I don’t actually ever stop acquiring cookbooks. In the past year, I have averaged one per quarter. I have also re-possessed a few cookbooks that were in the garage, in the very last of the boxes to be unpacked (from moving three-and-a-half years ago). I have spent hours and hours reading these books, perusing them, poring over them, marking them up, and even cooking and baking from them, this past year. And now I’m going to do one big hurrah of a review series.
I studied in Jerusalem for a semester in college. When the book Jerusalem by Yotal Ottolenghi and Sami Tamini burst into popularity a handful of years ago, I knew that I wanted it, if only in the hopes that there would be falafel with fries and pickle (on it) and lamb “cigars.” Well maybe I also wanted to capture many of the other tastes that I had experienced in Jerusalem and in my extensive travels around Israel and the neighboring countries, too. Even breakfast fish. After spending time reading about the place and time, immersing myself in one delicious-looking photo after another—I can tell you this: when any cookbook gets me to star a recipe for something stuffed, I know that at the very least it is persuasive. Stuffed Artichokes with Peas and Dill or Stuffed Eggplant with Lamb and Pine Nuts, anyone? After reading along and looking at the photo, you are bound to agree with me.
This is definitely one of those coffee-table cookbooks, though I would never relegate a cookbook just to the coffee table. I’m not nearly as enamored with this style of cookbook as so many other people seem to be. It might just be because I’m greedy when it comes to cookbooks: I spend money, I want lots of recipes. And where there are glossy, two-page photos, there are less recipes. Then again, this cookbook is more of an ode to modern Jerusalem and the cultures that comprise her. There are more than food photos here, or indeed, even just talking about food. There are historical, journalistic photos of a more intimate nature, as well as the occasional rabbit trail into the genesis of some food, largely in a personal, anecdotal way. And then there is the introduction, a proclamation of Jerusalem food as its own animal and what exactly that animal is, but they don’t overdue it: it doesn’t feel like a textbook.
Right after enjoying what I had half-determined not to (all those photos!), I tried the recipes for Barley Risotto with Marinated Feta, Conchiglie with Yogurt, Peas, and Chile, and Chicken with Caramelized Onion and Cardamom Rice (a great one-pan meal for a family). While I already possess a rather broad knowledge of food and a well-stocked pantry that balks at no new ingredient (except brains), I found this book accessible and the recipes delicious. What I’m saying is I might not be the every-man’s gauge. My family found the tastes a little different, but I found them simultaneously homey and bright and stimulating. Exciting! So I definitely will be wearing this book out with time, and I would highly recommend it for the adventurous home cook or one sympathetic to the cuisine for whatever reason. You could keep it on your coffee table and it can stay there while you make challah and lamb cigars (because neither had recipes here), but not for falafel, baba ghanoush, or chocolate Krantz/babka, all three of which are some of my favorite things to eat in the world.
MILK STREET: THE NEW RULES
I only have a few signed cookbooks, and only one cookbook that I will not cook from because of that signature. (It’s a Julia Child that was given to my father-in-law and in turn given to me.) Normally, I can’t abide by an unused cookbook. This cookbook, one that I didn’t even know I wanted, was the swag I received when I got an unexpected invite to attend a PBS pre-screening and Q&A session with Christopher Kimball. It is signed, and I will still use it. If you know PBS, you probably have seen Kimball around. He’s been a force of food TV as well as print, from America’s Test Kitchen to Cook’s Illustrated (many editions of which I have sitting on a shelf just feet from where I sit in the dining room to write this). I was stoked to attend the event, and it was a very nice date afternoon, Kimball being entertaining and counterintuitively endearing.
He was doing the circuit to bring attention to his newest endeavor, which is called Milk Street. There will be TV series and there will be publications and there is an online presence as well. Milk Street is a newish kitchen, with Kimball at the head, giving voice to a modern approach to cooking. It’s a cooking school, magazine, radio show and TV shows based in Boston. At 177 Milk Street. The first two cookbooks were The Milk Street Cookbook and Milk Street: Tuesday Nights. For the screening, Kimball seemed all hyped up about his newest cookbook and the one they were about to hand me: Milk Street: The New Rules, Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook.
I have to admit, I sorta like the old rules. I’ve learned them over time, and sometimes without really knowing why, I have trusted the consensus because they were the time-tested rules. Kimball, though—a man who has spent a career testing the heck out of everything from Dutch ovens to beef bourguinon—has decided to show us exactly where, scientifically and anecdotally—the rules need to be thrown out. These, friends, are the new rules, the ones that will yield better results and with less effort. These are the rich nuggets of wisdom Kimball has gained in the test kitchen and also on extensive travels and a lifetime of tasting. Some will sound familiar. Some will shock. From No. 22: Put Pasta Water to Work to No. 59: Stop Tossing Your Stems, you may end up agreeing to disagree, but with your mouth full of some delicious thing you just made his way.
The assumption of all recipes in this book is that they are accessible to the home cook, simple in their own way, though they are precise. The book is full of foodformation, though a bit random and some of that information might make you want to pull your hair out rather than re-think your cooking methods or throw out your unsalted butter. The book is also pretty, full of food, “food porn” as someone who isn’t me has termed it. To be honest, the book is chock full of foods that I have already discovered—during my own food journey—that I already love, even a few that were a sort of “secret” in my repertoire (fideos, satay, traybake, crusted chicken cutlets, Asian noodles in general). The book really is full of super delicious meals and this cookbook is a great one as either a cornerstone of a family cookbook library or a back-pocket guide (figuratively).
Though I haven’t used it much, yet, I know enough to see a good recipe collection when it lands in my lap. I’m very much looking forward to gems such as Smashed Cucumber Salad, Portuguese Rice with Kale and Plum Tomatoes, Malaysian Style Noodles with Pork and Mushrooms, Smashed Potatoes with Soft-Cooked Eggs and Mint, Chile Red Pepper Chicken Kabobs, and Fennel Brown Sugar Pork Ribs. This is not the kind of cookbook that contains everything you need, unless you plan on cooking intermittently and without any requirements (like, make such-and-such for this or that holiday. And there’s no baking, at all.) It’s a great addition to an established library, though, and I would especially recommend it for a student of the kitchen or a young person who would fully appreciate the pan-cuisine and sticking it to the man. I am also guessing that the other Milk Street cookbooks are solid, as well.
GERMAN MEALS AT OMA’S
Not very large and with no preamble, German Meals at Oma’s by Gerhild Fulson jumps right into area-specific German recipes, complete with a page-sized photo of each food. Because of it’s small size, it doesn’t have a real breadth of recipes and there are things you might expect to find here but don’t (like German fried chicken and homemade sausage, sauerkraut or sour cream), but there are many standards, like sauerbraten, schnitzel, spaetzle, goulash, stuffed cabbage, red cabbage, and rouladen. There’s also not much of an index, which is a pet peeve of mine.
I came upon acquiring this cookbook in my ceaseless search for the best cookbooks representing various specific cuisines, and this one was highly recommended for German, a cuisine which is close to my heart because of my own heritage and meals around my own grandmother’s table, my enthusiasm for visiting Frankenmuth in Michigan every time I go “home,” and my half-German brother-in-law. I have discovered over time, as well, that Eastern European is among my favorites of the world, and German is this interesting place that sort of spans the European food traditions, between like, the north and Russia. It’s maybe even the hub of these similar cuisines, among which is Moldovan and Polish. Unfortunately, I may have to add one more German cookbook to my shelf or at least tuck some internet recipes in between the pages, because even though I like this one, I really do need recipes for German fried chicken and sausage and Jaeger sauce and sour cream and sauerkraut done the old-timey way.
Certainly this book rings authentic, which is possibly why it didn’t feel it had to stoop to some American conception of what would be in a German cookbook. And it is very selective, which is why there are only a half-dozen (or less) recipes per each of the sixteen regions. There are limited comments, which are a mash-up of one-sentence stories, history, and cooking advice. I do appreciate when a recipe makes suggestions for what to serve it with, which Oma’s generally does. The recipes that I have tried so far—Konigsburg Meatballs in Caper Sauce, Red Cabbage with Apples, and Sauerbraten—have been doable, but also somewhat involved, and have moderate results. In order to put together a meal of meat, potato, and vegetable (at the least), you’re flipping back and forth, doing hours of kitchen acrobatics, for an acceptable meal. When I made sauerbraten and red cabbage, I had every intention of making potato dumplings to go with, but I just plain ran out of time and steam. It was still tasty, though the preparation of meat is not my favorite, but it would have been better with a potato. Maybe I should have just made a mash, but when would I ever get to all the complicated potato recipes that dot this book? Another thing: this is old world cooking. Brown food. Home food and maybe tavern food. But its not pretty or modern or world food. Not date food, but family dinner food.
Again, no baking, leaving me with no recipe for struedel, pretzels, or stollen, though I think I have those in my baking books. Maybe not the stollen, though I wouldn’t in a million years be baking that for me, but perhaps my aunt will need some and I won’t be able to make her any, at least not from Meals at Oma’s.
MARY BERRY’S BAKING BIBLE
I don’t know how much I needed an English baking book. I try to ignore that little voice that says that British food is the bottom rung, but I am an Anglophile and I’ve watched way too many episodes of The Great British Baking Show (the ones from the BBC) to not be curious about Eaton Mess and trifle and Victoria Sponge and meringue the size of your head and treacle tart. (Perhaps that last one is just one too many times through Harry Potter.) I don’t know how much hope I actually hold out for this book, but then again Mary is so revered in England, an authority on all this dessert. Tea. Whatever. I was Mary Berry for Halloween a couple years ago. Plus, how lovely that her name is Mary Berry and she’s the queen of British pudding? (That’s what they call dessert, crazy.)
It is a stretch to call almost any cookbook a “Bible.” I already have one baking “Bible,” and while it has more breadth than this one, including breads for one thing, neither one of them is what I would call a food “Bible.” Mary Berry’s is distinctly British, including things from other cultures only as they have become popular in England, as far as I can tell. And it’s not everything. I’ve seen the show. She has other books. But if you are a Berry fan, you’ll find what you’ll expect here. Quality but straight-forward recipes for British classics.
There is a forgettable introduction to each chapter, but there isn’t much other in the way of chatting. It’s straight-up recipes. The recipes are well-written, easy to use, and full of ingredients that you can find at the supermarket, assuming you can translate British English to American English. There are photos for a lot of the recipes, which is helpful in baking: to know what a thing’s supposed to look like when you’re done. There is a helpful section at the front of the cookbook, or helpful at least if you are a novice or almost-novice baker. Talks about baking and measuring and tools and techniques and things.
So this is a British dessert book. If that’s what you want, go no further. For more general baking books, keep tuned here. I’ve used her chocolate chip brownies recipe twice already, the first time with toffee bits, because it is really good. I skipped her recipe for carrot cake because it didn’t have enough in it, which I find is a thing in her baking: simplicity, for better or worse. I made her hot cross buns, too, and met with stodgy results. The other thing I made was Banana Loaf (which we know as banana bread). It was straightforward and a tad sweet, but it could be a good starting point. I already added a layer of walnuts on the surface, improving it.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHINESE COOKING
I mentioned earlier that one of the cookbooks above did not read like a textbook. The Encyclopedia of Chinese Cooking by Kenneth Lo does. Sure, it has hundreds of pages, dense with recipes and nary a photograph or illustration in sight, but it also has a short course in Chinese cooking for the first 35, single-spaced. The truth is, that while Americans love our Chinese food, we’re not so comfortable making much of it at home. And to make the food here, you’re going to need access to a specialty store, or maybe just a grocery store with a well-stocked Asian section. And at the very least, you’re going to have to understand one of the fundamentals of Chinese cooking: prep first, cook after. Also, get that wok scorching hot.
With all the many recipes, there are complicated and unapproachable recipes, like tripe and chicken feet and Thousand Year Old Eggs, but there also are plenty of quicker, easier recipes. It would be a stretch, perhaps, to call them approachable, because you have to do some mining and reading to find what it is you’re looking for without any pictures or cutesy comments, but the processes and ingredients will quickly get familiar since they are largely repetitious. Chinese cooking is often a combination of only a few familiar things, but done with pristine technique and yielding delicious results. It is one of the world’s best and most sophisticated cuisines. Before the book was lost in a box, I tried Vegetarian Stir-fried Scrambled Eggs and the end result was better than it sounded. It was delicious. And while I also plan on acquiring some Fuschia Dunlop cookbooks (having famously made Chinese cooking accessible to Western cooks), I don’t think my Chinese cookbook library need reach any further than that and this.
This is basic and apt. I will be spending years and years ignoring MSG on the ingredient list, but otherwise, I plan on using this cookbook for authentic and delicious meals. A couple caveats: American Chinese is not on the radar, at all. No fortune cookies, Almond Boneless Chicken, or General Tso’s. Even dishes we might sort of recognize are going to go by some descriptive name here that we wouldn’t recognize. We’re just going to have to be adventurous, take risks, and strive to better our techniques. Write notes when we discover a familiar taste. Also, it would be difficult for a Western home cook to pull off a whole Chinese meal from this cookbook. It would take an enormous amount of coordinating and flipping around, putting together all the pieces—sauces, dishes, accompaniments, etc. that would be included in a traditional Chinese meal. However, simplifying it down to the American one or two things with rice or pre-made eggrolls is going to be your best shot for a normal breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
THE JOY OF COOKING
I have wanted to find an old Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer for years. It’s just one of those insurmountable, unassailable classics. And while on a honeymoon getaway last year, while wandering the aisles of a quintessential small town antiques store, I found a near-perfect copy of Joy from 1975. True, it was published as early as 1931, so it wasn’t an original, and the newest versions are updated to make them more relevant and approachable. But this is a beautiful, white, leather-bound copy with gold lettering, speckled pages and even thumb tabs for the sections. It’s retro, which is the kind of recipes, tips, and cooking I would expect to find in The Joy of Cooking. Good ol’ old-school, Americana.
I actually wonder if you could do a study of the various reprints of The Joy through the years and expostulate on how it changed for different generations, following the fads and lifestyles of Americans. I don’t know how frequently it was changed, but the copy I have seems to be an interesting amalgam of what must have been there originally and some groovy sixties and seventies developments. From what I can tell, mine is the sixth edition out of nine to date, and I read that it is the most popular edition, the standard. Even though it is outdated in so many ways, it remains not only a curiosity to be treasured, but a resource to be used. Goodness sakes, what isn’t in this book? Oh yeah, pictures. It’s huge and heavy and has a never-ending run of recipes for everything from aspic to cocktails to pfefferneusse. Like seriously, this is an authority that you could consult when needed to make just about anything, as long as it’s not new-fangled. And variations! There’s millions of them. There’s also millions of tips, menus, pontification and endless information.
Forget Julie & Julia, someone should host a supper club and work their way through the menus. Maybe it’ll be me. I have used seasons of The Great British Baking Show to serve desserts to my small group, before. The first dinner would be Proscuitto and Fruit, Lasagne, Tossed Salad with French Dressing, and Zabaglione. You could carry in the food on the wind from those seemingly all-the-same American restaurants you visited as a kid. I think it would be both fun and delicious, as well as nobody got all snooty or unadventurous. I also think it would be fun to take the “formal” menus and use one for your next baby shower or tea or whatever. It could be a theme, with everything from Jellied Chicken Mousse to Hot Buttered Rum.
I’m going to be getting a lot of use out of this one, though I haven’t really used it yet. It is clear that the recipes are accurate, even though they are written in a style that is, well, a bird its own. It would take some cooks getting used to. And one last thing: you’re not going to cook your way through this one. It’s just too expansive. It’s a reference, like a dictionary, that, if you have any sense, you’ll pull off the shelf as a starting point for many, many recipes, meals, and gatherings, not to mention information.
ADVENTURES IN JEWISH COOKING
Adventures in Jewish Cooking by Rosabelle Edlin and Shushannah Spector is another of the books that was trapped in a box in the garage. I do not recall where this one came from, though it could have been from my mother-in-law’s collection. It was published in 1964 and sold, as a hard cover, for a whopping seven bucks. As old as it is, you should assume that it has no photographs, and this one actually has no illustrations at all. It is dense with recipes, but it also tends to the wordy side, so a recipe can spread out for pages at a time. There is limited history here, as well as rules of kosher and holiday menus and explanation. There’s a glossary and a whole lot of baked goods and desserts.
Let’s be clear here. These are recipes in the Ashkenazi tradition, after the diaspora and before the blending of scattered Jewish cultures that has taken place in Israel and perhaps other places. There are very few Sephardic recipes, from what I can tell all shoved in at the end of the book. On one hand, this is what Americans and what American Jews would recognize: the tradition as it expanded in Germany and Eastern Europe (as opposed to the culture as it expanded in North Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East). Think gefilte fish, knishes, and matzoh ball soup versus hummus, falafel, and shakshuka. I guess this is the “Jewish” cooking that interests me, as an American with Jewish people in my family. As for the other cuisines, I have other cookbooks that address Middle Eastern and North African cooking, as well as Spanish.
Before the book was lost, I tried Flaishig Vegetable Soup and Passover Potato Dumplings, both of which I marked with top marks. There are many standards here, without frills of any sort. This book is another reference, to have on the shelf for when you just need to make something traditional or something traditionally Jewish, if you’ll only make an attempt at seeing through the decades. If you want a more modern approach, there is a book by exactly the same name by Nathan Jeffrey and it gets rave reviews.
SIMPLE CLASSICS COOKBOOK
I don’t normally like the cookbooks put out by publishing houses, brands, and stores and such. I ended up with William Sonoma’s Simple Classics Cookbook as a gift very early in my marriage, and it is one of the few of this type of book I have hung on to. Maybe the only, actually. Why? Because it contains exactly what it claims to: simple classics. Who doesn’t want to make simple classics? And from this particular book, they would be either French, Italian, or American. Well, we’re probably not going to eat Dan Dan Noodles and Bibimbap every day. These are the types of recipes that will take a suburban Midwesterner right back to the eighties and nineties of their childhood and provide both weeknight and weekend comfort dinners.
My copy’s a little old and stylistically outdated, but there are large photos for every recipe, as well as pretty meticulous recipes. There isn’t a never-ending supply of them, but you’ll still be pretty happy, I imagine, with Minestrone, Chicken with Basil Aioli, Veal Scallopine with Marsala, Grape Focaccia, and Mixed Berry Shortcake. There’s nothing super special about this book, and if I were you I probably wouldn’t run out and find a copy, if indeed they can still be found. But I will be keeping it on my shelf to make simple classics from braised pork loin to roasted duck.
THE BORDER COOKBOOK
Whew! The last book that I found in the garage, I’m surprised that The Border Cookbook by the Jamisons didn’t make it into the house earlier. A James Beard award winner, it’s a wonderful reference for American-Mexican border cooking. I think the issue might have been that at the time, I didn’t recognize Mexican and Tex-Mex as distinct (although overlapping) cuisines. Perhaps I once looked on this cookbook with disdain, seeing burritos and, well things I would expect to find at Los-Whatever’s-at-the-corner, and dismissed it as inauthentic Mexican, when what it is is authentic Tex-Mex (although they probably don’t use that term because it involves other border states, not just Texas). Not that it really matters, authenticity, so much, unless that’s what you’re specifically looking for. Many of the world’s most exciting cuisine is combination or fusion food, new and wonderful terrain that holds to no tradition at all.
Anyhow, you get the point. This is Tex-Mex border food. There are lots of recipes, no illustrations, but very small stories, tips, variations, and sometimes serving suggestions. There is also an introduction to the ingredients and techniques of the cuisine at the beginning of the book. As is true of many cookbooks I own, sometimes putting together a meal involves planning ahead and flipping around, first making a sauce or two or a pickle or a salsa before actually making the dish. And sometimes, for the sake of family sanity, you’re going to serve things in this cookbook in a way untrue even to Tex-Mex cooking, like with plain rice or—gasp—doctored refried beans from the can. For guests, maybe, you could pull together a whole spread. Recipes also vary from somewhat complicated to downright easy. There are drinks and desserts here, which makes me happy, and, honestly, about every other recipe makes me drool on myself. I can’t wait to try almost everything.
What I have tried is Caldo de Queso (spicy cheese soup), El Paso Green Chile Soup, Queso Flameado (hot cheese dip), Abuelita’s Almond Chicken, The Honorable Henry B.’s Soft Tacos, Baked Veggie Chimis, Frijoles de Olla (pinto beans), Drunken Beans, Refried Beans, Pinquinto Santa Maria (more beans), and Rice with Fideos, all of which received a rating between good and awesome. (My rating system is never again, not recommended, okay, good, great, and then the extra-credit-above-and-beyond: awesome).
I love this cookbook. It’s full of food that is both exciting and approachable for the average American family, including my enchilada-loving kids and their tamale- and chile-relleno-loving Mama. It is also literally very cheesy, for better or worse.