I ENJOY COOKING. Although I like to improvise on a recipe, I enjoy looking at cookbooks. In addition to learning about food and eating traditions, they are a good place to look when embarking on food preparation. Today, one needs only access the Internet to discover an ocean of recipes, often describing numerous slightly differing ways of making the same dish. These recipes are posted by everyone from totally inexperienced cooks to highly acclaimed professional chefs. Although these on-line recipes might possibly eventually replace printed cookbooks, I will continue to value the printed volumes, cookbooks filled with recipes written by experienced and knowledgeable cooks. Here are ten such books that appeal to me.
AN INVITATION TO INDIAN COOKING by the actress Madhur Jaffrey (first publ. 1973), which I bought in 1982, guided me through my first forays into cooking dishes that originated in the Indian subcontinent. My copy falls open at the recipe for ‘lamb do pyaza’ The recipes are easy to follow and the results have an authentic flavour that impresses people for whom this kind of food is not exotic. Now, I have less need for this book because I am married to a good cook, who was born and brought up in India. She guides me through my curry creations and prepares the vegetarian dishes characteristic of her western Indian (Kutchi and Gujarati) heritage. However, if you are not as fortunate as me in this respect, I can heartily recommend this book.
MIDDLE EASTERN EASTERN COOKERY by the Armenian Arto der Haroutunian (first publ. 1982) was recommended to me by my friend, the author, art historian and first-class cook, the late Michael Jacobs. From this book, I learned a good way to cook fluffy steamed rice. A bookmark on page 252 takes me to an Iranian recipe, ‘Morgh Shekumpour’, chicken stuffed with dried fruit, which I used to prepare for guests in my bachelor days. Nowadays, my wife reaches for Arto when she cooks ‘Imam Bayildi’ and ‘Moussaka’. For some years, this book was hard to obtain, but there is now a new imprint that was produced in 2008 and is available on Amazon.
KEN HOM’S CHINESE COOKERY (first publ. 1984) was presented to me as a birthday present by Don and Eunice McMillan when I was a dentist in the Medway Towns in Kent. They knew I enjoyed cooking. Their gift could not have been better chosen because this cookbook is one of the best I have ever used. In my copy, there is a bookmark on the page that has a recipe for stir-fried minced pork, and the page with the recipe for beef in oyster sauce is stained with liquids splashed whilst preparing this dish. If you follow Ken Hom’s clear instructions closely, you cannot fail to produce Chinese dishes that almost (but not quite) rival those obtainable in many Chinese restaurants. So, if you are stuck at home as we have been during the pandemic lockdown, this book will help satisfy your cravings for Chinese food in its rich variety.
REAL GOOD FOOD by Nigel Slater (first publ. 1993) was recommended by our close friends Brian and Catherine Wilson, two enthusiastic cooks, both now no longer living. Beautifully illustrated with photographs of etchings and engravings of food ingredients, Slater provides easy to follow recipes with interesting commentaries. We reach for this book whenever we want to cook ‘Coq au Vin’. Covering many tastes, Slater includes two practical recipes for making curries.
THE FOOD OF ITALY by Claudia Roden (first publ. 1989) was presented to us by my sister when she was the chef at a successful Italian restaurant, which she and her husband owned in a village in the Emilia-Romagna province of Italy. Ms Roden is the author of many cookbooks, all of which are well-written and filled with practical easy to follow recipes. Her Italian cookbook is no exception. Our copy falls open at one page with pasta recipes from Campania, such as ‘Spaghetti alla ‘putanesca’’ and, also, at another page with a recipe for ‘finocchi gratinate’ from Emilia-Romagna.
Our copy of FRENCH PROVINCIAL COOKING by Elizabeth David (first publ. 1960) has yellowing pages and is well-thumbed. No serious cookery bookshelf should be without this evergreen classic of food writing. This is the key to the doorway of French cooking. In addition to the moderately easy to follow recipes, Ms David provides a wealth of interesting background information about the cuisine of France. Our copy has a bookmark for the recipe of ‘noisettes de ‘porc aux pruneaux’ and another for ‘champignons à la Greque’. If you wish to prepare one of my favourite French delights, onion soup, you need to look up ‘tourin bordelais’ in the index, and please observe that this ‘guru’ of French cookery states that the soup “…requires no stock.”: restauranteurs, please take note!
THE CUISINE OF HUNGARY by George Lang (first published 1971) was also recommended to me by Michael Jacobs (see above). It is a treasure amongst our huge collection of cookbooks from all over the world. I love Hungarian food and my copy of this book is now falling to pieces. The book contains not only ‘user-friendly’ recipes but also an interesting scholarly history of Hungarian food and cooking. The chapter on “Traditional Stews” is well-used in my copy. Some of its pages are becoming detached from the book. If you study this chapter you will be able to prepare superb stews and, more importantly, to distinguish a gulyás from a pörkölt, a paprikás, and a tokány. You will never again make the mistake of adding soured cream to your pörkölt or flour to your gulyás. Each recipe is well explained and easy to execute and is often followed by suitable variations.
We have only visited the much-vaunted River Café once and were disappointed enough not to want to give it a second try. However, the RIVER CAFÉ COOK BOOK by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers (first publ. 1995) is superb. It contains delicious recipes with clear instructions and mouth-watering photographs. The recipes for ‘spaghetti al Limone’ and ‘radicchio alla griglia’ are two of many good reasons to possess a copy of this book.
THE ART OF ASIAN COOKING (RECIPES FROM THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON) compiled by Janet Sears (first publ. 1990) contains practical recipes supplied by a long list of contributors. Our favourites from this book include ‘Bang-Bang Chicken’ and ‘Roast Leg of Lamb’. The latter is a good recipe for a dish known in India as ‘raan’ of lamb.
All the cookbooks described so far enable most people to cook exciting dishes without too much trouble or difficulty. My tenth book is not for the faint-hearted or even a reasonably experienced cook. Some of the recipes in the misleadingly named SIMPLE FRENCH FOOD, an erudite book by Richard Olney (first publ. 1974) are occasionally challenging. His recipe for hard-boiling eggs is half a page in length, for onion soup it is two pages, and ‘poule au pot’ four pages of fine print. But, this is nothing compared to Olney’s recipe for ‘bouillabaisse’ in his “A Provencal Table” (first publ. in 1995) that covers just over nine pages of print and has over thirty-three ingredients. But before you set out for the fishmonger, remember:
“Part of the bouillabaisse mystique resides in the persistent claim that no bouillabaisse is possible away from the Mediterranean coast …”
These ten books are but a mere drop in what is a vast sea of published cookbooks. They are vastly outnumbered by other cookbooks on our shelves: those that we have acquired over the years, but hardly ever look at. The ten books I have chosen are not necessarily to everybody’s taste, but they have satisfied us over the years. I would love to learn of other books that readers have found to be useful in their kitchens.
Before ending this piece, I must mention the excellent recipe books by Josceline Dimbleby, published and sold by the Sainsbury food retailing company in the 1980s. Sadly, I have lost the few volumes of this series that I once owned. Lastly, here are a few other books of recipes that we consult when cooking:
“Traditional Cooking” by Caroline Conran
“Il Talismano dela felicita” by Ada Boni
“The Silver Palate Cookbook” by Rosso & Luckins
“Italian Cookery” by Elizabeth David
“The Classic Italian Cookbook” by Marcella Hazan
“A Book of Middle Eastern Food” by Claudia Roden
“Joy of Cooking” by Irma Rombauer