Monday 6 August 2007

Favourite food books

A few weeks back Lucy did a meme which she creatively morphed into 7 favourite food books. She welcomed anyone to join in and, I relished the challenge, but have taken some time to get my thoughts together.

Seeing Susan’s list, made me realize just how much I love reading about others cookbooks. If I came into your kitchen and a cookbook was lying on your table, I would have to pick it up and browse through it. While I try to avoid buying many cookbooks (especially meaty ones) because there are so many recipes I’d never make or already have, there are few cookbooks without some new idea to interest me.

Picking favourites is difficult and over time, books come in and out of favour. But I chose to focus on books about food that have influenced my attitudes to food, and which have actually inspired some of my favourite cooking. Quite a few come from when I turned vegetarian and was seeking guidance and inspiration to support me in my choice. I have tried to make this list representative of the sort of cookbooks I have. But many newer cookbooks didn’t make the list, partly because not enough time has passed to demonstrate if they will be a fly-by-night or a keeper. Here is my list, in no particular order:

1. The Enchanted Broccoli Forest: Mollie Katzen
If you have been reading my blog you will have spotted that I have been rediscovering this cookbook. Mollie was a cooking guru for me before the cult of celebrity brought us mentors like Nigella and Jamie. It recorded recipes made by the Moosewood collective at a restaurant in Ithaca New York – a place I often dreamed of going. This is actually her second cookbook – I also have her first (the Moosewood Cookbook). I think she put many of the standard vegetarian recipes in her first book and more of her creativity into her second.

Creativity can be found both in the recipes and in the handwritten recipes which are decorated with her drawings. This book is worth owning for the wonderful purple and green cover and the inspired name (and there really is a recipe called the enchanted broccoli forest which has little broccoli trees planted in a bed of rice). It is a labour of love and her delight in food shines through. Some of my favourite recipes are tofu nutballs, mushroom yoghurt pie with spinach crust and her shepherd’s pie. She also has some good flexible guides to making bread, quiches, stirfries with whatever is on hand. I learnt a lot about making stirfries from her.

2. The Vegetarian Alternative: a guide to a healthful and humane diet: Vic Sussman
This is not a recipe book but it was an important book for me as a new vegetarian. I went vegetarian because it felt right and I didn’t like meat. I was upset when I found out we had eaten our pet lambs, I hate the sight of dead animals, and I remember feeling ill the one time I tried to make chicken stock with a chicken carcass and having the neck flopping around. But it wasn’t any one event or thing that turned me vegetarian, it just felt right. So once I went vegetarian and faced all the inevitable questions and challenges I needed some information to help me respond.

Vic Sussman was my man. I happened across a second hand copy of the book with its brown 1970s cover. He explained all the reasons of vegetarianism – ethical, environmental, aesthetic and health. It explained why vegetarian is good for us and gave some stomach churning details about the production of meat. He even gives a few recipes at the back of the book but I confess I’ve never made any of them – maybe one day! This book might not be for everyone but it gave me what I needed.

3. Green and Black’s Chocolate Recipes: from the cacao pod to muffins, mousses and moles
I bought this one recently. I had begun to realize that most of my cookbooks were vegetarian cookbooks which meant when I was looking for cakes and desserts I was often faced with ridiculously healthy recipes at the end of vegetarian cookbooks. Being vegetarian doesn’t mean you never want to indulge in chocolate desserts. I originally saw this book in an Oxfam Charity Shop in Durham while visiting friends Chris and Yavanna there early last year. It was such a large book it seemed too heavy for my case and so I waited til I was back in Melbourne and found a copy in Community Aid Abroad. It is such a wonderfully decadent book with beautiful photography and an amazing range of rich chocolatey dishes: ranging from chocolate stollen (which I want to make) to chocolate pecan pie (which was sinfully good) and any number of decadent cakes, brownies and cookies. It just shows that you can be ethical about food and still eat very very well!

4. Vegetarian Christmas: Rose Elliot
I love my British old-school vegetarian cookbooks with their nutloaves and gravies, croquettes and croustades, pease pudding and parkin. I think the title of an early Rose Elliot book, Not Just a Load of Old Lentils, shows how much these writers like Rose Elliot and Sarah Brown were out to prove vegetarians could eat well. And one of the times it is most important to try and eat well is Christmas when it is easy for vegetarians to get sidelined by turkey and ham. I also love my theme vegetarian cookbooks and this is one of the best, despite a lack of photos. I turn to it in midwinter when I need comforting food, and I turn to it in midsummer when I need Christmassy food. It has the obligatory nutloaves, plus seasonal treats such as celery and stilton soup, parsley potato stars, and a flaky mushroom Christmas tree. I’d recommend them all. Plus it has mulled wine and mulled apple juice. Something for everyone, really.

5. How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Nigella Lawson
I like Nigella. I love watching her tv shows. I love the way she talks about food. I have read her How to Eat from cover to cover. Yet, she really loves her meat and so I am not so interested in buying most of her books. But Domestic Goddess, despite a few meat recipes, is a favourite on my shelves. I love her introductions, her encouragement and the way she tosses her hair nonchalantly. Alright, that has nothing to do with her books but I can see why celebrity chefs have taken off. It is nice to have an image of a person who is guiding you through your cooking, especially when they shrug ingenuously to indicate how easy it is. She manages to combine old-fashioned comfort with trendy new ideas. Some of my fond memories of baking from the book include Store Cupboard Chocolate Orange Cake, Millionaire’s Shortbread and Pizza. There are lots more I hope to bake!

6. Vegie Food: from vegies on the side to the main event
This book is one of those books with no author. I love it because it has so many wonderful recipes that are full of vegetables – soups, salads, sides, mains. It has mouthwatering pictures and inspiring ideas. I have used it for some great salads and sides such as snowpea salad with Japanese dressing, semi-dried tomato and baby spinach salad, and zucchini with mint and fetta. I just wish I could remember which soups I have made from it and which soups I have merely fantasized about (that is the story of my cookbook collection, I am sorry to say – let me digress to say a friend used to be proud of how I could remember what we ate on any given occasion but these days my memory aint what it used to be, and too many wonderful dishes I thought would linger on my palate forever have faded in the mists of time – I hope this blog will help me out!)

7. The Man Who Ate Everything: Jeffrey Steingarten
This book was such a delight to read, I had to include it. It is not a cookbook but it is a great journey to join Mr Steingarten in his wonderful tales of culinary curiosity and obsession. He starts off the book promising himself that there is nothing he wont try and indeed he is a fearless explorer. He makes me feel a little shamed about the foods I wont eat which are indeed personal limitations, but this books gives me an opportunity to be a bit of an armchair daredevil with food. I also love how he can make me look differently at the most simple foods. One of my favourite chapters is his search for the pure taste of water.

That’s my list for today. It may change tomorrow. There are lots of great food books I had to leave off to reduce the list to a measly 7. I was going to give honorable mentions but then the list got too long so, suffice to say, it was hard to pick only seven, and there are many other wonderful books on my shelves.

On the stereo:
As Time Goes By: Brian Ferry


  1. I love knowing what people enjoy reading almost as much as what they enjoy eating so thanks for sharing! Like you my list changes often but I think it would feature a fair few of yours.

  2. Great picks, Johanna! I especially like your veg recommendations. I've given up red meat, and am letting the others go over time, so I'm very keen for clever, flavorful recipes that will expand rather than confine my cooking adventures. Someone else recommended Steingarten's book to me, but I'm on the fence about it. If he does indeed eat everything, then I don't think I want to know about it. Be comfortable and proud of your personal "limitations." I call them discernments and choices of which we are all entitled.

  3. An interesting list, Johanna! I wasn't aware of the Moosewood connection while you've been posting Mollie Katzen's recipes. I was lucky enough to spend about 8 months studying in Ithaca, NY and it really is a beautiful town, the change of the seasons is spectacular!

  4. thanks Truffle - eating and reading are pleasures that go hand in hand, aren't they?

    thanks Susan - the Steingarten is a great foodie read but I like your approach to 'limitations' - in fact E and I often joke about being discerning rather than fussy! And I think there are lots of veg cookbooks that show just how when you limit one part of your diet you open up a new world of food options!

    Thanks Cindy - nice to hear Ithaca sounds as lovely as I imagined! maybe you will be lucky enough to return to Ithaca sometime and visit the Moosewood

  5. This was fun to read! And I still have to get that first book... Might do this meme soon. :)

  6. You did it! Yay!

    Great list. I do love Katzen's illustrations - they seem to add an extra layer of something to the recipes. I've made the Enchanted Broccoli Forest (how could I not) and loved it. Lots of goodies here, many I've not read. I like Nigella too, but I've had such limited success that I'm afraid to open up another one of her books...Going to try and get the Rose Elliot.

  7. thanks Wendy - would be curious to see your fave food books!

    thanks Lucy - Katzen's hand drawn illustrations are pretty cute, and I understand that nigella doesn't always work - I did try one chocolate cake that was odd but the store cupboard choc orange cake is one I would highly recommend! I am a little biased about Rose Elliot because I had people telling me how wonderful she is when I went vegetarian but I have got lots of good recipes from her.


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