When it comes to books, I am a prolific page folder, so if you wanted to tell which cookbooks are my favourite, you need look no further than the top right corner, where my most treasured volumes are punctuated with frequent folds and post-it notes. Defacing cookbooks is something of a specialist subject of mine, an artform passed down from my mother, who would often tear whole pages out of cookbooks (the horror!), scrawl her annotations over them in biro (including a conversion from gram measurements to pounds and ounces) and fix them to the fridge with magnets. She would watch cooking shows, and jot down recipes in short hand, and they too were fixed to the fridge, along with magazine cuttings, and hand written recipes (most of which she knew from memory) for household favourites like scones, cheese straws, and so on. Over the years, our fridge became something of a cookbook in its own right, a hub of recipes: some copied, some reimagined, and some invented, that with hindsight instilled in me a real appreciation for the musings and creations of passionate cooks. This progressed to a love for cookbooks, which if chosen and used correctly, can be one of the most infinite sources of pleasure and inspiration you can have in your kitchen (other than eating!). As someone who imagines herself to be competent in the kitchen, cookbooks usually act as a starting point for me, and I inevitably end up changing and substituting ingredients as per availability and my personal taste. Here are my favourites:
1. FOR THE SHOW OFF: Institut Paul Bocuse Gastronomique. One of the most formidable books a cook can have on their shelf; the unrivalled bible of cooking. Bocuse, who sadly passed away last year, has pain stakingly put together one of the prettiest, most well illustrated cook books in print, which takes you through all the basics in classic style: how to prepare a mushroom, how to stuff a ducks leg, how to make a shellfish stock, how to fillet a dover sole, and so on, progressing to walk-through recipes of Michelin standard (Bocuse had three). This book, which is unapologetically classic in content and presentation, is a constant point of reference for me, and is so much more than just a cook book – with pointers on hospitality, wine pairings, service and presentation, all combined with a wealth – 500 pages or so – of culinary knowledge and helpful tips.
2. FOR THE CASUAL COOK: Eat, Nigel Slater. A little gem of a book, and one of my all time favourites to dip into for a weekday lunch or dinner. Full of what you expect from Nigel: Recipes that are big on flavour, paired with his own thoughts and musings. Pages I have folded include “sausage lasagne” “Goats cheese frittata” and “Cucumber, fennel, and ricotta salad”. Recipes are loosely arranged, and one could open this book to almost any page and be delighted with the result. Unusually the recipes consist almost entirely of ideas and flavour combinations that I had never considered before, so prepare to be pleasantly surprised, and for those of us who lack imagination – each recipe is illustrated. If you’re looking for a “does everything” cook book, that focusses on no nonsense flavour packed recipes, this is a great place to start.
3. FOR THE CARNIVORE: Prime – The Beef Cookbook, Richard H Turner. Red meat has taken something of a bashing over the last few years, but I remain a humble devotee to the cow and it’s produce. This book is a bible for beef lovers – not just how to cook the meat itself, but a whole section dedicated to accompanying sides, rubs, and a collection of recipes from all over the world: tataki, stroganoff, curry, and pasties, to name but a few, not to mention the very best steak salad I have ever eaten, which remains one of my all time go-to recipes. Richard has also taken the time to explain farming processes, butchery, and what breeds to look out for, so that we can make the right decisions as responsible carnivores.
4. FOR THE HEALTH NUT: Ultimate Fit Food – Gordon Ramsay. I take extra due diligence when picking healthy cook books, as I have often bought home ones that have massively underdelivered on flavour and originality (I don’t need to be told how to arrange beetroot and goats cheese on a plate). Ramsays offering however is a breath of fresh air, and you certainly don’t feel like you’re compromising when tucking into chocolate mousse or a fried chicken sandwich. All the recipes come with a nutritional breakdown (most servings average 250 cals), and Ramsay has added his own narrative on fitness and how to approach healthy eating.
5. FOR THE PURIST: I Know How To Cook – Ginette Mathiot. At almost 100 years old, this book rightfully takes it place as the Daddy of culinary inspiration. See Mathiot as a sort of French Delia Smith- This is a book that can be found in many a French Household, and was finally translated into English a decade ago. The book takes you through each month, listing which meats, vegetables, and even fruits are in season, and the recipes that follow are for the most part simple, rustic French cuisine; most recipes are to the point and can be explained beginning to end in less than a paragraph. These recipes are not so much dated as they are timeless. This is not a book for style over substance food, but what many of these recipes lack in frills, they more than make up for in flavour. For those ambitious foodies amongst us, the last section of the English translation also includes some more complex recipes from celebrated “guest chefs” – Pascal Aussignacs Stuffed Baby Quid with Black Escabeche, Francois Payards Bouillabaisse, and so on. This book was a gift early on in my culinary journey, and remains my most treasured.
So there you have it – my Big 5, that hopefully cover something for everyone – Happy cooking!