As a certifiable foodie (and by all means self-certified), I have come to realize how important a good cookbook is. And with an enormous wall of books devoted to just that-- to be found in the non-fiction 641s-- then how do you choose just one?
Well, first of all, you don't. I feel like to get a really good balance of awesome food recipes, you have to get a variety. I mean, Paula Deen might know her stuff on Southern cooking (use excesses of fats and cream), but I wouldn't trust her to enliven my tastebuds with traditional Italian cooking. On top of that, I am extremely attracted to some cookbooks are narrow in subject, and therefore, you know exactly what you'll find when you go looking in them.
Like a book all about breads. There are so many different kinds of breads, and most books have little snippets on how to make bread, but if you really want the best kind of bread-- find the best bread book. That's where you find the kind of bread that you set out on the counter to cool, and when you come back an hour later, half of it has been demolished by hands too impatient to even use a proper bread knife (which is serated, btw-- I'm always amazed when people don't know that). Then there are the specialty breads: pannetone, stollen, cinnamon buns, sticky buns, and even the infamous bread sculptures -- such as our world-famous bread elephant. (For the record, the best bread book I've run across is Ultimate Bread by Eric Treuille).
But as far as standard cookbooks go, here are a few of my favorites:
The New Doubleday Cookbook by Jean Anderson and Elaine Hanna
This pretty much has everything you need to know about cooking in it-- how long to cook various cuts of meat per pound, what seasonings go well with different meats, an encyclopedia of herbs, and an insane amount of recipes in general. Pretty much comprehensive, and has great as well as simple recipes.
The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker
A good back-up manual to the Doubleday, just in case.
Betty Crocker's Cookbook by Betty Crocker
Ah, good old Betty Crocker. This is a great book for people just beginning because it's so easy to follow and has awesomely traditional recipes. On top of that, old Betty's got great tips on baking, which is definitely where she comes in handy in my kitchen. An old standard, Betty is not someone to overlook.
Now, I'm a traditionalist when it comes to food sometimes. I don't feel drawn to food simply because it's gourmet, or because it's expensive, or because it's designed to look like it has the crowning headdress of a cockatoo. I'm into the taste, the texture, and the feel. This said, I must say, I'm not a huge fan of Rachel Ray's cookbooks. She means well, she really does, and she's cute as a button. But she has a knack for fancying up a recipe that could be simplified very easily with all kinds of food-stuffs that you won't have unless you only cook by her book (which I'm sure would get pretty tedious after a while). I'm sorry that veal, pancetta, arugula, Italian tuna, saffron powder, piquillo peppers, Swiss green chard, and capocollo hot ham are not regulars in my kitchen. I actually am. These are ingredients directly from her book. Clearly there are some that I make substitutions for if not readily available or out of my meager price range (bacon subs for pancetta, spinach for arugula, etc)-- but for others like piquillo peppers, although I could look them up, it's much more likely that I will skip over that recipe involving them entirely.
As far as a series of books which verge on gourmet, but still have a reality check and also have incredibly mouthwatering pictures (another key factor in specialty cookbooks), I say you can always count on Williams-Sonoma. In fact, I'm pretty sure I don't need another dessert book after Williams-Sonoma's Desserts by Abigail Johnson Dodge. I have been fascinated by just about all of the Williams-Sonoma series books and have yet to be disappointed. They are simply written, with informative side-bars on special ingredients (and their substitutes!) or how to make something incredibly simple but absolutely delicious. My favorite thing that's come out of that dessert is on the cover-- flourless chocolate torte topped with chocolate ganache and raspberry coulis. Mmmmm... and all you needed to hear from that was "smooth chocolately goodness with raspberry topping". Yum!
Then there are magazines-- like Cooking Light and Gourmet and all that. But I think the best by far (and I think many library users would back me up on this one), is Cook's Illustrated. It's just awesome. Their spiel is that they have a test kitchen where some lucky cook gets to test the hell out of a traditional recipe for something, such as say German chocolate cake or meatloaf. They find out everything that could possibly be wrong with it, deduce how to make it the best through scientific methods, and then come out with an awesome product. In the meatloaf article, they actually made 110 meatloaves and used 260 pounds of beef... talk about dedication to perfection. Plus, they explain the whole process in a well-written way. They also have user tips that weren't written by morons, and the writers of this magazine actually take into consideration both the time it takes to make a dish and the availability of the products they are using, which is pretty refereshing. They also rate kitchen supplies, telling you which ones they recommend and which they don't, and take price into account when deciding what the best is for your money. Awesome!... oh and did I mention that they don't have any ads at all?
Also remember, that most cookbooks are just guidelines and can help you think about what you might want to make, but tweaking a recipe is what makes it unique to your own tastes. However, in baking, this is a horrible horrible idea. Don't do it in baking unless making very minor changes, because that seems to make a huge difference in the chemistry of baking.
My best advice, however, is: get yourself a 3-ring binder and copy recipes like a madman/woman. Write down your favorites that you use all the time, and record the changes you make so you can make it again the same way if it was good. Make sure that you've tabbed it so things are easy to find. I call mine the Tried-and-True cookbook. I save up recipes to try, and put them in a separate folder. Then once I've tried them, they get put into THE PAGES. If I'm good enough and if the end result is pretty enough, I sometimes take my own picture as a sort of trophy. Since I scimp on ink though, this tends to lead to a build-up of pictures on my computer that don't get printed out and put in the pages. But maybe when I'm a rich and famous librarian I will have the means to do that... haha.
Til then, bon apetit!
Also-- minor note: Mad Pie Day is officially March 6th this year (it occurs on the first Saturday of March every year since 2008). Go eat pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Quiches, fruit pies, chicken pot pies, and then get creative! This year I think I'm going to try the asparagus-parmesan quiche. There will probably be coverage of this event in the aftermath, so I'll keep you posted. In 2008, we had about 15 people throughout the day, and 12 pies. 2009 showed growth with 19 people and 18 pies. This year it's expected to grow beyond the bounds of our own house. It's up to you, dear citizens, to take this Mad Pie Day and embrace it with all your might. Invite all your friends, make each party bring a pie, and let the madness begin!