Thursday, April 16, 2009

Queenie's Take: In the beginning...

One of my absolute favorite things to read is the Dear Prudence column over at Slate. Every week, Prudie (really Emily Yoffe, a Slate staff writer) takes on questions of etiquette and interpersonal relationships, always with a healthy dose of humor - and horror, when appropriate.

It was while reading Prudie a couple of weeks ago that it hit me - ever since I started blogging as Queenie, I've gotten tons of emails (and phone calls - you know who you are) asking for advice about where to eat, how to entertain, and what to cook. I (try to) answer each question, but I don't share the advice terribly widely.

And, so, I'm very excited to announce "Queenie's Take," a new weekly feature here at Queenie Takes Manhattan! Each Thursday, I'll be taking on a question or three with wit and verve. Now, while I definitely have opinions about relationships, romantic and otherwise, I'll be keeping the official Queenie advice to questions about cooking & baking, entertaining, culinary history, travel, and dining out.

This week, in the spirit of things just starting, I'll be answering questions about jump-starting your kitchen and cookbook library.

And, if you have a question you'd like to see answered in a future "Queenie's Take," just leave it in the comments!

What are the first five cookbooks any beginning cook should buy, and why? - Louisa, Sandusky, OH

Obviously, there's an element of personal taste involved here. For instance, my great culinary loves are French and Italian foods, with a big emphasis on vegetables and pastry. But you might want to cook mainly Vietnamese food or have a thing for traditional English pub grub. So, what I'm going to do is recommend investing in three robust classics, and tell you about two of my favorite add-ons, books that speak directly to my own sensibilities.

1. The Gourmet Cookbook, Ruth Reichl
Setting my Ruth Reichl fascination aside for a moment, this is still a remarkably wonderful cookbook. It's huge (1,056 pages, 1,000+ recipes), but well-indexed and easy to use. The recipes are detailed but straightforward, and the dishes range in difficulty from very, very simple to fairly complex. It's decidedly American in its eclecticism - there are recipes for French classics like bouillabaisse, Spanish ones like paella, and even one for pad thai. More importantly, the book seeks to educate you about the origins of its recipes and techniques. Following in the steps of the great Julia Child, Ruth Reichl knows that cooking is not just about blindly following a recipe, but about understanding why you're doing what you're doing. Which brings us to...

2. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child
It's hard to overestimate the impact Julia Child and her fellow authors had on the American palate. Though she's certainly not solely responsible (Alice Waters comes to mind here), Julia is a huge part of the reason why we eat so many fresh vegetables with delicious, light vinaigrettes; why we make apple pies with fresh apples and homemade crusts; why we once again have chicken that tastes like chicken. Her cooking show and cookbooks exploded the mid-century obsession with factory-based cooking, and are as relevant today as they were forty years ago. Julia will teach you how to roast a chicken, how to make a salad, how to turn a vegetable - and then how to gradually build on top of those basic skills. Along with her husband Paul's impeccable line drawings, her words will teach you more than I can possibly explain. And, lest you be one of those people out there who still believe that French food = fussy, Julia will set you straight, once and for all.

3. The Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer
The veritable Bible of American cooking. Where Gourmet is a decidedly modern take on the American canon, Rombauer's book retains the flavor of pre-Julia America, with fantastic, easy recipes for classics like brownies, pancakes, and casseroles. The merits of the latest edition, re-worked for a more contemporary cook in celebration of the original's 75th anniversary, have been hotly debated. For my money, the original is still the best, in all its 1930s frugal practicality.

4. Barefoot in Paris, Ina Garten -and- 5. Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen, Lidia Bastianich
Ina's French cookbook simply can't be beat for foolproof, delicious bistro classics. Her gougeres? Simple as can be to make, incredibly impressive when served. The brownie tart makes grown men swoon, and there's little that makes me happier than her creme brulee. She takes the straightest, easiest route to delicious, entertaining-friendly French food, which is pretty miuch my favorite thing to cook, ever. And Lidia! If she isn't the Nonna we all wish we had teaching us to cook, I don't know who is. Like Ina, her food is simple to prepare, but tastes anything but, and is meant to serve a crowd.

What cookbooks would you guys recommend?

What do you consider essential food items/ingredients (spices, etc.) to keep in your kitchen such that you don't have to buy every single ingredient when preparing a particular recipe? - Richard, New York, NY

Like the cookbook question, this depends largely on the kinds of food you like to prepare. I recently unearthed a bottle of chili powder that's survived eight years and three moves without being opened, but you might be someone who'd use it all the time. However, here's a list of things I try to never be without:

Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper: Kosher salt is easier to handle with your hands, and is the salt most often used by cookbook authors and recipe testers. So use it, wouldja? As for pepper - those blends of red, green and black peppercorns are pretty, but the clear, true flavor of black pepper is what you want for cooking.

Butter & canola oil: Unsalted butter, please - you can always add salt to taste, but you can't take it out. Canola oil is more versatile than olive oil - neutral in flavor and with a high smoking point, it can be used for cooking or for salad dressings.

Flour & sugar: Even if you're not a big baker, you'll want to have at least a small box of flour on hand for thickening sauces and soups. Sugar, well, duh!

Tomato paste & Dijon mustard: Both are great secret weapons for creating deep flavor with very little effort, and the mustard is essential for vinaigrettes, too.

Eggs: An absolute must for bakers, these are also great for creating quick, easy dinners (omelets, fritattas, and so on).

Garlic & shallots: Garlic is God's gift to mankind; shallots are more versatile and less acidic than onions.

Sherry & champagne vinegars: Between these two, you can make a huge variety of salad dressings, mayonnaises, and so on - and also add a teaspoon or two to sauces for a bit of contrast.

Baking soda, baking powder, and vanilla extract: These are really for those who plan to bake. Vanilla pops up in pretty much every baked good known to man, so invest in some good stuff. Baking soda and baking powder ARE different, so buy both. They cost about a buck apiece, so you can splurge here.

What do you think? Did I leave anything out that you consider essential?

By the way, a HUGE thank you to all the friends who sent me questions for the first edition of "Queenie's Take." If I didn't answer you this week, have no fear - your question will be included in a future edition!


Louisa Edwards said...

Great questions! If I do say so myself. Unsurprisingly, since we share a brain, your first three cookbook picks align perfectly with mine. For my last two, I'd go with Simple to Spectacular by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman, and as of recently, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. S2S teaches technique on recipes that never fall flat, and the Deb Madison turns out to be indispensable for anyone trying to eat more veggies, not just for vegetarians. As the name suggests. : )

Sally Big Woods said...

Great idea, Queenie!!! You Rock.

I'd add a couple of cookbooks in there, for the beginner:

1) Betty Crocker - I like the late-50's version myself, but I think the updated version (2005??) is more fitting for today's palates. [Though, in these difficult economic times, the 50's and earlier versions DO include cost-savings tips that do not diminish flavor.]

2) Verdura, by Viana La Place. I can't recommend this one highly enough. It is the book that gave me confidence to try new combinations of flavors, and EVERYTHING I've ever made from it has turned out great. Also, for those whom this is an issue, it is vegetarian.

Keep up the great work, Queenie.

Wendy said...

I think "The New Basics Cookbook" is a must have for anyone who is learning.
And I could not live without my "Cooking of Southwest France" by Wolfert!

as for pantry items I can not be without a selection of pasta as well as a bag of risotto. a few cans of garbanzo beans. homemade stocks in the freezer and potatoes, onions & garlic in the pantry.

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