Those of you who know me won’t be surprised when I say that I’m a bit manic about cookbooks. I have a gift for locating (and then purchasing) them in completely unexpected places, like thrift stores, museum gift shops, garage sales, airports… Just name a location—I probably have one from there. Even if I’ve set out for another item entirely—something practical, like dental floss or a birthday gift for my mother—I’ll forget about it in a split second if I find a really nice cookbook (sorry, Mom). Especially if the book involves beautiful photographs, Mediterranean ingredients, and/or has notes from a previous owner, I get this kind of ludicrous feeling of not wanting to leave it behind. Like eggs destined to become omelettes, good cookbooks only realize their full potential when cracked open, their wisdom uncovered.
You may want to ask how I put this whole menagerie of cookbook purchases to good use, and my guilty answer is that I don’t. Only several sit atop the otherwise indistinguishable chaos that is my bookshelf—the ones I find myself returning to over and over again, whether to double check my memory of recipes I’ve already tried and loved or to discover new dishes. Like grandmothers eager to share their decades of culinary wisdom, my best cookbooks provide reliable guidance, giving me the hand-holding I need when trying out a new technique or working with unfamiliar ingredients. Alice Waters, for instance, has taught me to braise pretty much anything. Now I’d like to share these books with you, reader, in hopes that you’ll come to love one or several of them as much as I have.
Jerusalem: A Cook Book, Yottom Ottolenghi
Thanks to Jerusalem and its demand for unusual ingredients, I've been all over Los Angeles in search of things like chermoula and quince. I often can't pronounce or even describe some of the items on my shopping list to the patient people at the market. In return for my effort, however, this book has helped me discover a whole new flavor profile. Informed by beloved flavors from both the Jewish West and Muslim East of Jerusalem, it taught me how to build the warm, complex flavors that characterize Arab rice dishes and to make lamb so tender it melts your heart as quickly as it melts off the bone.
Favorite recipes—Lamb meatballs with barberries, yogurt & herbs (page 199), Chicken with caramelized onion & cardamom rice (page 184)
Plenty More, Yottom Ottolenghi
When I started cooking from Plenty More, I raised an eyebrow at the complexity of its dishes. Sorry to say, I just didn’t feel vegetables deserved this much effort. Even some of the salads require steaming, baking, blanching, candying, and other treatments that seem too involved. I mean, isn’t the point of a salad to not cook? But, every recipe I've tried from this book has convinced me that Ottelenghi’s way is indeed the right way. The earthy and floral Thai Red Lentil Soup with Aromatic Chile Oil, for instance, was good enough to kick my formerly tired love of lentils into a renaissance.
Favorite recipes— Thai Red Lentil Soup with Aromatic Chile Oil (page 89), Green Beans with Freekeh and Tahini (page 110)
The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook, Salma Hage
As far as culinary regions go, I’m inclined toward the Mediterranean (can you tell?). While Jerusalem satisfies a lot of my curiosity, its recipes often require several days of planning to execute. This book is my fallback when I want to be spontaneous. It has a lot of the Middle Eastern flavors I love—tahini, labneh, cardamom, za'atar—but the recipes have short, friendly lists of ingredients. And the food photography is so bright and colorful, it’s worth it for the visual inspiration alone.
Favorite recipes—Roasted cauliflower with garlic-tahini dip (page 143), Freekeh, pomegranate, and feta salad (page 126)
The Art of Simple Food, Alice Waters
With simple recipes that leave room for experimentation and personal preference, Alice Waters gently guides her readers through foundational techniques and dishes that emphasize seasonality and quality ingredients. Preparing her bolognese or pasta al pesto with fresh produce from the farmer’s market is as close as I’ll ever get to the charmed, pastoral life in the French countryside I was always meant to lead. You know, the one where I spend my my days drinking good wine and cooking the abundance of produce from my garden?
Favorite recipes—Leek and potato soup (page 258), Linguini with clams (268)
Giada's Feel Good Food, Giada De Laurentiis
Reader, I no longer feel a slight flush of embarrassment when I mention my absolute devotion to Giada De Laurentiis. Culinary purists, who scoff at the mere mention of Food Network, may want to shame me for it. So be it. Saving face is just not worth giving up these neatly packaged, wonderfully convenient recipes. True to the book’s promise, they’re easy to make, great for weeknights, and pretty damn healthy. Giada knows how to strike a balance between utility and indulgence, and the result is perfectly satisfying.
Favorite recipes—Soba Noodle Salad (page 131), Lemon-cumin chicken with mint and spinach pesto (page 220)