When I have a specific ingredient and I need ideas for what to do with it *now*, there are websites and apps that deliver. But I read cookbooks, magazines and blogs for inspiration and philosophy (for the list of blogs I read, see my blogroll). These cookbooks are my current favorites and old standbys, in no particular order. They reflect my, and my family’s, tastes, habits and obsessions. Your mileage may vary.
The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters
I own other books by Waters (including Chez Panisse Vegetables). But ever since I got The Art of Simple Food, I’ve been turning to it when I have a main ingredient and I need a simple way to prepare it. Her chapters on technique are helpful even if you know what you’re doing. Simple doesn’t necessarily mean fast, however. Some of the best recipes here require advance prep (such as marinades) or long cooking times (such as braised meats or soup). Good for the weekend.
The Minimalist Cooks Dinner, by Mark Bittman
This is the first collection by Bittman that I owned (a gift from my mother-in-law when my kids were babies), and it’s often saved my sanity. Most of the recipes take 45 minutes or less. For a while, my daughter wouldn’t look at a piece of fish unless it was prepared using one of the recipes in this book. I’ve memorized his pizza dough recipe, which I use regularly for both pizza and calzones. I rely, also, on Bittman’s Leafy Greens, especially for side dishes. I recently bought my first copy of How to Cook Everything, which is also a great reference.
Moosewood Collective series
When I started cooking for myself during college, I ate vegetarian, in part because I thought the diet was healthier, and in part because I couldn’t afford meat, anyway. The Moosewood Cookbook, by Mollie Katzen, was popular. I still make her banana bread and lasagna. Some of our favorite stews come from the later Moosewood Restaurant books by the collective that owns the Ithaca, NY restaurant.
The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, by Marion Cunningham
When I was growing up in the 1970s, moms (because home cooks were mainly moms) were devotees either of Fannie Farmer or the Joy of Cooking. Mine used Farmer, and often—the lasting image I have of her book is with pages loose and the cover falling off. I refer to it now when I’m looking for a relatively traditional recipe. When I despaired at finding a premade strawberry sundae topping that wasn’t primarily corn syrup, I adapted Cunningham’s recipe for Melba Sauce. Her edition has good glossaries of kitchen tools and cooking techniques, as well as descriptions of common ingredients and how to handle them (like a list of beef cuts you’ll find in the supermarket, and the best cooking techniques for them). Skip the “Microwave Cooking” chapter, though. Nothing cooked in a microwave tastes any good. Not even popcorn, really.
Simply Ming One Pot Meals, by Ming Tsai
I “borrowed” this book from my mother when I was planning an Asian-themed dinner party. Give me enough time, and I’ll probably try everything here. Especially now that I have a huge jar of black bean paste to use up.
Made in Spain, by Jose Andres
I have been a fan of food from Spain since I tried tapas in high school Spanish class. I stayed on the email list for Andres’ Jaleo restaurant for years after I moved away from Washington, D.C. There’s more than tapas in this book, of course. We’re fond of his recipe for an open faced omelette with white beans and green onions.
Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Jerusalem, by Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
As the child of an Israeli and a New Yorker with a lot of Greek friends, I grew up eating eggplant, lamb and pomegranate. So buying Jerusalem when it came out in 2012 was a no-brainer. I bought Plenty because it has some great recipes for vegetables such as squash that I’d like to get my kids to eat. The squash project seems a lost cause, but there are still a lot of dishes in this book that I want to try. The photography, meanwhile, is inspiring.