Cookbooks read, reviewed, reviled and recommended

Okay, reviled may be too strong a word, but I like the alliteration…

As I reviewed ‘s Fish Without a Doubt (recommended – with gusto!), I found myself working at my approach to a cookbook review. Never at a loss for an opinion of my own, nor the ability to defend it, I wondered about the readers who come to my column for advice. They may be looking for something very different from what I want or expect in a cookbook. What is our common ground?

Once I got the reminder of which username and password combo would unlock the door to my visit with Gourmet.com (anyone else have a thousand of these?) and long after my FWD review was posted, I found this intriguiging post about one of the editor’s cookbook giveaway. I gasped as I read about his announcement to the group assembled to pick Gourmet Magazine’s first choice for its newly-minted Cook Book Club. Apparently others had the same reaction as me. You did what?! The also had the same reaction to Chef Moonen’s book (see Powell’s here) – their inaugural pick.

Someone once chided me for reading cookbooks the way others read novels. I didn’t get it. Another person made a suggestion that I begin cooking from each cookbook I already owned before acquiring more. They thought it might make good fodder for a story. Of course I found 101 Cookbooks, a site about cooking through your bazillion cookbooks. Is it really true there is no such thing as original thought, after all? (Btw, do see 101Cookbooks for the lemon achiote tofu recipe…and stay tuned for my achiote post, already in the works, kismet!)

Ultimately, I think there are a few things that I really like to see in a cookbook and Chef Moonen’s Fish Without a Doubt has it in spades. I think these probably hold true for most of us.

1. I want the layout and purpose to be clear.

You may want to take me on a rhapsodic Proustian journey of your summer in UlaanBaataar via recipes and vignettes (I’m making this up so if someone has written that book, please don’t be offended!) If that is your purpose, please don’t tell me it’s a comprehensive, no-nonsense introduction to the techniques and ingredients of Mongolia.

Conversely, if you sell me your book as an intro to something, you better explain unfamiliar ingredients and not assume I have Cordon Bleu skills, tools and knowledge. Ever complete a recipe and then find a note at the end saying “Of course, one should always serve this with a Sauce Frahn-frah-frahn…” as if we all know what that is and how to make it…

2. I want the recipes to work.

Some books, cookbooks even, I will read, and revisit without ever actually cooking from them. They can inspire and entertain, even if I’m not prompted to really cook from them. But many more I buy because I want to make the foods they promise to teach me how to make. Nothing is more frustrating than a poorly written or untested recipe. I once had a bundt cake from a respected desserts expert chef. It exploded like a science experiment all over the oven. Clearly, something was askew with the proportions and I’m not really adept at most baking or I would have noticed something wrong in the making of it. But it was a simple bundt cake, how difficult can that be?

3. I want it to be enticing enough to make me think of the food in a “Ratatouille” sort of way.

Can I nearly taste the combination on my tongue? Smell it in my nose? Imagine it in my belly? Does it inspire me to think of other flavor combinations or applications for this flavor combo to another dish? This is not dependent on flowery prose. Smartly conceived recipes will do it, nice photos or a little prose can help, but are not necessary, actually.

And finally, a little nit:

I dislike books that make me dirty multiple vessels unnecessarily! I’m all for mise en place, but sometimes recipes will have you dirty five pots or bowls when one or two would do. I am extremely lucky to have a very indulgent husband who does 80-90% of the dishes. I don’t take that for granted! Think it through, will ya?

Chef Moonen’s Fish Without a Doubt is the answer to many home cooks’ worries about fish cookery. The first recipes I made from it: Lox (you know how crazy I am about salmon from Alaska!) and the Clams and Chorizo both were excellent and well-written and gave me enough inspiration that I could go in a slightly different direction if I chose to. If I were a brand new cook and approaching them for the first time, I would have had equal success completely following the simple, straightforward advice. And, more confidence and less doubt the next time I step up to the fish counter.

  • Read my review here: Fish Without a Doubt.
  • Mark your calendar for October 1 – 15 – the second annual Teach a Man to Fish Sustainable Seafood Blog Event. Chef Moonen is already on board!
  • Why not buy his book and choose a recipe from it to share your sustainable seafood story? He gives advice about what to buy/avoid and how to talk to your fishmonger.

What are YOUR cookbook criteria?

  • Favorite things about cookbooks?
  • Things you hate about some others?
  • Do you have some on the shelf that you never open?
  • Which do you go back to again and again?

~ by jacqueline1230 on August 7, 2008.

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