I have so many cookbooks, and I love all of them, despite the fact that I almost never follow recipes. It's a carefully curated collection, most of which have been gifted to me by my mother. Five years ago (with no baby and an employee discount at a gourmet grocery), the more complicated the recipe, the better. The more steps and more dishes dirtied, the better. The more obscure ingredients, the better. Mind you, I still love cracking into a really involved dish with rare (read: pricey) ingredients, but these days, cooking has become more of a job and less of a hobby. Money's tighter, having a kid and all, husband needs to be fed before he rushes out the door, and I have other things I should be doing. I've even embraced leftovers. My relationship to food has changed.
I enjoy the job of cooking, as long as I stick to my principles. They are:
1. We shall not eat the same thing more than two days in a row.
2. I shall cook food from at least 3 different countries every week.
3. We shall defy our mingy food budget by eating dazzlingly tasty food.
4. We shall eat food that both makes us healthy and happy. Sometimes these two things are mutually exclusive, and that's okay. In the end, it all balances out.
Armed with my principles, here are the five cookbooks that I constantly reach for, every week, when I'm doing my menu planning/grocery list (which is the only way to stick to a food budget and also not go out of your mind at dinner time every night). The trick to meal planning, I've found, is to pick one dish you're really excited about cooking, write down all the ingredients you need, and then base your other meals off of what you'll have left after preparing that meal. For example, you might have half a head of cabbage left, or part of a box of chicken stock. You get the idea.
1. How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman: This is the book that should replace The Joy of Cooking in your cookbook library (unless you have one of the vintage versions with possum recipes inside). My favorite thing about this book is that it's for all ability levels, it's totally straight forward, and most (if not all) recipes have several variations. I know several people who have learned to cook from this book. My brother, in fact, is one of these people, and he and his old house-mates used to refer to it as the gospel according to Mark. It also comes in a vegetarian version, if that's your thing.
2. The Italian Country Table: Homecooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens by Lynne Rossetto Kasper: This book is totally inspired, though it's not hard to guess why, given the subject matter. One thing I value most in a cookbook is when there are recipes for things that I can't dream up on my own. This book has that in spades. Also, the author really teaches you about ingredients, wine pairings, and all that kind of food nerd stuff which I love so much. This is the book that taught me about putting veggies in with your pasta water when you make pesto. It also contains the only cake I have ever successfully made: chocolate polenta cake, laced with orange and insanely delicious (and gluten free!). You didn't think you could eat like this outside of Italy. You can, and the best part is that you made it yourself.
3. The Mediterranean Kitchen by Joyce Goldstein: This is not a completely authentic Mediterranean cookbook, but the author skips around the rim of this flavorful region, touching on all the great dishes, putting her spin (and a healthy glug of olive oil) on them, and offering thoughtful cooking methods and years of expertise as a chef along with them. This book will really teach you how, say, Turkish flavors differ from Spanish ones, and I've learned, as a result, how to improvise on these different cuisines. For example, the chicken tagine dish I shared with you is a riff on her lamb tagine with lemon and olives. Everyone loves Mediterranean food, and this is a great place to start.
4. World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey: Just because you love bacon doesn't mean you shouldn't own this cookbook. We all need to be less meat-centric in our meals, and with the huge, satisfying flavors that Jaffrey offers, you won't miss the meat. I credit this woman with teaching me how spices really work, how they work together, how much to use, how to grind, store, shop for, etc. And once you know how spices work, literally worlds unfold in your cooking. It might seem a little daunting and expensive to collect all those different bottles of powders and seeds, but if you do it slowly over time, and maintain a good stock, you can make most of these dishes with very inexpensive ingredients. The chapter on beans, for example, is brilliant because each and every recipe tastes so different. A lot of the recipes are quick to make, too, and they're all healthy, colorful, and delicious. This cookbook helps me stick to principle number two (see above).
5. The Food Matters Cookbook by Mark Bittman: I really didn't want to have two books by the same author on this list, but after waffling around for ages, I've finally admitted to myself (and you) that this is a really important book to have. As soon as I cracked it open, I was thrilled to see that basically what this book is, is the way I try to cook all the time: economically and healthily. Instead of having to flip quickly past the giant steak recipe, wiping the drool from the pages, I get chapter after chapter of recipes I can a) afford to make, b) want to make, and c) should be making. My refried bean recipe offers a suggestion of putting kale in your burrito. That's from this book. I think he actually might be able to impact how America is eating, and that would be a wonderful thing.
Honorable Mention: Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child: I own this book, and there are some things that only Julia should teach you how to do. But let's face it, we shouldn't be eating this way all week, as much as we might want to. Kudos, Mrs. Child, for all you've done for cooks across America, and here's to many artery-clogging generations to come!