Welcome to The Menu Meme. That is a picture of some of my favorite cookbooks above in the header, many of which are falling apart. I will never understand why more cookbooks are not spiral bound.
I grew up with, and still own and reference frequently The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne, and Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer and Marion Becker. To me, these all-purpose books are still the best place (internet included) to find a reliable recipe for simple things such as a béchamel or a split pea soup. I’ve had these books so long, they are time machines, filled with handwritten notes from my Grandmother and letters from my Mother when I was in college–in 1988–gulp.
I find it interesting, as I have evolved as a home chef, my use of cookbooks has radically changed. When I was inexperienced, I would look up specific recipes and menus, and prepare them exactly as written. I would wring my hands if I did not have a specific ingredient or cut of meat: fennel pollen, hangar steak, anatto seed, etc. As I gained confidence I came to realize ingredients such as crushed fennel seed, flank steak, and paprika were perfectly good substitutes and to quit sweating the details of The Recipe. My father has done this for years, with many more hits than misses. A famous miss that is still legend were post-Thanksgiving egg rolls he prepared circa 1980 containing leftover turkey and cranberry sauce. It took me many years to have the confidence to improvise on my own even though I witnessed it almost every weekend growing up with Dad’s awesome, if not sometimes wacky creations.
These days, I flip through my cookbooks primarily for inspiration. When menu planning for the week, or trying to prepare a meal with what I have on hand, I flip through my cookbooks to ‘shape’ a dish. Of course I have many favorite go to recipes, but those I usually save for weekends or when entertaining, and I still don’t follow them to the letter as I did when teaching myself to cook. I have learned that cooking times, temperatures, ingredients, and ‘serves 4’ are mostly a suggestion. Knowing your equipment and who you are serving will always be a better guide than the The Recipe.
What are your favorite cookbooks?