Kitchen Essentials: Books

New weekly series here at Al Dente — my recommendations for essential kitchen stuff.

There are just some things that every kitchen needs. Not that you want…need. For me, this breaks down to spices, tools, cookware and books. We’ll start with reading material.

When I got married, The Wife and I got three different versions of Betty Crocker’s All-American All-Purpose Teach You How to Cook Everything Cookbook. It’s nice for baking, but I never really thought much of the recipes. We also got one of Emeril Lagasse‘s cookbooks. Don’t ask which one, because I returned it to Borders for store credit. Why? It’s useless for the home cook.

Dom...where's your neck?

The best cookbooks share two basic qualities. The recipes should be timeless. The recipes should be as relevant today as they will be 10 years from now. I tossed out a copy of Dom DeLuise’s cookbook when my father moved. Why? The recipes were deadly. He looks that way because he ate the food he was peddling. No recipe should use as much butter and oil as he did. It’s exactly why you don’t see Paula Deen anywhere near this list. Her books are odes to the American obesity epidemic.

They should also be attainable. One of the reasons why Emeril’s cookbooks stink is that the ingredients require so much effort to source. We’re lucky in Syracuse to have Wegmans, quality meat outlets like Nichols and Asciotti’s, good seafood counters at Price Chopper and Fins and Tails, and great ethnic groceries. Try finding miso paste in flyover country or live crawfish during winter in the Northeast. Even something simple like creole mustard requires a Google search and $4.95 in shipping charges (UPDATE: Wegmans now stocks creole mustard. Phew.).

The Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. (1982)

See what I mean about timeless? I got my first copy after hearing the authors on NPR and have found it to be the best companion in the kitchen. It’s erudite but realistic. When my sister said she wanted a good all-around cookbook, I ordered her a copy. I asked my friend Allison about her well-worn copy once. She said her mother gave it to her. That’s exactly it; this is the type of cookbook you pass down to your child.

Everyday Italian, Everyday Pasta, and Giada’s Family Dinners by Giada DiLaurentiis.

I really liked Giada. I’m not sure when I fell out of love with her. I guess it was around the time her head grew to about three times the size as the rest of her body. At that point, I really couldn’t take her seriously anymore. She has five books, but her first three are the best. The recipes are simple and to the point, and the end products are quite good. She’s still the best thing the Food Network has going for it, even if her teeth take up more screen space than the food.

Dinosaur Barbque: An American Roadhouse by John Stage.

The Dinosaur, sadly, is not what it once was. The portions have shrunk. The prices have risen. The food is inconsistent. But, the cookbook is pretty solid. I picked up some tips on grilling and smoking from the book and there are some top flight recipes — pickles, peanut butter pie, cole slaw, to name a few. And, if you’re in Syracuse, you can’t go into a grocery store or bookstore without tripping over a copy.

The Palm Cookbook by Brigit Legere Binns

I’m partial to The Palm, as it is one of the greatest restaurant brands in America. This book actually changed the way I cook meat. The book is very clear about cooking meat evenly and at high temperatures to achieve the best flavor and texture. For a gourmet restaurant, the recipes are very straightforward and have little guesswork.

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