My cooking may not be perfect but it is better than it used to be, and I have a few tricks up my sleeve that can make people absolutely rave about what they just ate. That’s always such a pleasant feeling. Sure, I have my kitchen failures, but I know enough to know that all the best cooks still get their flops. I have far more cookbooks than I do on any other subject (only part of what I own is shown here), and as far as I’m concerned they are a part of my sustainable lifestyle.
Home cooked meals with nutritious, fresh ingredients promote health to prevent disease, help to avoid toxins and exploitation of natural resources that can occur with fast food, help me have more control over what goes into my mouth (and onto my waistline), and (even better) help me feel that I’m giving my family a gift straight from my heart. My son especially will grow up knowing mommy is willing to sweat and sometimes even bleed, making a dish again and again until it’s exactly how he wants it. The love of my life knows that I’m willing to adapt foods away from my preferences and more towards his tastes (he and my son both win on this one, they are both far more picky than I am). When he cooks for me, it just melts my heart. Cooking for my family strengthens our bond, makes us feel nurtured and closer, and helps us feel healthy and strong as we face the world’s challenges. So important to me. So very, very important. Not sure if it’s as important to them, but there’s no way I’ll ever give it up.
If you find yourself lost in recipes, when they talk about mysterious things like creaming butter or they are mentioning an ingredient in a way that makes you feel silly for not knowing what it is, you need at least one of these books, or another book that discusses the same subjects in some detail. From how to sharpen knives, to the differences between heating methods such as bake or broil, they provide more of a solid foundation for cooking. Recipe collections (online or in book form) can help give variety, but unless you know your way around a kitchen your results won’t likely be as enjoyable. Books about a particular area of cooking (like pastry or barbecue) will help you master just that skill, but a general know-how can make the overall experience of eating much more pleasant.
The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer, her daughter Marion Rombauer, and Marion’s son Ethan Becker. This is the 75th anniversary edition. This book gives recipes for almost everything you can think of, and the introductory section of each chapter is full of tips on cooking and serving to guests. The appendix has information to improve your general cooking skills and knowledge, the first few chapters cover table settings and etiquette, and the recipes have been tested and adapted over the years through this amazing family effort. It serves as a culinary encyclopedia. By this I mean that I can find sections that talk about what happens when you bake, or how to ferment vegetables in a crock, but the information is very brief and I will find more in-depth and useful information in other books on those subjects. You could say that it is the only cookbook you will ever need for general home use regardless of your skill in cooking, but if you wish to master a certain food you will need something specific on that topic. I’d certainly say that it is a perfect first cookbook, and a great housewarming gift (which is exactly how I got it).
Good Housekeeping Step by Step Cook Book edited by Susan Westmoreland and Good Housekeeping. This is an excellent kitchen basics book if you are a more visual learner, or if you just love pretty pictures of food. It is full of tips and tricks, equipment recommendations, techniques to use, table settings, and much more. I got it after I was already pretty competent in the kitchen, and yet still found lots of valuable information. It’s similar to Joy of Cooking in the sense that you can start here and then go further, and both books are good resources for either a novice or an experienced cook. Joy of Cooking has more recipes, but the photographs in this one get me actually wanting to be in the kitchen.
The Competent Cook: Essential Tools, Techniques, and Recipes for the Modern At-Home Cook by Lauren Braun Costello. This book focuses on technique and tools, and has a magnificent section on kitchen organization and food storage that helped me make my kitchen time go much more smoothly. The recipes cover essential basics, and it is less overwhelming than the above two books. This makes it a good book to pick up if you wish to be a better cook, but you have a more limited budget, as you can usually find it for a good price. If that’s the case, the internet (which you seem to have access to) will easily give you recipes and this is a good companion book to teach you more about the essential skills.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, a good solid foundation in the why and how of cooking can help you to take your skills to the next level. Besides, this stuff is fascinating, and geeks are cool.
Cooking For Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food by Jeff Potter. If you think the best part of a cookbook is in the introductory chapters that cover history and technique, you will love this book (and On Food and Cooking). It covers the physiology behind taste, a scientific breakdown of different methods of applying heat, what happens to proteins, starches, and sugars at different temperatures (never suffer a “dry” roast again), and way more. Way, way more. If you aren’t the geeky type, I’ll tell you one thing I learned from it that I will never forget: there is so much sugar in many packaged foods that they add a chemical to it to make it less sweet on your tongue, otherwise you will think the food is too cloying and you won’t like it. This chemical can be one of the secret ingredients that the FDA allows to stay off of nutritional labels. The sugar content is so high because sugar can act as a preservative by pulling water away from other molecules. This means if you make it yourself it will likely have less sugar, even if the sweetness is comparable to the store bought version. Even using white flour and refined sugar in a homemade Twinkie cooker (my man has one of these) you will be eating something healthier than a packaged Twinkie, because of the lower sugar content and no preservatives or other additives.
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. The copy I have is a 20th anniversary edition, which I hear is larger than the first and includes some of the more recent scientific studies surrounding food. I’m kind of sad though, I hear the older copies have things about nutrition and physiology. I may end up hunting down his older book just to see what he has to say on that. I am still reading this book, and I may be for a while. This book gives you so much scientific information that it’s unbelievable. I mean, it even has a breakdown of how eggshells form while in the mother’s body. I read it like a bedtime story, and just a little bit at a time to keep myself from being overwhelmed with all the nifty stuff to remember.
Healthy eating that strives to eliminate or reduce toxins and boost nutrition is the first step in treating any disorder or condition when taking a holistic approach. Even better, good nutrition is preventive medicine, which in my opinion is the best kind. Life seems better when you eat well, you have more energy and focus, more willpower and clearer thinking, and you just feel clean. Am I saying you should live on sprouts and tofu? No. I don’t. I eat what I want pretty much, only I make sure to include lots of healthy options (which fill me up so less junk gets in), and my body seems to have learned what it needs. Now I’m just as likely to crave and enjoy a salad topped with sprouts as I am to want a cookie. I want tea instead of soda, and I love the texture and flavor of whole wheat. I feel good, and eat to enjoy life rather than to fit in a tiny dress size. When I do cave and polish off a pint of chocolate ice cream, I don’t feel so bad about it (and it’s a lot less likely to happen than it used to be).
The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals by Missy Chase Lapine. Not only do I have a picky kid, but I also have a picky man and a desire to maximize my own nutrition. These recipes are based on making nutritious purées and slipping them into recipes of familiar and well-loved foods. Throw some nutritious superfoods into a blender, season to cover any suspect flavors, and throw it into a spaghetti sauce (or other dish). Frankly, I haven’t read it in a long time, but it was an early start to my own attempts to make more nutritious meals. It changed the way I approached cooking for my son, and could do the same for you.
101 Optimal Life Foods by David Grotto. This is definitely a “food is medicine” book, in fact, the first section is organized by ailment. Use nutrition to combat skin issues, circulation problems, chronic pain, even depression and insomnia. This should be on your shelves right next to herbal medications. The second section is full of lots of nutritious but tasty goodness, very creative flavor combinations of some of the most nutrient-packed foods.
Encyclopedia of Healing Foods by Michael T. Murray. This is another wonderful “food is medicine” book, though longer and more comprehensive. It also has dietary recommendations by ailment, and it also includes discussion of dietary needs by nutrient (proteins, minerals, all that good stuff), discussion of different classes of food in general (vegetables, dairy, grains, etc.), and valuable references such as a glycemic index of foods, pesticide contents, acidity or alkalinity of foods, and even food drug interactions. When it says “encyclopedia”, it means it.
Sprouts: The Miracle Food: The Complete Guide to Sprouting by Steve Meyerowitz. I live in an apartment, and my lighting just isn’t enough to grow much. I grow my sprouts though, in stackable trays, jars and with my handy little terracotta tray (for gelatinous sprouts like chia or flax – I’m talking about the kind you buy in the garden centers to put under clay pots). I throw them into soups, marinara, purées, smoothies, and of course salads. Any recipe that calls for beans is getting sprouts. I even feed sprouts to my birds. When I first got started, I read this book like mad and turned to it often with my newbie questions. It’s a great introduction to sprouts, and sprouts are great additions to a healthy diet.
Wheat gets a lot of flack, but you’ll have to pry my whole-wheat flour from my cold, dead hands. If you’re worried about gluten, diabetes, “wheat belly” or any of that, do a search on some of the studies about sourdough cultures and how they neutralize phytic acid, and how sourdough has demonstrated a positive effect on people with diabetes and Celiac disease. If you think “nonsense, those methods aren’t as effective as people think they are”, think carefully for a minute. Issues that are often attributed to wheat lately have been on the rise in the last few decades. If wheat were the evil root of it all, there would be no rise lately. The issues would have been a constant factor. We’ve been eating it for millennia. Only our processing methods have changed.
In fact, my favorite sourdough book talks about this well: The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast: Breads, Pancakes, Waffles, Cinnamon Rolls & Muffins by Caleb Warnock & Melissa Richardson. Now, I need to say that this book is not without its flaws. There are some petty editing annoyances, and it promises a sourdough starter by mail but only if you sign up for an email list that frankly looks a little spammy. Online reviews say it never covers how to make your own starter, but it does. It’s just in a picture of a flowchart (but I used these directions – if the science is intimidating scroll down, there’s day by day directions). I still like the book though, and the first section thoroughly covers the health concerns of wheat and how sourdough can help. Actually, I’d say that’s the best part of the book (but I like the recipes too). She is college educated, so the information is from someone trained in reading scholarly articles with critical thinking skills. Her coauthor is one of her professors and even better trained in making sure your information is thorough; the research itself is why I continue to recommend this book despite its flaws.
American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza by Peter Reinhart. This almost reads like a lovely little travel book, detailing his journeys to different cities around the world, and his own personal nostalgia over one of America’s favorite foods. Peter Reinhart is a master of bread, he has thrown his life into the passion of creating all types of breads, and pizza crust is no exception. He provides a range of crusts, touches upon focaccia and pita, and his sauces go beyond marinara. He is an absolute visionary. If you like foodie reading, complete with recipes for creating your own personalized and wonderful foods, you will really enjoy this book.
Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day: Fast and Easy Recipes for World-Class Breads. There he is again, and I don’t own all his books but I’ve borrowed some from the library. I’ll pretty much say if his name is on it, I love it. He is a very thorough and meticulous baker, and this book will answer questions you didn’t even know you had. If you struggle in your bread making, get this book. He focuses on high hydration doughs here, and details techniques that need more sitting time than hands-on time. There are lots of pictures for the different kneading and shaping techniques and goes beyond loaves and into pretzels and crackers (it also includes pizza, if you don’t want the American Pie book you can still make some lovely pizzas with this one). The pretzels are better than any pretzel I have ever tasted in my life. This has recipes for sourdough breads as well (and making your own starter), which keeps me pretty happy. This is the kind of book you get if you think it would be fun to hand someone something you made from scratch and watch their jaw drop open in utter amazement.
Baking Artisan Pastries & Breads: Sweet and Savory Baking for Breakfast, Brunch, and Beyond by Ciril Hitz. Reinhart did the forward :). This book has an excellent breakdown of the ingredients used in baking and how they affect the process, as well as detailed descriptions about the different ways to work air into pastries (rubbing, creaming, blending, etc.) You’ll find scones, muffins, bagels, panettone, stollen, sticky buns, croissants, and pretty much everything you need to make your house resemble a bakery. Recipes are given in grams, ounces, and volume, so whatever is most comfortable for you is quickly found on an easy to read chart. This is another baking book I like to use when I want to floor people with my awesome skills, and it’s the source of several of my favorite sweet sauces as well.
Ebelskivers by Kevin Crafts. These little spherical pancakes are also called aebleskiver, or appleskivers (from the traditional Dutch filling of apples). I love this book, and my friends and family love the recipes. I’ve yet to have someone not be impressed, and people love them more than pancakes. It is made to give you a base recipe, and then gives recipes and suggestions for adapting for a variety of flavors that are both savory and sweet. They are as versatile as crepes, but I find them more fun to make. I bought it for the molten chocolate recipe, but I’m also very fond of the lemon poppy and peanut butter and jelly ones. I haven’t tried mozzarella filled garlic aebleskiver with a marinara dip yet, but one day soon…
These need a special pan; I chose the Lodge aebleskiver pan because it doesn’t have a wooden handle (which will eventually degrade and need replacing, without it I’m hoping to make an heirloom) and it’s also built to be useable on an electric range or with gas. They need a skewer to turn them with. Traditionally this is a knitting needle but I use a pair of chopsticks. I highly recommend clarified butter or ghee to grease the well with, regular butter made my pan sticky after a few uses and ghee made them brown better. I hear other oils will result in less browning, but I haven’t tried them because I like the buttery goodness. See them turning here. See my horrid attempt at a video that I had way too much fun “animating” here.
This is what to read if you have an itch to make your own ketchup, tortillas, crackers, or other items that might make people say, “Wow, I didn’t know you could even make that.” Actually, that amazes me a little. How do people think we used to get ketchup and crackers before the industrial revolution? Of course you can make your own. Some things (like cheese poofs) might be so much effort that it isn’t worth it, but there are very few food items that absolutely require a machine or chemical process for a similar food.
This is also where I please the other people in my family, the ones who don’t enjoy eating salads and prefer chips or Twinkies. Okay, so they don’t enjoy the flavor of lentils and brown rice (which is insane, my lentil soup is amazing!) but at least I can cut sugar and artificial additives out of their junk food. Sometimes I can even sneak in a healthy flour substitution or a nutritious additive like ground flax.
The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making by Alana Chernila. This has all the “make your own snack” essentials that I usually see in such cookbooks, like jerky, granola, and flavored popcorn. It also has more impressive items, such as pop tarts, ricotta, mozzarella, ketchup, hot sauce, pasta, crackers, tortillas, and marshmallows. She organized it like a grocery store, with different suggestions for foods you might find on certain isles. Her writing style places you right in the middle of her warm and active family; this is a cute book that I really enjoy using.
Real Snacks: Make Your Favorite Childhood Treats Without All the Junk by Lara Ferroni. This one is probably my favorite snack book. She gives suggestions for various healthy substitutions, but also includes what to use if that just isn’t available. There is a great chapter on ingredients that gives suggestions for recipe use that goes a little beyond “this flour is from this plant and is healthy because…” and more into “rye flour is good in chocolate goods” or “arrowroot is keeps ice crystals from forming in frozen desserts”. She has technique descriptions as well, like creaming butter or tempering chocolate. There are vegan and gluten-free options, and this seems like my most “adapt to your dietary needs” snack book in my collection. I absolutely love the vanilla wafer recipe.
Grazing: A Healthier Approach to Snacks and Finger Foods by Julie Van Rosendaal. Eating smaller meals more often helps boost your metabolism, level out your blood sugar, and keeps hunger from taking over your mind so you don’t go temporarily insane and eat half of the refrigerator. It’s also good to keep snacks on hand when you have kids, or frequent guests (or frequent guests who bring their own kids). I grab this book for ideas of things to take on picnics or put in lunch bags as well. There is a wide variety of snack foods here, but don’t serve anyone the caramel popcorn unless you want them pestering you for more every time you bump into them on your way to the mailbox.
Crackers & Dips: More than 50 Handmade Snacks by Ivy Manning. They may be called “Tangy Cheddar Cheese Crackers”, but it looks like Cheez-its to me. A selection of homemade versions of several popular cracker brands, some crackers that are popular in various countries around the world, healthy crackers, quick and easy crackers, sweet crackers (like graham crackers), and a nice variety of dips or spreads. Make sure to read the introductory chapters for tips on making the best crackers possible. Consistent thickness is very important, and cooking times or temperatures can really vary based on cracker size and thickness. I like taking one batch of dough and rolling it to different widths and cut into different shapes or sizes the first time I make the batch, this ends up with a range of textures and helps me sort out what I want to do next time. Crackers are fun, but you definitely have to practice your recipes a few times.
Handheld Pies: Dozens of Pint-Size Sweets and Savories by Rachel Wharton and Sarah Billingsley. Mmm, pie. Poptarts, hot pockets, fried pies, jar pies, freeform pies, pies made in pie pans, and more pies than you can shake a fork at. Several crusts are given, formulated to hold up to being held, and naturally there are tons of fillings (yup, both savory and sweet). This is a really fun read, there are profiles of people who have dedicated pie shops and their stories of how they got started on the path of perfect pie. Also, they dis shortening in praise of butter, lard, and cream cheese which lets me know these ladies know their pie. Make sure to read the introductory chapter, especially if your pie crusts sometimes seem to be not quite right. Made from scratch hot pockets and pop tarts are a good thing to keep on hand if you have snack loving kids, and naturally you can make them as healthy as you want.
I’ve heard of the joys of yogurt, but the wide range of probiotic foods and their benefits is still a new topic to me. I’m very optimistic about it though, and so far learning about it has been a lot of fun. I know I love my sourdough, the thought of tending lots of kitchen “pets” and all the experimentation that will be involved makes me feel like a culinary mad scientist. This stuff is just cool.
Fermentation for Beginners: The Step-by-Step Guide to Fermentation and Probiotic Foods from Drakes Press. If you believe that a healthy lifestyle embraces slow food, or you enjoy making your own condiments from scratch, you would really love getting your hands on this book. It fits right in to the food as medicine lifestyle and concepts of sustainable living. One of these days I will have a garden and I will use these techniques to preserve my bounty, and I can’t wait. In the meantime, I will brew my own healthy herbal sodas right here in my apartment, and I’ll be on the lookout for sales on vegetables to buy in bulk and pickle. I love pickles, I love sauerkraut, I love ginger drinks, and I think I’m in heaven.
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. This is the go-to must-have book for any fermentation collection. You’ll see people online talking about it everywhere, and with good reason. Katz has been doing this kind of thing for years, and he describes how to make cultured foods with as little investment in equipment or starter cultures as possible, making his process accessible to any budget. He also discusses the science behind fermentation, explaining health benefits, and discusses the history and culture of these foods. There are chapters on vegetables, dairy, grains, beans, and the inevitable alcohol.
The Art of Fermentation also by Sandor Katz tells the dedicated home pickler all they might wish to know about their beloved cultured foods. While Wild Fermentation does have background information on the foods and The Art of Fermentation does tell you how to do the ferments, when compared side to side Wild Fermentation is the recipe book and The Art of Fermentation is for the science, culture, history, and lore surrounding wild ferments and cultured foods.
Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans. This book is so cool. It’s a collection of recipes from Alaskan magazines, and contains a lot of traditional foods. These are foods from natives, who often use the entire animal. Most of these are things I would never have the chance to make (I almost put it under “Just for Fun”) but it does have quite a few things that could be of use to hunters and fishermen. Some of the recipes would be illegal if you were not a member of an Inuit tribe, like the polar bear recipes or the whale oil cookies, but most of the recipes would not have that restriction.
Anything in the seas likely is found here, I just flipped past some octopus recipes. I see Fried Seal Liver here, Barbeque Moose Ribs, Seal Brains au Gratin, suggestions for Hermit Crab, and other exotic dishes. There are also suggestions for porcupine, duck, rabbit, beaver, and other woodland critters that hunters might run across. Just about every kind of fish imaginable, and directions for cleaning, skinning, and general butchering.
Foragers also would find meal suggestions for fiddleheads, coltsfoot, dandelion, and other wild plants that are found in many areas south of Alaska. Plus, best of all, there are a ton of great sourdough recipes (naturally), and other items that you can find in the grocery store (eggplant, cucumber, green beans, and the modest potato). I have a friend from Russia who was delighted to find out that there are apparently many Russian colonies in Alaska, I was able to give him some recipes for foods that his mother did not manage to write down before she passed away. There is also a large chapter on various preserves. So far I’ve only played in the sourdough chapter, but I absolutely adore how the book reads. A lot of history and tradition is written into it, highly recommended.
Alice’s Tea Cup: Delectable Recipes for Scones, Cakes, Sandwiches, and More from New York’s Most Whimsical Tea Spot by Haley Fox. Scones, cucumber sandwiches, and thumbprint cookies to eat while you blow bubbles and sit around a tiny table on your lawn in the sun. Yay :). It covers the basics of brewing tea, the art of a tea party, and lovely recipes for the tea shop’s most popular menu items (pumpkin scones with a caramel glaze, anyone?)
The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook: From Cauldron Cakes to Knickerbocker Glory–More Than 150 Magical Recipes for Muggles and Wizards by Dinah Bucholz. Oddly enough, I see this as my cookbook for traditional British foods and for holiday cooking. Pumpkin Pasties and Pumpkin Juice fit right in to Halloween and Thanksgiving, and Butterbeer makes a nice Christmas drink. It has suggested recipes for every food or feast mentioned in the books, and when things weren’t very specific Dinah Bucholz turned to historical foods and made some suggestions. Bouillabaisse, Irish stew, cock-a-leekie, Cornish pasties, peppermint humbugs, spotted dick, Yorkshire pudding, and much more make it something I turn to when I want simple traditional food. There’s even plain old ketchup. Naturally there are still fun suggestions to delight the Potter fan, but even better, the discussion of the settings and situations when characters consumed these foods make even the simple foods more fun to eat. Pop a Potter dvd into the player and throw yourself (and your kids) a feast.