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand Name Treats
(Ulysses Press, 2013).
(Spoiler alert, she’s also my sister. -Tessa)
My cookbook library parallels my career in food: I didn’t leave grad school with a grand plan to be a food writer and cookbook author, just someone who cooked to clear my head and get away from the stress of my *real* writing job. As cooking grew from a distraction into an obsession and then a vocation, my small stack of cookbooks morphed into a full-on research library.
And as I meet and befriend more colleagues–aka, other writers in the food world–my dining room bookshelves get stuffed fuller than a Thanksgiving turkey with work form people I know personally and want to support. Sadly, the earliest cookbooks that kickstarted my kitchen confidence are no longer in my collection. Better Homes & Gardens Microwave Cookbook, I salute you and your recipe for spinach deviled eggs, even though I don’t remember actually using a microwave in any of my protozoan attempts at cooking. And the binder in which I slavishly stored recipes ripped from the pages of Bon Appetit or printed from the internet has been relegated to an out-of-sight cabinet after I realized I was creating more recipes for the web than using what others had already developed. As a somewhat OCD home organizer, I like to have my cookbooks divided by category:
- general purpose: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The New Doubleday Cookbook
- chef-written cookbooks (subdivided by genre, like Italian, farm-to-table, Southern, etc.)
- breads and pizzas
- breakfast (sort a bridge between bread-specific and general baking)
- baking and dessert
- ice cream
- meat and grilling
- canning and preserving
and so on.
But the built-in shelves that came with the house are small and oddly sized, Making it near impossible to group all themed books together. Some need to be turned on their sides just to fit onto the shelves; other don’t fit neatly into one category, like my lone stir-frying book that hangs out with an overly large jam book and The Flavor Bible, a cool but genre-defying book that tells you what flavors match up with others. Sounds dorky, but sometimes it’s fun to page through and see that scallions and Dijon mustard are a good pair. Think of them braised in a wine sauce. . . .
But I digress. Over the years, my rationale behind the cookbooks I buy has shifted dramatically from impress-the-guests books like The French Laundry Cookbook and The Babbo Cookbook (both of which I still do cook from, honest) to a more well-rounded selection that covers all the bases from bread baking to curing meat to pressure cooking to regional Spanish cuisine. I read my cookbooks like they were novels and I turn to them often for reference and comparison.
If you’re building your own cookbook library, here are my top recommendations for filling your shelves:
For Cooks Just Starting Out
Jamie Oliver got a lot of flak for his “Food Revolution” TV show, but he’s still a smart and enthusiastic chef who knows of what he speaks. Jamie’s Food Revolution and its follow-up tome, Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes, are like soothing guidance counselors for novice cooks who might otherwise turn to a frozen pizza or Lean Cuisine for dinner. Tasked with the idea of prepping a complete meal, whether it’s for yourself or a whole family, sounds daunting. but Jamie breaks it down step by step–prepare, cook, and serve–covering all the bases in a conversational way. He doesn’t ask you to dice the onions into 1/2-inch cubes, he just wants you to “roughly chop” them, knowwhatImean? Before you know it, there’s a platter of parmesan chicken breasts with crispy posh ham on the table. Meals in Minutes takes the concept one step further, pairing main dishes, salads, and veg together in one group so you can prepare an entire meal, start to finish, all at once in the kitchen. It’s an ingenious way of looking at things, since that’s the way most of us actually prep our food, and helps new cooks realize that cooking is a really intuitive process.
For Cooks Who Want to Know
Yes, Alton Brown’s recipes are available on the Food Network website, but if you’re a Good Eats junkie like me, you’ll be thrilled by the trilogy of books that covers every single recipe from every single one of the 249 episodes in the TV series. If you’ve never watched an episode, I nonetheless suggest you leaf through one of the tomes the next time you’re at the bookstore–I think these books make a better basic reference series than most of the chestnuts that came before them. Sure, The New York Times Cookbook can give you an eggs Benedict recipe, but Good Eats will explain the provenance of the name, tell you the history of the English muffin, teach you how to poach an egg, and give you a near foolproof hollandaise recipe. All in one chapter. Isn’t that infinitely more useful, educational, and entertaining?
For Dessert Freaks
My friend Shaina Olmanson’s new cookbook Desserts in Jars takes a novel concept and explores its versatility six ways to Sunday. Newbie bakers can tackle their first yeast bread with the simple pull-apart cinnamon breads; pie crust-ophones like Tessa can tackle mini strawberry or peach bourbon pies, where rolling out pie dough doesn’t have to be perfect; and everyone should get a spoon for the recipe I’ve been jonesing to try ever since I picked up the book, sweet corn panna cotta with bacon-blueberry sauce. Shaina’s got four kids, so she knows how to make recipes work for any age or experience level. She’s patient and explanatory in her writing style, but her desserts have oomph.
For the Next Generation of Little House on the Prairie
Maybe you’ve always wanted to try your hand at canning, but are squeezed into a tiny studio apartment or don’t have a way to bring 10 pounds of tomatoes or strawberries back form the farmer’s market with you. As the force behind the small-batch canning site Food in Jars, Marisa McClellan is the expert at the possibilities of preserving no matter how small your space. Now she’s got a whole cookbook, Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round, with canning recipes that don’t require a forest’s worth of fruit. Take a stab at Marisa’s simple raspberry ma, rhubarb jelly, or gingery pickled beets, and you’ll see how crazy satisfying canning can be–not to mention you’ll wonder why you ever bothered to buy Smucker’s in the first place. And as she says, “Most people believe that you need a ton of special equipment in order to get canning. Truth is, provided your kitchen is stocked with some basics (I’m talking post, bowls, and measuring cups here, not Viking stoves) you can do a wide variety of canning with what you’ve already got.”
Oh, and what would any library be without its resident cats? Lenny is still upset I took away some of his sleeping space, since he used to nestle in-between books before the space was filled. But he’ll still relax against the cookbooks and gaze out the window at birds. Harry prefers the other side of the bookshelves, where he can chill with the art history books.