Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What makes a perfect cookbook? Part 1


Ah cookbooks. Aren't they great? Somehow more human and tangible than a recipe from the internet. Not quite as authentic has a handed down from generation to generation recipe.

I have a reasonable number of cookbooks (ie over 80) but I know that that is quite a small number compared to the many cookbook obsessives out there. Barring disaster I don't intend to throw any of them out. They are reminders of a particular stage of my life, in paper form.

Of course, we buy cookbooks for many different reasons and librarian style, I have below categorised them into 8 types.

(Disclaimer - in doing this I make no judgement at all about the quality of cookbook or author - just describing only):





Coffee table cookbooks. With hard covers, glossy pictures, often combined with a travelogue, these are not really that practical to cook with. For a start they are often too big to fit into a recipe holder. They typically focus on a trip to Tuscany or Valencia or Provence with the writer's take on the region incorporated. And as I do not have any coffee tables in my house (file that under forbidden pieces of furniture along with certain categories of Ikea furniture), these sit prettily in my bookshelves and are largely ignored. My example: Stephanie Alexander's book on her trip to Tuscany.

Practical little paperbacks. Which get heaps of use and then fall apart at the spine. My Marcella Hazan and Elizabeth David cookbooks fall into this category. One Marcella Hazan (Classic Italian Kitchen) is in about 10 sections after the gaffer tape gave way. I still use it. My Australian example: Charmaine Solomon's Thai Cookbook.



Gimmick cookbooks. A good example is the cookbook (Deceptively Delicious) written by Jessica Seinfeld which was all about giving your children vegetables by hiding them in the food (eg broccoli puree in a chicken nugget). When I first heard about this I thought this book should be Against The Law. Imagine conning your children like that? Anyway I was then given it and it is not bad at all, even though this women uses 'ingredients' I have never heard of (low fat cooking spray? What is wrong with olive or vegetable oil?) And I confess, I have made the 'chocolate mousse' (brace yourself) which is mashed up avocado mixed with cocoa powder and other unspeakable ingredients. And what did my daughter say? Mummy this is divine.



Wishful thinking cookbooks. These are the ones where you have been to a wonderful restaurant and you later see that the chef has his or her own cookbook. You want to recreate the magic (and tastes) of the evening, so you buy the cookbook. The cookbook is often very expensive. The cookbook is too technical, too complex or not very well written. You never use it but give it an angry glare whenever it catches your eye sitting smugly in its shelf. My example: anything by Stefano di Pieri (chef who runs a wonderful restaurant in Mildura in northern Victoria). Whilst there is nothing actually wrong with his cookbooks try as I might I just can't make the food taste as good as it does in his restaurant. Even wierder example - my Charlie Trotter books. And I have never even been to Chicago.




Celebri-stardom books. Churned out every year or Christmas by those very very popular and famous English chefs, such as Jamie Oliver and Mr G Ramsay. Nothing against them - for instance I adore Nigella Lawson, own all her books, and cook from them often. But how does one keep up? And it is tempting to be cynical about the motives for publishing So Many cookbooks. An Australian example (perhaps not so extreme): Bill Granger.

Embarrassing bachelor style cookbooks. These are not glossy or stylish and their chefs are anonymous. The paperbacks sold in newsagents issued by the Australian Women's Weekly are the perfect example. Nevertheles they tell you how to bake a proper vanilla sponge cake or make foolproof mayonnaise. Delia Smith's cookbooks might also be in this category.


Time poor books - these seem to be ubiquitous these days - books which are all about minimising your time in the kitchen. These books have done a lot to democratise cooking in Australia. They are accessible and very simple. They often emphasise use of 'store cupboard' or pantry ingredients and are invariably utterly beautifully photographed. My examples: cookbooks by Donna Hay and Marie Claire. Whilst I like a speedy meal as much as the next person, I am not sure I agree that everything should be quick all the time. There is nothing better than a long concentrated cook or a leisurely hour of chopping vegetables. The other downside of these books is that on one view, they are not really recipes. They are more combinations or assemblages of ingredients and flavours. Did I just say that?

Perfect cookbooks. These are the books which you use all the time, which have recipes which work, which are completely sympatico with your local ingredients, your cooking skills and your approach to life.

Next week (sometime), my top 10 Australian perfect cookbooks.

(Images: knives and pots, Nato Welton, cutlery Tim Evan Cook)

5 comments:

Lee said...

Good grief, upon reading your post I've just realised that I have a cookbook that fits into every single category! This post is definitely food for thought. Forgive the pun. Have a great day. Lee :)

Laura [What I Like] said...

80 cookbooks?! Good lord woman, you must be an amazing cook! I'm dying to know your perfect cookbooks...

Laura said...

What a wonderful idea for a post and I just love your blog. Come stop by sweetie when you have a chance!

Laura Trevey said...

Wonderful Post!!

fromtherightbank.com said...

Jane, this is such a great post. You've nailed the categories perfectly and of course, I have books that fit them all. I don't have nearly as many as you but I feel guilty about having so many when I really only use two or three of them on any regular basis. And most of the time, I just use the web!

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