Four Cookbooks Worth the Shelf Space

Lately, I have been perusing some fascinating cookbooks. Cookbooks are just about my favorite kind of books to read during this time in my life when free time is scarce, and my brain often scattered-feeling. Other than the half-hour or hour before I go to bed when I sometimes read more serious books, cookbooks are what I read in the little snatches of time that I have during the day. They are practical for me, giving me ideas for the never-ending quest to answer the question, “What’s for Dinner?” and I don’t have to follow a narrative thread, which can be frustrating when one’s thoughts are interrupted every other minute.

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Right now, the ones capturing my attention are these.

As of now, I have only made one recipe from each of these books, but each of those recipes have been wonderful, good enough to make again. And again. And again. I think this is pretty rare, and while I would not necessarily purchase a cookbook based on just one recipe, I think all of these books have enough recipes that are screaming at me to make them immediately that I am willing to make bookshelf space for them.

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Rustic Italian Food has some wonderful recipes for homemade pastas and other Italian classics, but it also has chapters on yeast breads and charcuterie. I made the recipe for Focaccia, and it was some of the best I have ever had.

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We just could not stop eating this bread. I had to wrap it up and hide it in the freezer so that we wouldn’t all go into a bread coma. Yesterday, we had sandwiches with it and they were delicious. The bread is moist and spongy on the inside and crispy on the outside. I am already eying some of the other bread recipes to make, not to mention the recipe for lamb mortadella. I must research how to get a beef bung.

I have so many America’s Test Kitchen Cookbooks, that it is difficult for me to buy any new ones these days since they seem to be recycling so many of their recipes. This DIY cookbook, though, is a little different. Here are recipes for making your own cheese, beer, candy, gravlax, and tofu. This is all stuff we normally just go to the store and buy. Why would you want to spend 20 hours (12-18 of those are just soaking the beans) making your own tofu when you could just go to the store and buy a box for a couple dollars?

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I asked myself this very question on Saturday as my younger son and I stood and stirred soymilk for half an hour on the stove.

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Then, I asked it again when I had to squeeze out boiling hot milk from a cheesecloth bag. The husband had to come and rescue me from this job since I have just about the weakest hands of anyone I know.

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Lastly, I asked it again when the curds did not separate after the first 20 minutes and I had to boil it all again to add more nigari. But, when I lifted the lid the second time and saw that soft tofu, I asked no longer.

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I knew when I gave my kids a taste of fresh tofu floating in a little pool of ginger sugar syrup that all the work was worth it. For this recipe, I was initially just intrigued by the idea of making my own tofu, but on the way, I discovered a flavor I had forgotten from my childhood. It surprised me and gratified me at the same time. I love the surprises that come in cooking…well, the good ones, anyway, haha.

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We had half of the tofu in ramen and the other half I cooked with some ground pork, soy sauce, preserved mustard greens, and garlic. The boys all loved the tofu. It was a different texture than store-bought tofu; fluffy and soft, yet coarser at the same time. Next time I make it, I will have to double the recipe or something because it was a lot of work for just a little product and everyone loved it so much that it was gone before we knew it. I just have to find time to make it again.

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Sometimes, my motivation for cooking or trying new recipes is a pursuit of a flavor or dish that is in my memory. This pursuit led me to buy this book almost as soon as I heard about it.

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Not only does it bring back really vivid memories of sunny Saturdays wandering around the streets of old Jerusalem with a friend and a camera, it also brings back memories of new flavors; breads the size of my head and covered with toasty sesame seeds, schwarmas with all sorts of crunchy veggies and spices, fresh mint tea, hummus as smooth as silk, and sweet, buttery desserts.

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The recipe for fattoush has all the flavors that remind me of Israel. Mint, parsley, lemon, garlic, sumac, yogurt, and cucumbers all combine to create a lovely, crunchy, flavor packed salad. We all decided that the bread was unnecessary. We’d all prefer to have the bread on the side as opposed to in the salad. Next, on my list of things to make from this book is the recipe for stuffed quinces, only I probably won’t stuff them.

Vietnamese Home Cooking is the first Vietnamese cookbook that I have seen that seems truly authentic to me, not that I have ever lived or even visited the country. The book has a fabulous glossary complete with photos for all of the non-western ingredients called for in the book. I find this immensely helpful for shopping purposes.

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The recipe I decided to make first from this book was the one for Shaking Beef. It was a risky one, using the very expensive beef tenderloin cut, but super fast to cook. Aside from marinating the beef in the early afternoon, this dish took all of 20 minutes to prep and cook. Of course, we all loved it, even my youngest who normally dislikes beef. For him, it was probably the tenderness of the cut that won him over. For the rest of us, we loved just about everything in the dish, even the bed of baby kale that was underneath the beef. It wilted slightly from the heat of the dish, but remained nicely crunchy, and, since it was bathed in the sauce, it was packed with flavor. There was a little too much sauce, so I would probably cut that in half next time, but otherwise, I am thinking of ways to get beef tenderloin on the cheap so that I can make this dish more often.

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Today, because half of us have little colds and the other half of us have been fighting off a mild tummy bug, I am making the chicken broth from this book, with the intention of having Vietnamese chicken noodle soup for dinner. Doesn’t that sound restorative?

I know I could have broken this post up into four different posts, but I thought this survey would be more fun. With these four cookbooks, I could be happily cooking and trying new recipes for awhile. 2013 is shaping up to be a delicious year.

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Posted on January 16, 2013, in Baking, Books, Cooking, Inspiration and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. That focaccia looks amazing! Can you post the recipe?

  2. We have the Rustic Italian Food cookbook at the store and it has kind of been calling my name for awhile – good to know it’s worth it!

  3. I’ll have to get the Italian one because that foccacia looks amazing!

  4. That focaccia really does look perfect!

  5. Ditto on that focaccia- as much ad I bake bread; I have yet to make that- your results are beautiful!

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