August 30, 2006

insanity, cherubs and cookbooks

q. shenaynay

The bug bit me during an inarguably insane chapter in my life. I don't know what else you'd call running a small catering business from a 12 X 12 home kitchen (built in 1938 and never updated), with a nursing baby in a sling and a toddler begging to lick every bowl. Maybe I had an excess of creative anxiety that needed a source of continual aggravation. Whatever else it was, it was simply what-was-I-thinking insane.

Nonetheless, isn't it usually the Insanity Chapters in life that teach us the stuff we truly need to know?

My wondrous friend Tina Danze, who later went on to be a food stylist and staff writer for the Dallas Morning News, was plagued with the same insanity. We partnered up for jobs that were too big to handle solo. It was ridiculous work, really, and neither of us would recommend it to anyone who likes to be happy. But still, it was the basis of one of those rare friendships that just becomes a part of who you're always going to be. Even when I haven't seen Tina in a year, her warm shadow is always in my kitchen -- I will never make a batch of pesto or lemon squares or garlic & mint roasted potatoes without thinking of her fondly, and wishing she lived next door.

Sharing food does crazy things like that to people.

Now, before I became friends with Tina, I thought I pretty much knew how to cook. I came from a long line of solid southern cooks, and I could turn out such things as a perfect pan of cornbread, chicken salad that people begged for, and an apple pie that convinced Great Scot I was worth considering as a wife. I knew a thing or two, I thought.

Ha. Enter Tina.

Tina has a Filipino mother and an English father; her husband's family came from Spain and Italy. They all loved to cook. And to put booster rockets on that multifarious food heritage, Tina just has an insatiable culinary curiosity. This woman was a global cook before the world 'global' was even cool. You could learn plenty about cooking from merely drawing deep breaths in her kitchen.

Which is what I did. Often.

In between jobs, while our toddler cherubs emptied drawers, unfolded all the fresh laundry and stripped petals off the rosebushes, Tina and I would pore over cookbooks cover-to-cover like they were novels, scribbling notes around the splatters on the pages. Prized titles got put on Christmas and birthday wishlists; others were nabbed on the cheap at Half Price Books. Thus began my collection. And that is the bug that bit me: the cookbook addiction.

Nowadays, with several shelves crammed full of them, I just try to deliver myself from temptation whenever I'm in a bookstore (I don't always prevail). But few things give me the same happy satisfaction as a winter afternoon chatting over a gorgeous cookbook with an enthused chum.

Fast-forward to now. Those toddler cherubs are almost grown. One of our school goals for this year is for Fa and Beatrice to each cook their way through a comprehensive cookbook. So I've lately been perusing cookbooks with academic fervor, trying to whittle my way down to ten (ack! only TEN!) cookbooks I would consider must-haves. Fa and Beatrice will each choose one of these to serve as a cooking textbook for this school year.

So as long as it's fresh on my mind, I might as well share the short list of cookbooks I consider to be the best out there .

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Q. Shenaynay's Desert Island Cookbooks

Note: These are not in any particular order of preference, because they each serve a special need.

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I chose this first one because it's a work of art, that rare masterpiece of a cookbook. And because everyone eats, and therefore everyone really should learn how to cook... and cook efficiently... and well:

#1. The New Making of a Cook by Madeleine Kamman -- winner of the James Beard Award. Possibly the best and most thorough teaching cookbook I've ever seen.


#2. The Silver Palate Cookbook... because in a big, happy life, you should have some great dinner parties and throw a few sparkly showers and celebrations for loved ones:

Reliable, rich recipes that are just right for entertaining. To the legions who have made good use of their tattered copies of this classic, it comes as no shock that Lukins' favorite adjectives are "lush" and "abundant."


#3. This one is because it's a given that life will give you days when your loved ones will probably starve or wind up at McDonald's if you don't know what to do with a crockpot:

This is the only slow cooker cookbook I know of that was written by well-known chefs, which essentially means that these recipes are not built around a can of cream of mushroom soup like so many crockpot recipes. These gals had a small army of chefs test every recipe until everything was just right. Crockpot cookbooks are legion, and I own several. This is the one you want.


#4. A good life includes cookies, scones, pies, pancakes, muffins and birthday cakes. So here you go:

The King Arthur cooking academy is where lots of professional bakers and pastry chefs learned their way around a flour sifter. But wait! They have a whole grain edition of this baking book coming out this fall! Just in time for Christmas! Woo hoo!


#5. Because your cooking repertoire needs the influence of a whole foods and good nutrition guru:

This was one of my first cookbooks, and it's splattered half to death and covered in notes.* We get a chortle out of the subtitle -- so 80's -- but don't let it scare you. This is good, healthy stuff.

*I scribble comments in my cookbooks, a practice I highly recommend. Ten years from now, I promise you will not remember that you ever made that peach rice pudding, not to mention whether it needed more cinnamon or was poured down the disposal.


#6. A little drumroll for the first cookbook I ever purchased, way back in college:

Every household in America needs this book -- the OLD, ORIGINAL version, not the revised one (okay, that's just my opinion). This is the encyclopedia of Survival In The Kitchen. I doubt I've ever cooked more than five recipes directly from this book, but I have referred to it constantly for 25 years.


#7. And because you MUST have JULIA...

A moment of silence for Julia.

Oh, how I loved her. (sniff) I pondered genuflecting when I visited her kitchen at the Smithsonian.

Julia wrote lots of cookbooks, and they are ALL worth having, but she considered this one her best, the culmination of her life's work. It's just gorgeous -- huge, clearly written, thoroughly photographed, and very, very educational. Julia reinvented food in America. She completely revolutionized the way chefs write recipes. The newly released DVDs of her old PBS cooking shows should win an Emmy, if you ask me. Hey, I think I want those for Christmas, too...


#8. O! how I adore this gorgeous hunk of a book. It has won every cookbook award imaginable -- The Julia Child Award, the James Beard, the Culinary Institute of America, you name it.

No, we're not vegetarians. But this book is essential because... well, see, it's just not all that hard to cook meats. It's everything else that requires creativity and skill. And this book covers everything else. This is a book for food lovers who want to eat healthy BUT also do not like being bored at the table. Just go read the reviews at Amazon if you're not already convinced.


#9 is because a good life needs some gourmet picnics and some bodacious dinners-on-the-grounds. Every recipe in this book is served at room temperature. Also fantastic when you have friends who are always late for dinner...


And last, #10 is because we need to think about our bodies as created things that need to be tended and nourished respectfully. Sally Fallon has studied healthy cultures all around the globe and documented their dietary strengths. The history of healthy cultures is what this cookbook is based on. It's fascinating and enlightening, and has some of the most charmingly odd recipes you'll ever feel driven to try.

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Now then, if you really read all of this, please leave a comment. Because I told Fa and Beatrice that NOBODY would read this whole post. Except for, maybe, Rachel Tsunami. (Hi, Rachel!).


Owl of the Desert said...

Umm...I just read the whole thing. Very good. Last time I looked at the cooking section at Books-A-Million, I was blown away. There were so many books! I wouldn't know where to begin to look for a good book. Now I know. Thanks.

Heidi said...

I read the whole thing! These look like great suggestions, and I don't have a single one of them in my collection. Looks like I just came up with my Christmas list!

Blogger profile name said...

I read it all! What a great topic. My most-referred-to cookbook is The New Basics Cookbook by the authors of your #2, The Silver Palate Cookbook. It tells you how to choose, store, and prepare any imaginable food item. I really want to check out your #1, #3, #7, and #9 (it's hard to keep food warm while rounding up so many people to the table).

Karen G. said...

I read the whole thing. And now I can't decide...

I either want to come and have dinner at your house, or I want to hire one of the girls as a personal chef when you're finished with them. ;-)

(and this is too funny! My verification word at the bottom of the page is "cvdiet!")

Lynn Bruce said...

M. Dearest, I have New Basics also... in fact, I'm on my second copy. The first one literally fell apart to the point that I had to throw it away, and Great Scot insisted I replace it.

I had a hard time deciding whether to choose it or Silver Palate for this list, actually.

Ever made their Red Bean Pesto? YUM.

Nardo said...

I am now inspired. I've never been one to use a cookbook, always relying on recipe cards from relative and friends. Maybe I should start...

Lok said...

I got all the way to the end! Actually, it was pretty cool of you to take the time to type all of that up. (It really impacted me. ahem.) I'm just thrilled to know that there ARE crockpot recipes out there that don't start with a can of cream of sodium... MUSHroom, I meant mushroom, soup. Thanks!!!

Great Scot said...

Okay, I have to respond to the slander within #8 of this post that, "it's just not all that hard to cook meats". I know from personal experience that the grill process is quite difficult, at least from the Grill Cooks standpoint. It goes like this: I have to get the meat out of the package; I have to turn on the grill; I have to season the meat; I have to place the meat on the grill (along with preparing an appropriate beverage to consume while grilling); sit beside the grill to monitor the meat's progress and turn the meat at the correct time; and finally, remove the meat from the grill at the appropriate doneness. If this is not taxing to the Grill Cook, I do not know what is. All the Queen has to do in the meanwhile, is prepare a salad, side dishes and desserts. She should be glad for the time off!

Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band said...

I...couldn' it...*dies*

rachel tsunami said...

WELL! Of course I did read it. I just wasn't the first.

Great list. I actually pulled up Amazon and added the three I don't have to my Wish List as I was reading. How's that for being on top of things.

You've made me want to go to my kitchen and cook. How will I ever focus on Dickens, Degas, and Phonics today while my heart is in a cookbook? I ask you???

A really fun read. And challenging. I was right with Great Scot at that grill, following him through every intricate step. What we really know is that the chef's secret to that whole process is hidden in those three little words: "beverage of choice."

rachel tsunami said...

btb, I'd be interested in knowing which books the girls choose for their texts.

Blogger profile name said...

I do have to agree with Great Scot on the grilling thing. I was banned from grilling a few years ago because I burn everything. We will wait around for Bryan to get home from work before we start grilling, because I just can't be trusted.

Lynn Bruce said...

Rachel, are you telling me that you already had seven of these books?

What a twinkums that would be.

ps. I shortly post the girls' plan for the year... and I have a feeling we'll be blogging about episodes of the whole experience for several months!

rachel tsunami said...

I don't have:
Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker
Cucina Fresca
and Nourishing Traditions

The rest are on my cookbook shelves with the other...(um, I'm not going to say how many lest I appear to be bragging or insanely obsessive/compulsive depending on ones point of view)...cookbooks.

I read them like novels; I read them to wind down; I read them at bedtime. And when I don't have money to buy them, I make lists.

If it weren't so wholesome, it would be sick.

See why I liked your post?

Great Scot said...

BTW, my post above was intended VERY tongue-in-cheek!

rachel tsunami said...

tongue placement clearly observed.

Lynn Bruce said...

Rachel, that's... well, it's... huh. You know what it is. Well, no, neither of us know precisely what it is, we just know that it is.

rachel tsunami said...

...and not only that, I promptly went to Amazon and ordered Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker. So make that only two of these I don't have.


gabbie said...

I read it all!

And I must say, I'm inspired...

MommyLydia said...

Wow. the Slow Cooker book sounds good...

None of those are my basics in cookbooks. I grew up with Better Homes & Gardens. (So did my husband) so that was the first "official" cookbook I bought for myself.) Then we got The Best recipe by Cook's Illustrated for our wedding that I consider my second basic cookbook.

I just reserved the New Making of a Cook to see if it deserves a place as the third basic.

what do you mean by your kids are going to cook through a cookbook? Doing all the appetizers together then all the salads, etc? Or just make sure over the course of the year that they make all the meals?