Home Cooking

by Maria on February 18, 2005

There’s a wonderful passage in Colm Toibin’s ‘The Master’, a fictional biography of Henry James, where the hero is on his way to see the house in Rye where he’ll spend the rest of his life. It came to mind when I sat down to list my favourite cookery books.

“…on the train he wondered if anyone watching him would know how momentous this journey was for him, how exciting and how potentially disappointing. He knew that it was merely a house; others bought and sold houses and moved their belongings with ease and nonchalance. It struck him as he traveled towards Rye that no one, save himself, understood the meaning of this. For so many years now he had had no country, no family, no establishment of his own, merely a flat in London where he worked. He did not have the necessary shell, and his exposure over the years had left him nervous and exhausted and fearful. It was as though he lived a live which lacked a façade, a stretch of frontage to protect him from the world. Lamb House would offer him beautiful old windows from which to view the outside; the outside, in turn, could peer in only at his invitation.

He dreamed now of being a host, having friends and family to stay; he dreamed of decorating an old house, buying his own furniture and having continuity and certainty in his days.”

Like any well dragged up Anglo-Saxon, Henry James had the property bug. (Though he did lease rather than buy.) As someone who’s moved on average every 9 months for the last 10 years and in 5 different countries, I sympathise. Unpacking this time, though, the kitchen stuff came out before the books, except the cookery books, that is. I’d been desperate for the last 6 months to have my own kitchen again.

Cooking is the closest proxy to home ownership when you need to do some nesting. It’s the ultimate in control of one’s environment and the people in it. It’s a solitary pleasure with a social purpose. It brings emotional and physical wellbeing. It’s both creative and methodical. It requires absolute concentration and yet switches your brain right off. And it makes you feel at home, wherever you are.

So, having established how important cooking is to me (which is not the same as saying I’m any good at it…), here is a shopping list of some cookery books that can make any place seem like home:

Avoca Café Cookbook
The Avoca Café is a café in County Wicklow where you go on a Sunday afternoon for the gorgeous hearty soups and crusty brownbread, scones and cream, crunchy salads, and satisfying stews. It has done a lot to renew interest and pride in Irish cuisine and remind us that the essential of good cooking is great, fresh ingredients simply and lovingly prepared. I have more pages of this book than any other marked with postits and melted butter. Just last night, I had a loaf of their divine banana bread in the oven. Toasted each morning and lashed with salty butter, it will provide a week of comforting breakfasts.

The idea behind Avoca food is gentle fusion. There are hints of Asian, French and Italian cooking, but the focus is on good local produce and unchallenged contentment. The book also has loads of colour pictures of the food. Serious cooks probably don’t need these, but I think there’s nothing like them to start you imagining you’re making the food already. The Avoca Café Cookbook II is out now, but I haven’t yet bought it.

A recent purchase is Aine McAteer’s Recipes to Nurture. This book is the opposite of what I’d normally buy – the food in it is verging on macrobiotic. But there’s nothing joyless or self-denying about this cooking. The food is so sunny you feel you‘ve escaped the dreary northern European winter by just reading the recipes for Thai fish cakes, sunrise papaya salsa and pineapple ginger ice dream.

A couple of months ago, I scoured all the bookshops in Dupont Circle without success for a book of classic American cooking. I’m pretty fussy, though. I was looking for something with a nice layout, loads of pictures and recipes for things like pecan pie, key lime pie, and any number of savoury regional dishes. If anyone has a recommendation, I’d love to hear it.

But while I was browsing I found a book that has since yielded a stream of happy diners; Seriously Simple, easy recipes for creative cooks by Diane Rossen Worthington. This book has a couple of signature moves. First, Diane RW is very keen on oven-cooking sauces to enrich their flavour and cut down on the work involved. Her pasta with roasted cherry tomatoes and fresh basil takes literally 5 minutes to prepare (ahead of cooking) and is far and away the best pasta sauce I’ve ever made. The other trick in this book is the inclusion under each recipe of alternative ingredients or uses of the dish, called ‘the clever cook could’. The food is a nice mix of vaguely Mediterranean, Californian and Asian fusion and has an excellent section up front on pantry essentials.

In a similar vein, try Jenny Bristow’s Light Taste the Good Life. Steering away from punitive lists of food to be avoided, Jenny Bristow provides lots of great recipes for foods that happen to be very nutritious. Her spring vegetable risotto is gorgeous – lovely and light but at the same time very comforting and tummy-lining for the dead of winter. I haven’t yet tracked down any passion fruit in Brussels (though I walked a mile and a half for some peaches last weekend – what is this, communist Russia?), but when I do I’ll be making some passion fruit mousse with a tangy lime syrup. Jenny Bristow’s signature menu items are her tangy and contrasting syrups, dressings and salsas. She takes quite straightforward and well known recipes and serves them with a twist (and an extra helping of Vitamin C).

So there you have it; four books of recipes to assist with nesting and even make it feel like high summer (for those of us in the northern hemisphere who need the boost). I suspect Henry James couldn’t even boil an egg – maybe he should have tried.



Jeremy Osner 02.18.05 at 12:39 pm

Thanks — did you notice the latest feature at John and Belle’s place, excerpted from “What’s Cooking in United Party Circles At Parow.”


Yakov Smirnov 02.18.05 at 4:13 pm

In Russia, peaches walk to you!


SamChevre 02.18.05 at 5:20 pm

For a good American cookbook, it is hard to beat The Joy of Cooking–a 60’s or 70’s edition, not the revised one with Asian recipes. It is classic American food, with its influences showing–so it has dishes like sauerbraten and omelettes. And it’s introduction to ingredients and techniques–Know Your Ingredients–is worth the price of the book by itself.


steveh 02.18.05 at 6:54 pm

The vine is winding down now, with no flowers for the past month and just a couple of passionfruit per day, but it’s been a challenge keeping up. I’ve given away perhaps 100 and made passionfruit tarts, shortbread, curd, and smoothies. Inspired by a scene in “Maria, Full of Grace”, I’ve taken to putting the pulp of 3-5 into a blender with water and a bit of sugar. That mousse sounds pretty tempting.


MaryLou 02.19.05 at 12:54 am

I don’t have this book, but based on reviews and Marion Cunningham recipes, I’m guessing it’s excellent. Lost Recipes by Marion Cunningham:


Mitch Mills 02.19.05 at 4:52 pm

Either The Joy of Cooking, mentioned above, or Marion Cunningham’s Fannie Farmer Cookbook are encyclopaedic treatments of US cooking. Not loaded with pictures though. Primarily just (well done) line drawings and diagrams.

Lots of US home cooks cut their culinary teeth on one or both of these two books. I don’t know about Ireland and its cookbooks, but the closest British analog to Rombaeur or Cunningham would probably be Delia Smith.

For a very pretty, picture-laden, nicely layed-out book, take a look at Saveur Cooks Authentic American. Great photography of the food and countryside and people, and nice writing about the people and places the regional dishes come from.

I can’t vouch for the recipes, though, as I don’t own it and haven’t cooked out of it, I’ve just leafed through it longingly at the bookshop. And it’s not by a single author, it’s a collection of recipes and articles from the magazine by various contributors, so there’s no overarching vision or voice to the recipes, no “signature moves”.

In my experience, the recipes in Saveur magazine are generally pretty reliable though, so everything in the book is probably at least servicable. And as I mentioned above, the photography is gorgeous and very hunger and travel-inspiring.

You might want to ask Belle for her input too.


Leila Abu-Saba 02.20.05 at 6:31 am

From Mark Bittman, a food columnist for the NY Times: “How to Cook Everything”. His techniques are simplified with the busy home cook in mind; the food is sophisticated; he includes many sidebars with lists of variations and combinations. (i.e. “20 meat recipes that are good on salads”)

Read “The Minimalist Cooks” Wednesdays in the NYT. “The Minimalist Cooks Dinner” (book) has yielded really good meals, like a simplified choucroute garni, or butternut squash with pasta.

For Middle Eastern cooking try Claudia Roden, either “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” or “The Book of Jewish Food.” Yes, the latter is full of wonderful recipes from the Sephardic and Mizrahi traditions, along with plenty of historical info not only about Jews but about trends and influences in the food of the Levant. Her recipes are well thought out, simple but tasty. Native-born Arabs have begged me for my mjaddarah recipe – from Claudia, who was born in Cairo.

Anissa Helou has written many books on Lebanese and Mediterranean cooking -any of them is worth the price.

Clifford Wright is another whose cookbooks I read like novels – encyclopedic, with dishes I haven’t seen before – the “Mediterranean” books always have extensive Arabic and Middle Eastern recipe selections.

Pamela Anderson’s “How to Cook Without a Book” is an extremely useful guide to getting food on the table quickly, without use of mixes or prepared ingredients. She uses formulas, with easy ways to remember them, and offers lots of variations for things like pan sauces for sauteed proteins, supper soups, stir fries, pad thai, pasta sauces, vegetable sides and salads – with a little practice you can come home, look in the fridge and pantry, and produce a meal in under 40 minutes.


Mary Kay 02.20.05 at 9:59 pm

Hands down, the best cooking magazine in America is Cooks Illustrated. They decide how they want the dish to taste/look/feel and then make it over and over and over with variations until they get it just the way they want it, and give you the recipe (and recount the research. The genius behind the magazine had published his own cookbook, The Cooks Bible: The best of American Home Cooking. He and Cooks Illustrated published many of the recipes from the magazine in a book called The Best Recipe which I see is now out in a revised edition as The New Best Recipe. I’ve used the original many times and other recipes from the magazine many times and they have always been wonderful. They have published other, specialty, cookbooks as well. I recommend them all heartily.



Jeremy Osner 02.21.05 at 2:58 am

My favorite cookbook is The Spice Box: A Vegetarian Indian Cookbook by Manju Singh — she really communicates the process of mixing spices in such a way that I, who before I read the book knew good Indian food only as an avid consumer, became over the course of a few months a credible cook of curries and chutneys.

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