Books for Cooks

By Beacon Staff

Walk into any of the national chain bookstores and go over to the cookbook section and you will see a bazillion of them. Name a subject; name a foodstuff; name a cuisine; someone has written a book about it.

I am a collector of cookbooks, but I’m pretty fussy about what I buy. And I confess to returning cookbooks given to me as gifts, which I exchange for cookbooks I really want. I think my cookbook gift-givers are okay with that.

In any case, I wanted to make some recommendations to you if you’re serious about cooking (or if you need a few ideas for gift-giving to the cook in your life). There are a number of books that I think cooks should have and some do not contain recipes.

For instance, “Food Lover’s Companion,” by Sharon Tyler Herbst is available in paperback and contains thousands of definitions of food, wine and culinary terms. It’s one of my favorite references, because I still encounter oddly named things related to food that I know nothing about.

Have you ever heard of a “Lady Baltimore Cake?” Do you know what “kumiss” is? How about “pastille?”

All of these are defined in this terrific little book.

There are two actual cookbooks I don’t think I could do without. One is the classic “Joy of Cooking,” by Erma Rombauer. It’s been around for more than 50 years and it is regularly updated. But if you want to know a basic recipe for almost anything, this is the go-to source.

And there’s one more in this same vein: Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything.” This book actually saved my bacon (not literally) in a professional competition several years ago. It was one of those mystery basket competitions and one of the ingredients was sweetbreads (thymus gland). These generally require a weighted down soaking in milk overnight, but I had only three and a half hours to produce an edible dish employing sweetbreads. Since you’re allowed to bring reference materials with you into these competitions, I’m glad I had the Bittman book because his recipe helped me shortcut the process and I was able to cook up a pretty tasty dish.

My other book in the “everything” category is Barbara Kafka’s timeless classic called, simply, “Roasting.” This book will show you that more than meats can and should be roasted, including vegetables. When I started roasting asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green beans, cauliflower and many other vegetables, my dietary life changed.

Chef Tom Colicchio, probably best-known as the head judge and co-host of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” wrote a masterpiece called, “Think Like a Chef.” Most culinary professionals would benefit from this book, but so would amateurs. Important discussions about timing, presentation, and the creative process that restaurant chefs go through make this an important read. You’ll be inspired to adapt some of the techniques in your own home kitchen.

Anything that Michael Ruhlman writes, I’ll buy. Not only is he a good cook, but he’s an excellent writer. His classic, “The Making of a Chef,” recounts his time at the Culinary Institute of America, going through the rigorous process to become a Certified Master Chef, the ultimate professional designation in the culinary world. Less than 1 percent of chefs in America hold the title.

There are, of course, many others, but if I were narrowing the field, I would invest in “The Professional Chef,” published by the Culinary Institute of America, as well as a textbook written by Wayne Gisslen titled, “Advanced Professional Cooking.”

Armed with these books in your library, you’ll be able to tackle almost any culinary challenge.

And now you also have a checklist for gift-giving for your favorite cook.