Cookbook Awards

I’m not one to start a meme—heck, memes are so five minutes ago—but let’s just say that I had an idea tonight and if you like this idea you should take it and use it on your own website. The idea involves taking a picture of all your cookbooks grouped together and then giving awards to these cookbooks in various categories. We shall call these the “1st Annual Cookbook Awards.” Jessica Alba will be our host.

So without further ado, let’s bring out the cookbooks!


[If you want to study my cookbook shelf in greater detail, click the picture.]

Yes, I have quite a few cookbooks to say the least. It’s hard to remember which was the first: I think it might have been Nigella Lawson’s “How To Be A Domestic Goddess.” That was certainly one of the earlier ones. That and, of course, The Barefoot Contessa. I actually remember sitting in the Borders in Atlanta copying recipes out of The Barefoot Contessa books on to index cards. The first one I tried was her herbal iced tea. The second was her turkey meatloaf. Notice I haven’t repeated that turkey meatloaf on the site: it was big enough to feed an army. And the army I live with recently shipped out.

Studying my shelf above, you may see a method to my madness. The top shelf has Italian and French cookbooks; the second and third shelves have a random assortment and the bottom shelf has dessert/pastry/baking books. I am a man of great organization.

And now for the awards. I was actually going to call this post “My Desert Island Cookbooks” but then I came up with a few more categories. But let’s start with that one. You can bestow up to five awards in each category. Every nominee is a winner. (Hear that Susan Lucci?)

Desert Island Cookbook Awards

These are cookbooks I would take to a desert island, assuming the desert island was well-stocked with wonderful ingredients. In other words: these are my top five favorite cookbooks. I will explain my choices beneath each one.

1. The Gourmet Cookbook

I was thinking tonight about making paella. I playfully opened the Gourmet cookbook, immediately found a recipe, decided it was too involved and then started looking at pie recipes to make now that I’ve graduated strawberry/rhubarb school. The pies looked wonderful: sour cherry pie with an almond paste lattice crust? That’s when I knew this book was more than just an archive of Gourmet recipes; it’s an incomparable resource. It basically offers the best possible versions of any dish you can imagine. And they’re not boring standard versions like you’d find in a Betty Crocker cookbook; they’re fabulous, glittery complex and exciting versions. Everything has a little twist, a little tweak. It’s intimidating to flip through it but once you start, you’ll mentally bookmark about a thousands recipes. It’s at the top of my list.

2. Chez Panisse Cooking

This is my mystical, magical “if I were a witch, I’d use this cookbook” cookbook. This is the book that tells you to roast a chicken on a spit, to make an elixir out of green garlic and chicken broth, to sacrifice a lamb to the gods. [Ok, the last one’s a lie.] I imagine those Will Ferrel and Rachel Dratch college professor characters reading this cookbook and arousing each other with promises of “goose juice” and “moussaka.” It’s a sensual cookbook. It reminds me of the book Sebastian finds in the bookshop at the beginning of The Neverending Story. There’s mystery to it, a real aura. It gets me excited about cooking. And whenever I cook from it (a rare occurrence, I must confess) the results are exotic yet soothing and comforting. This is food that feeds the spirit. Top five!

3. The Babbo Cookbook

Babbo is my favorite restaurant. The food is unlike any food I’ve ever eaten–everything about it is special. And this cookbook, the Babbo cookbook, betrays all of their trade secrets. Mario is very candid about this in Bill Buford’s articles about Babbo (now turned into the awesome I’m reading-it-now book “Heat.”) He says that the Babbo cookbook is so revealing that when it comes out (the article was written in 2002) they’d have to completely change their menu. I believe it: everything is in here. And thus far everything I’ve attempted has been sheer perfection: most impressively, the short ribs I made with Diana a few months back. This is the book I cook from when I want to feel mighty and powerful in the kitchen. It’s not easy, but it’s not as hard as you think. Pretty soon I’ll be making fresh pasta from it, I swear.

4. The Gift of Southern Cooking

When I told Craig the story of Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis he gushed and said, “Oh my God, that would be such an awesome screenplay.” For those not in the know, Scott Peacock–a young gay Atlantan chef–was recruited by Emily Sailers of the Indigo Girls to be the chef at her new restaurant, Watershed. He said he’d do it on one condition: that they bring on Edna Lewis, the prominent black chef and granddaughter of slaves. What resulted, the restaurant Watershed, is an Atlanta landmark and one of the happiest restaurants I’ve eaten in. And the story of what followed–how Scott Peacock let Edna Lewis move in with him so he could take care of her in her old age, and how her family fought against it–would indeed make a powerful movie. Sadly, Ms. Lewis passed on earlier this year. But what remains is a terrific restaurant and an even more terrific cookbook: this cookbook, The Gift Of Southern Cooking. I hope my desert island has lots of chicken, buttermilk and flour so I can finally make their famous fried chicken.

5. Tie: Cooking for Mr. Latte & Sunday Suppers at Lucques

It’s been a long time since I’ve read “Cooking for Mr. Latte.” I remember liking the stories and the short, easy to read chapters. Yet, what makes this book essential for me are the recipes–the wonderful, perfect, I can’t believe how good they are recipes. Seriously, I can’t begin to tell you how many recipes from this book have become standards for me: the almond cake, oh my Lord the almond cake. (For a video representation, watch my movie “Miracle Almond Cake.”) I’ve made it like six times. Once a teacher even PAID me to make it. Yes, it’s that miraculous. Additionally, there’s the vanilla bean loaves (also terrifically awesome), the curried chicken breasts, the chopped salad, the Pearl Caesar… I could go on and on. To the desert island it goes!

But I can’t leave behind my new favorite, “Sunday Suppers at Lucques.” This book is staggering in its depth, in its beauty and in its utility. This is the book that teaches you what to find at market, how to tell if it’s good and then how to use it in the very best way possible. It’s organized by season, which makes so much sense. And the recipes can be wildly time-consuming and complex but the payoff is oh so worth it. The deviled chicken thighs on braised leeks took forever and was worth every minute. The panna cotta was much easier and lasts forever in your freezer, where mine is now–waiting for me to cut off another heavenly sliver. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

HEY! Where’s The Barefoot Contessa on your list? Why aren’t you taking her to a desert island?

This is painful for me to talk about. You better sit down. Look, I love The Barefoot Contessa as much as the next guy. She’s wonderful, she’s fun, she has more gay friends than Dorothy. (“Friend of Ina” should be the new euphamism.) But the thing about her recipes is that they’re not exotic, they’re not transportive: they merely take standard, every day recipes and make them much much better. That’s very useful at home when you want to make an excellent turkey meatloaf or the world’s best lemon bars. But on a desert island when you have all the time in the world and every ingredient at your disposal? That’s when you want to take it to the next level and as much as I love her Ina isn’t the next level. But I’ll give her an award anyway. Let’s see…

Lifetime Achievement Award For Best Easy To Make At Home Recipes: The Barefoot Contessa

This is the book that taught me that making things from scratch with lots of butter and lots of olive oil makes them oh so much better. I give this lifetime achievement award to Ina for showing all of us that even though we don’t live in the Hamptons, even though we don’t have snappy catch phrases (“How bad could that be?”) we’re all entitled to behave and eat as if we do. Thank you for the laughs, the table decorating tips and the brief glimpses we get of your palatial home. Oh, and thanks for recommending Olio Santo olive oil. I use it all the time.

Most Beautiful Cookbook Awards

These are awards for cookbooks that I love to look at, even if I don’t use them as much. If this were Miss America, these cookbooks would win the swimsuit competition.

1. The River Cafe Cookbooks

These cookbooks are just gorgeous to look at. Almost every page has an illustration and the use of graphics and graphic design make this a real stand-out. My favorite professor from college (Rick Rambuss) and his partner Chuck turned me on to these books. They invited me and some classmates over for a feast once and they cooked from them and the meal was fantastic. I’ve had mixed results with them—the asparagus risotto I made from one of these books was terrific; asparagus with anchovy butter, though, was a little gnarly. No matter. I love flipping through these books–they’re excellent examples of the artistry that goes into making a cookbook. You almost want to hang them on your wall.

2. Saveur Cooks Authentic French

When I was in Paris, several Americans-cum-Parisians recommended this book. When I got home I immediately ordered it on Amazon and it instantly became (after it arrived) one of my most prized cookbook possessions. This book is art. It’s enormous–it’s up there with The French Laundry and Bouchon as one of the largest cookbooks in my collection. But this, unlike those, is instantly transportive. Where those focus on the importance of the restaurants they represent, this book has the lofty goal of capturing all of France between its pages and it does so beautifully. The photography is stunning. The recipes work quite well too. So far I’ve made Pissaladi√®re and it worked quite well but that doesn’t even seem to matter. What matters is that this book captures the allure of France and French cooking in ways that other French cookbooks can only dream of. It’s the sexpot sister of Julia Child’s “Mastering The Art….” Sure, you know which one you’d marry, but these are the beauty awards. This is the one you take home to shtup.

3. Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook

Oh Martha. Oh woman, you so fine. You in your bright orange shirt and your hair just so. And that cake perfectly layered, the fruit perfectly placed–you make me growl with lust, woman. And then the pages open and all those pictures, oh those pictures–growl!–and the recipes, damn girl. This is porn. Hardcore pastry porn. A better return has never been staged. Your old cookbooks (which I’ve studied at The Strand) are prim and proper. But here you let your hair down and you create the sexiest dessert cookbook yet imagined. I’ve got a rolling pin with your name on it, woman.

Glad To Own Them But Barely Use Them Awards

These are the books I’m quite happy to own but whose covers I barely ever crack. I don’t know why. We’ll explore that a bit below.

1. Mastering The Art of French Cooking

Julie Powell I am not. This book, which I bought many years ago, sits on my shelf and frowns down at me. “Silly child,” it says. “Why not open me? I’m a wonderful resource!” Yes, I know you are. And I’ve watched all your shows, Julia, on Netflix. I loved them. But the few times I’ve cracked your pages I’ve left them completely uninspired and hardly in the mood to cook. Blasphemy! Yes, I know. Maybe I’ll come around some day. But for now I’m just happy to have you on the shelf, there to keep all the other books company. You are good company, after all.

2. Cooking By Hand

This book is such a nice idea. It’s a meditation by one of the forces behind Chez Panisse on all things culinary—big blocks of text mixed in with recipes. The pictures are mostly black and white, occasionally there’s one in color. It’s quite a strange book. I pull it down now and then when I’m feeling generous or optimistic. Then I start reading and I’m intrigued but then I get to a recipe and I scratch my head and I wonder if I can find a better one in another book. Then I put it back. But I’m not sorry it’s there. One day, maybe I’ll be ready for it.

3. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

More blasphemy! I know. I’ve made the chicken with the bread salad. True, I didn’t do it the right way but to be honest I don’t really want to. All I want to do is fly to San Francisco and actually eat at The Zuni Cafe. Otherwise, this book intimidates me. There’s so much in it. Whereas “Sunday Suppers at Lucques” has an eclectic, carefully chosen selection of recipes, this is like a treatise and a phonebook all rolled into one. And honestly a recipe for a fresh nectarine with green almonds and prosciutto doesn’t make me swoon, it kind of makes me roll my eyes. That’s not really what I’m looking for when I buy a cookbook.

4. Nancy Silverton’s Books

Oh Nancy. How many times I attempted your caramel corn. And how awful was it when I made your coffee cake? Those memories are horrible. Yet, I’m still glad you’re around. Hey, you’re the one who taught me how to make sourdough bread from a natural yeast starter. But you’re such a perfectionist! And there’s no humor in your books. I haven’t opened them in months, years even. But every so often I get that urge and that’s why I’m glad you’re there. Maybe we just need couples counseling?

Best For A Specific Purpose Awards

1. Jewish Cooking in America

When the high holidays come around and the guilt-inducing phone calls start pouring in from my mother and grandmother, this cookbook comes off the shelf and I start reading about the history of the Jews, the best recipe for kugel and then I put it back and order Chinese food. But, no, there was that time I made a Passover dinner and I made lots of stuff from this book and it worked really well. I love books that give you a historical, cultural context as well as recipes from reputable sources. This book has it all.

2. The Sopranos Family Cookbook

Kirk bought this for me for my birthday and it’s a great resource for finding recipes to make on Sunday nights when people come over to watch the very show it promotes, The Sopranos, the best show on TV. The rigatoni I made from it with sausage and fresh basil was top notch. The others are classic American-Italian recipes that would please my family if they ever let me cook for them again.

3. License to Grill

One day I will have a house and I will buy a grill like the one described in this book, a book praised by many for its gourmet grilling recipes. When I lived in Atlanta I made chicken and grilled peaches from this book on a gas grill and though I had trouble controlling the heat, it was a glimpse of all the glory this book holds within its pages. If you do have a grill, I recommend it highly.

4. Mes Confitures

Clotilde turned me on to this book about jam making. Every jam in it is a jam you’d gladly spread on toast—the only problem is you have to make them first. The few times I’ve attempted a jam from this book—ok, it was only one time—the result was sublime. It was nectarine apricot jam and it gets me all giddy when I think of it. Plus, jam making is one of the few cooking endeavors that’ll pay off months and months later. It’s an investment, indeed.

Ok, I’m pooped. I hope you enjoyed these awards. If you make cookbook awards on your site, feel free to link to them in the comments here. I’d like to see what you come up with. Now cue the music: “Here she comes…Miss Amateur Gourmet Cookbook Award winner….”

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