I know it sounds odd (even my mother thinks it’s odd), but I like to read cookbooks. I like to cook out of them, of course, but I also like to read them as if they’re novels. When it comes to more complicated recipes, sometimes reading them is all I’ll ever do, but I get almost as much enjoyment from reading about how to make lamb shanks braised with green tomatoes (courtesy of the fantastic The Gift of Southern Cooking, by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock) as I would from making and then eating them—and when I only read about it, I don’t have to do a mountain of dishes afterward.
Cookbooks from different cultures also let me travel without spending six or eight hours in a middle coach seat; any night of the week I can have a superlative trout meunière and pretend I’m Julia Child in Paris in the ’50s, or jet off to Shanghai for red-braised pork. And one of my favorite middle-of-the-night dishes is Nigella Lawson’s London-by-way-of-Rome pasta carbonara. These cookbooks serve me the world, even if I’m just reading them:
Jen Lin-Liu’s Serve the People is more memoir than cookbook, the tale of a young Chinese American learning to cook Chinese food the Chinese way and rediscovering the country her grandparents fled. The recipe for Shanghai soup dumplings (xiao long bao) is by far the most complicated (it takes about two days), but Lin-Liu’s quest for the perfect dumpling is entirely enthralling.
Pastry chef Pichet Ong trained with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and has spent years perfecting the blending of French techniques with Asian flavors. In The Sweet Spot, written with Genevive Ko, Ong shares his favorites, including the honey castella, a sponge cake known as kasutera in Japan, which is thought to have originated in Spain and been brought to Japan by the Portuguese. It’s sweetened with honey and has a darkly caramelized crust. Yum.
I love Edouard de Pomiane’s slim handbook French Cooking in Ten Minutes, because it’s as much about habit and preparation as it is about particular ingredients and recipes. The subtitle is “Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life,” but the book was originally published in France in 1930, a time when people went home and cooked lunch, then returned to the office, sated with Burgundy snails and quail à la crapaudine (basically, breaded and fried). Sure, these recipes can be executed in ten minutes—if you have what amounts to a professional kitchen hot and waiting for you. I prefer to flip through at random and pull out little gems, such as de Pomiane’s advice for enjoying your postprandial coffee:
Fill your cup with the hot coffee. Lean back in your armchair and put your feet up. Light a cigarette. Take a nice long puff, then blow the smoke to the ceiling. Enjoy the coffee’s aroma, take a long sip. Close your eyes. Think about that second puff, that second sip—you’re rich!
For crossing the Channel, I turn to Nigella Lawson’s wonderful Feast. This tome is rich with recipes for sharing with friends and family on special occasions from Passover to Christmas, but my favorite section (being both a night owl and a hermit) is the Midnight Feast chapter. Nigella’s spaghetti alla carbonara can be made in about 15 minutes, depending on how fast your water boils, and it’s richly, belly-warmingly satisfying.
Roberto Santibañez’s Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales is a favorite—and not just because his restaurant Fonda is about a minute from my apartment. This comprehensive guide to Mexican street food starts with the very simplest of introductions: how to make your own tortillas. If you’re not a crazy person, though, you can just buy the tortillas and stuff them with all manner of delicious things, like Santibañez’s luscious shrimp, adobo-marinated chicken, or duck carnitas fillings. I also love the simple black bean and queso tortas—how can you go wrong with a spicy cheese sandwich?
(To a New Yorker, it’s pretty much a foreign country, what with the abundant avocados and lack of polar vortex.) Northern California–based chef Tyler Florence’s Family Meal is one of my go-to reads when it’s utterly dreary outside, because the photography is so vibrantly homey and summery. The recipes reflect all manner of influences, from Italy and the American South to Mexico and France. My favorites are the chile relleno rice, the chicken livers with caramelized endive and pickled red onions, and the utterly Californian roasted chicken with salsa verde and French fries.
What’s your favorite cookbook—either for actual cooking or for reading and dreaming?