Test-Driving Cookbooks

October 13, 2011

One of my favorite new hobbies since starting the Experiment is checking out cookbooks from the library. At the beginning of the year, I gravitated toward specialty cookbooks, such as The Gluten-Free Gourmet and Super Natural Cooking, and borrowed them one at a time. Once I got the book home, I’d flip through it, page by page, and mark the most appealing recipes that highlighted seasonal ingredients. Then I’d incorporate as many of these recipes as possible into our meals for the three weeks before the due date. I experimented with different pizza crusts, innumerable preparations for beans, and two or three sweeteners for homemade ice cream (honey is by far the best). At the end of each three-week trial period, I logged the best dishes in my iPad recipe app before I returned the book to the library.

Once the CSA pickups started in June and I had specific vegetables in the fridge that needed to be cooked pronto, I had to change my strategy. These days, I borrow three cookbooks at a time, and I favor more encyclopedic volumes, like The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook (first the “new classics,” then the “original classics”) and Gourmet Today. These types of books are more likely to include recipes for unusual ingredients like celeriac and to have several ideas for dealing with hearty greens. (Am I the only one who’s become totally bored with chard sautéed with garlic and kale and white bean soups?)

Each week after I bring home my veggies, I scour the indexes of my borrowed cookbooks for inventive ways to prepare squash and eggplant and green beans and cabbage—or whatever it is that’s now in the refrigerator. Sure, I could conduct similar searches on Epicurious or Chow, but I prefer a better curated collection. A good cookbook is the product of years of meticulous writing, testing, and rewriting, and even the larger tomes have personality and a point of view. For example, I trust Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook at times I need a cake to come out perfectly on the first try.  I rely on The Art of Simple Food for good basic recipes for soups, meats, vegetables, and pastas that can easily be embellished. If I need practical advice, say, an appropriate herb substitution for mint, I turn to the Joy of Cooking.

Borrowing cookbooks from the library has introduced me to new chefs, home cooks, and palates. I’ve become more familiar with the best of the best without sacrificing my limited shelf space—which will become even more limited if Channing and I can find a used butcher’s block to put in the place of our kitchen bookcases. Some of the cookbook authors I’ve met via the library, like Ruth Reichl (Gourmet Today) and  Lynne Rossetto Kasper (The Italian Country Table), write recipes perfect for my cooking style, i.e., local, seasonal, American, often vegetarian, and occasionally adventurous. Others have been less helpful. I checked out Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef a few weeks ago because I dig his food philosophy. But not one of the recipes spoke to me—I could find very few of my CSA veggies in the index—and I ended up returning the book unused. I haven’t given up on Jamie, but now I know to try him in a different season (spring, perhaps?) and to pick up one of his more recently published titles.

So I guess you’re wondering how I’ll use this knowledge once the Experiment is over. Will I go on a cookbook-buying bender? I doubt it. I’ve stopped logging recipes from my library books in my iPad because it’s time-consuming and just adds to my digital clutter (hmm, topic for another post?). I figure these books and tons more will still be in the library next time I want them (assuming they aren’t burned). And besides, how can I make a lifetime commitment of shelf space to a new cookbook when I haven’t even started my way through the library’s Jacques Pepin collection or cracked the cover of Baking with Julia?

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