I cook from a small, very small, library of classic cookbooks. Or, in some cases, books that are destined to be classics. Over time, I've shifted to some newer works, but in any given 5 year period, I tend to be drawing on only a half dozen cookbooks. I still develop a wide range of tastes, as most of my sources don't follow a single style or theme. One exception would be Mario Batali's Molto Italiano.

Why is a very experienced cook using cookbooks? I don't really have to, but a few well chosen recipes from these sources keeps me fresh. Also, a recipe from a highly reliable source is a great starting point for you to later improve upon to your taste. You can read a more complete discussion of improvisation vs. recipes that I published recently in my instructional blog, Be A Better Cook - I'll Help.

Here's a quick list of what I've been using lately, in order of how recently it hit my kitchen. Mini reviews follow the list.
  1. Jamie at Home,Jamie Oliver
  2. A Chef for All Seasons, Gordon Ramsey
  3. Molto Italiano, Mario Batali
  4. Gourmet Today and The Gourmet Cookbook, Ruth Reichel
  5. How To Cook Everything, Mark Bittman
I also frequently cook authentic Sichuan Chinese cuisine, owing to my adopted daughters' love for Chinese food. The only book on Sichuan cooking ever published in English is Fuscia Dunlap's Land of Plenty. It requires specialty ingredients only found in Chinese markets and is not for everyday cooking. But I thought I'd mention it.

Here are a couple old favorites that used to be on my shelf that have now been relegated to the pantry. They were important in their time and formative to my development as a cook. However, some of the recipes are now a little dated.
  1. Cuisine Rapide, Pierre Franey. As well, I used each of Pierre's 60-Minute Gourmet books.
  2. The New New York Times Cookbook, (1979 edition) Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey
  3. Cooking in America, Pierre Franey. I've recently grabbed this one off the shelf and cooked several recipes for the first time, and remember some long-time favorites. The book also includes a great narrative of American food production and local culture. 
  4. The New Basics Cookbook, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. Also, the predecessors to this book were valueable in their day: The Silver Palate Cookbook and The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook. Many of these recipes will appear a little outdated now, but they are well composed if you choose to make them. 
Here are short reviews of my recommended cookbooks.

Jamie At Home, Jamie Oliver

I've literally had this book for one week as I write this. How could it jump up into the rarefied company into which I've placed it? Put it this way, I've made one of the recipes in this book three times in less than a week (Proper Chicken Caesar Salad).

I've also been watching the TV series that this book accompanies for about a month. It is incredible. Jamie Oliver demonstrates home cooking at it's best. These dishes rely on the freshest ingredients (as pulled from his own garden) and straightforward techniques. There's nothing tricky here. Just good food.

The book is also brilliant aesthetically. The photography and artistic design is almost as impressive as the flavors he develops.

A Chef For All Seasons, Gordon Ramsey

I didn't want to like Gordon Ramsey, but I had no choice in the matter. Once I saw him cook on a British TV show, instead of yelling at chefs on an American one, I was able to see what a genius of taste he truly is. This book is the most practical of several I have by Ramsey.

Yet this book does not present everyday home cooking. Most dishes have specialty or expensive ingredients. Many dishes can be pared down, as they are presented with two or three components. For example, even though lobster with mango and avocado salad is excellent, so is just the avocado and mango salad.

Molto Italiano, Mario Batali 

There's a theme developing here. I never want to "like" the new celebrity chef's, TV hosts, cookbook authors that come along. Especially if their presence is ubiquitous. So I blew of Batali for years. But I did flip channels to a few episodes of his show and began to like what I saw him cooking. After getting his book Molto Italiano, well, everything changed. 

Molto Italiano is an excellent book with well composed recipes. Most do not involve complex techniques, and the flavor development is superb. You'll find a few recipes, maybe 10% of the book or so, that call for exotic ingredients (boar, cardoons), which are not available on a widespread basis. 

Batali's treatment of vegetables is one of the highlights of this book to me.

How to Cook Everything, Mark Bittman.
NOTE: I strongly recommend the original edition, yellow cover, rather than the 10th Anniversary re-issue (red cover).

This is a great book for both beginning and advanced cooks. For the beginner, well, it tells you how to cook just about....everything. For the advanced cook it's a useful source for flavor combinations that might not immediately come to mind, and more importantly, as a source of good ratios of ingredients. For example, say you decide you want a blue cheese salad dressing. You could wing it, or go to Bittman for guidance (1/2 cup blue cheese, 1/2 cup yogurt, juice of 1/2 a lemon, pepper). These are not advanced recipes, which is the strong point of the book. Great for quick everyday cooking.

The Gourmet Cookbook and Gourmet Today

From the editors of Gourmet Magazine, which was sadly shut down last year. Each book contains over 1000 recipes from Gourmet magazine. The Gourmet Cookbook pulls from the best recipes from the first 60 years of the magazine. Gourmet Today was published in 2009 and covers more modern recipes - most if not all from the 2000's.

These are not cookbooks for beginners, nor are they instructional. Many recipes are long and complicated, or call for specialty ingredients. But in many cases the payoff in taste is a due reward for the effort you put into a dish.
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