Seasonal, local cooking is never boring. Every week there's a new ingredient coming in, an old one gone for another year. Small farms grow varietals you may not know, foragers find wild edibles you would never in a million years think to pluck from the Earth and pop in your mouth. Times of abundance leave you scrambling to preserve, pickle and freeze, while the winter months challenge you to find one more damn recipe for squash and greens. For all of these reasons, it's not uncommon to peek your head inside Mossback's kitchen and find each of us with our nose in a different cookbook, foraging for inspiration, forging new menus, learning new tricks. We inevitably have our favorites, the go-tos, and have become pretty discerning critics. Now, in the season of giving, I thought I would share some time-tested recommendations; because everyone knows someone who loves to cook, and that person can always use a really good cookbook.
First, a few notes on picking and using cookbooks in general:
1) Not sure if you're holding a gem? Flip through and just look at the ingredient lists. Do you see a lot of pre-made ingredients, like "1 can Tomato Sauce", "1 Tbsp Southwest Seasoning", or even worse "1 Store Bought Frozen Pizza Crust"? That one's aimed more at easy meals than interesting tastes and techniques. If you notice a lot of recipes referencing other recipes, such as "1 Tbsp Za'atar (see page 35)", then you've got yourself a book that doesn't skip the important stuff.
2) Judge a book by its cover. I'm not ashamed to say that I often scour books for inspiration without reading a word. A nice picture can spark an idea, can tell you how to blend colors and flavors, and even tell you a lot about how to cook a dish. If the pictures make your mouth water, it’s a good start.
3) You are a jazz musician and the cookbook is your sheet music. A recipe will tell you one way to make a dish, and once you’re armed with that knowledge you can adapt it to fit your particular needs and whims. Maybe you aren’t even making that particular dish, but it has an interesting idea about contrasting flavors, or maybe you never thought to let the onion burn a little in the pan to add a bitter, smokey note; now you can use that in anything else you want! Be loose and open minded is all I’m saying.*
Ok, with that out of the way, here are a few cookbooks in the Mossback kitchen that we couldn't live without:
“Plenty” By Yotam Ottolenghi- We actually have three of his cookbooks on hand, including “Plenty More” and “Jerusalem”. Every recipe has something to offer, and some pages have so many food stains on them that we all know them by heart. “Mr. Good and Plenty”, as we call him, has a knack for taking age-old, traditional recipes, and giving them a vibrant, innovative feel. “Plenty” and “Plenty More” are both vegetarian, and the fact that I didn't realize that until I had cooked several recipes is a testament to their creativity and usefulness.
“Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes” By Nicolaus Balla and Courtney Burns- of the eponymous San Francisco restaurant and bakery. This one is chock full of crazy, time consuming projects for the extreme do-it-yourselfer. There’s a recipe that calls for cooking garlic for two weeks until it turns black and smells of caramel, pages on drying and grinding all sorts of interesting spices, kefir making and soda recipes. The beet-brined King Salmon roe we made a few weeks ago was a variation on a recipe out of this book. So, so much to learn in here, and very well put together. We pull this one out when we're feeling really ambitious.
“India: The Cookbook” By Pushpesh Pant- This is the definitive tome on the subject, and has enough recipes to keep you busy for the rest of your life. Curries, pickles, chutneys, paneers, kulfis, lassis, its all here. Each recipe with an exhaustive list of spices for you to track down and get familiar with: black cumin, fenugreek, asafetida, and each one gets proper treatment. We’ve yet to find a bad recipe, and with over 1,000 of them in here, it may take us a while. The shear quantity of recipes makes this a great resource when you want as many possible ideas of how to use a particular ingredient.
“The Food Lover’s Companion” By Ron and Sharon Tyler Herbst- Ok, not a cookbook, but possibly the most thumbed-through book in our library. It's a dictionary of food terms. I learn something new every time I pick it up, and it’s settled many a kitchen debate. We call it simply “the book”. Come across a word you don’t know in some recipe? "Look in the book!" The entry is then generally read aloud to the rest of the kitchen. Sure you could look it up online, but the internet lacks the gravitas and authoritativeness of “the book”. Sometimes I like to look up terms I already know, because those can be some of the most interesting entries. “Egg” is a particular favorite of mine. Not to mention, it’s harder to casually flip through the internet. Yes, you could google Kopi Luwak... but would you? I have left a copy of this book in every kitchen I have worked in. It's a must have.
Alright, what are your favorites? Anything we should add to our shelves?
*This does not work with baking. When baking, the recipe is still your sheet music, but this time you're a classical pianist. There's still room for interpretation, but the rules are much stricter. I’m a better jazz musician than I am a baker. I chalk this up to a left-brain-right-brain sort of thing. Pam is responsible for 80% of all the delicious baking to come out of Mossback, Ray makes up the rest.