March 04, 2013

The Essential Starter Kitchen Library

Myrna asked me (months ago) to pull together a list of cookbooks for her registry, and I completely forgot until yesterday afternoon. So here's my list of essential cookbooks for the married couple.

I'm in two camps about a starter library of cookbooks. First you need practical ones -- even encyclopedic ones -- that will answer your questions about how to roast a beef brisket, how to make pop-overs and what are the essential variation of Risotto. Secondly you need ones that inspire: whether its the clean simplicity of Donna Hay's weeknight dinners, or the over-the-top decadence of a Nigella Lawson feast, these are the books you turn to when you are in a rut, or feeling adventurous, or just want to change things up a bit.

All of these books, though, hopefully help establish the culture of food in your home -- nourish and sustain you!

Canal House Cooks Every Day // Hamilton + Hirsheimer // Simple, elegant, and seasonal recipes with beautiful photography and inspiring prose. This is my new everyday cookbook. And it's beautiful to boot.

Feast: Food to Celebrate Life // Nigella Lawson // I have bought this for so many brides. I love Nigella because she thinks that life should be celebrated, and food is an essential element in celebrations. She covers every major holiday, has a whole sections dedicated to chocolate cake, but my favorite chapter, by far, is her list of "midnight feasts."

Dinner: A Love Story // Jenny Rosenstrach // Because someday you guys will have a family. Jenny Rosenstrach is like that down-to-earth mom about whom you think: "When I have kids, I was to learn all her secrets." These mom's are typically shocked that you want to learn their secrets, too, which is art of their charm. Also, the title really says it all.

The Breakfast Book // Marion Cunningham // 20 years from now, your daughter will be in college, and one Sunday morning she'll be sitting in the cafeteria, eating pancakes, and telling about how you used to make the perfect pancakes on Sunday mornings after church. Some dashing young fellow will be listening, and will be so charmed by story that he'll fall madly in love with her on the spot, and, 3 years later, marry her and start having kids and making Sunday morning pancakes himself. And do you know what pancakes will be the cause of so much familial bliss? Marion Cunningham's pancakes. This book is an entire lifetime of family traditions just waiting to be adopted.

The Essentials of Italian Cooking // Marcella Hazan // Like having an Italian grandmother. Like becoming an Italian grandmother. (By the way: Mom passed on this cookbook to me. It opens right to Veal Scallopini, which is probably the only recipe from it that we ever made as a family. But guys, this recipe is so good that you might as well own the cookbook just for it.)  Clearly, Julia Child and her perfect hollandaise sauce should be considered for the same reasons.

Off the Shelf and New Food Fast // Donna Hay // For weeknights. New Food Fast organizes recipes based on how long it takes to cook them. (I've opened it to a typical "20 Minute" page.) Off the Shelf has recipes based on key pantry ingredients (and talks a lot about building a good pantry, which I love). Hay is from Australia, so she has more asian inspired recipes too, than your average American every-day cookbook.

Timing is Everything // Jack Piccolo // This is the single most useful cookbook (if you can even call it that) that I've ever owned. My mom's best friend gave it to me as a graduation present, and during those first few years of cooking on my own, I looked at it every day. Organized in a graph by food type (Grains, Fish, Shellfish, Poultry, Pork, Beef, Other Meats, Vegetables etc.) and then by minor categories (whole chicken, chicken parts, Boneless Skinless Chicken breast, etc.), and then by cooking type (roasting, braising, poaching, grilling, broiling), and he tells you approximately how long it takes to cook something. I know that probably sounds silly to a lot of you seasoned cooks out there, but my goodness it's a useful book. I knew how to broil a steak, I just didn't know how long per side. Seriously: buy this book, and then build a special shelf for it right over your stove.

And two more that I don't actually own, but I wish I did:

The Complete Meat Cookbook // Bruce Adellis // Adellis is the master of meat. Any question you might have about any kind of readily available meat here in America, he answers it.

Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London's Ottolenghi // Yotam Ottolenghi // Myrna was just talking about how she wasn't more exciting vegetable recipes. Ottolenghi can make even the most determined vegetable hater sing with joy over his gorgeous, flavorful recipes.

So a question for you guys: What are your picks? And also, because you know I am not a baker: what baking cookbooks would you recommend?
For other cookbook related posts, click here.


  1. Ooo! I'll have to get some of these. My essentials:

    - Food to Live By (from the Earthbound Farm people)--great scones, breakfast food, etc.
    - Great Food Fast - just like it says
    - Fannie Farmer Baking Book

  2. If it's for a couple getting married, I highly recommend Spicing Up Married Life by Fr. Leo Patalinghug. Each chapter has meditations on different stages of married life, from meeting to old age/death, a special prayer, discussion points, and a delicious, complete menu for the couple to cook together. Martin and I got to be recipe testers for it (and the food is amazing!) and have been *trying* to use our copy once a month to go through each chapter, cooking together and discussing together. So far the only times we've been disappointed with a recipe have been when we've altered it *too* much (i.e. trying to make a recipe with the focal point of butternut squash, without butternut squash because Martin doesn't like it), but otherwise the recipes have been fairly easy to make together but absolutely delicious.

  3. Thank you for this list, Maggie! Our wishlist on Amazon is about to grow. ;) I wish I was more versed in cookbooks to recommend, but I'm going to throw out my favorite mag for everyday cooking. That is Cooking Light. I have yet to whip up a Cooking Light recipe that I did not like. And it's inspiring to receive a fresh batch of recipes – with great photos! – every month. That's my recommendation!

  4. Erik Keilholtz12:19 PM

    Essential cookbooks: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol. 1 and 2 by Julia Child, et al., Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli, Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells, The New International Cookbook (Betty Crocker, can't remember the author, but it is surprisingly good, even essential).

    Baking: The Family Baker (can't remember the author), Baking with Julia (Julia Childs, et al.).

  5. Ooh, I LOVE Nigella Lawson's "Feast". Since you're looking for baking recommendations, her "How to Be a Domestic Goddess" is also excellent, as is anything by America's Test Kitchen - I love how they explain what does and doesn't work, and why.
    As for the Marcella Hazan recommendation, I've bought that cookbook for a friend who was getting married, but not for myself - yet. I found out about her delicious recipes through my sister-in-law, who is the most amazing cook. FYI (in case you haven't tried it yet), Marcella Hazan's chocolate gelato is to die for:, and Marcella herself sounds like a wonderful, friendly person.
    Yay food!