Thursday, October 16, 2008

Cookbooks I - Starter Set

As I said in an earlier post, I love cookbooks and have many. I plan to discuss many of them in this and coming posts. For my very first cookbook discussion, I thought I would make some suggestions for how to put together a small basic collection. My intention is to come up with a list for people who think they can’t cook, either for lack of time or lack of skill. So these books have really easy recipes for delicious and attractive food that can be presented to company. This list is totally idiosyncratic, and there are many other approaches one could adopt. Also, it does not include books on any of the more exotic cuisines - Asian, Mexican, Middle Eastern - or on vegetarian or vegan cuisine, all of which are subjects in themselves.

By the way, a collection like this, possibly combined with a subscription to Gourmet, Bon Appétit or Cook's Illustrated, would make a great engagement present.


Jacques Pépin is a great chef and a fantastic teacher. I have many of his books and have watched him often on his TV series. A couple of years ago, he did a series called Fast Food My Way and the accompanying book is wonderful. I use it often when I don’t have or want to spend too much time, and the recipes are reliable and easy. I gave this book to my French teacher, who uses it often for entertaining and receives many compliments on her meals.

A less well-known book is Bistro Cooking at Home, by Boston chef and restaurant owner Gordon Hamersley. The recipes are well conceived and edited, and easy to prepare. Just to name a couple, the Coq au Vin is outstanding, and the Walk-Away Roast Chicken is the best (and easiest) roast chicken I have ever made: it is my wife’s favorite dish.

Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking is another trove of authentic well-chosen French recipes. Although not foolproof, I have had an awful lot of good meals based on recipes in this book.


Everyone loves Italian food, so any starter set of cookbooks needs to include several in this category. Fortunately, there are millions.
An amazingly simple one is Every Night Italian, by Giuliano Hazan, Marcella Hazan’s son. His aim is to show you how to prepare simple dishes with great ingredients, I believe he succeeds. When you read the recipes, they look a bit boring, but the proof is in the tasting and the results are delicious.

Risotto, by Judith Barrett and Norma Wasserman, gives you a foolproof technique for making risotto and an abundance of recipes. Risotto is always a crowd pleaser, and everyone thinks it’s hard to make; this book proves that wrong, but you needn’t tell your guests.

Diana Seed’s The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces is exactly what it purports to be, and is an invaluable book.

If you want to get a little fancier, there is Marcella’s Hazan’s great Elements of Classic Italian Cooking, which contains many wonderful recipes from all over Italy; they are well-selected and reliable.


For a bunch of great recipes that always seem to come out well, I recommend The Union Square Cafe Cookbook, by Danny Meyer and Michael Romano. Very sophisticated food that is within anyone’s reach due to this beautifully edited book.

Finally, I guess anyone should have a basic reference, and probably The Joy of Cooking is as good as any. I don’t use it often, but it is encyclopedic and has a lot of useful information about ingredients and methods.

Bobby Jay


Ordinary Servant said...

Wow! This was great information, thanks!

jhantover said...

From your favorite books, can you recommend a simple roast chicken recipe?

Anonymous said...


There are three wonderful recipes for simple roast chicken in the books I mention above. First, Walk-Away Roast Chicken, from Gordon Hamersley, which always comes out well and requires (i) no marinating, (ii) no trussing and (iii) no attention while cooking for 1 1/4 hours. Second, Herb-Roasted Chicken from Union Square Cookbook. Third, Roast Chicken with Lemons in Marcella Hazan's Essentials.

Bobby Jay

Anonymous said...

Merci de m'avoir fait découvrir les livres de Jacques Pépin "Fast food my way". Ce sont les meilleurs livres de cuisine si vous cherchez des recettes extrêmement faciles et délicieuses. Ciinq étoiles!