Thursday, July 2, 2009

Favorite Cookbooks and Magazines

I learned to cook rather late in life. My mother never really learned to cook from her mother (“children don’t belong in the kitchen!”), and I never really learned from mine.

All through college I waited tables and got free or cheap meals. It wasn’t until I started working in bookstores that I learned the joy of reading cookbooks and took an interest in cooking for myself.

Being a bibliophile for most of my life, I bought many cookbooks that were gorgeously photographed, specialty cuisines, ethnic or regional. But I didn’t know how to actually cook out of them. I lacked even the most basic cooking common sense. So I covertly and slyly bought Cooking for Dummies. The recipes weren’t that great( i never cooked out of it) but it explained a few technical things.

After asking around I finally bought How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

I still use it to this day (there is now a new, revised version).

I’ve never been a dieter and normally eschew low-fat foods, opting for the bigger, fuller flavors of “regular” food. As I learned more about cooking I started getting more interested in healthier, lighter food. It was only because I was on vacation with little else to do but browse a huge stack of donated Cooking Light magazines, that I fell in love with them.

cooking light magazine

It is not diet food! It is about using fresh, quality ingredients and using herbs and spices to get great flavor while eliminating fat and salt. I have learned a lot from this magazine.

Now I have two bookshelves of the magazines and a recipe box over-flowing with Cooking Light recipes. I was ready for something new.

Enter the book, America’s Test Kitchen,

America's Test Kitchen Cookbook

Since I had grown up lacking the basic fundamentals of cooking, I’ve always been fascinated with the “whys” of cooking, with the chemistry and science of it all. While I have a few books that discuss this down to the molecular level, America’s Test Kitchen makes it easy by doing all the hit and miss for you, and then explaining why it does or doesn’t work.

It also provides product recommendations. Truly tested ones, NOT sponsored ones. So not only do they tell you which canned corn tastes better, but why, and why it works better than fresh corn in the recipe.

The publishers of America’s Test Kitchen also put out a few magazines, none of which really appealed to me before. Cook’s Illustrated was always a little too fancy and upscale for my tastes. But now that my skills have improved and I feel a little more confident, I now really enjoy the magazine.

Cook's Illustrated

There is no advertising in the magazine and a good number of the illustrations are detailed drawings. This is a very “how-to” magazine. It totally appeals to my inquiring mind about how and why certain things work. Like the book, it has product reviews and recommendations.

And now my latest fave, also from the same publisher, Cook’s Country.

Cook's Country


First I had to admit I’m a little bit country. Maybe because I’m getting older or maybe because my style has evolved, but there is a bit of country in me. I think part of it is a lot of my retro-1950’s style goes so well with, and often doubles as the country aesthetic. Cherries, roosters, apple pie and rick rack. Country and retro!  The magazine has a distinct country-retro feel that I like.

One of Cook’s Country regular features is Lost Recipes. Cooks looking for or sharing recipes from the past. The issue pictured above had recipes for 7-UP Pound Cake and Stained Glass Cake! I’m so in love. It doesn’t get more retro than that!

I still own, and use all of these books and magazines. I have long since weeded out the fancy books that I’ll never cook out of. Now I stick to a handful of proven favorites. As my tastes continue to evolve (jello? ok, maybe devolve!) I may use some less and find new favorites, but for now these continue to serve me well.

I don’t have children and I worked in restaurants all through my 20s and 30s so my cooking is very restaurant influenced. A piece of meat with a sauce, a sautéed or steamed veggie and an often garnished plate.

What’s your style? What are your favorite cookbooks/magazines and why? If you didn’t learn to cook from a family member how did you teach yourself to cook? What types of food does your family like best?