SORRY TO SPOIL the surprise, but if you’re on my holiday shopping list, you’re getting a cookbook. Besides gardening, home cooking is one of the only things in this increasingly dizzy world that I feel as if I can control, and I’m soothed and sustained trying new flavors and expanding my repertory with the help of cookbooks. I asked cookbook author and former restaurant sous chef Alexandra Stafford to help guide us through the many options and identify some must-have books.
Ali’s first cookbook, “Bread Toast Crumbs,” was published this year. Besides also creating her own recipe filled website, Alexandra’s Kitchen (at Alexandra Cooks dot com), she’s a weekly columnist on weeknight dinners for Food 52 dot com, where part of the way she serves up such a diversity of fresh ideas is to constantly survey the culinary world in books and online.
Read along as you listen to the Nov. 20, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Comment in the box at the very bottom of the page to win your choice of the cookbooks mentioned, then head over to Ali’s website where there is a second chance to enter the giveaway. We’ll each give away a cookbook. Enjoy!
cookbooks to crave, or give as gifts, with ali stafford
Q. So glad to have you back, Ali.
A. I think I counted before we spoke and I think I have up to 500 cookbooks, which is maybe too many, but …
Q. So you own 500 cookbooks?
Q. Oh, dear, confessions of Ali Stafford. O.K., folks, you came to the right place. So what was the first cookbook that you owned or used—what’s your first cookbook memory?
A. Well, ones that my mother gave me right after I graduated college and was on my own, and those include “Chez Panisse Vegetables,” and “Joy of Cooking,” and Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything.” I think she gave me a grilling book because in my first apartment I had a little backyard patio with a grill, but those are the ones that come to mind initially.
Q. You know, my father … well, you don’t know, but my father worked at “The New York Times,” and one of his colleagues was Craig Claiborne. So two cookbooks that we had in our pantry where the cookbooks were kept were the two volumes of “The New York Times Cookbook.”
A. Yes. I have the blue …
Q. Oh, you have the blue one? Yes.
A. I have the blue one, exactly, yes. That was another one that was in my first library.
Q. So that’s one that I have a strong memory of. And funny thing is, I can also remember on the shelf above that—I mean this is a long time ago, and I can also see a copy of this giant leather-bound dark brown book, I mean giant. Bigger than a dictionary, and it was “Larousse Gastronomique.”
A. Yes. I have that, too. It’s not something I really cook from, though there are many recipes in it.
A. There are many recipes in it, but it’s such a great reference when you’re trying to think of … especially for the older recipes, if you’re trying to find the origin of it or its roots, it’s nice to have.
Q. Yes. So those are where we began, those are our earliest memories of cookbooks, both of us. So are there ones today that you consider bibles? Maybe some of the ones you mentioned—the ones that have the most besmirched pages that are marked with oily thumbprints or splatters, or pancake batter.
A. Yes, I have a few. One is another one that my Mom gave me. It was Sally Schneider’s “A New Way to Cook,” and it’s this huge book. That was really one of the first books that I really, really started cooking from. And I still turn to it when I’m looking for something or even if I don’t necessarily want to make the entire recipe. Sally Schneider is very precise, down to a teaspoon of this and a quarter-teaspoon of that.
And I forgot which recipe it’s in, but she has some sort of elaborate chicken recipe, but in that recipe is this recipe for roasting mushrooms. And it’s my favorite way to roast mushrooms, and I always turn to this other recipe for this sub-recipe within it, and there are a number of recipes in the book that are like that.
So that’s one, and “Chez Panisse Vegetables” is another one that I’m always using, every season … especially because I have a CSA and constantly have all these vegetables, and I just need some sort of inspiration. So that’s another one. Deborah Madison’s “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” is another one that I turn to a lot.
Q. Yes. And that’s one of her newer … it’s sort of the update. It’s “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” right?
A. Exactly. “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” yes. It feels like an encyclopedia. It’s just got everything.
Q. So you mentioned an encyclopedic one, like if I can’t remember what degree of doneness which number of minutes of boiling an egg is—if I’m having one of those moments of confusion. Or if I can’t remember whether it’s the Basmati rice or the brown rice or the sticky rice that takes 1-1/2 or 1-1/3 or 2 cups of water per cup of rice, You know what I mean? With those types of things, I go to Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything,” right?
Q. And I’ve given a lot of people that book.
A. Yes, right. Everybody needs sort of one of those books on hand, that they can just quickly reference.
Q. Yes. And it used to probably be “The Joy of Cooking,” but I feel like that Bittman’s the one that I use more for that now.
A. Sure. Yes. Absolutely.
Q. Any other sort of ones that you go to again and again, bible-ish ones?
A. I’m trying to think. There are ones that I turn to for inspiration. Do you know the Canal House ladies?
A. Yes. I love them. They have this great daily email—actually, I’m not sure if I’m still getting it—but where they just take a picture of their lunch and they write just a couple sentences and I just love their style of cooking. Their “Canal House Cooks Every Day” book is what I turn to often for inspiration, not necessarily that I’m going to make the recipe, but it’s organized by season so whatever season I’m in I just flip through. You know, sort of whatever they’re cooking is what I want to be cooking, so it’s a good one.
Q. Oh, interesting. That’s one I don’t have; I knew about the newsletter.
Now, are there some books that you wouldn’t part with but you don’t … I have some like this, so it’s a loaded question … that I wouldn’t part with them, but I don’t literally go in there and necessarily get the recipes all the time and cook from them a lot. They’re not my bibles, so to speak, but I wouldn’t part with them.
So here’s one example for me: I have this sentimental attachment to this book called “Great Food Without Fuss,” and it’s from Frances McCullough and Barbara Witt, I think. It was this collection of recipes. Do you know this book?
A. No, I don’t know it.
Q. O.K., well, I’m going to end up making you buy more than 500 cookbooks. So it’s a collection of recipes from great cooks, a recipe from Julia Child and James Beard and Craig Claiborne and Alice Waters and whatever. It was published I think in the early ’90s and it won the Beard Award that year.
Q. It’s probably not in print and you’d have to get a used copy on Amazon or whatever, but it’s the kind of thing that if you want James Beard’s cream biscuits or Craig Claiborne’s signature whatever, they’re in there. Again, I might not be using that every day, but I know it’s got those classics in it.
A. Right, sure. You know, one of those books … I definitely wouldn’t part with it, because it’s so fabulous, is “The Zuni Café Cookbook.”
A. I absolutely just love the book so much, not only for reading the stories and the introduction about when Judy Rodgers was in France, just her style of cooking. I love her famous recipes: that roast chicken and bread salad that has sort of made its way around the web. But it takes three days to make if you salt ahead of time—she was one of the first people, I think, who talked about salting ahead of time, so salting chicken days ahead of time. Or if she wasn’t the first, she was, you know, the one to popularize it—how that can be beneficial, even to vegetables.
If you make this bread salad and you salt the chicken three days ahead of time, it’s just a very detailed recipe that goes on and on, but when you make it, it just feels like a masterpiece. And she just has just so many other little gems in there. It was that book that taught me to fry eggs in breadcrumbs and finish it with a little bit of vinegar, and it’s just the most delicious dinner- for-one meal. I love it.
Q. Do you have others that you find inspiration in but you maybe don’t cook all the recipes all the time?
A. I would say probably the [Yotam] Ottolenghi series might be that for me. I love flipping through those books so much and I always find something, but often the recipe list will feel a little bit overwhelming or unusual, which is part of the appeal, because I wouldn’t necessarily think to pair the ingredients, but in the end it will work. But I love, especially, “Plenty” and “Plenty More.” They are all vegetables, so again just having inspiration when you’re overloaded with sweet potatoes or cabbage or kohlrabi; there are beets, there are recipes in all of those books that can kind of, you know, maybe spark something.
Q. I love his books, and those are other ones that I’ve given to many people, but similarly I look at them and I think, “This is the flavor I’m interested in,” more than, “Oh, I’m going to do every single thing in here.” Some of them are a little bit … yes.
A. And they can be pared down, if you don’t include all of the ingredients or all of the steps. For instance, one of his recipes, and I forget which book it’s from, but it’s for a farro risotto, and somebody had suggested this recipe to me. But it called for two different kinds of canned tomatoes, like one was chopped and one was pureed, and then you had to marinate the feta and then stir it in at the end, and it’s like, you don’t need to marinate the feta; just throw it in at the end and it’s delicious. And just use one kind of tomatoes, and it still turns out beautifully and you’ve basically followed the recipe, you get the gist.
Q. Yes. You mentioned a few especially fastidious recipe writers—someone, I can’t remember who you said, that has a lot of detail. But I think a lot of cookbook authors know that the people who get the books are going to use it as a guide, not as an “or else.” You know what I mean?
A. Definitely. Yes. And I think some people really appreciate the precision, and I actually do appreciate the precision. I think it’s really nice, and then especially when you’re making something for the first time, and then once you get the hang of it, you can just eye the amount of oil or the pepper or whatever ingredient.
Q. So I thought it would be kind of fun to go … We talked about some of our earliest books, some of our bible-like ones, and some of our inspiration books, which we probably wouldn’t give up no matter what, that we may turn to a lot for various reasons. And then there are more niche-y kind of books, and I thought we might go through some. If I throw out a subject, we’ll see what you think.
For instance, when we spoke last, you recommended, and I think you had done it on Food 52 in your column there, you mentioned a curried lentil dish with coconut milk and ginger that was really delicious, and I made it the other night for a friend for dinner.
A. Oh, nice.
Q. Thank you very much. So that worked out well. And this is a flavor, this is a type of cooking—let’s say South Asian or Indian—that I’m not confident in. If I wanted to experiment more with those flavors, what cookbook what would it be—or if I wanted to give a gift, or I wanted to be given a gift (hint, hint)?
A. Well, I think Madhur Jaffrey is probably the sort. And I am not, I have to confess, very confident with “Indian Cooking” as well, but I have her Indian cooking book, and I’ve used it a couple times. One was for some sort of green bean recipe and you made almost a puree of ginger and garlic and these other spices and it was really delicious and I loved it, and I love that she has a pretty extensive pantry section and explains the various spices and where you can get them and what they are, because I think for Indian cooking you really … if you really want to get into it, you probably should start with stocking your pantry with the right ingredients.
So I think she would be a great resource, and I know she has a quicker and easier book that I would love to check out.
Q. She’s wonderful; she lives not far from me and I’ve heard her speak and read from her most recent book [“Vegetarian India”].
A. Oh, great.
Q. So that’s where I look, and again I get a little nervous because I’m not sure exactly what all the different flavors are and so forth. I think that’s a good suggestion. What about something maybe more familiar and that more people cook regularly: Italian flavors? Do you have some favorites in Italian cookbooks?
A. I do. I have Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.” It’s such a great resource, and that’s where her famous three-ingredient tomato sauce recipe that people love is; I think it’s in that book. I first discovered it from the internet.
Q. But that’s a great book for people who love that cuisine.
A. Oh, yes. And her writing is great and I think her husband helped a lot with the writing and it’s really a nice read, as well as the recipes. There’s a white bean soup in there that in the dead of winter, I make all the time. It’s really …
Q. And did you know that Rancho Gordo, the bean purveyor out West, that he named a bean for her? ‘Marcella’ beans, and that soup …
Q. The people that I know who make that soup, who love that recipe as you do, I bought them those beans and sent them to them, because—you know what I mean? When I saw that, I just was so touched by it.
A. Yes. I know. What a nice gift. The beans, the book. Yes. I love that.
Q. Any other quick Italian ones?
A. I have Mario Batali’s “Molto Italiano,” and it was for a period of time also just a great resource, just to kind of get a sense of the flavors that are put together that I wouldn’t necessarily. I mean, now it seems sort of obvious, like baked stuffed figs with prosciutto and combinations that are sort of second nature now. But when I was first cooking a lot, I referred to that a lot, and it’s a big book; it has a ton of recipes and a ton of great ideas.
Q. So I’ll pick up the pace and ask you for a favorite cookie book. What if people want to either bake for the holidays or to give it as a holiday gift?
A. Oh, I mean, I love “Dorie’s Cookies.” I have to say I have not made as many cookies as I would have liked, but that is also sort of a textbook. It’s huge, but it’s really fun. The photos are really fun, they’re kind of retro, really bright, not at all like the matte photos you see in most cookbooks today. It’s fun.
Q. So Dorie Greenspan.
Q. Easy dinners: What about cookbooks that are about easy dinners?
A. Well, for a while I really loved the whole Moosewood series. I have “Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers.” I never thought about baking tofu, and I tried it and it was delicious. And there’s another one in there, it’s like a sauce Nicoise—it’s just simple tomatoes, olives, capers. It takes 5 minutes to throw together and you can put it on anything: grilled fish, tofu, steak, really anything.
Another good one for quick and easy is the “Skinnytaste” series. I don’t have her first book, but I have her [Gina Homolka’s] “Skinnytaste Fast and Slow” book, which has slow-cooker recipes as well as faster recipes. But they’re always simple, they work, but they’re not … From the name, you would think that they would all be diet recipes, but I don’t think there’s a single tofu recipe in the book and she’ll use chicken thighs because she likes the flavor. There are some really good ideas in that book as well.
Q. So vegetarian: I’ve been a vegetarian for like 40 years. I love Anna Thomas’s books, even her original book, the 1972 “The Vegetarian Epicure,” which has sold over a million copies.
A. That is amazing. That is really amazing.
A. Oh, yes.
Q. So I can’t say enough about any of those three people.
A. No, absolutely. And thank you, I am loving “Love Soup,” which you recommended the last time we spoke.
Q. Good, good, good.
A. It is excellent.
Q. So I’ll skip quickly to soup, and we both loved “Love Soup” by Anna Thomas. I think Rebecca Katz’s recent book called “Clean Soups” is a keeper too, which is a little bit different. It has these foundational broth recipes…
A. Oh, interesting.
Q. …Including her very Internet-viral Magic Mineral Broth. And then you build them into the different soups in the book.
A. Oh, I love that idea.
Q. And it’s very health-oriented, but you wouldn’t think so. It’s not dreary health-oriented, it’s delicious.
Q. And speaking of something good for CSA shareholders. Now, what about if I want to bake a pie?
A. I think there are a number of books, but David Liebovitz’s “Room for Dessert” has an apple galette recipe in there, and that pastry I use for everything now. Every so often I try another recipe, and I just love his recipe so much. I think part of it is that there’s a little bit of sugar in it, so it’s just a little bit sweet, but it’s really buttery. And his galette recipe over all—you make a frangipane and then you can put any kind of fruit you want on, but the frangipane, which is like an almond cream, it’s almond and butter and …
Q. Yes, oh, it’s gorgeous.
A. …it’s delicious with the fruit. And I never get sick of that combination.
Q. A couple of quick baking-in-general books, because baking books are a great gift.
A. I think it’s been out for a year now, “The Vanilla Bean Baking Book.” It’s Sarah Kieffer; she has this great blog called the Vanilla Bean Blog, and if you read “The New York Times” food section, her chocolate chip cookies were just featured and she has this unusual method.
I made them very recently and they were as good as everybody has said, but you bake the cookies and halfway through, after 10 minutes or so, you lift up the pan and you drop it, so they kind of flatten, and it just creates this ripple effect in the cookies, and they’re really fun.
But even beyond that cookie recipe, she’s very, very precise. She’s down to if the recipe says it’s going to make 10 cookies and it makes 10 cookies, but she also says, “Freeze the cookies for 10 minutes, then transfer them to an aluminum foil-lined baking pan, dull side up.” So she’s very precise, you know the recipes are well-tested. So that’s been fun recently.
Q. I would add to that one Nick Malgieri’s “How to Bake,” which was another Beard Award winner in the 1990’s. I think 1995. Fantastic; best pizza crust. And of course your “Bread Toast Crumbs,” of course, of course.
A. Oh, thank you.
Q. So, in our last few minutes, let’s run through some more. A quick title for your favorite science-y book, because there is the science of cooking?
A. Oh, sure. “The Food Lab”—by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt from Serious Eats—has really become such a great resource. More so than when I first bought it. It’s not a pretty book; really it feels like a high school chemistry book, but it is so helpful and it convinced me to buy a Thermapen, which is this fancy instant-read thermometer that has become … I can’t believe that I’ve cooked for so many years without one now. [“The Science of Good Cooking” from “Cook’s Illustrated” is the other top choice in that category, says Ali.]
Q. And I think for canning and preserving people who want to look for a book about that, I love Marissa McClellan, you know, from Food and Jars dot com. I love her “Naturally Sweet Food in Jars” and her other books. So that’s definitely one, and if you’re into fermenting, I think Sandor Katz’s book [“The Art of Fermentation”] is a good one.
A. Oh, yes.
Q. Yes, that’s a great one. What about a beginner’s book? Like if someone’s a beginning cook, what would be a favorite?
A. Last Christmas I gave my brother Cal Peternell’s “12 Recipes.” He was the chef of Chez Panisse, and I think he’s since had another book come out, but “12 Recipes” he wrote for his son, who was about to go off to college.
Q. Oh, brilliant.
A. Yes, and it’s not just 12 recipes, it’s sort of 12 concepts and he teaches you a concept and then you can build. Even for a non-beginner, it’s very conversational, his tone, and it’s nice. He has a great style, and the recipes are simple but they’re really good.
Q. So we should have given ourselves plenty of time to mention some of the “it” cookbooks of fall 2017, like Deb Perleman’s at Smitten Kitchen; she has a new book [“Smitten Kitchen Every Day”]. Or “Bravetart,” the Stella Parks book …
A. Yes, all of these have come out, and I haven’t had a chance to spend enough time with them, but I’ve flipped through all of them and bookmarked recipes in all of them, they all look fantastic. [Another just-out selection Ali wants to spend time with is the “Le Creuset” cookbook, from the maker of the cookware.]
A. Yes. I do have an Instant Pot and I have not had success with it yet, so I’m hoping that her Instant Pot cookbook [“Dinner in an Instant”] can show me the way, because I am not there yet. [“Dinner: Changing the Game” is Melissa’s other 2017 book.]
Q. So she has a new Instant Pot book? Oh, my goodness, well, good—that’s a whole another category.
Q. Well, Ali Stafford, we’ve just run through not all 500 of your cookbooks, but some. Thank you so much for making the time, and this is a great, great potential gift list and maybe I’ll just buy them all for myself.
A. Oh, my gosh, I know. I could. We could spend two more hours talking about this.
enter to win your choice of cookbooks mentioned
SO MANY COOKBOOKS, so little time. Which one would you like most? I’ll buy a copy of your choice from this story for one lucky reader, and on her website, Ali will do the same–double the chances to win. All you have to do to enter is comment in the box at the very bottom of the page–scrolling down after the last comment–by answering this question:
Is there a cookbook you love a lot, or like to give as a gift?
Be sure to then head over to Ali’s blog at this link to do the same.
Two more that Ali is enjoying now: Julia Turshen’s new cookbook “Small Victories,” above left, which she mentioned in our recent interview about soup recipes. She also recommended “Salt Fat Acid Heat” from Samin Nosrat, above right, in a previous interview about cooking with herbs.
No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a cookbook name is even better. I’ll draw a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday November 28. Good luck to all.
more from ali stafford
- Ali’s recipe-filled website is Alexandra’s Kitchen (at Alexandra Cooks dot com)
- Ali’s companion post to this one, on cookbooks, is at this link (including the extra chance to enter the cookbook giveaway).
- Her weekly column on weeknight dinners is at Food 52 dot com
- Her “Bread Toast Crumbs” cookbook, featuring a brilliant no-knead peasant bread and much more
- All my past conversations with Ali
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Nov. 20, 2017 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
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