Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cookbooks: How I Spend the Winter Months

I love to cook and read. Full stop. As a result, I think cookbooks might just be the greatest things in the world since they combine my two favorite past times, cooking and books.

When I'm not working, reading or walking the dog, you can usually find me in the kitchen shaping loaves of bread for a second rise or chopping vegetables for tonight's dinner. It's a hobby that generally keeps my roommates happy, my kitchen a mess, and me scrounging around for new ideas. I honestly wake up most mornings thinking about what I could cook that day. Needless to say, I go through recipes faster than my roommates can finish a fresh loaf of bread (which, if you've ever met them, is surprisingly fast).

Cookbooks are my best friend. In spite of all of my experimenting and my roommate's frequent accusations that I never follow a recipe (this is unfortunately true), I get most of my ideas from other people. The experimentation comes from adapting recipes and playing around with ingredients once I already have a recipe in mind. Cookbooks often provide the framework for improvisation and they are also great sources of inspiration if I come home after a long and grueling shift at the bookstore (just kidding, is there ever such a thing?) and just don't know what to do with the eggplant I have left over from yesterday.

Since I (surprisingly, given that it's textbook season) have a slow evening at the counter, I thought that I would update with a brief introduction to a few of the cookbooks that I use most frequently. And should you ever be in the store, please feel free to stop me and share any favorite recipes that you might have; I'm always looking for more!


2008 was a year of bread. My resolution last New Years was to develop a sourdough starter and learn how to use it. It was mostly a success; my starter is now a year old and delightfully sour! I've had a few mishaps, breads that didn't rise, ovens that were too hot or not hot enough, ingredients that just weren't quite right (although the time I mixed up the curry powder and cinnamon for a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread actually turned out to be delicious!). There are three bread books that I think are quite useful for the home baker.

The first is
Beard on Bread by James Beard. This book was a gift to me from another Odyssey employee and has truly served me well. It covers 100 of Beard's favorite bread recipes and is a great general introduction to baking. I like it because it is an approachable book even for the novice baker and has recipes for almost any occasion or ingredient. My personal favorites are the Sour Cream White Bread, the Portuguese Sweet Bread, and the Pullman Loaf Bread. James Beard is often considered to be the father of American cooking and I am always heartened by a quote from one of his other cookbooks that I frequently use, The Best Of Beard: Great Recipes From a Great Cook, in which he says, "I’m going to break one of the rules of the trade here. I’m going to tell you some of the secrets of improvisation. Just remember — it’s always a good idea to follow the directions exactly the first time you try a recipe. But from then on, you’re on your own."

After trying my hand at baking for a while and working my way through a fair number of Beard's recipes, I wanted more. I decided to tackle sourdough, partially because I loved the taste and partially because it's challenging. Before beginning my first starter, I read countless instructions for developing sourdough starters online and consulted many different cookbooks. One of the most beneficial was The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Even now that I have an active (and recently a year old!) sourdough starter, I continue to use Beranbaum's book for its wealth of recipes and great information about bread baking in general. It's an excellent book that teaches the user more than you would expect from simply following a recipe.

At this point I
felt like I had a pretty solid footing in bread baking and I was ready to up the ante so to speak. I had all of these questions about why recipes called for certain ingredients or what the benefit was of specific kneading techniques. I had sold my bread locally to a few folks at a few places and given away more loaves than I could count, but I had also continued to have mishaps and I really wanted to consistently turn out excellent loaves and to better understand what I was doing when I experimented. I turned to the next book Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart and it has truly improved my bread baking. I might have been intimidated had I started baking with this book, but I definitely would not have progressed as much as a baker as I have in the past few months if I had not read this book. If you want to waste a few minutes, come into the store and ask me about scouring techniques and how they change the shape of a loaf of bread. I'll get really excited! :)


Whew! That was a whole lot of blog post about bread! See what happens when I start to talk about food and books? I'll try to keep the rest brief. In addition to loving bread, I'm also a vegetarian. Folks who aren't often think that it must be quite difficult to be vegetarian, but really it's not at all. It helps that I live in Northampton and that I like to cook, but it's easy to do without either. Good cookbooks and recipe ideas are incredibly useful for vegetarian cooking, but I just as often adapt non-vegetarian recipes as I seek out specifically meat-free ones. Nonetheless, I have a few
favorite vegetarian cookbooks that you should definitely check out.

The whole range of
Moosewood Cookbooks might just be my favorites, and they have a few fish recipes as well for you meat eaters. I don't think I've ever made anything from a Moosewood book that I haven't liked. I recently reviewed Mollie Katzen's newest offering for our holiday newsletter, so I'll post that here to perhaps entice you to check it out. The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Life Without by Mollie Katzen is a new set of delicious recipes from best selling author of the Moosewood Cookbook. It features a range of vegetable dishes, from soups to sides and appetizers to entrees. Don't let the title fool you into thinking this is a book just for vegetarians; it's definitely not! This is an incredibly useful book for anyone who wants to add more vegetables to a plate, from beginners to well-versed cooks looking to expand their vegetable repertoire. I love the new twists Kazen gives to familiar staples and the playful ways she incorporates some unfamiliar flavors.

Well, I guess I wasn't actually very brief with that review. Here's trying again! My first vegetarian cookbook was a gift from my mother, who was worried that I would starve or that my diet would be devoid of nutrients when I stopped eating meat in high school. I hope that I have since changed her mind.
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison has been my go-to book for the past 8 years. I can't tell you how many times I've flipped through it's well loved pages in search of something new to make for dinner.

Along with Madison's book,
Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is the book I most frequently recommend to folks, vegetarian or not. It's incredibly approachable and has simple, tasty recipes. It is also a rather large book and thus always has some recipe that I have yet to try.


Oh my! It's time to close the store already! Time certainly flies at the Odyssey. I wanted to tell you all about the chocolate cupcakes with Irish cream icing I made last night from Krystina Castella's Crazy About Cupcakes and my other favorite food book, How to Peel a Peach: And 1,001 Other Things Every Good Cook Needs to Know by Perla Meyers. Oh well, maybe next time! Until then, happy reading (and cooking)!

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