My very first cooking experiments came from a book called ‘Family Book of Things to Make and Do’ by Readers’ Digest. My dad got it for me one summer to keep me occupied at the farm. It had all sorts of cool crafts and tricks – from making wax candles, leather working and sewing projects to making cards with freshly pressed flowers. But the one thing I remember most? The ketchup-based campfire baked beans! Why? It was a fun experiment with easy to find ingredients.
Today, I own a small collection of cookbooks. It is not a vast library, it does not take up an entire floor of my house and it does not have a long history of ownership. It is enough. My mom has given me some books over the years, I picked up some along the way, a few I picked up from a street side vendor in Mumbai, some came from well meaning friends and some – well, I just wrote a few. There are a few binders of cut outs and hand written recipes from my mother-in-law. Some cookbooks are dog eared, others have pages falling out, some are glued back together and the spines of some have sadly yet to be cracked. Yet, these are enough, for now. As content as it sounds, it will be unlikely that I will stop buying cookbooks. With the number of blogs, ezines and recipes available online, it seems like there may be an expiry date for cookbooks soon, but that won’t stop me, or other people who are interested in the old fashioned touch and feel of a book – from purchasing a cookbook. So, the question becomes – with all the printed and electronic matter that is out in there, what kind of cookbook are you likely to own with the intention of keeping v/s with the intention of using it? Yes, I said it, which cookbook are you likely to own with the intention of using it?
Some people may find it ridiculous that one can own a book without seeing the need to use it, making it an expensive paperweight at best. Even recycling it later will have very little benefit. But we are all guilty of doing it. Ask yourself, what is it about a particular cookbook that makes you want to buy it, keep it and use it? Will it be useful, and if so, when??
Having written a few cookbooks, I think it is safe to say that I’ve thought about this a lot. Here are some ways to choose a cookbook, and make it worth its weight in gold in your kitchen.
Deciding what kind of cookbook do you need.
Books are written with all sorts of purposes – single subject, health conscious, special event, diet specific book and so on. What is your cooking style and your most common eating style?? If you are switching to a particular diet, are a special events planner or are absolutely in love with a particular cuisine, a single subject cookbook may be the answer, but not otherwise. If your freezer section is burgeoning with prepackaged meals, you have a bigger problem than finding a suitable cookbook.
There are mass produced cookbooks, celeb cookbooks, discount cookbooks, charity collections, and self-published cookbooks. I personally don’t feel that there is reason to discount one kind over another because each one requires a tremendous amount of commitment and dedication. The difference remains in visibility – and practical application. Self published books are less likely to be visible. Many such authors do not begin their literary journey with agents – they begin by writing and sharing. So, ask yourself, if the author has written a book before you know you needed it – does it not deserve a second look?
Since I am also a graphic designer, if I find myself looking squarely at a cookbook in a bookstore – I will look at the visual appeal, the colors, the neatness of the food (shabby chic comes at a price), the layout and such other details.
If I skim through, do I understand what is going on?
Does the index seem helpful?
If there is too much white space, I wonder what the author is leaving out.
What is the percentage of photos to the text, type of binding, quality of paper?
I scan for words and phrases in the ingredients, does it have any logical order?
Is it tugging on my curiosity of the food culture or is it glamorizing it?
Does it educate me a little more about the food that I will prepare, or is it rather superficial?
I will read the inside flap if there is one, the acknowledgements and dedication and do an overall skim of the early pages.
Most of the books fail at this level – when I ask – is it written for a person like me – with an average lifestyle, and average time-commitment to domestic chores, or is it written for someone else who has a million dollar kitchen or one who rarely cooks?
I have found that most often, I will do more research in my pj’s away from the prying eyes of others, than I will in a bookstore. I am less likely to look through a library and more likely to do online research. Also many self-published books will not be found in a library as authors have far too many hoops to jump through, to make their hard work available, ultimately for free. It seems unfair to the self-published authors, so they keep doing what they do best – share their work directly with others, via their friends.
Reviews are good for gauging what one person thinks about the book, but everyone’s’ cooking style is different. If it reads like an unbiased review, I will give it more credit than a dozen biased ones. I will often look up a keyword or a method that an author talks about because I fall victim to glossy magazines for their photos more than their recipes. I know my weaknesses. Same thing goes for a farmers’ market – but most of what I pick up there – I will eat.
If I find the author online elsewhere (lots of social media outlets), I will do some snooping. Each media outlet has a purpose – Instagram and Pinterest are purely eye-candy, Twitter can be information sharing, LinkedIn is about credentials, blogs and Facebook are more personal.
Where can I find this author?
What motivates that person to cook and write about it?
If I met that person on the street, would I like them?
Would I feel encouraged to ask them a question, however silly it seems?
Can I relate to them?
Sure they are passionate cooks, but do I get their sense of humor?
Do they talk about anything other than food – ever?
That is when the magic can truly begin and their recipes begin to come alive or it falls flat.
Knowing if I will like the book
Gut-feelings and trust are my best bets. Remember the little babies who spit out their peas and carrots? It is not because they can’t tell the difference; but because they know there is something about those foods they don’t personally like. Somewhere as we grow up, we forget to trust these taste buds.
Good recipes include a note about taste and texture, flavor profiles and qualities about the ingredients and the finished dish. When you are looking for recipes online, are you most often looking for particular kinds of eats? Do you find yourself looking for a lunch fix or a dinner treat? How often do you stock your pantry? Do you have plenty of basics that will allow you to whip up something tasty from this book? How much time do you typically have?
As you are looking through cookbooks, your fingers will find the ones your heart and stomach desire.
Once you get the book you think you want, you’ll want to get cooking. Experiment with the recipes you might have downloaded, but also the ones you are hesitant to try. If it is a completely new recipe, find someone who may be able to make it for you (preferably a friend, or a restaurant) to see if it is worth your time and effort.
Do not ever make the mistake of using restaurant fare to judge whether you will like a cuisine or a dish; that is such a rookie mistake.
And never, in a million years, tell the author if you ever run into them, that you like dish ‘A’ made in your local food court. It is the equivalent of comparing a Big Mac to something that comes out of a Michelin starred kitchen.
When you finally have the guts to make it, you will know where to make adjustments, and ultimately will love your results.
The true test of a good dish from a good cookbook is when you can truly enjoy your meal. If you do purchase the book, call your friends, gather in the kitchen and try out a recipe or two. Ask a few of your friends to go in with you on either making the dish or making complimentary dishes. Bring beverages of choice and plan for an afternoon of cooking mishaps. Let the good times begin! This begins your conversation, your own traditions.
Empty plates = success. Enough said.
Communicate your results!
Tell your friends about your experiments – this helps those of your friends who did not participate decide which recipes and therefore which book you found easy to use, and which ones were ‘meh’. If you are inclined to be unbiased, share your review of the book or the author on their website, or on places where they are frequently most active, including ebook sites (Amazon / Nook / iBook), and hopefully you will help others like you pick up a diamond in the rough.
The best time to share a recipe or a new cookbook is not at the dinner table in between mouthfuls of soup and salads. This happens before - perhaps in the kitchen, perhaps at breakfast and ends at dinner time, sometimes it begins when you are hovering around a batch of farm fresh tomatoes at your market stand. The best time to share a cookbook is always when you’ve found a good way to use it, to cook from it, to enjoy the same tastes and temptations that the author experiences when writing those recipes for fellow foodies and readers.
Share your time with your cookbooks first, before you cook the feasts encased within for your loved ones – the stories will be even more magical, the flavors more tantalizing and the memories – will be definitely unforgettable.