Saturday, November 9, 2013

Cookbooks I Can't Live Without

How many cookbooks do you have? I only ask because I have a sneaking suspicion that I may be a cookbook hoarder. I see my friends and family cocking eyebrows. Fine, I'm a book hoarder in general. What do you expect from a literature professor, really?
One wall of my study, complete with Colin Firth.
The other wall. That's my Granny Pauline's purple loveseat. She taught me how to make apple pie, pancakes, cheese grits, and fried chicken.
Anyway, as bookish folk here in my household, (thank goodness my husband is a lit professor as well because he never criticizes my great love of books), our motto is "When in doubt, go look and see if we have a book on that topic." A great majority of the time, we do.

Cookbooks are no exception. I love them feverishly. And now that I'm not always scrounging for material for my dissertation, the cookbook section is the first I gravitate towards when I go to any bookstore. I thought I might go through my collection and write a bit on a handful of the cookbooks I love the most and why. This is my current cookbook collection, conveniently stashed in the kitchen, finally.
I finally broke down and added a cookbook shelf in my kitchen. Before, I had cookbooks stashed in about four different locations. This is a super-cheap Ikea garage shelf I painted with leftover paint I had from the wall behind it.
 A new cookbook I recently picked up, Harold McGee's Keys to Good Cooking, is the most amazing encyclopedia of cooking I've seen so far. As a former literature professor, McGee is a man after my own heart. Read more about McGee, an avid food writer, here. He's remarkable. This book, however, is not a collection of recipes. McGee doesn't tell you what to cook but rather how to cook it. He cover things that vex every cook, like how to keep sauces from getting overly thick or what to do if they break. From canning to baking to roasting to frying, McGee will tell you the inside secrets to making it work.

As you can see from the things I choose to cook, my current fascination is with canning. My grandmothers and mother canned, and I'm teaching my daughter how to do it. Not only is it incredibly satisfying to make delicious things to serve, it's even more satisfying to know exactly what went into it. I can use fruit and vegetables from a farmer's co-op or just use organic fruit. I can regulate the amount of sweeteners. It's also handy to have a pantry full of this stuff when you need a quick gift for someone. The first canning book I ever read was Rick McKee's Putting Up. I quickly found a copy of the companion book, Putting Up More. McKee, who has canned professionally for many years, provides the best explanations of the canning process (and all its different methods) I've ever seen. While I don't love some of his practices (inversion canning is not recommended by the USDA), and I'm not a fan of the Sure-Gel thickening aid he suggests canners use, I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for my canning knowledge. His recipes are also very safe because he carefully tests and explains the acidity of each recipe.

 While I very much enjoy McKee's knowledge base and his salsa recipes, Liana Krissoff's Canning for a New Generation rocked my world, recipe-wise. Her recipes are unlike any I've ever seen, and they speak to my little foodie soul. I CAN'T WAIT to try her Strawberry and Lavender Jam and her Mango Jam with Lime. She has a fantastic collection of eclectic recipes for mad canners that include mini tamales (!), kimchi, and pickles.

My grandfather has long since advocated eating weird things for health. As a kid, I never really paid attention to his obsession with echinacea and herbs. However, the man is into his '90s, in amazing health, and still living on and running his farm, so it's either his eating habits or his sheer ability to fly under the Almighty's radar keeping him so prime. Anyway, I'm sort of taken with the idea of making my own sauerkraut (which has been widely advocated by many holistic practitioners as being rife with health benefits). I made a badly researched try a few months ago and came away with an important lesson: don't start a batch of homemade sauerkraut and go to Costa Rica for drunken derby vacation, thus leaving said sauerkraut to its own devices. I wouldn't wish the result on anyone. After I recovered from the mess I came home to, I started reading up on how to undertake the process correctly. A couple of weeks ago, I found this little gem at a used bookstore. Klaus Kaufman's 2002 Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home: Creative Recipes for Lacto-Fermentated Food to Improve Your Health goes through the history of fermented foods (did you know that sauerkraut is not originally German? They stole it from Genghis Khan, who evidently traveled with crocks of fermented foods, including cabbage), the science of the process and its health benefits, and contains many detailed instructions on how to pickle just about anything. He also includes some great ideas of dishes to use pickled food in, and, damn, they look good. 

I've also photographed some herbs and spices used for pickling here. Taken from Central Market's bulk bins, I got Juniper berries for $.45, caraway seed for $.22, and whole brown mustard seeds for $.14. Experimentation doesn't have to cost the earth!

Let me just begin by saying that Nigel Slater is a culinary stud and writes about food in a way that is so sexy, you'll need to step outside for a cigarette after. This British writer, whom I discovered after a dear friend sent me several of his books as a wedding gift, has a variety of good cookbooks out, including Real Fast Food. However, The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater, is like the smart prose of Jane Austen (the man is British) meets your favorite novel with a dash of food porn added for good measure. I read this cover to cover in a few days. Slater goes through his year, documenting what he made and ate, depending on what was locally available, throughout the year. He's a real person too, so some days he cooks fancy for friends and families, and some days he throws together a quick five or twenty-five minute weekday dinner that will make you SWOON. The variety of the dishes he makes, his personality as a writer, and the photography here will make you appreciate food if nothing else has.

And, of course, I'll end with a cookbook devoted to the cuisine of the Divine Miss Jane. My love of literature really began with Jane Austen, and she was the topic of the first successful dissertation chapter I wrote. My husband got me this particular cookbook, entitled The Jane Austen Cookbook by Maggie Black and Deidre Le Faye a few years ago. Now that I have time, I'd like to investigate what I have always though of as the dubious traditional cuisine of Austen's England. Though I'll probably skip Vegetable Pudding, I am going to experiment with Fricassee of Turnips and something called, I kid you not, A Nice Whet Before Dinner. It gives a great history of the way a table would have been set and the expected courses, etc... during Austen's time. Don't judge me; I'm a nerd.
The Jane Austen Cookbook. Next to it is a clay figurine of Pride and Prejudice, made by my sister, that stood atop my wedding cake with a figure of As I Lay Dying by William Faulker for my husband.
 To end, I was reading a bit online about the history of cookbooks, and I found a lovely, remarkable website developed at Michigan State University, called Feeding America. It's an amazing archive of thousands of cookbooks written across centuries. I foresee some afternoons spent combing this collection!