From the desk of Christopher Kimball
Dear Home Cook,
I am often asked about my Top Ten list of cookbooks and, until recently, I had never given this a lot of thought. Sure, I have plenty of go-to books that I use regularly, but since I have read so many cookbooks over the years, a Top Ten pick would have to be truly special. And we are not just talking recipes here. The book’s basic organizing idea, the writing style and quality, the personality of the author, the approach to food and cooking—all of these things have to be unique and enduring. So, with all of that in mind, I offer the following list. Some of my selections will be unexpected, even serendipitous, but they are the 10 works that have stood my test of time in the kitchen.
French Cooking in Ten Minutes, Edouard de Pomaine
Any cookbook that begins, “First of all, let me tell you that this is a beautiful book” just has to be worth a peek. Written by a Frenchman of Polish extraction in 1930, it reflects de Pomaine’s unique ability to make cooking appear simple enough that any oaf could walk into a kitchen and produce good results. His advice is as breezy and useful today as it was 80 years ago. (His directive to compose menus with three items, one of which requires no last-minute preparation, is advice I still follow today.) I even find myself turning on the oven and heating up a big pot of water the minute I walk in the front door at night—words of eternal quick-cook wisdom.
The Breakfast Book, Marion Cunningham
I love this woman and I love this book. Marion did for breakfast what Julia did for French cooking—she made it both interesting and approachable. Her Dewey Buns, a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty, are so good that one could build a franchise around them. The Zeppelin Pancakes, the Chewy Brown Sugar Muffins, the Raised Waffles, the Buttermilk Baked Egg are all part of my morning repertoire. She walks fresh culinary ground here and does it with energy and panache.
Chez Panisse Vegetables, Alice L. Waters
This is a little gem of a book if you want to look at vegetable cookery in a whole new light. Yes, it does assume that you can get a wide assortment of tasty, local veggies (hey, we don’t all live in Berkeley!) and the directions are often on the sparse side (this book assumes you can cook). But it is beautifully produced and some of the taste combinations and cooking methods are more than worth the price and preparation time. I find myself going back to this volume time after time for inspiration as well as for recipes.
The Italian Country Table, Lynne Rosetto Kasper
Once in a great while, a cookbook author does original work using an original voice. Lynne Kasper, host of The Splendid Table public radio show, hit a home run with her second volume, The Italian Country Table. This is the real deal: Italian farmhouse cooking with big flavors and a fresh point of view. Espresso Ricotta Cream anyone? Iced Summer Peaches? And, as an added bonus, you’ll never make a boring pesto again.
The Union Square Café Cookbook, Danny Meyer and Michael Romano
I have loved this restaurant since I first visited it—and still do. It is consistent, the service is excellent, and the food is interesting without being silly. I am not often a fan of restaurant cookbooks, since the recipes rarely work well at home. But Danny Meyer and Michael Romano have produced recipes that do work if one is willing to put in the time and effort. Charred Tomatoes with Onions and Mint, a whole chapter on mashed potatoes, and Mocha Semifreddo are just a few of their superior offerings.
Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duquid
Alford and Duquid have created one of the most gorgeous travel/cookbooks ever published, with stunning photos and well-researched recipes from Southeast Asia. Although this is not, for the most part, Tuesday-night supper material, not all of these dishes lie beyond the domain of the typical American home cook. Above all, this book displays the joy of creating something both beautiful and original—it’s not just another travel tome for the gift market.
Bistro Cooking at Home, Gordon Hamersley
The author, Gordon Hamersley, is a celebrated Boston chef and also a friend. I love his food because he obsesses over it and does not run around the world opening new restaurants—he is a one-trick pony in the style of the great French chefs. His cooking is both solid and eye-opening, seducing diners with quality and execution rather than flights of fancy. Locals who are familiar with Hamerlsey’s Bistro will recognize many of his signature dishes in this book, including variations on duck confit, his Wild Mushroom and Roasted Garlic Sandwich, and one of my favorite desserts, Gordon’s Souffléd Lemon Custard. This guy is a pro and so is his cookbook.
Epitaph for A Peach, David Masumoto
Masumoto is a writer as well as a farmer. This book is one of my favorite pieces of food writing because Masumoto brings to life his passion for the family farm and the heartbreak of trying to maintain an heirloom peach in a tough market. It all comes through in a mixture of poetry and philosophy. If you want to understand the life of a farmer, this is the book to read.
American Cookery, James Beard
Jim Beard was a walking encyclopedia of American cooking, and this is his flagship book. Part anthropology, part history, and part cookbook, Jim allows you to read between the lines, to get a sense of what he really thinks about a recipe. If I want a good starting point for any recipe in the American repertoire, I always turn to Beard and American Cookery.
The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook, Jack Bishop
OK, Jack is a friend and colleague, as well as the Editorial Director of America’s Test Kitchen, but this book is a winner all on its own. I keep coming across folks who have discovered this unheralded classic because the recipes work, they are straightforward, and they use the big earthy flavors of Italy to transform what are too often lackluster vegetable preparations.
Founder and Editor
America’s Test Kitchen