Often it's the little things in life that give us the most pleasure. Like coming home from the bookstore with a stack of new cookbooks. I wonder if you're like me and get an inordinate amount of pleasure from thumbing through a new cookbook. Thinking about this topic, I was struck by the fact that I have been collecting cookbooks since I was twenty years old. Back then I was a college student studying English literature during the week and cooking dinner for friends on the weekend. A pile of Gourmet magazines and an ever growing collection of cookbooks presided over my tiny kitchen.
Sometimes a cookbook is so good that I end up reading it from cover to cover. I believe that many of them are meant to be enjoyed that way. The authors give us more than just a collection of recipes. They give us a slice of life, a philosophy of living that incorporates good food into daily existence. I love reading about serious cooks and how food and the kitchen are at the center of their world. They seem to have found the secret for the good life. Their joy comes from feeding their families and friends. They offer up memoir, advice, and personal anecdotes in the form of essays woven throughout their books. Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are perfect examples of that. I still have her books, as well as others from many years ago -- remember How to Beat Those Cordon Bleus or The Silver Palate Cookbook? Those books had so many good recipes. Don't we all still make Chicken Marbella? These are gems to hang on to. But I also continue to acquire new and exciting cookbooks. Nigel Slater's books have been a recent discovery. The cookbook section at my neighborhood bookstore pulls me in like a magnet. Though I do have a rule: when I bring home new ones, I give away some old ones (or stash them away on a shelf in my pantry if I can't bear to part with them). Here are four treasures I recently brought home that you may want to add to your collection:
This is so much more than a cookbook. Food, art, and love all come together in The Bloomsbury Cookbook by Jans Ondantje Rolls. It seems like it was just a matter of time before someone wrote a food-centered book about the Bloomsbury group. You might think that nothing new could be said about this famous collection of friends -- artists, writers and intellects working between 1904 and 1939 -- whose friendship flourished around the dining tables, tea tables, and garden tables of London and Sussex. And yet this book takes a fascinating and logical vantage point: the cooking and dining lives of the group. It almost makes you wonder why it took so long for someone to write it. These writers and artists were domestic creatures who made homes and gardens for themselves and their friends. Their kitchens were hives of activity, producing meals all day long. They traveled to the south of France and discovered French food, just as they were discovering Post-Impressionist art. They brought home the art and also the recipes. This book captures the cozy domesticity of their lives. Respect for each other's work, friendship, love, and conversation bound them together through the many years. And it all took place over food and wine.
This book is a keeper. Be sure to get yourself a copy -- I promise you will love it. It is filled with art, recipes, quotations, letters, and many Bloomsbury stories. Cressida Bell's charming illustrations decorate the book. She is the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell. Whether you are already a fan of Bloomsbury or just getting to know it, you will be thoroughly entertained. The book is a culinary and social history. All the details add up to a vivid portrait of the group and conjure up the scents, colors, and textures of their social gatherings. There are recipes for Roger Fry's marmalade, Vanessa Bell's famous scones, and Clive Bell's entire dinner that he hosted for Picasso in 1919. You can recreate a breakfast at Monk's House, afternoon tea in the garden at Charleston, or an evening party at Gordon Square. Everything you need is in this book. And there are many funny stories. My favorite -- the button on Clive Bell's ever expanding waistcoat shooting across the room during a society piano recital in 1923. He was obviously eating well. This is one of those cookbooks you will read from cover to cover. I was happy to learn that the author is donating all the money she earns from this book to the Charleston Trust, doing her part to contribute to the preservation of Charleston, home of the Bloomsbury artists.
In My Paris Kitchen David Lebovitz, the American chef from Northern California (he worked at Chez Panisse), tells the story of moving to Paris ten years ago and setting up a kitchen in his new home. He discovered that finding the right sink was the biggest challenge because more than any other feature in his kitchen, the sink was the most important. It is where his mornings began when he made his cafe au lait and his days ended when he washed up the last of the dishes after his guests have gone home. He needed a big wide-open sink which was almost impossible to find. But after locating one and getting the kitchen finished, he settled in to the life of a Parisian cook. This book is part memoir, part guide, and part cookbook. Francophiles will love it since it contains great recipes for classic French dishes, such as Cassoulet and modern twists on old ones, such as Salted Butter Caramel -- Chocolate Mousse. It is also a love letter to Paris with affectionate descriptions of French neighborhoods as well as humorous depictions of the French people he encounters. And if you have a sweet tooth, you will love the dessert section, since David was the pastry chef at Chez Panisse and excels in this department. His Chocolate -- Dulce de Leche Tart will make your mouth water.
In Family Table, Michael Romano and Karen Stabiner share favorite staff meals and stories that have taken place at the collection of New York restaurants owned by Danny Meyer, such as Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and The Modern. The foreword by Danny Meyer tells a fascinating story of his culinary education and first apprenticeship in France where he learned how important the "family meal" was at any restaurant. This is when the staff sit down together for a meal before lunch and dinner is served at the restaurant. Everyone has a chance to cook and it is an opportunity for junior chefs to shine as well as camaraderie to develop. Michael Romano, the culinary director of the restaurants, has chosen his favorite in-house recipes. They look easy and unpretentious, just the kind of food you want to serve at home. Mama Romano's Lasagna and Plum and Apricot Crisp with Almond Cream are two that look delicious.
You have probably heard of Valerie Confections, the popular chocolate candy boutique that is located in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Valerie Gordon is the founder of the company and has recently written a cookbook called Sweet. She has spent a lifetime in the kitchen baking and cooking. She decided to create a cookbook featuring her favorite recipes. Her book includes retro recipes from old Los Angles restaurants such as Coffee Crunch Cake from Blums, Banana Shortcake from Chasen's and Apple Cake from Scandia. There are recipes for everyday cakes, pies and tarts, chocolates and confections, cookies and bars, and jams and marmalade. A friend told me I have to make the Vanilla Bean Cake as it is easy and delicious. Serve it with whipped cream and berries for a fabulous spring dessert.
And finally there is this gem which is not exactly brand new (published in 2012) but is one of the most popular cookbooks today. Jerusalem has to be the "It" cookbook of the last year or so. People will probably be cooking from it for years to come. Have you made the Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Arak? It is one of those classics that is destined to be the Chicken Marbella of its time.