I am one of those people who love cookbooks. It’s kind of a crazy thing, really, because I hardly ever use cookbooks as they were intended. Instead, I skim them for anecdotes and stories, for hints and tips.
I use recipes for bread, and baked goods (most of the time) but otherwise, I cook without rules. This seat-of-your-pants cooking style is fun, but not without drawbacks. First, if you have a failure, you can only blame yourself. Second, if you have a success, you can never quite duplicate it. Third, you kind of look like a crazy person. But that’s the way I cook. And I love to cook.
I make almost everything from “scratch”. Even the idea of canned tomato sauce or store-bought pie crust offends me. Boxed cake mix, biscuit mix, frosting in a can, refrigerated cookie dough, store-made muffins…all truly horrific. Now, I understand that many people are too busy to make their own baked goods regularly. I’m not judging you! Mainly, I make my own because it is how I was raised, and also because it is usually cheaper, and almost always healthier.
Like many grocery-shoppers, I have noticed a huge increase in my food spending over the past few years. Now more than ever, the better your food choices, the more money you will spend. Bleached white flour is much cheaper than whole wheat. Canned fruit is cheaper than fresh. Organic items are most expensive. Quality ingredients are pricey, but I think they are worth it. It does make me wonder, though: If a bag of organic apples, a half pound of butter, and a pound of evaporated cane juice sugar cost me around $10, (not even counting the flour and spices and energy to operate the oven)…how is the store-made apple pie $4.99? What kind of ingredients are they using? Hydrogenated oils, refined sugar, pesticide-treated apples, and white flour probably. My pie is better tasting and at least I can let my daughter eat it for breakfast without guilt.
So, I cook all kinds of things, for sustenance and sometimes just for fun. Also, I read cookbooks. Cover to cover, as if they were novels, and I enjoy them just as much as any fiction books I read. Here are a few of my all-time favorite reads:
The Scottish Bakehouse Cookbook by Isabella Maxwell White
This one I own. My mother purchased it in Martha’s Vineyard when I was a kid, and I loved it as a teenager, so she gave it to me when I moved out on my own. I don’t know if you can buy it anymore. The stories are so great, the author tells all about growing up in Scotland and learning to cook, and owning a bakery on martha’s vineyard. There are many interesting recipes and cute little illustrations. The oatmeal bread is out of this world fantastic.
The Lost Art of Real Cooking by Ken Albala & Rosanna Nafziger Henderson
This is really my kind of cookbook. I got my tortilla recipe and my pizza dough proportions directly from here. Well worth a read, even just for the confidence it inspires.
The Homemade Pantry by Alana Chernila
I don’t own this one, I took it out from the library and copied a few recipes, though. The philosophy of this book is really great. It is exactly everything I aspire to, as far as cooking goes, and it also has a ton of nice little stories from the author’s life. (Most of the recipes were for things I already make regularly, so I didn’t buy the book.) The best recipe in the whole thing is the homemade ricotta cheese. Holy shit, if you’ve never made homemade ricotta you need to do it ASAP. And prepare for a mouth-gasm. Really.
Vegetarian Planet by Didi Emmons
I love this book. Great recipes, great stories, but more than that, it has lots of helpful reference “guides” about how to cook thing like dried beans, Asian noodles, grains, vegetables… If you have an ingredient you’ve never used before, Didi Emmons will probably tell you how to cook it properly somewhere in this book. My most used recipe from this is the kale and kidney bean soup. De-lish!
I will leave you with the cheapest, easiest, most rewarding made-from-scratch recipe I use: homemade gnocchi. (Gnocchi are Italian potato dumplings. This is a peasant dish, and for me, the acme of comfort food.) My Noni taught me to make these before I could even reach the counter, and there is a technique to make the little dumplings…but you will have to figure that out on your own if you want to try it. Here’s the info:
- Boil a few (start with 2 per person, maybe?) all purpose potatoes (don’t try this with any other potato, it won’t work), peeled and quartered. When they are soft, drain and mash them (a potato ricer is ideal).
- Make a pile of flour about equal to the amount of mashed potato you have (don’t stress out! cooking is art, not science), and knead the potato into it (the potato should still be hot) until you have a nice dough.
- Roll it (or a part of it) into a long “snake” on a floured work surface. Cut into 1/2 inch pieces, and press your finger into each piece to make a little depression (this is where there is a little method that I can’t possibly explain, just do your best)
- Drop them into boiling salted water. They float when they’re done.
- Use a slotted spoon to skim them out, and drop them into a pan of your favorite sauce (marinara is traditional, but pink vodka is also good)
- Grate some Romano on top and mangia!
Happy reading and eating 🙂