Surfing the flogosphere of late, I’ve seen so many entries displaying impressive collections of cookbooks – overflowing bookshelves, stacks on the floor, file cabinets filled with magazine clippings. As much of a delicious life I try to lead, I don’t own very many cookbooks at all. In fact, I can count my cookbooks on two hands.
Three Korean cookbooks don’t get much use, since most of my Korean cooking comes from years of following Mom around the kitchen growing up. When I’m stumped, speed dial no. 2 on my cell phone is set for Korean cooking rescue, “mom.” Two other cookbooks are focused on entertaining – big elaborate dinner parties which wouldn’t even fit around my itty bitty ikea dining table, or cocktail parties with tons of teeny tiny bites that take way too much effort to make. Gorgeous pictures, but I’ll have to move to a bigger apartment or get married before I can put them to good use. A girl from the office gave me a bread book in a gift exchange last Christmas, but I’m scared of yeast. Yeast is alive. Little critters. Bread reliance on La Brea Bakery for me.
I don’t have many cookbooks because, to be quite honest, I don’t use them like normal people use cookbooks, and in the grand scheme of things, I don’t read anything like normal people do. At night, before bed, most people read Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code. I like to read cookbooks. But I’m not just flipping through the pages and looking at the pictures, I actually sit right there propped up against three pillows in bed, reading the recipes. I’m halfway through Joy of Cooking. During my farmers market mission week, the whole vegetable chapter had me on the edge of my seat.
When cooking, which is a time when most normal people use a cookbook, I don’t. I try to remember what I read in a recipe some other time, and then just sort of wing it. Sometimes it’s great. Usually it's good. On occasion, it is really really bad. For baking, of course I am a little more careful. Baking is much more of a science so I do follow recipes, but even with my first try at a lemon tart, Joy of Cooking was sitting on the counter, open to the recipe, but I only looked at it to make sure I wasn’t going to damn the thing to tart hell by adding lemon juice too early. *phew* The tart was fine.
Joy of Cooking is not just a collection of recipes with explicit food porn. Rather, it explains why things are done a certain way, gives mini-histories about some of the foods (the book was originally published in the good ol’ days, for goodness’ sake!), and in the end, it teaches techniques. I know there are other books out there that go into far greater detail and have much more of the chemistry, biology, math, and physics behind cooking, but for now, I’m happy with Joy.
Joy of Cooking has graduated from the bedroom to the ktichen, and now two different cookbooks are resting on my nightstand. Thomas Keller’s Bouchon is huge and heavy, and I can’t sit with it in my lap. It’s propped up against my pillow and I have to lay diagonally across my bed on my stomach, my chin in my left hand, turning pages with my right. The book is meaningful because I ate at Bouchon, but more than that, Monsieur Keller explains “The Importance of” certain ingredients and techniques at the start of each chapter. My very favorite - his words on the importance of the little, powerful egg.
The other book is also from northern California, a Bay Area restaurant that has sort of seen its day, now coasting on loyal locals. But when I was still in school up there, Rose Pistola was new and what a buzz there was. I didn’t get to eat there until I moved away from the Bay Area, but when I did, that's when I realized that Italian food wasn’t just spaghetti and meatballs. The book is not put together all that well, color photos all grouped together in two sections, the rest of the book printed in black and white, but the recipes, the stories, and the short explanations on specific ingredients are wonderful. I don’t know how else I could have attacked an artichoke.
I have yet to attempt a single recipe from either book. Some of the recipes in Bouchon look complicated, and some of the recipes in Rose Pistola call for ingredients that require a little hunting, but one of these days, maybe I’ll try the not too difficult French Onion Soup in Bouchon or, now that I've become familiar with tarts, Rose Pistola's Tangerine Tart.