Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Sign of a Truly All-Purpose Cookbok

Lots of cookbooks claim to be all-purpose. What that usually means is that every course type and meal type are represented: breads, desserts, egg/cheese dishes, various meat/poultry chapters, side dishes, vegetables, etc.

To me, a truly all-purpose cookbook not only gives recipes in all of these important categories, but includes the basic recipes in each category along with the more elaborate recipes. Most of my all-purpose cookbooks do this admirably well in the baking/dessert/egg/cheese sections: nearly all of them have recipes for basic sandwich bread, scrambled eggs, cookies, and so forth along with the recipes for herbed dinner rolls, Quiche Lorraine, and a 3-layer chocolate torte.

What separates the good all-purpose cookbooks from the best all-purpose cookbooks is seen in the other chapters: meat/poultry/fish, vegetables, salads. Lots of modern cookbooks skip the simple broiled fish and go straight to a whole fish on a bed of pureed something with a decadent white sauce drizzled on top and a sprig of fresh herb as garnish. While we may want to impress our friends and family on occasion or create a memorable holiday meal, we need to cook on a daily basis and don't have the time or money to create such lavish spreads. It's no wonder people feel like they don't have the time or energy to cook these days. My brain hurts just looking at some of those more complex recipes and trying to figure out a grocery list.

If you're buying an all-purpose cookbook, look for one like The Joy of Cooking or How to Cook Everything, 10th anniversary edition. Both of these cookbooks do a great job of giving some simple recipes at the beginning of each chapter and then moving on to more complex recipes. I prefer Bittman's style these days (How to Cook Everything) since he gives such endless variations that I'm always sure to find something I can cook with what's on hand. Nonetheless, JOC has earned its reputation fairly and I turn to it, too. Cookbooks like Fannie Farmer and Better Homes and Gardens do a good job of providing basic recipes, but they still don't offer the simple sauteed chicken breast with no adornment other than salt and pepper.

I've cooked some truly great, elaborate, memorable meals. But you know what? My family loves just as much (or even more) the simple sauteed chicken breast with simple pan sauce with a side of simple roasted or baked potatoes and steamed green vegetable (a 1/2 hour meal if you start the potatoes in the microwave). Bonus: by cooking simpler meals, I've really learned how to cook and when to stop cooking (a real skill in terms of cooking boneless, skinless poultry or chocolate chip cookies). Who can resist a piece of succulent, well-seasoned chicken or a perfect chocolate chip cookie?

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