A recent move into a more spacious home prompted the dusting off of boxes that had been in storage for almost a decade. As I unpacked, it was like the joy of finding “treasures” at a thrift store, but there was an equal amount of head scratching, as in “Why on earth did I save this?”
Seven file storage boxes were filled with cookbooks alone. Being a food writer in my “former life,” cookbooks just magically appeared. Most I never cooked from with the exception of a few recipes to test the book, but I did have my favorites, as does Chef Bill. Even for the best chefs and home cooks, cookbooks can be a source of inspiration when you’re stuck for ideas, or want to try something out of your comfort zone.
As I culled through the boxes and paged through the books to determine what I might keep, I was struck by how different our food is today than when those books were published. Think of the excess of the eighties, the over-the-top entertaining of Martha Stewart’s books, and the liberal use of butter, cream, and high fat cheese in the Silver Palate books. Contrast that with the more nouvelle cuisine and locavore movement of today.
Anyone can make food taste good with lots of butter and cream. But Chef Bill prefers to let the ingredients speak for themselves, so he uses the very best ingredients that are in season, and the right preparation technique is critical. “It’s not about me; there’s no place in cooking for arrogance or ego; it’s about cooking the ingredients the best way that you can.” Bill loves a quote he nabbed from a former colleague, “Simplicity is the mother of beauty.” That philosophy fits well logistically in the Coho kitchen; with the tiny space and Bill being the only person preparing your meal, there’s no accommodation for elaborate preparation. We like it that way.
But if you want to see a real transition in food style and preparation, head to an antiques/collectibles shop for 1950’s era cookbooks. Home cooks loved creamed soups as a base for practically everything; the modern kitchen wasn’t complete without precooked and frozen convenience foods such as tv dinners, instant mixes, dehydrated soups, margarine, Ritz crackers, and SPAM. Popular appetizers included the likes of Chipped Beef Rolls, Bologna Gherkin Tidbits, Cheese and Deviled Ham Pinwheels. Fruit filled molded gelatin salads appeared at every dinner table, along with a casserole of some sort – remember tuna noodle casserole? What I call “regrettable food.” Chicken Tetrazzini and Baked Alaska, WOW, weren’t those pretty darned impressive! Now, aren’t you glad you can dine out and still have healthy, exquisitely tasty meals?
Chef Bill has his favorite cookbooks for occasional reference, “Amuse-Bouche: Little Bites of Delight Before the Meal Begins” by Rick Tramonto, executive chef/partner of Chicago’s Tru; The Zuni Café Cookbook: A compendium of Recipes and Cooking Lessons from San Francisco’s Beloved Restaurant by Judy Rodgers; The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller; several by Maria Batalli; and the magazines Cook’s Illustrated and Saveur. Anna Maria’s books, La Cucina Anna Maria, is currently undergoing its fourth revision, with lots of updated recipes from the restaurant.
So all you avid home cooks out there, I’m curious, what are your go-to cookbooks? Let me know, I may need to replenish my stock now that most of mine have gone to the thrift store.