Welcome to the return of the From Zero to Chef: How to cook well at home series! Check out the previous articles to learn how to be a kick-ass home chef – not just a cook, but an innovative, impressive, awe-inspiring chef.
This list is a great many weeks overdue. You may not have realized it, but scary clients, moments of bookstore despair, and possibly even volcanic eruptions have kept it from you. I have spent the last few months scouring bookstores in several states and bookshelves in many homes to bring you the creme de la creme of the cookbook crop.
I was relentless in sourcing cookbooks guaranteed to get your off your chair and into the kitchen. Obscene numbers of books were cruelly tossed aside if there were too few drool-inducing photos, too many hard to find ingredients, or not enough enthusiasm in the narration.
Aside from that certain je ne sais quoi that makes some recipe collections stand out, all cookbooks had to adhere to the basic 30 Minute Dinner Party recipe requirements:
- almost all meatless
- made without unnecessary butter, cream, or other fat-full flavoring shortcuts
So rest assured that even the cookbook with the coolest cover and more drool-worthy photos has the chops to cut it in your kitchen and impress the $#%@ out of your friends.
How to Use This List
Let the Most Mouth-Watering section inspire you to get eating. With drop-dead gorgeous photography, these books will get your appetite amused and raring to go.
2. Get the skillz.
Once your stomach is begging for the goods, let the cooking begin. With the Cooking School in Your Own Kitchen section, learn how to cook up the foods of your dreams.
3. Make it a habit.
For those nights when you are too tired, busy, or otherwise lame to get in the kitchen, the cookbooks in the Easy Meals for Every Day (Without Rachel Ray) give you a bevy of options to put together delicious dishes in a pinch.
4. Do it with friends.
Staying home doesn’t mean missing out on the social scene. Gather some friends and dazzle them with no fuss recipes from the Entertain with Ease section.
5. Expand your horizons.
We can’t all hop the next plane to Paris for a good macaroon or sample spicy snacks on a Bombay street corner. But you can Travel the World Without Leaving Home with these cookbooks.
6. Put the icing on the cake.
Once you have the basics down, learn from the best with the star-studded line up in the Celebrity Tell All section. Master chefs share the tips that guarantee perfect results every time.
My Inspiring Cookbook Guarantee
This list is the fruit of weeks of hard labor in unsavory conditions (a.k.a. irritated bookstore clerks eyeing me for lurking in the cookbook section for hours at a time).
I promise that there is at least one cookbook on this list that will make you want to get your butt off of your couch or desk chair and into the kitchen. If not, please let me know. If this list doesn’t move you, I may just have to come and cook for you myself so you can see how fun and easy it is!
This book is dipped in gold like a expensive chocolate bar and that is a great indication of the quality you will find inside. Full page color photos for each recipe will have you drooling in less time than it take a Lamborghini to hit 60 miles an hour. And if that isn’t enough to get you in the mood to cook (or at least eat), the rousing story of the history of chocolate will surely set your taste buds on edge. Ideal for the novice or advanced baker, there are rankings for difficulty level and a chapter on basic chocolate recipes to make sure you don’t get in over your head.
Billed as “little bites of food to amuse the mouth, invigorate the palate, [and] whet the appetite,” the stunning dishes showcased in this cookbook show why you can’t call these delicate creations appetizers or even hors d’oeuvres. Tramonto gives you exactly the details and particulars so that you can fearlessly concoct his creations at home: where to find a foamer, the ideal container for foaming, and how long you can store the leftovers. Most spectacular are the creative plating ideas that abound in chapters on such rarely-seen-outside-cooking-school topics such as fork and spoon amuse, foam amuse, and savory sorbet amuse.
If there weren’t recipes on the back, I would tear the photo pages out of this book and frame them. Not only beautiful, the photos of Rose Bakery evoke a lazy, relaxed, sun-filled place ideal of a kitchen. And with Rose Carrarini’s recipes, that can be your kitchen too. In Carrarini’s introduction, she details her philosophy on food and why she cuts the butter and sugar in as many places as she can. As you flip through the lovely pages, her gentle voice guides you quickly and simply through intimidating fare such as tartlets, explaining the over-arching principles and many variations.
Almost every spare inch of this cookbook is bursting with produce. Or brilliantly colored pictures of it, at least. Aside from recipes, there are profiles and features on farmers, butchers, foragers, and all manner of food providers explaining why they love what they do and why that makes their food even more delicious. Keep it Seasonal distinguishes itself from other season-oriented tomes by focusing on light fare. But don’t expect your typical club or BLT, because Chef Wayte throws in twists like lemon shortbread or French toast ricotta sandwiches and dessert soups.
COOKING SCHOOL IN YOUR KITCHEN
It might not come as a surprise that the Martha Stewart empire has created one of the most beautiful home cooking lesson books. The photos in this book go beyond pleasing the eye, providing hands on instructions that are cleverly linked to the recipe instructions with a colored number system. Illustrations even show such things as the difference between fine, rustic, mashed, and crushed potatoes – leave it to Martha to make sure that you have the answer to every question imaginable. Like most books of its kind, the cooking lessons are arranged to build on one another. But unlike other “how to cook” books, the lessons are tied into delicious recipes. You’ll be fileting dover sole for sole meuniere before you know it.
This is a textbook in a very handsome disguise. Each chapter covers a particular cooking method (i.e. grilling, sauteing, etc.) and the recipes walk you through increasingly complex versions of each type of preparation, as the topics themselves build in complexity. It’s not all about learning though - Susie Middleton cares about enjoying the fruits of her cooking more than anything. She is, admittedly, the kind of person who wakes up in the morning fantasizing about what she will have for dinner. With so many step by step instructions, you can be confident there is no way to go wrong.
Jewels and Jill have an appetizing way with words. With chapters like “Soup Can Change Your Life?” and recipes with names like “Parsley is the Key to Success Salad” and “Or Not to Chop Salad,” the co-authors takes on classic dishes have a decidedly modern slant. The Elmores are not personal chefs, but “family” chefs who cook for people in their own homes and aim to teach people to enjoy home cooked food. As they say: “Good cooking is not always about being the best chef – it’s how you do it and the care you put into it.” These recipes are so personal that in some instances each chef includes her own version of a recipe, showing you how to make your own variations at home as well.
Never have French pastries seemed more accessible. In a building block style that will bring both confidence and delicious results, Roux walks through ten different types of pastry. Starting with the basics and moving into the easier doughs and eventually onto the intimidating puff pastries, photos walk through step-by-step hand motions to get you from a pile of flour to a beautiful crust. Each type of dough is accompanied by nearly ten fillings, so you have ample opportunity to try out your new skills before moving on. Pure, clean, and simple, Roux’s words and clear illustrations will inspire and encourage along the way.
Forgotten skills of cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best – Over 700 Recipes Show You Why
by Darina Allen
Pigs ears, dandelion wine, and scores of cordials: not the type of thing you usually find in modern cookbooks. Or endeavor to make at home. But with seven detailed pages dedicated to how to build and use a smoker, even my vegetarian mind was dreaming of installing one. Though many of these recipes are not for every day use, there is something wonderful about the thought of making one’s own butter. You’ll be dreaming up weekend or special occasion projects before you know it. The fascinating stories and sunlit photos transport you to a lazy afternoon in another era and invite you to bring some of these time-honored traditions into your kitchen.
EASY MEALS FOR EVERY DAY (WITHOUT RACHEL RAY)
This cookbook is simply beautiful. It’s the Audrey Hepburn or Jackie O of cookbooks – simple, elegant, and un-fussy. Every detail makes you feel like it is, in fact, easy to make delicious meals. Recipes have few steps and even fewer ingredients. After just leafing through, the generally nutritious aura will even give you a healthy glow like you just finished a yoga class. Guaranteed to take less than 30 minutes of prep and have little clean up, these meals are zen for your kitchen.
A book that has spawned its own product line (and an increase of expensive panino makers in otherwise ordinary kitchens), ‘wichcraft has a lot more going for it than a catchy name. The most popular meal in America for lunch or dinner is the sandwich, but this book shows that a simple sandwich can be a decidedly gourmet experience. Sharp photographs accompanying the recipes beg you to dig in, but the real highlight is the chapter on relishes and the little elements that will bring your simple sandwiches to a new level.
Ignore the title; this is not a book for chicks only. As Nigella Lawson puts says herself, it is “not only about baking, but also enjoying being in the kitchen.” Though some might find the whole “domestic goddess” concept too feminist or otherwise off-putting, Nigella is inspiring in a non-”you go girl” fashion. Simple, empowering directions make you believe that it is easy to make better bagels or cinnamon rolls than you can buy at the store. “Everyone seems to think it is hard to make a cake, but it doesn’t take more than 25 minutes to make and bake a tray of muffins or a sponge layer cake, and the returns are high: you feel disproportionately good about yourself afterward,” says Lawson in the introduction. Before you know it, you will be to surprising your relatives with certosino (italian fruitcake) over the holidays.
I think it is really just the concept that grabs you on this one. These beautiful homemade meals all have few steps, few ingredients, and the guarantee of finding everything you need at your nearest trader joes. Just being reminded that it is actually pretty simple to assemble dishes like prosciutto-wrapped scallops, tropical shrimp boats, or pear and gorgonzola quesdillas makes me want to get cooking. Even I was surprised that some of these dishes are so simple and economical to make at home!
The Visual Food Lover’s Guide: Includes essential information on how to buy, prepare and store over 1,000 types of food
by QA International
It may be a teensy bit of a stretch to call this a cookbook, but it does contain directions on how to prepare hundreds of dishes. With details on ripeness, usage, and cooking techniques for exotic items such as taro and azuki beans, this book empowers you to buy funny-looking or foreign-named ingredients and cook them with confidence. From to the right way to peel a chestnut to how to peel a mango, this book answers all of your food-related questions while over 600 illustrations identify every fish and cut of meat imaginable. If you are the type of person who wonders what to do with brains, beef hearts or beet greens, this is the book for you.
ENTERTAIN WITH EASE
Jennifer Joyce makes entertaining insanely accessible. Each chapter or menu is takes a particular world cuisine as a rallying point – Provencal, Spanish, Norwegian, etc. – but the food is strictly small plate style. What makes this book particularly appealing though is that the menus have options for whatever level of effort you are up to putting in. Whether you just want to pick up some things at the store, quickly through together some ingredients, or roll up your sleeves, and do some real cooking, every menu includes options for each type of involvement. Lovely photographs of the finished spread also provide elegant serving suggestions.
Leisurely weekend brunches are an opportune time to whip up something new in the kitchen, and this cookbook will open your imagination to things you didn’t know could be made at home. Recipes for venezuelan arepas, churros with hot chocolate, and star-topped date griddle cakes will render restaurant brunches a thing of the past for your crew. Though there are the requisite recipes like classic pancake, flavors like poppyseed and triple chocolate will add a new spin on your brunches. Once you have some stunning creations down, why not branch out? Easily transferable to dessert, these sweet dishes are easy and rewarding – for you and your guests.
From a “Slightly All-American Menu” to a page entitled “Please Don’t Burn the Chicken,” David Tanis’ voice guides you through his seasonal menus in a way that will endear you eternally to the chef *and* his recipes. Chez Panisse’s famed chef talks “about eating with friends and cooking with friends . . instead of going to a restaurant, we’d [always] rather cook together.” His style of long stories and explanations accompanying the recipes is almost blog-like as Tanis guides you through some of his most treasured meals with friends.
TRAVEL THE WORLD WITHOUT LEAVING HOME
French Women for All Seasons: A Year of Secrets, Recipes & Pleasure
by Mireille Guiliano
More than a cookbook, this is a guide to French seasonal living. Though there are no pictures, Mireille Guilano paints such a picture with her words that you will think you have fallen asleep and awoken in the French country side. Within each season, chapters are broken into different ingredients: peas, asparagus and leeks in spring; rabbit, sorrel and citrus in the winter; and so on. Apart from a variety of recipes and variations that show the range of each seasonal gem, Guiliano includes stories from her youth in France and her own cooking adventures to conjure up the joie du vivre to properly enjoy each dish.
For many, Mexican food has become a staple. However, apart from the odd microwave quesadilla or taco night, these dishes aren’t being made at home. But this mini-volume is not only a treasure trove of Mexican recipes but a perfect book to turn to on a busy night. With pictures on every page, it’s easy to zero in on something appetizing, and most recipes have very few ingredients. Most importantly, these recipes are more authentic than you will probably find eating out, with classics like bunuelos and guacamole. Once you have the basic recipes down, there are three or four variations on every dish to keep you cooking and keep you inspired.
Which came first, the book or the TV show? You may not have heard of either yet, but this Spanish culinary road trip chronicle is more than meets the eye. Chef Mario Batali, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, Iron Man actress Gweneth Paltrow and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols are good friends doing what they love best: eating. This book is chock full of culinary, geographic and historic information presented in a lively, easily digestible format. Quotes from the crew and those they meet (Bittman: We are in Casa Lucio, a place where the owner is old enough to wear a white jacket without irony) set the scene for your own adventures in Spanish cuisine.
If you are the type to worry about jumping into foreign cuisines without a cooking class, this is the book for you. Photos walk though each and every step – even the correct way to chop veggies. Pure and Simple doesn’t just describe the food and recipes, but every page and illustration in the book. Even the glossary of ingredients is filled with photos to make sure you are on the right track. If I didn’t already love making Indian food, this book would make me start. Stat.
CELEBRITY TELL ALL
Julia Child’s hefty volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking has been in vogue of late, but this later work is Julia’s real jem. Essentially her own pocket cooking notebook typed up and shared with the world, Julia envisioned this book as more reference than simply recipes. Each chapter begins with master recipes and shows how the seemingly complex world of French cooking builds and derives from them. This book is for those times when, in Child’s own words, “you’ve forgotten just what you do to unmold a jelly-roll cake, or the system that so successfully brings back the hollandaise sauce. This book aims to give quick snappy answers to many of these questions.”
Buying this cookbook is worth it for Sophie’s energetic story-telling alone, which preceeds every chapter. Organized seasonally and further broken down into breakfasts, lunches, and suppers, this book could sell on its morning fare alone. It is rare to see such an engaging and realistic set of breakfasts in one place. This is food a normal person without pots of time on their hands can definitely prepare. And with little notes from Sophie (like how she and a friend practically subsisted on a certain lentil recipe and Green & Blacks chocolate for a month or how a certain recipe saved her from the most massive hangover), you feel as though she is standing next to you in the kitchen while you prepare each dish.
Asparagus, cherries, garlic, honey, vinegar, cheese, and more: find your favorite ingredient and dive in. Though this book centers around Gyngell’s favorite foods, there are a wealth of recipes for any taste. Each chapter centers around a single ingredient, with many recipes for each, sometime turning your favorite savory food into an unusual breakfast or a sweet treat into a dinner dish. With Gyngell’s evocative descriptions preceding each recipe, you feel as if you are already dining al fresco happily full on wine.
To call this book a behemoth is putting it lightly. At $50 and five pounds, it is every part the comprehensive tome by a great chef. Though I was at first skeptical that this book was too self-important, the particular gentleness of its teaching style is very encouraging. In a recipe for asparagus salad, step by step pictures show you how to stack and cut the bacon that accompanies it into perfect squares. With this level of detail on how to prepare one secondary ingredient, you can begin to imagine how Keller describes cooking a prime steak. His method of not only providing recipes, but show how they fit together and how to create your own variations more than justifies the weightiness.
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