I love Edith Wharton’s novels, Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, Picasso’s cubist period and I la-la-LOVE a good cookbook!  In fact, I feel the same way about cookbooks as some people feel about shoes:

  1. There is no such thing as “too many”
  2. Some are for special occasions, some are for everyday
  3. Just because it’s good for 1 or 2 outfits (or, in this case, dishes) doesn’t mean it’s any less loved or worthwhile
  4. When you find a pair you love, buy a second in another color – or, when it comes to cookbooks, if you find a writer you like, check out his/her other offerings
  5. Fanch-schmancy trends will come and go (I’m looking at you, sundried tomatoes), but you can never go wrong with the basics

The cookbooks I turn to most often for our workday dinners are the ones that take you beyond the basics, but still have you sitting down to dinner in under an hour.  I know … you’re probably thinking “under an HOUR??!! Are you on crack???!!!”  But, think about it – even if you cook oven fries, that’s still going to take you about a half hour to 40 minutes, so what’s a few more minutes if it means  you’re cooking with fresh food!  And if you also turn out something that’s creative, healthy and, most importantly, TASTY, a few extra minutes is more than worth the effort!

So.  Having said all that, here is a list of my favorite everyday cookbooks (okay, there’s one that isn’t, but I still love it) and the reasons why I go back to them time and again.  You might want to add them to your Christmas / birthday / Festivus wish list or buy them for a foodie friend!

1)  Nigel Slater, Real Food – I’ve only discovered Nigel Slater within the last year after chancing upon his “Simple Suppers” series on the BBC and being blown away by the simplicity of his dishes, his emphasis on seasonality, texture and color and the way he layers his flavors.  Real Food is broken down into 8 chapters based on key ingredients such as “Garlic”, “Chicken” or “Sausage”, and includes recipes for soups and salads as well as lovely roasted main courses.  This book takes pride of place and says on my kitchen counter full-time as I usually cook at least one dish out of it – or take inspiration from it – every week.

2)  Dorie Greenspan, Baking: From My Home to Yours – When I find myself with an unplanned-for opportunity to bake, such as an impromptu barbecue at a neighbor’s, and I want to make something nice, I turn to Dorie.  When I have a special occasion coming up and want to make a jaw-dropping cake, I turn to Dorie.  When I want to make a no-obligation weekend special by making some tea and scones, I turn to Dorie.  I have a number of good dessert cookbooks, but “Baking” is the one-stop-shop for everything from muffins to breads to cakes to cookies.  The recipes are fantastic and she gives some great tips for bakers of all skill-levels. 

2.5)  As you know, I’ve also been cooking out of her new book, “Around My French Table” – so far, I give it good marks, but maybe not great.  When the recipes are good, they’re outstanding.  But, I’ll be honest, I’ve also cooked a couple of dishes that have earned a resounding “meh”.   So, I guess I’m saying that this might be one of those “good for a handful of recipes” cookbooks.

3)  Jamie Oliver, “Jamie’s Dinners” – Jamie.  Jamie.  Jamie.  You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting Jamie doing something – promoting healthy eating, being a Sainsbury’s spokesperson, opening a new restaurant, or flacking his new cookbook via a cooking series.  But, fish gotta swim, bird gotta fly – Jamie’s doing what Jamie does.  I found this book via his website after I downloaded a few recipes and realized that they all came from the same place.  Much like Nigel’s book, this is all about simple dishes done well and I found that nearly every recipe appealed and sounded like something that could be made during the work week.

4)  Anthony Bourdain’s “Les Halles Cookbook” –  Okay, having read all his books and having watched nearly every episode of “No Reservations”, I think I can say with absolute certainty that Tony would NOT be happy being included in the same list with Jamie Oliver.  But, what can I say, I love me some Anthony Bourdain – I love his writing, his cynical take on the celebrity-chef industry, and his loathing of Rachel Ray (you had me at “hello”, Tony!).  But, most of all, I love his philosophy about food – that life is to be enjoyed with all of the senses, taste being a key one of them.  If you’re looking for a good primer on French bistro cooking, this is it.  As much as I love Julia (and who doesn’t?), Tony’s straight-forward writing about preparing bistro classics is not only educational, it’s entertaining, as well.  Plus he gives great tips about how to stock your kitchen without breaking the bank.

5)  Claudia Roden, “Arabesque” – There is something about North African / Middle Eastern / Turkish food that I absolutely love – their use of lemons and spices make you practically feel the desert sun and the warm wind off the Atlas mountains.  “Arabesque” features the best dishes from Turkey, Lebanon and Morocco from light starters to richer mezze dishes to mains that will make you swoon.  The best thing is that there are plenty of dishes that can be made on a weeknight – no laborious prep time or marinating time required.  And just flipping through the book and looking at the pictures make me want to pack my bags and take the next plane to Marrakkech!

6)  Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, “River Cottage Everyday” – I’ll be honest – I think the name of the book is a little misleading because the first time I flipped through and saw the cook time for some of these dishes, all I could think was “yeah, right!  it’s ‘everyday’ for people who don’t have a job!”  But, then, I got stuck in and actually started cooking from it and was blown away by how absolutely mouth-wateringly good the dishes are.  And there’s something in here for everyone – vegetarians, bakers, meat lovers who want to go beyond the everyday cuts, and fish lovers.  So, while it might be more of an “every weekend” book rather than an every day book, you can’t beat the recipes inside and the joy that comes through in his writing.

7)  Martha Stewart, “Cupcakes” and “Cookies” – okay, so these may not be your everyday dinner books, but they are definitely your everyday “I need to make something for my kid’s school / scout troop / birthday party” books.  They are full to the brim with beautiful creations ranging from the traditional to the exotic and, as with all Martha books, are written in such a way that, if you don’t know one end of a spatula from the other, you can still make gorgeous and delicious treats!

Honorable mentions:

Alton Brown’s “I’m Just Here for More Food” has good baking recipes, but the raison d’etre for the book is technique, technique, technique.  And, frankly, no one makes understanding the science behind cooking and baking more accessible and entertaining than Alton.  And, hey!  He’s from my hometown, so you know he’s gotta be great!  Seriously, though, if you want to get into baking or know someone who does, I highly recommend Alton’s book!

Nigella Lawson’s “Forever Summer” and “Christmas” – even though she’s at risk of becoming a characature of herself with her groans of excitement and lascivious spoon licking, Nigella can still rock the cookbook.  Inspirational, versatile and reliable.  You can’t ask for more than that.  I only just got her new book, “Kitchen”, so I can’t really offer an opinion on it, yet.

I hope this helps you as you start making your list (and checking it twice!) – because, speaking as a cookbook addict whose drug of choice is taking over the house like tribbles, there is nothing like the luxury of having a library to thumb through for inspiration.  After all, you never know where you’re going to find the perfect slaw recipe!  or the be-all-end-all brownie recipe!  or a new way to braise pork shoulder … or … or … or …

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