My Favorite Cookbooks

My go-to cookbooks on the stove in our apartment, which I am gradually learning how to use. (The stove, not the cookbooks.) Lausanne, Switzerland, May 2019.

My go-to cookbooks on the stove in our apartment, which I am gradually learning how to use. (The stove, not the cookbooks.) Lausanne, Switzerland, May 2019.

I’ve long preferred eating at home to eating in restaurants for several reasons: You can eat what you like exactly as you like it, you can avoid the fuss of restaurant seating and neighbors and waiters and bellboys, you can move around the table and the space with minimal hassle, you can have a conversation without cacophonous ambient noise, you can choose what table manners to mind, and you can eat more healthfully (and a lot more cost effectively).

In London, I cooked regularly. In Houston, it felt like people ate out (or ate take out) far more often than they cooked anything—and I gradually fell into the local cultural habit, joining people at restaurants several times a week and bringing home prepared meals from healthy-food purveyors rather than pulling out the pots and pans.

In Switzerland, with fewer prepared-meal options and mostly grossly overpriced restaurants (especially given their ho-hum fare), I’ve returned to cooking at home more often. In fact, I cook at home most of the time. Arnaud and I last ate at his university’s restaurant maybe a month ago, and we last joined friends at a brasserie for dinner two months ago.

As befits someone who doesn’t care much for restaurants even when they serve decent fare at a reasonable price, I don’t consider myself an epicure. I don’t consider myself much of a hobby chef, either, as I don’t particularly enjoy cooking. I cook to eat and to eat what I enjoy, which means I cook simple, straightforward food that wouldn’t dazzle anyone’s social media feed.

In my cooking adventures, I’ve found that cookbook recipes have a bit more quality control than the recipes I’ve found on websites; typically, published cookbooks go through rounds of cooking tests and trials and proofreading to ensure accurate quantities and clear instructions. I’ll use an Internet recipe on occasion, yet I lean heavily toward finding options in the cookbooks I’ve collected over the years.

I first bought a cookbook in graduate school, when I realized frozen dinners, takeout, and dry-packed noodles reconstituted in broth didn’t make for the best diet. However, I still didn’t cook with any regularity until I moved to London, where my budget didn’t support much eating at restaurants and cafes.

I collected quite a number of cookbooks during my time in London, and then I continued collecting when I moved to Houston (despite not cooking very much). When it came time to move to Switzerland and we had to review everything we owned to decide what to bring with us, the cookbooks needed serious winnowing.

From a starting point of nearly fifty separate tomes, I culled my cookbook collection to maybe a dozen books, all of which had at least a handful of recipes that I didn’t mind cooking and liked eating. Yet as I’ve gotten back into the groove of cooking at home, I find that I rely most heavily on a small subset of even the original dozen I’d considered essential:

The slow cooker cookbook has had a bit of a reprieve these past few months; I killed what I’d previously considered an indestructible Crock Pot this winter when I sleepily miscalculated the power supply conversion from American to Swiss and fried it. (Fear not: I managed to save the chili; in fact, the high heat and burned bits gave it a nice, smoky flavor.)

My criteria for a good cookbook—other than having Mark Bittman as an author, clearly—include a variety of simple recipes that I can put together in an hour or less, even if the cooking time takes longer (such as for stews and roasts). I’ll stay open to recipes that take more time to put together, yet only if they allow me to assemble them in half-hour chunks in one day or over the course of several days. Also, I prefer cookbooks that have straightforward, easily procured ingredients and don’t require special kitchen tools and equipment.

And so: Any recommendations for someone getting back into the cooking groove?

What books do you cook from most often?