Monday, October 29, 2007

6 BOOKS essential for your kitchen by Jon Fasman

Jon Fasman is the author of The Geographer's Library, and his second novel will be published in summer 2008 by Penguin Press. His journalism has appeared in The Washington Post, The London Times, The Moscow Times, Slate, and various other publications. He is an online editor for The Economist, and he recently started a weekly food column for Intelligent Life. He's a dear friend of mine, and has fed me very well on many occasions. Below, he writes about six of his favorite cookbooks.
Before we start, some ground rules. First, cookbooks have recipes. Obviously, this excludes some writers that every cook and gourmet should read—M.F.K. Fisher, Calvin Trillin, Jeffrey Steingarten—but they write as eaters and enthusiasts, not cooks. Recipes and writing, not pictures, determine the quality of a cookbook. That series of books "X: The Beautiful Cookbook"? They’re very pretty. Put them in your bathroom. Third, and most importantly: cooking is a joy, a pleasure, an essential part of a civilized life, and a good cookbook will reflect this. Beware rules; beware a schoolmarmish tone; beware the wagged finger and lurking disapproval. This is a particular problem with English writers (Delia Smith, Jane Grigson, etc.). One note: These are not the six best cookbooks, or the six I use the most or even the six I like the most. They are simply a viable six—not the viable six—with which to start a collection.

The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (1975 or 1997 edition)

Every football team needs a David Garrard: a steady, unspectacular backup who understands his strengths (and therefore his limits), won't throw interceptions, and will slide gracefully back onto the bench when his time is up. In the same way, every kitchen needs a reliable reference book. It will offer plenty of information and a broad range of recipes, but you won't cook from it very often. In the American kitchen, there really are two contenders for this position: The Joy of Cooking and The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. The latter is too cute, too cozy; it condescends. Joy talks to you like an adult, and no matter how skilled or unskilled a cook you are, it has something for you. It's the foundation. I find the 2006 edition a little busy, but to each his own.

Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji

This is one of the best organized cookbooks ever written. You can read it cover to cover; it unfolds with the rigor, precision, and inevitability of a detective story. It lays out the seven traditional categories of Japanese food preparation; it explains why and how Japanese food developed as it did; it is as much philosophical investigation as it is cookbook. Even if you never cook a single thing from this book (and the talk of drop-lids and bamboo paddles may stymie even the most enthusiastic of us) you will understand Japanese cuisine better for reading it. And given the penetration of Japanese ingredients and techniques into the western repertoire in the 25 years since this book first appeared in English, you will understand much else, too.

[Best recipe: Salt-grilled mackerel]

The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden

This is an ethnography—one of the best ever written about the Jews—in the guise of a cookbook. As befits a diasporic people, its recipes are diverse, yet Roden always explains what makes each different from its mainstream incarnation. In this way, it shows how Jews have been part of yet apart from every culture in which they lived. She writes with enthusiasm, knowledge and affection, and like Tsuji's work, her writing transcends its genre.

[Best recipe: Fish kefta with preserved lemon and cilantro]

Arabesque by Claudia Roden

Yes, I know how many millions of cookbooks there are, so how can I include two by the same author on a list of only six. Be quiet. This book is divided into three sections, one each on the foods of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon. What the above book did for the Jewish world this one does for the Arab: it shows its heterodoxy and history on a plate. Roden, a Cairene Jew now resident in London, has an insider's advantage: she speaks Arabic and is widely traveled, and it shows. I tend to use this book more than the above, too.

[Best recipe I have made: Chicken kebabs with tomato pilaf. Best recipe I have not yet worked up the courage to try: Chicken pilaf encased in a pastry shell molded to look like an Ottoman tower. The secret to Arab culinary glories? Servants. Many, many servants.]

Essentials of Italian Cuisine by Marcella Hazan

Like Tsuji, almost perfectly organized. Before Lidia, Mario, Giada, or any of the TV-ready publicity hounds dominating airwaves and cookbook shelves today, there was Hazan, clearly, sternly (she shades, at times, into Grigson/Smith territory) and thoroughly explaining the principles underlying Italian cuisine. She can be a bit dogmatic (I see no problem with a light sprinkling of Parmesan over pasta with shrimp, precept or none), but her understanding of the cuisine is bone-deep. Before you go Neapolitan, Sicilian and Roman, start here.

[Best recipe: Spaghetti all’amatriciana. Strangest recipe: Her linguine alla vongole involves pre-cooking, shucking and chopping the clams, reserving the liquor, and stirring all of it back into the finished dish. To a simpleton like me, introducing this many steps just introduces that many more ways to mess up a dish. Saute some sliced garlic, throw in some littlenecks, shells and all, add a cup of dry white wine, cover the pot until the clams open, scatter some chopped parsley, and serve. Who are you going to believe: the planet's preeminent authority on Italian cuisine, or some bozo writing in sweats in his flooded basement?]

Authentic Vietnamese Cooking by Corinne Trang

Accepting this choice at number six means accepting something that seems, to me, inarguable: that Vietnamese cuisine is—in clarity of flavors, breadth of technique, complexity of influences, and sheer taste-goodness—the planet's best national cuisine. This is not the newest, the biggest, the most traditional or the most inventive Vietnamese cookbook. I keep going back to its pho recipe, though: that and the braised chicken with bamboo shoots. I'm about to break the spine on this one.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

This list is nice, but I don't like the disclaimers. I don't want six decent cook books. Give me your Top 6. The best of the best. That is what a list should be. Not, "here are some good ones".

7:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The previous post should be signed, "Dezmond".

7:44 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Of course it should. AKA, "The List Police."

9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I use the Joy of Cooking (henceforth known as the JOC), 1997 edition, as a reference, but I have also cooked from the JOC quite a bit. (I know that's sort of like saying you learned to paint from Bob Ross, but I can't call my mother every time I'm thinking about putting something in the oven.) Also, I appreciate the grand, plainspeaking and encyclopedic American institution that is the JOC. So I was glad to see Mr. Fasman stick up for it. I read a Slate piece once a couple years ago that claimed, if I remember correctly, that using the JOC would result in the uninspiring and tasteless. But it can't be beat for teaching yourself how to make basic stuff like muffins, pies, quiches, lasagna, cupcakes, and chili. And it can be a good jumping off point for your own experimentation.

11:11 PM  

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