Meet the Cookbook Addict and Her Top Ten Essential Eat-Local Cookbooks, Part 1
Editor’s Note: We are pleased to introduce our newest Beetnik, Kim Bartko, the Cookbook Addict. Close readers of this site may know we’ve been promising a cookbook addict series for ages. Still, as Rob explains, the Cookbook Addict we found is not the one we thought we had. We are, however, very happy with the one we got. Enjoy this first episode as Kim whittles her vast collection to a few essential tomes.
Photos by Sharon Hoogstraten
The Cookbook Addict’s Top Ten Essential Eat-Local Cookbooks, Part 1
I cook every day of the week, mostly, but not exclusively vegetable-centric meals for my husband and myself. I’m an intuitive cook—I look to recipes more for inspiration than instruction and rarely follow them to the letter. Nevertheless, I have a serious cookbook habit and a growing collection that exceeds 300 titles. What are the ideas, interests, everyday cooking and eating habits that shaped my growing library? What attracts me to a cookbook? Convinces me I must have one more even though the shelves are bulging and they are stacked in every room of the house?
First and foremost it has to engage and inspire me, respect good ingredients, and teach me smart techniques that make the most of the great local food I buy from farmers markets or grow myself. I enjoy cookbooks that take me deep into a culture or introduce me to new flavors or food pairings. I have a weakness for those big, beautifully designed and photographed coffee table cookbooks but have to admit that I cook more often from the plain-Jane titles in my library. While I don’t have time to waste in the kitchen—Who does?—I’m not interested in cookbooks that tout quick-and-easy at the expense of flavor or the integrity of the food on my table.
Most of the dishes I make are pretty simple, especially during the week—a big pot of soup in cold months; salads and fresh vegetables when the weather warms; poultry, meat, or fish once or twice a week. I like deep, pure flavors and get annoyed by fussy gimmicks or elaborate preparations. We are not really dessert people so I make them only for dinner parties, although we both love a nice piece of fruit at the end of a meal and my daily guilty pleasure is a small square of good dark chocolate. Weekends are devoted to big cooking projects—homemade ricotta, batches of breakfast muffins, a new sausage recipe, handmade pasta, and gallons of chicken stock—all to be incorporated into meals in the coming week or to store in the freezer. My cookbook collection runs the spectrum from the how-to-cook-everything bibles, to explorations of country- or region-specific cuisines, to esoteric single-subject books that challenge me to try, in my home kitchen, something I might ordinarily leave to the pros.
Every few months we host a dinner party for eight or ten people, complete with hors d’oeuvres, first course, main course, cheese plate, and dessert, always paired with wines. More often, we’ll invite a few friends over for a weekend dinner—comforting one-pot braises and gratins in winter and in the summer, something simple on the grill with a few salads from our garden. Depending on what’s in season, I’ll bake a fruit tart or serve a big bowl of sweet cherries or wedges of melon for dessert. I rely on a special cache of cookbooks to help me plan menus, pair wines with food, and compose a cheese plate, plus a few that focus on my kind of desserts—usually fruit-based, not-too-sweet, with pure, clean flavors.
Although hardly orthodox locavores—citrus fruit, avocados, coffee, tea, olive oil and spices appear on our table regularly—most of the food in our household is local and sustainably raised and comes from farmers markets or our garden. We live in a Lincoln Square bungalow on a 35-foot lot and except for a small, weedy rectangle of lawn, our back yard is planted with vegetables, herbs, and berries as it has been since we first moved in fourteen years ago. Over the course of the April–November growing season the two chest freezers in our basement fill with tomatoes, string beans, greens, raspberries and blackberries, and we supplement our harvest with Michigan blueberries and stone fruit. I make jams and pickles, dry hot peppers, freeze herb pastes, and keep apples, pears, winter squash, onions, and garlic from the farmers market on well-aired shelves in the coldest part of the basement. Under heavy row covers, we can harvest sturdy greens like kale, chard, and collards, as well as carrots and leeks, well into December in most years. My current obsession is cookbooks that teach me inventive ways to preserve food. This is the fastest-growing part of my cookbook collection.
Now that you know a little bit about how I cook and eat, I’d like to tell you about the Top 10 Essential Local-Eating Cookbooks in my library. I’ll start with the five cookbooks I use almost every day—one of them seems always to be open on my countertop—and tell you a little about why I use them and give you examples of how I adapt recipes to what I find in my larder or local market. Next post, I’ll follow up with five more essential cookbooks with a more focused purpose—those I rely on to fill my freezer and pantry with preserved food or consult when I entertain friends and family. I’d love to hear from Localbeet readers about your can’t-live-without cookbooks. If I’ve overlooked a really great one, I probably need it on my shelf!
1. Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters
For weekday meals this is the book I look to most often for inspiration. I’ve cooked from Alice Waters’ books from my earliest days in the kitchen and if I had to name one cooking mentor, Alice would be it. I own almost all of her books but this one positively bristles with sticky notes marking favorite recipes. Some, like “Eggplant, Tomato, and Onion Gratin” or “Cannellini Beans and Wilted Greens,” I’ve made for friends so many times they’ve become my signature dishes. The recipes are simple in the best possible way—balanced, nuanced, no extraneous flourishes, perfect (and sometimes surprising) flavor combinations—and they’re organized by type of vegetable which is exactly how I think when cooking from my garden or larder. Although Alice has the luxury of Northern California’s mild, four-season climate, only two of the more than forty vegetables cataloged here cannot be grown in Chicago’s food shed (artichokes and avocados) and three more, while not commonly produced in our area, could be cultivated in our climate (cardoons, chickpeas, lentils). Each vegetable is introduced with a short essay about how it’s grown, how it’s used in her restaurant, what we should look for when buying at the farmers market, plus general directions about how to prepare and store it once we’ve brought it home. The recipes that follow are a thoughtfully curated collection that illuminates the range and versatility of each vegetable and makes the most of its distinctive flavor and texture. I’m especially fond of the many recipes for delicious gratins like the rich “Wild Mushroom and Pasta Gratin” and “Potato and Sorrel Gratin”. Served with good bread and a salad I make them often for a satisfying dinner and have leftovers for lunch the next day. An important point to note: while this book celebrates vegetables it is not a vegetarian cookbook. A number of recipes include poultry, meat, or fish and bacon, pancetta, and duck fat are often found in the ingredient list. The book is in itself a beautiful object, illustrated with Patricia Curtan’s exquisite linocut prints it also bears her classic, understated book design. The hardcover edition is wrapped in a matte black jacket that’s as elegant and timeless as a little black dress.
2. Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat by Deborah Krasner
I am fortunate to live close to Cleetus Friedman’s City Provision Deli, where each week I buy local, sustainably and humanely raised poultry and meat in the small amounts our two-person household consumes. Deborah Krasner’s essential reference taught me how to adapt the techniques I already knew for cooking grain-fed meat to enhance the leaner, firmer texture and deeper, sometimes more mineral flavor that characterizes meat from pastured and grass-fed animals. Krazner’s more than 200 recipes have multicultural roots reaching to Europe, North Africa, South America, and Asia, cultures where butchers traditionally work closely with the small farmers who raise the animals they sell. This is the first book I consulted when planning a whiskers-to-tail dinner of Slagel Farms rabbit I prepared for my wine tasting group. The book is also a terrific reference on sustainable animal husbandry, information we all need to ask smart questions at the farmers market. A list of online sources makes it easy to purchase sustainably raised pastured and grass-fed meat for those who don’t have access to a great farmers market or Cleetus as a neighbor. With its extensive sections detailing beef, lamb, pork, rabbit, and poultry anatomy and the cuts derived from butchering these animals, it’s an indispensible reference for anyone who’s signed up for a meat CSA and finds unfamiliar cuts in the box. For those who take the next step beyond a CSA and purchase a partial animal carcass, Krasner offers sound strategies to determine the amount of meat your household will need over the course of a season and suggests ways to inventory and track what you freeze. She also recommends ways to adapt your usual meal planning when you have a full freezer to mine but you’re accustomed to cooking from the grocery store’s fresh meat case.
3. Marcella Cucina by Marcella Hazan
The damp-rippled, sauce-spattered, and oil stained pages of my copy testify to the frequent use it gets in my kitchen. A search for “Italian cooking” on Amazon’s site lists more than 5,000 cookbook results (and I own way too many on that list) but this is the Italian cookbook I return to again and again for her elegantly calibrated recipes. Her brilliant “Spinach and Tomato Pasta Sauce, Romagna-Style” is emblematic of the precision, purity, and balance found in regional Italian cooking. She begins by combining surprisingly small amounts of sautéed onion, celery, carrot, and a tiny bit of pancetta, then butter-braises spinach until it collapses into a velvety tangle and finishes the sauce with a single cup of chopped tomatoes—nothing more than impeccable ingredients in perfectly attuned measure. Her command of technique and a deep understanding of its effect on flavor have no better illustration than in two recipes she offers for pasta with zucchini. Each produces simple, clear flavors with a very different character. “Zucchini, Tomato, and Basil Sauce for Pasta” has, she says, “the elemental vegetable garden taste” where garlic is sweetened by gentle simmering in the juices of fresh tomato before shredded zucchini is added in the last five minutes of cooking so it retains its texture. Contrast this with “Zucchini Sauce for Pasta with Tomato, Parsley, and Chili Pepper” where nearly identical ingredients produce an entirely different sauce when the squash is sliced into thin fingers and slowly cooked to tenderness in olive oil “to sweeten and lengthen [its] flavor,” before tomato is added to finish the sauce. Marcella cooks with a profound appreciation for her ingredients that demonstrates a respect for the food and the farmer that I strive to cultivate in my kitchen.
4. Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen by Rick Bayless
While in high school my family moved from Pennsylvania to Denver and that’s where I first tasted “mexican” food, a curious amalgam of Tex-Mex and New Mexico cooking styles that relied on canned chilies, cheese-heavy enchiladas, and leaden sopapillas. It didn’t hold much interest for me. Years later, when I dined at Frontera Grill soon after it opened, I was astonished by the first fresh, vibrant mouthful and fell in love with authentic regional Mexican food in that moment. Rick Bayless has earned his locavore credentials with the commitment to growing food for his restaurants, his early support for the Green City Market, and by investing in local farms through the Frontera Farmer Foundation. I’m a better cook and gardener because of what I learned eating at his restaurants, cooking from his books, and visiting his Bucktown garden (through a tour offered by Bill Shores, Frontera’s gardener). Following Rick’s example, we grow purple streaked heirloom tomatillos, meaty poblanos, jalapeños, and serranos to enjoy in fresh salsas throughout the summer. At season’s end, we grill tomatillos over wood charcoal to freeze for cooked salsas, like the “Essential Roasted Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa” we use to sauce enchiladas stuffed with chard from our garden and farmers market butternut squash. We do the same with poblano peppers, blistering them over a wood fire and dropping them, unpeeled, into freezer containers to pull out, a few at a time, for a staple of our winter weeknight menu, “Tacos of Creamy Braised Chard, Potatoes, and Poblanos.” I love to make a big pot of his “Oaxacan Black Bean Soup” with Three Sisters Farm dried black beans seasoned with the homemade chipotle peppers we make by cold-smoking red-ripe jalapeños and covering them with garden tomato sauce to store in the freezer. It’s a perfect cold weather supper with cornbread made from Three Sisters cornmeal. Still celebrating my recent successful adventure into home cheese making, I can’t wait to make another creamy batch of ricotta for Rick’s “Herby Ricotta-Poblano Tacos.” The spectrum of flavors in my everyday cooking is amplified by Rick’s inspiration and that’s exactly what a great cookbook should do.
5. Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
I love Judy Rodgers’ thoughtful, evocative writing. Even if I couldn’t find a single recipe I was dying to try within its pages (it’s hard to find one I’m not swooning over) her opening essay “What to Think About Before You Start & While You Are Cooking” is reason enough to put this book on my “Essentials” list. “Cookbooks will give you ideas,” she writes, “but the market will give you dinner—study your market at least as avidly as your library.” Judy Rodgers manages, in every one of her recipes to imbue rustic flavors and textures with a quiet refinement. With her meticulous palate and restrained sensibility, she has an uncanny ability to make even “Boiled Kale, Four Ways” seem sexy that sends me rushing to the kitchen to pull out a sauté pan. As a teenager she apprenticed in the three-star kitchen of the world-renowned Troisgros brothers’ restaurant in southwest France, where she absorbed the flavors, techniques, and seasonal rhythms rooted in this still very rural region. This is the France of small farms, duck fat, goose liver, plum orchards, rough red wine, and Armagnac. She learned to salt meat and fish days ahead of time to produce deep flavor and succulent texture; to pickle the grapes, prunes, and cherries that accompany rustic charcuterie from the region where snout-to-tail eating was born; and most important, she developed the habit of tasting, encouraged always by her mentors to taste, season, taste, think, taste again. This careful observation and attunement to raw ingredients permeates her recipes with a finesse that transformed my thinking in the kitchen. I am a convert to “The Practice of Salting Early”, have learned to brighten a lackluster sauce with a few drops of vinegar or vermouth, and can now produce a silky pan reduction by gently swirling the pan instead of stirring. “Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad” made with a Gunthorpe chicken from City Provisions is our Sunday supper in most weeks. Judy’s roasting method is flawless, producing a crisp-skinned, moist, and flavorful bird that sits atop a salad of bitter greens slicked with garlicky dressing, punctuated with the occasional sweet dried currant and crusty shards of peasant bread that absorb the bird’s juicy drippings. A subtly seasoned “Rabbit Sausage,” its tender texture the result of a cream-soaked bread crumb panade, was a highlight of the charcuterie plate I served at a recent dinner party. Her recipe for “Basic Rich Tart Dough & Two Variations” is the only one I use now. The text runs on for six pages, not because there is anything inherently complex about the process, but because she details years of carefully observed experience in a two-page introduction, then provides guidelines and adaptations that accommodate multiple methods of forming the tart and the variable characteristics of tart fillings. From any other writer, this level of detail might send me screaming from the kitchen. Instead, I am enthralled.
Up next: Five More Essential Local-Eating Cookbooks I rely on for preserving and entertaining.
Kim Bartko is a writer, graphic designer, and shameless cookbook addict. It might have been a love of letters, cooking, and gardening that inspired her career as an editor and designer of books on gardening and cooking. Or maybe her day job fueled the passion for writing, stirring pots, and tending a vegetable patch. Regardless, she spends much of her time thinking, reading, and writing about food. Her blog, The Cookbook Addict, is a delicious nexus of insight, opinion, and cooking experiences that affirms why all of us really do need one more cookbook.