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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Books - Part 2

This week I ran into two different stories that prompt today's entry. First of all, earlier this week I snuggled in bed (as I do most nights) with one of my issues of The New Yorker, and I enjoyed an article by Adam Gopnik entitled What's the Recipe? Our hunger for cookbooks. I wish I could give you the link, but the New Yorker is rather stingy with their content. A wise move in terms of preserving fidelity to their printed product, but I wish I could share it.

There is no way to summarize it quickly. Fortunately, the other story I stumbled on helps to know. Mr. Gopnik was interviewed on NPR's Talk of the Nation this week about this article. The essence of the article is summarized as "cookbooks and why do you read them?"

His article created two nearly concurrent feelings in me. On one level I felt a bit deflated -- I thought my own experience with cookbooks and cooking in the last year was sort of... "mine." It was a happy place where I went, often at night. For example, the other night I put The New Yorker aside and read my favorite Indian food cookbook before bed. Now I come to discover that not only do others do things like that, but a LOT of people do. That makes me feel trendy and well, common. Hmmph.

On the other hand, it was fun to realize that I'm not crazy. I'm participating in a large-scale mass delusion... that is actually rather harmless, and certainly enjoyable a lot of the time. Of course, this is why Julie & Julia was so popular.

What exactly am I talking about? It is that strange conception that owning a cookbook, tearing a recipe out of magazine, or googling three ingredients from your kitchen and finding something online, makes you think you can actually make that. And that feeling is nearly enough. For delightful little windows of time, I believe that I am a cook. As Gopnik is quoted as saying in the radio interview, The act of wanting ends up mattering more than the act of getting.

So to build on my post from earlier this week, I want to share a few food-related books have been life-changers for me. Not earth-shattering, existential life change, but pleasant shifts in thinking and experience. Enough for me. P.S. This is a rather short list. I'm new to this whole nesting-at-home-and-trying-to-cook thing. But I am looking forward to years of more acquisitions!
  1. An Invitation to Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey. I got this book as a white elephant gift at a Christmas party a few years ago -- it was printed in 1975. It looks like the kind of book you see spilling over into messy, neglected piles at used bookstores, where you think, Where does all this junk come from? I didn't look at it for a year or two. I cannot even remember why I finally picked it up; but I found a wealth of treasures when I did. It deserves first place on my list because to me it is the pinnacle of why this crazy trend in cookbooks happens. This is not a simple book of recipes, one after another -- it is full of delightful stories: Jaffrey describes immigrating to the US and being disappointed in the lack of good Indian restaurants and good supplies to make Indian food; she shares about writing to her mother still in India for recipes from home; she teaches the origins of the word "curry" and what it really is. And then the stories segue seamlessly into recipes. This is a travelogue as much as a cookbook; I am transported when I read it. I adore her sample menus, and picture a leisurely evening around a table of good friends, lazily grazing through each course. Best of all, I love her pre-heart-disease-fearing amounts of cooking oil. My absolute favorite recipe in this book, "Cauliflower with ginger & Chinese parsley," calls for eight tablespoons of oil! This book introduced me to the wonder and enchanting flavors of Indian cooking, which I now make at least once a week. It also gave me the courage to try.
  2. 5 Spices, 50 Dishes by Ruta Kahate. Another Indian food cookbook that I purchased after I'd gained some confidence in Indian cooking. I wanted some updated recipes from the 8-tablespoons-of-cooking-oil years. This one doesn't have many stories, but it is beautifully photographed. This is the cookbook I took to bed the other night. It is visual comfort food, formatted perfectly with lots of burnt orange, dark yellow, beet red, cinnamon brown, khaki tan, with a few bursts of green for kicks. I made the Sauteed Beets with Mustard and Lemon Juice from this cookbook the other night, and I'll be honest -- it was stunning. Extremely simple and so flavorful. Indian food has made me fall in love with vegetables, and THAT, folks, is a life-changer.
  3. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. I could name a couple of other books in this vein -- In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan and Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally by Alisa Smith & J.B. Mackinnon. I read these books in quick succession, and they just took me to a whole new plane. After reading them, I realized how much I wanted to eat sustainably by eating locally, seasonally and organically. I go ON AND ON about this on this blog, so I'll save my breath on this. But one example sums up what I enjoy about this life change: I really love red peppers. I could eat them every day. They are like candy to me. I love the way they crunch. I love their subtle sweetness. I love slathering them with hummus. I love throwing them in salads, in omelettes, in sandwiches... but I also realized that when I was eating them off-season that I was eating peppers from South America or from high-energy hothouses, all of which consume fantastic amounts of energy to produce them just so I may indulge my first-world belief that if I want it I should have it. So despite my profound enjoyment of red peppers, I only allow myself to have them when I can buy them here in Santa Barbara from a local farmer when he grows them. This has taught me surprising amounts about discipline, anticipation, and appreciation of the moment. Which um, overflows into other parts of my life, funny thing.
  4. My Life in France by the Great Lady Herself, Julia Child. I bought this book when I heard the movie was coming out so I could read it before I saw the film. This was one of those rare experiences of utter bliss. I simply could not put the book down. The stories, the photos, the funny way of writing, the love story between Julia and Paul, the phenomenal work she put into her cookbooks ... all of it was enchanting. I'm sure part of the enjoyment had to do with the fond memories I had of watching The French Chef as a child. I have no distinct sense of understanding it or doing anything with it. But we were a hearty public television family, so it was just ON. I can hear her shrill Bon Appetit! as I type this. This book makes me enjoy sharp knives, stainless steel cookware, kosher salt and fresh ingredients. And in a perfect world, I would have a kitchen like hers.
  5. Los Angeles Times Food Section. Not a book. Got it. But honestly, over the years this is my #1 go-to in terms of reliable recipes, especially for seasonal needs. For example, it had a great section on how to prepare the turkey for Thanksgiving. But I have gotten some fabulous standards from them over the years too -- I have saved my recipes for Chiles Rellenos and "Hurry Curry" from this, for example. The restaurant reviews bore me (and I always think they are too rigorous -- it feels like nothing would ever be good enough), but other than that, this section is a fun 2-minute vacation when I need a break from emails, and a serendipitous source of "Huh, I have never tried making that."
Honorable mention: Vegetarian Times magazine. This is fun and stimulating. Some of the recipes do not interest me at all. But winners like Polenta Pizza and Three-Herb Pesto keep me coming back for more.

What cookbooks do YOU like? And why?


  1. I really like the Moosewood Restaurant 'Simple Suppers' Cookbook - it is all easy to make (major bonus with kiddos under foot!) and delicious and uses ingredients I have around all the time. It isn't specifically a vegetarian cookbook, but I don't think there's any meat dishes in it, which is a bonus as well. We like everything we've ever made and several have become regulars in our rotation.