There are cookbooks strewn around my office as if they were confetti. Page corners are turned down, sticky notes grace pages with scribbled writing, torn pieces of paper bookmark pages of recipes that the family liked or did not like. I have Filipino cookbooks I got from the Philippines so I could cook the family meals I grew up with, but many of the recipes require too many ingredients and too much chopping. I have French, Italian, and Asian cookbooks whose pages have barely seen the light of the kitchen. I have plenty of cookbooks that cater to American cuisine, whose recipes didn’t quite turn out, no matter how may times I tried. I don’t think of myself as fantastic cook, but I can read and follow simple directions, and when a recipe comes together to create a satisfying meal for the family, I call that a success.
To clean up my office and actually clear my floor up of clutter, I’ve decided to whittle down my cookbook collection to just the basics (I’m donating the rest to friends in culinary need). Here’s my list of essential cookbooks any kitchen should have:
Chinese Cuisine by Su-Huei Huang
My mom had this book when I was growing up and used it often for daily meals just for us or for large family gatherings. Originally published in the early 80’s, Chinese Cuisine was the first book cookbook to come out of the Wei-Chuan Cooking School in Taiwan. The recipes cover the gamut of the Chinese regions. The recipes are easy to follow and pictures of each dish are big and bright. You know exactly what your dish should look like. There is also an informative section on cooking techniques and important ingredients to have on hand when you’re cooking Chinese food.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
I don’t do a lot of French-based cooking. In fact, it is rare that I want to spend the time to make a cassoulet these days while the kids are running like wild banshees through the house, but my copies of volumes I and II of this book have food splatters, bent pages, and torn pages. It has been used and is a great resource for classic foods. Recipes are easy to follow — don’t be intimidated. Do exactly as the recipe says and you can create an excellent Boeuf Bourguignon. The techniques you learn in this book are techniques you can use, no matter what kind of food it is.
An Invitation to Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey
Jaffrey is not your typical cookbook author; she didn’t aspire to be a chef when she was younger. In fact, Jaffrey was an established actress before the world discovered she could cook. She brought Indian food to the masses. This comprehensive book outlines Indian cooking basics like chutneys, samosas, and tandooris. You’ll learn about the colors and flavors that are intrinsic to Indian foods. You won’t want to leave the kitchen.
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
Thought of as the godmother of Italian cooking in America, Hazan had no experience cooking at all until after she was married. Hazan recalled the dishes her parents and grandmother made and used her own techniques to create classic Italian cuisine. She has won the James Beard and Julia Child awards for her cookbooks. Learn how to make polenta and risotto dishes and how the Italians create unbelievable poultry dishes. Put the can of Chef Boyardee away.
Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer
This was my very first cookbook, and it taught me how to make a good mac and cheese and deviled eggs. Revised nine times since the 1930’s, this cookbook is a must-have. Recipes are not intimidating, and provide easy-to-follow directions. Drawings show you different cooking techniques — you’ll learn how to cut a whole chicken, clean shellfish, and various baking techniques. These are classic recipes that every family will love.
Professional Baking by Wayne Gisslen
My mom was always baking; everything she made was from scratch. She made doughnuts, pies, cakes, croissants, and palmiers. She stuffed us with homemade biscotti and jelly rolls that wouldn’t last more than an hour before they disappeared into our stomachs. As I got older, I realized how much my mom’s baking meant to me and I wanted to provide the same memories for my own children. I’m a decent cook, but when it comes to baking things, it’s a toss up. Then I came across Gisslen’s baking bible (it’s now its in fifth edition) and I became more confident with a mixing bowl and rolling pin. I now understand all the different flours and yeasts. I know what kind of equipment the kitchen needs to make a successful artisan bread — I know what an artisan bread is. I don’t bake often, but when I do, I’m confident that it will come out right every time. I can make a mean pie. My thanks to Mr. Gisslen.