Sunday, November 6, 2011

Top of the Shelf

My cookbooks currently number over 100, and these are just the ones that I want close by, meaning they’re the ones that I refer to with some sort of regularity and therefore need to be readily available.  They range from specialty books on various types of dishes, such as rice, salads, breakfast recipes, meat preparations, vegetables galore, cookies, smoothies, and all things sweet. 
I have representative books for many different types of ethnic and regional foods, some of which I access a lot, some just live in the bookcase and only get accessed a couple times a year.  And the oversized “pretty ones” tend to become part of a pile that sits next to the fireplace, since they generally fall into the "too big to fit in the bookcase" category, and the recipes tend to be fairly basic.  Plus as you can see, the bookcase is pretty much … full!  The ones that live in the bookcase, and particularly towards the top of the bookcase, get lots of use. 
I’m not overly particular about the way they’re arranged, meaning I may have an Italian cookbook on the second shelf, and two more on the third shelf, as opposed to having them all together in one “Italian” section.  I don’t alphabetize them like I do my CD’s and DVD’s, although I seem to know where they’re living, at any given moment.  I’m the only one who uses them, so I know what to look for, and where to look. 

Chef Larry Chu’s masterful cookbook on Chinese cooking gets vastly more use than Martin Yan’s “Yan Can Cook” book, so the former sits on the second shelf, while Martin’s signed copy sits two rows down.  Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso’s “The New Basics,” which I consider to be among the true bibles of modern cooking, sits on the top shelf, while their subsequent releases sit a row below.  They’re all good, but New Basics has probably gotten more use than any other single volume in my bookcase over the 21 years I’ve owned it.  It’s falling apart at the seams, dog-eared, and liberally stained with food splatters.

The bookcase is an oak unit that I originally bought to hold CD’s and DVD’s.   But I outgrew the self many years ago, and the digital media now lives in a totally separate case that’s designed to hold many hundreds of them, upstairs in my office.  The cook book case measures thirty inches wide, six feet tall, features several adjustable shelves, with a medium walnut, lightly lacquered finish.  It provides the perfect storage area for my cook books, and it lives in the corner of the dining room, just outside the entrance to the kitchen. 

And while some books are referenced more than others, they’re all important, or they get packed away or stashed in another bookcase upstairs.  But the best of the best, the “top of the shop” if you will, live on top of the shelves, in a privileged group that I prize above all the rest.  These are the bibles, the legends, the ones that have had a huge impact on the way I (and others) approach the art of cooking.  I can tell you when and how I acquired each one of them. 

I also have a number of oversized "coffee table" cookbooks which live in the living room next to the fireplace.  These include Asia, the Beautiful Cookbook, Italy, the Beautiful Cookbook and one called Luscious Delicious Desserts.  All of these are beautiful to behold, contain some gorgeous photography, and undoubtedly some interesting recipes ... which I never use.  And then there's a book that is an exception to everything else in this article ... Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook.  It lives in the living room, either in front of this group of "oversized" books, or actually on the coffee table.  It's there for inspiration and quick reference, as opposed to a pretty conversation piece.  I absolutely love this cookbook.  And while there's no way that most of us will ever be able to approach Keller's mastery of the art of cooking (quite literally), it's both fun to experiment with a couple of the dishes occasionally, and gratifying when they actually turn out to look and taste like they're supposed to.  I don't have a whole lot of places on my "bucket list," but spending an evening dining at the French Laundry is right up there at the top. 

So then, the top shelf, from left to right … 

Ballymaloe Cooking School Cookbook - Darina Allen
The Ballymaloe Cooking School Cookbook was really a surprise.  It was a gift from my late friend Trudy, who thought I should have it after one of her visits to Ireland.  It's a very special gift from a special friend, but it's so much more;  this is such an interesting and complete cookbook that ranks with the other "bests" in this group. 
This is the cookbook for anyone who’s inspired to cook real Irish food, but it's also an extremely comprehensive book that covers a wide variety of classic international recipes.  You'll find recipes for roasted woodcock and broiled sole, but also dishes such as crab phyllos with Thai dipping sauce and Vietnamese spring rolls with peanut sauce.  She covers all the master sauces and variations, every conceivable meat, fish, or poultry (many of which we don't even have in the U.S.), dozens of desserts, barbecue, appetizers, soups, vegetables, as well as table manners and kitchen safety and cleanliness.  What appears to be an Irish cookbook, turns out to be so much more.  This one ranks with the other "top shelf books" as being truly indispensible.  This book will always be at the top of my cookbook shelf. 

The New Making of a Cook – Madeliene Kamman
The word "comprehensive" keeps recurring in this article, but it totally fits Madeliene Kamman's 1228 page masterpiece that covers virtually everything considered classic cooking: Kitchen tools, picking the right ingredients, wine essentials, classic stocks, sauces, broths, soups, vegetables, grains and pastas, meats, fish, poultry, fruits, sweets and desserts.  There's a 17 page Glossary and a 47 page Index at the back of the book, which should give you a rough idea of the contents.  There's probably nothing you can't find here. 

On Food and Cooking – Harold McGee “The Science and Lore of the Kitchen”
This book was recommended to us by Kathleen Flinn during the "Hungry For Words" writing class in March of 2009 in Seattle.  Amazingly I hadn't been aware of the book prior to the class, as it's certainly one of the many "musts" for any serious chef, and it lives atop my cookbook shelf.  On Food and Cooking covers the nuts and bolts of what we cook; how things are grown or raised, what happens chemically when you cook or prepare them, how ingredients have evolved over the years, and all the related science and chemistry that is part of how we cook.  What comprises a cheese?  Why does the taste of milk vary?  How does muscle become meat?  What's the role of fish scales and skin and how do they affect the end product?  What's the composition of plant and vegetable cells?  What's the chemistry behind spices and herbs?  What's the correct water to product ratio when boiling pasta?  How will your food vary by using different types of metal pots and pans? 

This is a fascinating book, one that's become both a reference and something that's just plain fun to browse now and then, in an effort to understand what can make the practice of cooking more predictable.  It's the first thing I reach for if something I cook yields unexpected results,  or if a bread doesn't rise evenly, or a dessert flops, and I can usually ascertain the answer.  Science and chemistry were never my strong suits, and this is the best companion to have in the kitchen if you're similarly challenged. 

The New Basics - Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins
Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins owned the Silver Palate, a gourmet food shop at the corner of Columbus Avenue and 73rd Street in New York City.  Their first publication, titled the Silver Palate Cookbook, sold 250,000 copies its first year, and ultimately went on to sell 2.5 million copies.  But it’s the second book by the team of Rosso and Lukins that I regard as a true cooking bible … The New Basics Cookbook, which was released in 1989 and is approaching 2 million copies sold.  I received my copy as a wedding gift in August of 1990 from friends Candy and Michael, and it quickly became indispensable to this struggling home chef. 

My copy of New Basics is literally falling apart at the seams.  I have to be careful when I’m thumbing through it, or the sections will drop out of the book, likely falling into a whole new “order” on the kitchen floor.   The most-referenced menus have permanent stains from ingredients that have splattered onto the pages.  The pages with the chocolate mousse recipe have dark brown spots from chocolate that flew out of my Kitchen Aid mixer, likely decades ago.  The Manhattan Style Clam Chowder pages have red spots from the tomato and chicken stock that probably boiled out of my stockpot.  I’ve made both of these recipes so many times that I can of course now do them without referencing the book, but they’re representative of the “shape” that so many pages are in, in this wonderful book. 

The Pie and Pastry Bible - Rose Levy Beranbaum
The Cake Bible - Rose Levy Beranbaum
I was introduced to The Cake Bible in an interesting way.  I was working at a now-defunct company called Molecular Dynamics in the early 90's, and was an aspiring home chef with the misguided impression that all my food was really good.  I could certainly turn out some decent meals for family and friends, but as they say ... "You've come a long way, baby."  But one of the things I did fairly well even then was a pretty good copy of the chocolate mousse recipe from the New Basics cookbook.  I've made this at least a hundred times over the years, and it's one that I can probably do in my sleep.  I vary it a little every time I make it, adding more or less of this and that, serve it over a puff pastry shell, top with whipped cream or a raspberry sauce, spoon a ring of whipped orange sauce around the bottom ... you get the point.  But it's usually pretty good. 

One afternoon I brought a big batch into work at Molecular Dynamics, and served it to a long line of happy employees.  One of my co-workers was a VP named Richard (and I've unfortunately forgotten his last name), who told me the story of his cousin Rose Levy Beranbaum.  He told me of her background in chemistry and that her baking reflected this in both the weight and composition of the ingredients.  While Rose gives the reader cup, teaspoon and tablespoon measurements, she favors weighing ingredients in grams, which she stresses is the only accurate way to approach baking. 

The Cake Bible and Pie and Pastry Bible are amazing.  The content and variety of recipes are enough to keep any amateur or professional pastry chef busy for decades.  The accompanying photography are at once inspiring, challenging, and boggling.  The mere thought of the chocolate cake on the cover of The Cake Bible is enough to make you drool, while trying to figure out how she created the masterpiece.  The Cake Bible is listed by the James Beard Foundation as one of the top 13 baking books on their essential book list.  It doesn't get much better. 

The Silver Spoon Cookbook
The SIlver Spoon Cookbook arrived in the mail out of the blue a few years ago ... a "just because" gift from my friend Angela.  It's one of the most influential cookbooks to come out of Italy.  The initial publication was in 1950, and is considered a "special" wedding gift to young Italian newlyweds to this day.  The recipes are a collection of classics that come from all over Italy, supposedly by some very famous Italian chefs who amazingly go unnamed in the book.  But they're all superb, and a good many of them have appeared on my tables over the years. 

Among the more compelling features of the Silver Spoon is the simplicity of many of the recipes.  These are Italian regional classics passed down through the generations, likely with subtle changes from cook to cook.  The dishes created at the French Laundry or the impressive Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn (Big Sur) are certainly worthy of the "wow" factor in the extreme, but it's also quite gratifying to produce something simple and fulfilling.  An example might be the Rigatoni with Cream, Pesto and Tomatoes, which I've made a dozen times and vary each time I make it.  Very simple recipe, but it offers a world of possibilities ... play with the pesto ingredients, vary the type of tomatoes, swap the rigatoni for penne rigate, or add a half cup of vodka for an interesting twist. 

The Silver Spoon was an overnight success in this house, just as it was in Italy in 1950, and worldwide via many translations since.  Again, indispensible.  Thank you Ang ...

The Way To Cook - Julia Child
My sister Colleen gave me this book for Christmas in 1990.  I'd lived with her for about a year prior to getting married, and shared kitchen duties.  I also had taken over all the cooking in the house after getting married, and had gotten quite interested in getting it right, vs. throwing just anything on the table.  Colleen's inscription inside the front jacket reads "Page 418 please!"  The reference is to a decadent dessert that Julia calls a "Mocha Rum Quick Fix."  Colleen and I share an affinity for rum, and this cake is indeed phenomenal, and just one example of the thousands that reflect Julia Child's well-deserved legend status as a chef and writer. 

Julia's book is always the place I look to for elegant ideas.  Along with the Balleymaloe cookbook (and if I really want to get fancy, the French Laundry) it's the go-to place for classicly prepared, French-inspired food.  If I want the "real" way to do a French Onion Soup, or the best technique for a Beef Bourgignon or her recommendations for a leg of lamb, this is where I'll find it.  If I'm at a loss for the perfect side dish for a fancy dinner, one that my guests may not have every day, I'll borrow her recipe for something like Polenta Galettes instead of potatoes or rice.  Or maybe a Gratin of Grated Zucchini, vs. steamed broccoli.  There's no end to the creative dishes and accompanying techniques in The Way To Cook. 

Like several of the books on the top shelf, this one has gotten a tremdous amount of use in the 20+ years I've owned it.  While I try to avoid splattering anything that's going to cause pages to stick together, there's no denying that there's a significant amount of foods garnishing several dozen pages in the book.  It's a beautiful, fairly large, well-bound volume, so I don't have the problem I have with New Basics where the pages are actually falling out, but it does show some wear, and this should only be considered a compliment to Julia.  This one belongs in every chef's library. 

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry - Kathleen Flinn
I received Kathleen Flinn’s wonderful first book as a gift from my longtime friend Wes, who sent it to me as a thank you for sending him a copy of Neil Peart’s “Roadshow … Landscape With Drums.”  Wes and I share a love of cooking, motorcycles, and traveling, and Neil’s latest effort seemed like a good choice. 

After completing Kathleen's book, I emailed her regarding the circumstances that led to me reading it, citing the "Wes" connection, the "Neil Peart" connection, and so on.  She replied that she and her husband Mike had just been discussing Neil Peart, and that he was an afficionado.  My "pay it forward" move was to send Kathleen and Mike a copy of Neil's book, which was well-received.  We've kept in email contact, and I was lucky enough to spend a couple days in Seattle in 2009 attending her "Hungry For Words" writing seminar. 

Kathleen’s book was nothing short of inspirational, and it really motivated me to write more.  I’d started the LSCooks blog early in 2008, but the 16 entries that year managed to blossom to 45 the following year, after reading “Sharper” and attending Kathleen’s food writing class.  It was also at this class where I met Nancy Brook, another inspiration whose book “Cycling, Wine, and Men” resides two books down from Kathleen’s.

The Kitchen Counter Cookbook - Kathleen Flinn
Kathleen’s second book is the recently released "The Kitchen Counter Cookbook," and I’m currently savoring it, taking my sweet time enjoying it at a leisurely pace.  Kathleen mentioned during the previously mentioned writing class she was sort of a "grocery cart voyeur," and sometimes couldn't help wondering what people were thinking with the types of "food" that they bought.  I told her that after working ten years in grocery stores through college and a few years after, that I had the same affliction, which was only more evident and revealing when you were the one checking their order out at the checkstand.  I've never been thin, and definitely envy people who can eat what they want and not gain any weight.  But it's so abundantly clear that a good number of people are in the condition (and lack of) they're in, due to what they put on the table.  It's so common to see people who are way WAY overweight with a basket full of packaged foods that are artificially conceived and processed every step of the way.  It's tempting sometimes to stop and "coach" them into picking healthier items. 

And this is exactly what Kathleen does in The Kitchen Counter Cookbook.  She selects a group of women and teaches them about cooking healthier, while still staying within their budgets, both time and money wise.  Whether you live alone, with one other person, or in a family environment, she demonstrates that it's just as easy to cook a meal consisting of fresh ingredients as it is to add water and ground beef to a box of something, and calling it dinner.   

This is an important book, and just as Fast Food Nation was such an eye-opener for people who lived on junk food, this one needs to be read, particularly by anyone who has a lack of confidence in their cooking capabilities, or belives that Hamburger Helper is actually food. 

Cycling, Wine, and Men … A Midlife Tour de France - Nancy Brook

I met Nancy at Kathleen's writing class in Seattle and we became fast friends.  Nancy lives in Montana, and at the time I met her was an aspiring writer, as was I (still am!).  Nancy wrote an exceptionally entertaining book, which followed a sort of personal impasse and subsequent epiphany, that led her to train for a daunting and challenging bicycle ride through France.  This is one of my favorite books, as it hits all the right buttons in its execution; fun, funny, interesting, dramatic, challenging, encouraging, and very entertaining.  After reading it (in much the same way I felt after completing Kathleen's first book), I can't wait for her next book.  Highly recommended, and a permanent member of my top shelf. 

The Three Binders (far right)
My collection of recipes 
Nothing more than a loose-leaf binder where I keep the recipes I've developed or borrowed (usually from the Internet ... and yes, chef's look up recipes on the Internet too!).  The binder is broken down into Mains, Sides, Appetizers, Soups, Desserts, and Misc.  Most are obviously self-explanatory, and "Misc" contains things like how to make a Mojito, which doesn't fit into any other category.  I, like most cooks, tend to use recipes as a guideline, utilizing the basic concepts and steps, and most or all of the ingredients, and then adding or subtracting accordingly based on what I know I want the final product to taste like.  If I'm making Emeril's Cream Biscuits, I'll omit his recommended sprinkling of sugar on top if I plan to serve it as an accompaniment to a beef stew on a cold winter night.  And the stew recipe I used may or may not call for the red wine or string beans I knew I wanted in it.  Fine Cooking Magazine's recipe for beef tenderloin calls for a variation on a classic duxelle filling, which I prefer, and that's the way I make it. 

But these are my favorites, I guess.  My go-to group of tried, successful "keepers."  This binder, just like the one to the right of it, both say "CCA" on the spine.  This was originally my California Culinary Academy binder, which I outgrew via my own recipes, and had to move the CCA papers to their own binder. 

Class notes and recipes from my California Culinary Academy classes
I was fortunate enough to attend a couple classes at the California Culinary Academy in downtown San Francisco.  It has subsequently been taken over by Le Cordon Bleu, but it was very good in its own right, when I attended.  My culinary training is limited, and includes these classes, a four hour session with Chef Larry Chu (his restaurant is Chef Chu's, in Los Altos, CA), and a non-hands-on soup class at Sur Le Table in Los Gatos.  That's it.  Other than that, it's cookbooks, and just doing it every night. 

The first was a three-Saturday class on Butchery.  Our instructor was a butcher in Bay Area supermarkets for more than 20 years, prior to taking up teaching at the Academy.  Unlike the chefs in subsequent classes I'd take, he did not want to be called "Chef," but rather "Butcher Bob."  His logic was that he was not a chef, but was a butcher, and his name was Bob.  So be it ... Butcher Bob it was! 

In addition to learn how to butcher a variety of beef, lamb, pork, poultry and fish from "big pieces" to more manageable cuts, we were charged with preparing the proteins for whatever main course they were featuring that night for the CCA diners.  The first week, it was chicken.  We each cut up no less than 20 chickens into every conceivable cut (including a concoction called a turducken, which for this meal, consisted of a game hen, a chicken, a duck, a capon, and a turkey, stuffed inside one another.  No comment ...).  I recall feeling so empowered after spending half of that first Saturday dismembering, de-boning, and de-skinning a couple dozen chickens.  My friend Dave and I decided we'd get a couple whole chickens from Safeway on the way home, and demonstrate our butchery prowess for our wives.  It was then that we discovered the difference in "good" chickens, meaning organically raised and free-range, like we'd spent the day working on ... and the common variety you find at Safeway for two bucks a pound.  Greasy, fatty, unappealing, and the last time I bought one of these.  The same proved to be true in our subsequent weekends, with regard to meat and fish.  Buy good meat and poultry, even if it means eating less of it.  Says I. 

After three weeks of Butchery, we began a six weekend Professional Cooking series.  Our head instructor was Chef Mullen, and he was incredibly inspiring.  He was also the last guy that the fulltime students had to impress (meaning pass your finals) before graduating from the Academy.  And as such, he had total control over the big downstairs kitchen area which was affectionately called the "fishbowl" because of a huge wall of glass that provided entertainment for the evening's dining guests, as the prix fixe meal was presented to them.  Chef Mullen also had the keys to a couple of very private walk-in's, where they kept the "good stuff."  I apparently impressed him with my enthusiasm, because very early in our training he began giving me and my partner the keys with instructions to bring back "a couple bottles of good red wine," or some truffles or foix gras, or maybe a whole salmon or prime rib to cook that day.  We must have been his "chosen ones," because in addition to all the required sauces, soups, sides, entrees and desserts that the whole class was required to prepare, he'd sneak in a few extras each week for us to tackle.  "Why don't you try a Beef Wellington and a poached salmon today, in addition to your other dishes?"  Or, "see if you can do a tarte tatin to share with the class in addition to the souflee's that everyone's making." 

I loved this class, and while it was only six weekends, it provided an excellent foundation to build on.  There's no substitute for professional training for the basic techniques that ultimately lead to advanced preparations.  But although these two classes added immeasurably to my culinary knowledge, it's been the twenty year since of preparing every meal in the house, that's really made the difference.  You gain confidence and new techniques, you experiment with new foods and prep methods, you score some home runs, and you have a few strike-outs along the way. 

Class notes from Kathleen Flinn's writing class
These are my notes from Kat's class along with a wealth of recommendations for books, magazines, training, websites etc., for an aspiring writer.  Such an amazing class, so much information in a mere two days, and a recurring reference that of course has to live where it lives, at the top of my shelf. 

So at least for this home chef, I have to say that my Top Shelf has been nothing short of inspirational over the years, and continues to deliver on a daily basis. 


Lizzy Do said...

I love seeing lists of favorite cookbooks..and now I'm wondering where my copy of The New Making of a Cook has disappeared to! Nice collection!

Bend, OR said...

Yes, cookbooks and knives are most definitely a sickness!

Jen at The Three Little Piglets said...

My shelf is a little more anally organized than that, but you can still tell which books I use the most often! I haven't made it past Ad Hoc at Home yet, but The French Laundry is definitely on my wish list...