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Cooking by the Book

Some folks collect baseball cards. Other folks collect antique birdcages. Chefs collect cookbooks.

I can look at a chef's bookshelf and figure out where he or she draws inspiration.I can look at a chef's bookshelf and figure out where he or she draws inspiration. If I see Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point, I'm talking to a classic Francophile. Paul Bertolli's Cooking by Hand and I'm thinking this guy makes his own pasta and charcuterie. Anything on Morocco by Paula Wolfert and I'm willing to bet that there are preserved lemons in her walk-in cooler.

Every year I update my collection with new titles to stay current. But the cookbooks that stick with me the most are the ones I read while working my way up the kitchen ranks. On my last post as a guest blogger for Powell's, I figured it was appropriate to share a handful of titles that resonated with me while I was learning how to cook.

Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer (and Marion Rombauer Becker). What impresses me is how comprehensive this book is. While I'm not familiar with the most recent edition, the older versions of Joy covered everything from how to make pickles to how to dress wild game. Old American cookbooks tended to be like that, including instructions for everything a home cook might encounter one day, from the mundane (how to set the table) to the elaborate (how to make pâté en croûte). These books are part of our American culinary heritage.

Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli and Alice Waters. A collaboration between Paul Bertolli and Alice Waters, this cookbook from Berkeley's famous restaurant not only celebrates local produce and French cooking but also draws inspiration from Italy. I started reading this book in the 1990s while working as a line cook in New York City. Before reading it, I had never heard of cardoons, a vegetable that grows like celery but tastes like artichokes. I also never considered how many ways you can cook an artichoke.

The Lutéce Cookbook by André Soltner. My first fine dining restaurant job was at Malmaison, a restaurant in St. Louis owned and run by a French husband-and-wife team. Maybe that sense of family and France is what drew me to Lutécethat sense of family and France is what drew me to Lutéce; the first time I looked through the book I felt like I knew André Soltner. A French chef with a restaurant in New York City, Soltner was a chef's chef. My favorite story from the book is about Soltner making batches of turnip sauerkraut for French friends, even though he never served it to his American clientele in the dining room.

French Regional Cooking by Anne Willan. Anne Willan's classic book is out of print today, so I guard my copy by the founder of Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne. Years ago, this book introduced me to the complexity of French cuisine. The book is as much about cultuyre as it is about food, and it helped me put into context the traditions of a country that continues to influence the way I cook.

The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller. This was really the first modern cookbook dedicated to technique. I was working in Hawaii when the book first came out, and I went to the bookstore for my copy along with every other serious cook on Oahu. It was the first book to capture in words contemporary techniques such as making parchment-paper lids for braising or blanching vegetables in large pots of salted water. It was a game-changer, and everyone I knew had to have a copy.

Beard on Bread by James Beard. All of James Beard's books had an impact on American cooking in the 20th century. I'm a fan of Beard's bread book because, like The Joy of Cooking, it's comprehensive. Nearly every kind of bread you'd want to try out is represented on its pages, and for a small book, it's an impressive feat. For the same reason, I'm a fan of Beard on Pasta.

And with that, I'm signing off. It's been fun sharing thoughts with you on this blog. Thanks, Powells, for the opportunity! And happy canning — and cooking — this spring.

÷ ÷ ÷

Paul Virant has been featured in Food & Wine, the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times, and Time Out Chicago. In 2007, Virant was named a Food & Wine best new chef. In 2011, he took over as executive chef at Chicago’s Perennial restaurant, renamed Perennial Virant. Kate Leahy is a freelance food writer and coauthor of the IACP 2009 Cookbook of the Year, A16: Food and Wine.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. A16: Food and Wine
    Used Hardcover $25.00
  2. The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft... Used Hardcover $21.00
  3. Chez Panisse Cooking Used Trade Paper $7.50
  4. Joy of Cooking (1997)
    Used Hardcover $14.50
  5. Cooking by Hand Used Hardcover $27.50
  6. Ma Gastronomie New Hardcover $40.00
  7. Beard on Bread
    Used Trade Paper $11.50
  8. The French Laundry Cookbook
    Used Hardcover $37.00

Paul Virant, with Kate Leahy is the author of The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-Doux

One Response to "Cooking by the Book"

    florence July 3rd, 2012 at 5:38 am

    Beard on Bread is one of my favorites. this Sep, we plan to join our kids in a cooking class/ workshop; hope that it will let them know some responsibility and also, about the substances used in preparing dishes. in connection to it, looking for some books and here one seem to be interactive http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBLUOikQCsY any equally good books for kids? please advice.

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