My neighbor Bernie keeps leaving cookbooks on my front step. He’s either been hitting the thrift stores again or he’s dumping his collection on me. I think we’re up to six Bernie books in the last month. He knows I like to cook, and I appreciate that he wants to provide me with ideas for future meals. But honestly, how many cookbooks does one really need?
There are thousands of cookbooks in the world, and the publishing of cookbooks has apparently continued at a relatively steady pace in the digital age. Also, during the pandemic, cookbook sales have been brisk, according to news reports.
Now listen: I’m not knocking it. There’s always something new to learn, some new twist on a classic dish. Those of us who love to cook have our favorite cookbooks. (My shortlist will follow below.) But Bernie’s surge of cookbooks got me thinking, and my thinking took me here: Better a perfect meatball than bad pad thai.
By that I mean: It’s better for the home chef to be very good at about 12 things — and I mean savory main courses, not grilling hot dogs — than to constantly be experimenting with dishes outside his/her lane.
What’s your lane? That varies. But at the risk of sounding tragically risk-averse, I’d say “outside your lane” means trying to cook from recipes beyond your range of preferences — the food you really care about — and probably outside your ethnic ancestry. For the home chef, it’s best for you and the people you feed to stay in or near the familiar, and cook with confidence.
I know this will sound tragically conservative, but I think we should all work at being really good at preparing about 12 dishes rather than experiment with 40 or 50, with meh results. Perfection takes time, and experimentation outside your lane eats up a lot of it.
I know what I’m good at — mostly Mediterranean meals, on the Italian side, with some success in Portuguese dishes, three or four from classic French, and one or two from New England, what my mother called “Yankee cooking.”
I have cooked the following dishes so many times I no longer need the recipes, though I’ll sometimes consult a cookbook for a refresher:
Basic Italian marinara sauce, the foundation of a lot of great meals; Lasagna; Meatballs; Polenta and sausage; Stuffed pork loin; Scampi and linguine; Eggplant or chicken parmigiana; Spaghetti alla carbonara; Portuguese codfish stew; Boston Baked Beans; Coq au vin; Crepes; Chicken soup or stew; Homemade pizza; Bugiali’s summer carrot salad; Poached salmon with sauce verte; the peppers-and-eggs sub.
Is that all I ever cook? No. I’ll try other dishes. But I prefer to work toward perfection within my culinary realm than spend time trying, say, a Thai or Vietnamese dish. Those savory meals I leave to the experts, and be glad to pay for the experience.
The old New York Times cookbook by Craig Claiborne is still good for basic recipes.
“What’s Cooking in Portugal” by Saul Krieg
“La Technique” by Jacques Pépin
Julia Child’s foundational books
Any book by Giuiliani Bugialli
“Italy, The Beautiful Cookbook: Authentic Recipes From the Regions Of Italy” by Lorenza de’Medici
“The Chesapeake Bay Cookbook” by John Shields
I’m evaluating all the books good ole Bernie left for me — I really like the sounds of “How To Cook Without A Book” — and I’ll probably keep them all for my culinary library. I might even experiment with some recipes. But I probably won’t stray far from what I know. There’s such a thing as comfort food. There’s such a thing as comfort cooking, too.