Go-to cookbooks

If I have an evening to myself (“if” is the operative word here), ideally I would stay home, pour a glass of wine, and grab a stack of books. Cookbooks, that is.

If I have an evening to myself (“if” is the operative word here), ideally I would stay home, pour a glass of wine, and grab a stack of books. Cookbooks, that is.

Yes, I’m serious. I love to read cookbooks — don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Mine are stored in my kitchen, just above my fridge. The selection has evolved some over the years, but there are some tried-and-true gems on that shelf. Let me tell you about my favorites.

I’m not a Junior League gal, but these volunteering-socially-active women know how to cook. Better yet, they like to show off their skills, and so the JL puts out cookbooks all the time. In fact, since their initial publication in the 1950’s, more than 18 million copies of local Junior League cookbooks have been sold. Most of them are short and sweet, and they’re typically themed. I hit the jackpot in 2001 when my parents gifted me The Junior League Centennial Cookbook. It’s over 750 of the most treasured recipes from 200 Junior Leagues. Their recipes are simple and just good — I use this as my go-to entertaining source and I’ve never made something here I don’t love.

I watch my fair share of Food Network, and of course all of the featured chefs have cookbooks out. It’s hard for me to want a cookbook by just one person, if you want to know the truth, but I’ve tried several of the network’s stars books out. I can recommend two…

Ina Garten’s The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook is one of my favorites. This is Ina’s (that’s right, when she is on my kitchen TV a few times a week, we’re on first name basis) first cookbook, and I’d say her best. Her recipes use familiar ingredients, but always taste surprisingly unfamiliar and stylish. Most of her recipes can also be made ahead of time, which makes it all the better in my world.

Giada (De Laurentiis) has several books out, but her Everyday Pasta is a must-have if you want to ever cook Italian and look like you know what you’re doing. Her recipes are healthy and taste good, ranging from light and delicate to rich and hearty. She’s got all the Italian classics in here, plus seasonal choices, one-dish dinners, and recipes for delicious sauces. Her “basics” section also includes instructions for making fresh pasta, marinara sauce, and flavored oils and vinaigrettes. (Your husband may thank you for the book, too… do all men love to look at this lady, or just mine?)

Have any of you mamas out there tried Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious? I’m pretty lucky that my kids eat healthy stuff, so I don’t really use her book for what it’s meant to be (a sneak-attack method for parents to be sure that their kids have something healthy in their food). I actually cannot even recommend the recipes -– I’ve tried a few, mind you, but can’t necessarily place them in high esteem. However, this book is an awesome resource for ways to introduce healthier eating. It’s given me loads of tips and tools to pull from to add to dishes, and even simplify ones I’m already accustomed to making. It’s taught me some good time management tips so that cooking is simpler when it’s go-time.

The New Best Recipe (from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated) is another cookbook essential. It’s got 1000 recipes and every one of them comes from America’s Test kitchen where each is completed 50 times to evaluate temperatures, mixing methods, technique,s and equipment. This cookbook is uber-comprehensive, which means you don’t just MAKE the best Apple Crisp, it explains how and why the recipe works, helping you become a better, more knowledgeable cook.

So these store-bought options are wonderful, but may I make one more cookbook suggestion? A few years ago, my friend (Hey, Tracie!) gave me a binder with tabs, dividers, and some clear sleeves. She put in a handful of her favorite recipes that I love, and I’ve added to it ever since. I have a tab for Starters, Breakfasts, Poultry, Pasta, Beef, Seafood, Sides, Appetizers, Gluten Free, Dessert, Drinks…you get the idea. Whenever I see something in a magazine, I rip it out and throw it in. When I get a recipe from a friend, I stick that in there, too. I’ve found it’s so much more useful than a box, and I love watching the recipes pile up and the un-uniformity of it all — different pages, styles, sources, handwriting, but my favorites all together in one spot.

Now you tell me: What are your favorite go-to cookbooks or sources for recipes? I’d love to know what is missing above my fridge.

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Kelly Blanchard

Kelly Blanchard loves thinking about, preparing, consuming, and serving good food. Believing that life is to short to eat the same stuff over and over, she loves to test new eats on her friends and family. Kelly loves her coffee-addicted hubbie, her two little blonde-haired babes, all things sweet, black tshirts, and the color pink.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. SarahW on said:

    If you have any vegetarian friends, you should check out the Moosewood Cookbook by Molly Katzen- great recipes for meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters alike!

  2. Kristi on said:

    Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food: Great Food Fast. I’m not a Martha fan, but I got this book as a gift from someone who loves to cook. I love this cookbook! The recipes are simple and everything we’ve tried is good. The book is organized by seasons, so you use in-season foods, which are the freshest and least expensive choice, and food is on the grill in the summer and simmering on the stove in the winter.

  3. kelly on said:

    ooohhh, i love the seasonally organized idea, thanks, kristi!

  4. So this is going to sound ridiculous, but The Complete Book of Baking by Pillsbury, linked as my website. It’s out of print, but inexpensive to find a good used copy. This is my go-to book for pretty much everything in the baked-goods world. I like it better than any of the other baking books I own (many of which are specific to yeast breads, sweets, cookies, etc), and it’s got a huge number of recipes so if you’re looking for something different or old-fashioned (fig pinwheels? refrigerator cookies?), it usually has a great stand-by recipe. I have never been failed by this book. I’m somewhat embarrassed that a Pillsbury book is my favorite baking book (couldn’t I get a little more worldly?), but, well, whatever. It is what it is: great recipes. Read the reviews.

  5. The Cooks Illustrated Grilling book is awesome. It’s my go-to for any and all grilling needs, and because the go into a lot of the “why” it makes for a decent read, too.


  6. BITTMAN. Seriously, how do people live without Bittman? I LOVE Bittman’s philosophy of liberal substitution and mastery of techniques — not recipes.

    You need to buy How To Cook Everything. It’s like a modern day Joy of Cooking, but much more practical. Also, they are selling the iPhone app, which contains ALL of the recipes in the book, for 1.99$.

    Seriously check it out, he’s the best.

  7. I love a good stack of cookbooks, too, and own way too many. The one that I find myself going to the most, though, is the classic: The Joy of Cooking. Sometimes I even see a recipe for a fancy new way of doing something in a different cookbook (say, jambalaya?), and I go check out what it says in The Joy of Cooking just to see how it’s been altered from the original and to decide if I want a more classic approach or something new. It also has great cooking lessons with each sessions–I think it’s a must-own!

  8. OK guys, I have a giant bookcase devoted to my cookbooks, and I love them all like they were my own children. Sometimes children are more useful than others though, you know? Here are my favorites lately:

    Baking/Desserts: Martha’s Baking Handbook, Cook’s Illustrated BAKING ILLUSTRATED, King Arthur Whole Grain, Lebovitz’s Perfect Scoop (if you’re into ice cream), Nigella’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, Berenbaum’s Cake Bible and Bread Bible

    Dinner: BIttman’s How to Cook Everything (and the Vegetarian one too), Martha’s Everyday Food (can’t wait to try the new one), Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Cooking (my current favorite), Bittman’s Kitchen Express, Nigella’s Feast, and the first cookbook I ever got: Linda McCartney’s World of Vegetarian Cooking (RIP Linda!)

    My favorite thing, though, is cooking magazines. Speaking of seasonally oriented, these are like getting a seasonal cookbook in the mail every month, usually for about $12 a year. I carefully save each one, but I rarely go into the backissues (exception: Everyday Food). I love Bon Appetit, Everyday Food, Martha Stewart Living (of course! – marthable.com), but I would LOVE new suggestions. Suggest suggest!

  9. kelly on said:

    great, great, great!
    ross, i downloaded the app, i’ll send the bill to you. seriously, i love cooking apps because i can literally plan a dinner party in the grocery store.
    joy of cooking sits on my shelf, but i just don’t crack it too often. i should, thanks for the encouragement, lydia.
    LOVE the tip for vegetarians… i’m always totally thrown when our meat-free friends come for food. since i already cook gluten free, i’m very hesitant to leave out any thing else major!

  10. kelly on said:

    susan, i find awesome recipes in real simple magazine. just last night i made chicken with creamy spinach and shallots – it had 6 ingredients and was awesome.

  11. Carol on said:

    My husband is in love with Giada and the money shots, um, I mean food shots that include a good amount of cleavage. He watches her show constantly and I don’t think he’s ever made one of her recipes. I think she has a giant head on a tiny body.

    Cooks Illustrated, hands down, has taught us more about being in the kitchen than any other resource. Everyday Food is a staple and usually very easy to prepare. Vegetarians? Please treat them to recipes from the New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook. Hippie-fied goodness! Vegan mac and cheese is awesome for the lactose-intolerant as well.

    Not necessarily a cook book but a book about cooking that is fascinating- “What Einstein Told His Cook.” Check it out.

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