They’re everywhere. On the counter. On the bookshelf. In that empty space between the top of the kitchen cupboard and the ceiling. Some have found their way to the nightstand. There may even be a few in the powder room. At last count, there were 137 cookbooks in my house, and that sounds like something that could land me my own episode on Hoarders. Hoarders: She Really Likes Food. The worst part? I haven’t even opened many of them in years.
Holidays always make it worse. Do I need this incredibly well photographed and plated book of Thanksgiving suppers? Of course! Will mine look anything like that? Absolutely not. What about a cake pop cookbook with over 40 different, beautiful, absolutely delightful bits of cake on a stick? Will I ever have the time to mold fondant into mini snowmen cake pops for a cookie exchange? I’m sorry, children. Unless a friend is bringing some as a present, you are not getting cake pops meticulously decorated as miniature bags of popcorn for your next slumber party. I will, however, call for pizza and give you some baby carrots. If you want, you can put those on a stick.
And there’s the rub: how many of us have a dozen cookbooks we never even open anymore? With the help of my stepmother, one of my favorite foodies and the best cook I know, I’ve pared my over-the-top library down to the five essential cookbooks you absolutely need… and the ones you’ll really cook with every day.
First, you need the cookbooks that can help you survive weeknight dinners. New Food Fast by Donna Hay may be my favorite cookbook ever written (sliding into a win before any other cookbook she’s ever written) because it’s one I can actually use for dinner at least three times a week. Even better, it’s one I can use when we have company when I actually care about being culinarily impressive. The book is divided into three sections: food you can make in 30 minutes or less, food you can make in 20 minutes or less, and food you can make in ten minutes or less. And although I was concerned at first glance that these time frames might only apply to the Cordon Bleu trained among us, I can tell you from experience: when she says 20 minutes, she means 20 minutes. And she doesn’t mean “This is passable as dinner given how little time went into the making of this dish.” She means “You’re welcome for this delicious recipe. I realize you are crying into your plate out of sheer happiness and delight.” Her recipe for poached chicken curry soup with sweet potato is my go-to for everything from Tuesday night supper to a Tupperware dish for new moms. Every time I’ve served it, people have begged for the recipe. No one believes how simple it is.
Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express, which my stepmom keeps in the car in case four o’clock rolls around and she’s in the grocery store parking lot with no idea what’s for supper, is another everyday delight. Every single recipe in it can be thrown together in less than 20 minutes. The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper is an equal necessity: every recipe is lip-smacking delicious and none are terribly complex. To the book’s credit, the authors, Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift, have bothered to put together each recipe into a sample meal: entree, side, and dessert. Sometimes the dessert is just sliced fruit, but you know what? Sometimes sliced fruit really is a terrific end to the meal. Especially when the meal itself was delicious.
Besides meals for the everyday, you also need cookbooks that turn picky eaters into foodies and children who won’t touch a green vegetable into promising organic micro-farmers. Or, at least, vegetable eaters. To the rescue: Local Flavors. Deborah Madison is a vegetable genius, and this gorgeous cookbook is a culinary tour of America’s farmers markets. There are recipes for appetizers, entrees, sides, and desserts. Some of them have changed the way I eat forever. Madison opened my husband up to brussel sprouts, and they are now his favorite vegetable, so long as we make them her way: tossed together with a little mustard, butter, and capers. As a side dish, it goes with everything, and it’s got just enough bite to be the star of the meal. Any chef who can turn a stubborn vegetable-hater into a vegetable-lover wins in my book, and the photographs and stories in this book are so pretty you’ll find yourself taking it to read in bed as you fall asleep. (Note: You will wake up hungry.)
And last, but not least, you need the cookbook you can turn to when the Queen finally calls to say she’s coming for dinner. After all, for whom have you been practicing your table manners all these years? You need a cookbook that’s impressive, but not complicated. A cookbook that doesn’t require visits to eight different groceries just to find the ingredients for the meal. A cookbook that has your friends raving about that amazing dish you made five years ago. A cookbook that doesn’t intimidate you into ordering take-out you every time you open it. That cookbook? Radically Simple. You may know its author, Rozanne Gold, from Recipes 1-2-3 (a great read if you don’t have it — all the dishes are three ingredients or less), but this is her best. It will show you how just a few tricks and some new spices can transform your kitchen — and your eating habits — forever. You’ll suddenly become the person who trades the old bottle of thyme on the spice shelf for a new container of harissa, and ras al hanout will be your favorite way to jazz up your chicken. Radically simple, and radically good.
So there you have it. Five cookbooks you should not live without and, really, the only five you actually need. I’d just like to note, though, that none of this means we should stop buying cookbooks. If you just think of them as gorgeously photographed coffee table books, there’s no reason to stop the addiction. And if you’d like to call Hoarders on me now, I really would understand. Until then, I’m thinking very seriously about that cake pops book. They really are cute. But please, don’t expect me to make any.
I’m sure I’m missing some, Friends! Tell me: What cookbooks do you use daily? Which ones can you not live without?
Since mine are splotched with cooking accidents, post-it notes, and spilled sauces, pretty cookbooks found here.