Cookbooks: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Note: This was originally written as a guest post for Rachael Stephen of Mythic Flux, a blogger who talks about writing and cooking. This post was originally published on her blog on September 26th, and has been re-posted with her permission.
Rachael writes a lot on here about writing, and she writes a lot on here about food. So, in the interest of picking some very low-hanging but interesting fruit, I’m going to discuss a way in which the two intersect: cookbooks!
They’re a staple of any kitchen, and if they’re any good, they inevitably get rippled and covered in stains. So, if I went into someone’s kitchen and saw a roughed-up cookbook – stains, grease spots, cracked spines, notes in the margin – I would immediately think that book’s a keeper.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of cookbooks out there (even several in my kitchen!) do not meet this lofty standard. So, in the interest of sparing future chefs some heartache, I’m going to tell you about some of the thngs that I love – and loathe – seeing in cookbooks.
Bad: Sloppy, incomplete indexes
Ooh, does this one ever get me riled up. A lot of the time, when I want to cook something, it’s because I’m craving a certain ingredient or flavour. Most cookbooks don’t organize their chapters on the main ingredients of each recipe, so where do I turn to instead if I want a recipe that contains, say, cumin? The index! Yet, so many cookbook indexes contain, at best, only a rudimentary outline of the recipes inside. For example, I have a Rachael Ray cookbook that contains a wonderful recipe for corn and black bean stew with chicken and chipotle peppers. The ingredients include 1 tbsp of cumin and the juice of 1 lime. Yet if I look in the index, the “C” and “L” headings contain no listing for “cumin” or “lime” at all – in fact, the very last word listed underneath “L” is “lasagna” – not very far down the alphabet, is it?
To get an idea of what a truly excellent cookbook index should be like, check out the cookbooks released by Janet and Greta Podleski. Not only are their recipes healthy, but almost every ingredient of every single recipe is cross-referenced in the index. On top of that, non-recipe information about health provided in the sidebars of their recipes is also included in the index. I cannot stress enough how good their indexes are, and wish more cookbooks would follow their example.
[Another note: I just noticed today that the Podleski sisters are releasing a new cookbook this November, and it looks like it will be a door-stopping doozy. Yippee!]
Good: Binder or coil-style binding that allows me to lay the book flat on the table
Have you ever had to weigh down a cookbook with cans and heavy potatoes just so that it could lie flat enough for you to read while you were cooking the damned recipe on the stove? It’s frustrating. I just want to be able to let my veggies fry in the pot on the stove, and then mosey over to the kitchen table so I can see what ingredients I have to add next. Is that so much to ask? Publishers, why do you insist on giving perfect binding to all of your cookbooks? I need to be able to read the book without touching it because my hands are wet and dripping!
Bad: Recipes that involve lots of time-intensive preparation before you start cooking
One particularly egregious offender of this rule is the cookbook Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld. The cookbook’s main gimmick is that you can get fussy kids to eat healthily if you sneak pureed fruits and vegetables into their favourite meals. However, this means, you know, actually pureeing and storing said veggies ahead of cooking the meal itself. Ms. Seinfeld sets aside Sunday evenings every week to make enough purees to include in her recipes. She says that it takes her only an hour to make all the purees she needs, but I sincerely doubt that it would take under an hour to roast a whole butternut squash before you even start peeling and pureeing the damned thing – and you have to let it cool first anyways.
Please note that this doesn’t mean that all meals that require preparation before you cook are bad. I’m totally fine with marinating something overnight before you cook it. But the point is that the effort you put in ahead of time should be minimal and lead to great flavour.
Good: Recipes that allow for the inventive use of leftovers
I like using the slow cooker, especially when my mom is travelling and I have to make meals for my partner and I while she is away, which is why I love, love, love a particular cookbook called Cook Once Eat Twice. Each 2-page spread in the book contains 2 recipes. On the left-hand side is the slow cooker recipe; since slow cookers can cook a lot, the recipe explicitly states how much of the finished product to set aside for leftovers. And here’s the brilliant thing – the right-hand side of the spread contains a recipe that allows you to use those leftovers in a completely new way! For example, the leftovers from “Creamy Basil Chicken” are then recycled into “Chicken and Wild Rice Chowder.” I really appreciate cooking that allows me to be versatile.
Bad: Recipes that are lazy or uninventive
Several years ago I got a cookbook on heart-healthy cooking. Its big selling point on the cover was that it had over 700 recipes. So far, so good, you’re thinking. But I swear to god, the cookbook contains this following recipe:
Quick microwave chicken
- 2 whole chicken breasts, skinned, boned, and halved
Place chicken in a glass pie plate, placing larger pieces to the outside of dish. Cover with plastic wrap; prick a hole in the plastic for steam to escape. Cook at full power 8 minutes; turn. Rearrange pieces in dish; cook 6 minutes longer, or until done.
That’s it. Even if you don’t eat meat, you have to admit that this is a half-assed way to cook chicken. This single recipe is why I have not used this cookbook in 5 years.
Please note that this is not an exhaustive list by far – as someone who’s learned about what goes into creating books, there are all sorts of pet peeves I could tell you about. But these are things that heavily influence how often I use a cookbook in my own kitchen.