Jul 212010

I love cookbooks. All the ideas and yummy food, just waiting inside those pages! You can never have too many, though I should confess I often turn to the Internet first. Sometimes I’m so lazy I’ll search on the Internet for the cookbook recipe, so I can work from the printout and not juggle a book in the kitchen. But there are a few cookbooks that are my go-to resources, and I thought I’d share them with you. These are in no particular order, as my favorite would depend on what I’m in the mood to eat!

Authentic Mexican by Rick Bayless

Authentic Mexican by Rick BaylessI only got this book this past Christmas, and I already love it! I had a Mexican game night in January, and cooked 7 recipes from this book to rave reviews. Well, there was one bomb (the sauce from the Red-Chile Enchiladas) but I chalk that up to user error since I’ve never worked with many of these dried peppers before. One guest that night said, “Stephanie, you’ve cooked a lot of amazing things, but that isn’t one of them.” You should have seen our faces as all eight of us tried it and decided to dump it. It was good for a laugh, if nothing else. But the quick-cooked tomatillo-chile sauce, the quick-cooked tomato-chile sauce, the brothy beans, and the northern-style shredded chicken and tomatoes were delicious. And the tomato colored rice? Absolutely fantastic. I’m made it several times since then and people keep asking for the recipe. If it was online, I’d link to it, but I haven’t been able to find it. So all I can tell you is buy the book!

One thing I wish this book had is more pictures. I love cookbooks that have a picture of every recipe. This one don’t, not by a long shot. It has one 8 page color insert out of 300 pages. But it’s practically a Mexican encyclopedia, so I’ll live without photos. It does have some sketches, similar to what Cook’s Illustrated includes in their magazines. And lots of information about ingredients and tools in the Mexican kitchen.

One great thing this book has is Cook’s Notes for every recipe, including preparation time, how to make or prep in advance, and how long it keeps afterward. I was able to prep most of that Mexican night ahead of time, even though I did so many dishes, because of his instructions. And the chicken just got better overnight. The notes also include variations for many of the dishes, practically expanding the already enormous number of recipes in the collection (the chicken was originally a beef recipe).

A word of caution though. I don’t have a gas range, so I blackened the ancho peppers using my broiler. A liiittle smoky. And heating dried chiles in a skillet? Make sure you have good ventilation!

King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion

King Arthur Flour Baking CompanionI love King Arthur Flour. Both their products and their cookbooks, which is why there are two on this list.  I trust the people who make flour to know how to bake.  Peach scones, oatmeal pancakes, no-knead deep dish pizza, chewy chocolate chip cookies, breads, brownies, pies – if you bake it, there’s a recipe for it. A great recipe, with detailed instructions. They also have lots of tips sprinkled throughout the book, such as why some cookies spread more than others while baking. And an appendix of ingredients with explanations of different types of flour, sugar, extracts, as well as how to best use them in baking (room temperature eggs vs. cold eggs, for example).

Again, only an 8 page color insert, but they do include multiple recipes in each picture. For those of you watching your figure, each recipe includes nutritional info. As I weigh instead of measure when possible, I love that most ingredients in the recipes include both volume and weight. (The Peanut Butter Crisscrosses come together in a flash! All you measure is the vanilla, baking soda, and salt. No peanut-buttery measuring cups to clean!) And page xiv has me pulling the book out even when I’m not cooking from it – they have 3 pages of common baking ingredients and their weights. I use that guide to convert recipes from other sources to weight measurements. If you love to bake or want to learn to bake, it’s a perfect encyclopedia.

King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion

King Arthur Flour Cooki CompanionHow do you like your chocolate chip cookie? Chewy? Tender? Whatever your cookie preference, this book has a recipe for you. Crisp, soft, chewy, crunchy, bar, drop, rolled, refrigerator, even “faux-reos” (though I can’t vouch for that recipe, never tried it).  I’ve made dozens of recipes from this book and as near as I can recall they’re all fantastic. (Maybe one didn’t work, because surely they weren’t all perfect, but I don’t know which one that would be.) This is my first stop when I want dessert for company. Who doesn’t love cookies? I especially like the key lime bars in a coconut crust, the build a bars (like the Eagle brand Magic Bars), the bakery date squares (with raspberry jam) – I actually have calculations on a post-it on that page of the book to make a 9×13 pan of squares instead of a 9×9 because they’re so yummy!

Here’s a tip for you. Want to have cookies ready in a flash whenever company comes? Mix them up, scoop them onto a cookie sheet, and freeze into firm. Plop them in a plastic bag, and keep them in the freezer for up to a month or two. Bake as directed straight from the freezer, adding a minute or two to the total time. I’ve even rolled and cut out cookies, frozen the shapes, and baked those. Talk about a time-saver, and great for the holidays!

The Cake Mix Doctor and The Cake Mix Doctor Returns

The Cake Mix DoctorYes, I know these are actually two books, but the second book improves on some of the recipes of the first, so it’s really like a new edition with extra recipes. The Cake Mix Doctor ReturnsWhile I love to bake from scratch and don’t buy a lot of processed food, sometimes I just want a shortcut, and these recipes fit the bill. And all of them start with a cake mix. My favs include white sour cream cupcakes, darn good chocolate cake, apricot nectar cake, fresh strawberry cake, ooey gooey butter cake (though it’s a bit sweet for me), cinnamon breakfast cake, stop me now before I eat the computer! The best thing is, most of these recipes are dump and mix. No creaming butter and sugar, adding eggs one at a time, alternating wet and dry ingredients, etc.

Both books actually have pictures of every single recipe, but they’re thumbnails at the beginning of the book. You get an idea of the final product, but I wish the pics were bigger. And a few recipes do still have that processed cake taste – generally ones that don’t have special additions like sour cream, buttermilk, cream cheese, etc. But by and large, you’d never guess it’s from a mix!

Cooking Light Five Star Recipes

Cooking Light Five Star RecipesOkay, if I had to pick a favorite, this would probably be it. This was my first real cookbook after I graduated college. And too many years than I want to count later, I’m still making Fettuccine Alfredo and Chicago deep dish pizza (and more) from this book. It’s out of print in this format on Amazon, but you can find most of the recipes on Myrecipes.com (I recommend you visit using Firefox with Adblock enabled to block out the ads and popups).  You can also buy it used on Amazon, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to part with it! I have made a larger percentage of recipes in this book than any other cookbook I own, and have more all star, go-to recipes from this than any other book.

One caveat, though. Cooking Light created these recipes back when fats like butter were thought to be absolute no-nos, before we found out about trans fats and they adopted the idea of moderation. So, for instance, the Alfredo recipe linked above calls for margarine. If they revisited it, I know they’d change the recipe to butter, and that’s what I use. And I don’t always use the lowest fat option (skim instead of 2%) based on what I have in the house, but the final product always taste great.

There are some great entertaining recipes in here, too. I make the Tex-Mex Black Bean Dip for my Christmas Party every year. (Make it the night before and keep it warm in one of those small slow cookers!) OMG, the Seven Layer Tortilla Pie! Great vegetarian meal! The Tomato-Basil Risotto? I wish my husband liked tomatoes so I could make that more often. It was the first risotto I ever made. It’s not on their site for some reason, so I can’t link to it, but it’s a great side dish. Guess you’ll have to buy the book! I’m flipping through the book to highlight recipes and it’s like flipping through memories.

If you don’t think lighter food can taste good, try that Alfredo recipe. Let me know what you think. You can make the sauce in the time it takes to boil the pasta, and you’d swear you were eating takeout from your favorite Italian place.

The Visual Food Encyclopedia

The Visual Food EncyclopediaNo, it’s not really a cookbook, but The Visual Food Encyclopedia is indispensable to me in the kitchen just the same. Ever bought a fresh lychee? Red currants? Jicama? How do you choose a good tomato? How do you store sweet potatoes? Can I revive wilted celery? This book has exhaustive information for just about everything that’s edible. Weighing in at almost 700 pages (and tiny type), the encyclopedia lists nutrition info, buying, preparing, serving and storing ideas, as well as the occasional recipe. No recipe pictures, but every food has one or more full color illustrations. For celery, they show the stalks, seeds, even the flowers. There are step-by-step photos for preparing crab or breaking open a lobster. I’ve wished I had it on hand at the grocery store once or twice, when they’ve had a new produce item and I didn’t know if I’d like it or how to select a good specimen. (But it must weigh 10 pounds, so not practical to take with me.)

There’s even a whole section on seaweed! Did you know kombu is a traditional remedy for high blood pressure? Add it to vegetables and the vegetables cook faster. I did not know that until I just read it here. See what you can learn?

I’m especially pleased with myself that I owned this book prior to seeing it behind Alton Brown on the Food Network show “Good Eats”. It’s part of a stack of cookbooks and resources you can sometimes see in his kitchen. If AB approves, how can I not?

Oh, one note. Don’t try to flip through and find what you’re looking for. They’re not arranged alphabetically, but botanically or by class or whatever you call it. Stone fleshy fruits, tropical fruits, berries, melons, etc., and they’re not even alphabetical within those groups. Just use the index. Much faster.

So these are a few of the cookbooks that I love. What do you think? Do you own any of these? What are some of your favorites? Leave a comment and let me know!