Cookbooks and Cooking

In today’s New York Times, Kim Severson writes that “Written Recipes Undergo a Makeover” which argues that in today’s modern cookbooks “instructions have shifted away from formulas toward deeper explanations of technique, offering context and lyricism in ways Fannie Farmer could not have imagined . . . they teach the reader to be a more intuitive cook, a cultural change that reflects a nation that is cooking better than it has in decades.”  (Editor’s Note, I will not embed any more links to New York Times articles, since readers inform me that you need to be a paid subscriber to open some of the links.)

While this is a well-balanced article – only if you read the entire article – the underlying proposition is that today’s modern cook requires and receives more information to help them become a “more intuitive chef.”  Indeed, Ms. Severson argues that today’s cookbooks are focused on stories that relate food to use and cooking techniques that allow home chefs to become more creative.

Does Ms. Severson’s proposition hold water?  Maybe, but observing popular cooking on TV or YouTube doesn’t make for inspired cooking anymore than learning the theory of brick-laying makes you a better bricklayer.   Consistently great cooking requires practice to refine techniques and to help the “inspired” chef think outside the box.

I’ll site just a few examples from my experience to illustrate the point:

  • I once watched Martha Stewart prepare a paella on one of her TV programs.  While I might call her preparation a fish and chicken rice stew, it lacked the subtlety of an authentic paella.    In short, it was a disaster and you didn’t need to taste it to know why.  Sure, there are hundreds of instructional videos on YouTube on how to make paella, but does anything taste like an authentic paella that Gwyneth Paltrow and Mario Batali had prepared at La Matandeta?:

  • I once watched an Iron Chef some years ago in which popular TV cooks, Giada De Laurentiis and Rachael Ray, were paired with Mario Batali and Bobby Flay.  To refer to Giada and Rachael as anymore than sous chefs in this exhibition would be an insult to most any serious chef.  And yet, these two  “inspired” chefs each have their own cooking program on TV and now teach technique to others.  Doesn’t make sense to me!
  • When I worked in the stationery industry, we would often buy “cookbooks” at the Gift Show in New York for resale at Christmas.  Sadly, we needed to judge the book by its cover (the title and sometimes the author), since the staged food photography and the recipes hadn’t yet been written.  And yet, these are the cookbooks from which future generations of chefs will draw their inspiration.  I think not!!

Having cooked for well over 50 years, I am not averse to inspiration but feel that every home chef that truly wants to feel more confident in the kitchen needs to practice, practice and practice.  Learning from “true” cooking experts is far better than watching popular TV programs.   For instance, my sister-in-law practiced making bread daily for well over 2 years, before she decided she had become proficient.  She insists that she is still learning.  Mind you, bread has only four ingredients:  flour, water, salt and a touch of yeast.

In any event, I have prepared a list of my 5 favorite cookbooks for those who want to jump-start the learning process.  For those interested in the “whys” of cooking, I would strongly recommend a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated.  (Editor’s Note:  Don’t bother with the cookbooks, but the bi-monthly magazine is very good!)

Elegant Entertaining: Seasonal Recipes from the American Ambassador’s Residence in Paris

Therese Saint Clair

Therese Saint Clair

OnTuesday, December 1st from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 Dorothy Stapleton will be available to sign copies of her recently published Elegant Entertaining:  Seasonal Recipes from the American Ambassador’s Residence in Paris.   Mrs. Stapleton, the wife of the former U.S. Ambassador to France, co-authored this beautiful book with the Ambassador’s Residence Master Chef, Philippe Excoffier.   The book signing will take place at Thérèse Saint Clair in downtown Greenwich, CT. 

Elegant Entertaining by Stapleton & Exoffier

Elegant Entertaining by Stapleton & Exoffier

Photographed in the beautiful American Residence in Paris’s chic Faubourg St. Honoŕe neighborhood, Chef Excoffier shares forty of his favorite seasonal recipes – outlined in chapters on Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring – with twelve seasonal menus from actual events, ranging from Dinner for the Supreme Court and dinner for Mayor of New York City, to Tea in the Garden and Thanksgiving Dinner. 

With specially commissioned photography, Elegant Entertaining is also a visual feast for the eyes with beautiful images of the recipes set against the backdrop of the residence’s splendid interiors and gardens.  Partial proceeds of this book will be donated to FXB, a charity dedicated to fighting childhood poverty and aids.

Please join us on Tuesday, December 1st from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. for the Elegant Entertaining book signing.  Light refreshments will be served.

My Favorite Food Books for 2009

I doubt that I have bought a cookbook for myself in over 10 years.  It’s not a lack of interest, but simply a matter of logistics.  I’ve no more space to store them.  Fortunately, my husband and I own Therese Saint Clair, a stationery and gift store located in Greenwich, CT.  As such, I can still vicariously indulge my culinary passion by purchasing these books on the pretext that we are selecting them for our clients.  Fortunately, most of our clients share our passion for fine food and travel.

Rick and I attend many trade shows and have the opportunity to see the latest releases from the many fine publishing companies we represent.  Most of the books we select combine both food and travel or have some connection to the great culinary talents that have emerged in the last 50 years or so.  Most of these books can’t be considered cookbooks in the strict sense of the word, but all fill a nostalgic void of placing food in a defined place and time that triggers memories of great joy and discovery.  While it would be pretentious to suggest that these are the best food books for 2009, the four books listed below left a distinct impression on me.

Paris Neighborhood Cookbook

Paris Neighborhood Cookbook

The Paris Neighborhood Cookbook: Danyel Couet’s Guide to the City’s Ethnic Cuisines is a beautiful collage of the great ethnic and indigenous cooking that has emerged in the neighborhoods of Paris.  While there are some 90 recipes in the book, the photography is as much about the character of these distinctive Parisian neighborhoods as it is about the food.  Glancing through this delightful and beautifully edited book reminds me of strolling through tight Parisian streets teeming with life and exotic aromas.

Food for One

Food for One

Judith Jones was the legendary editor of such culinary greats as Julia Childs and James Beard.  In a remarkable little book entitled The Pleasures of Cooking for One, Judith draws from her rich reservoir of experiences to show cooks how to improvise and create “great” meals using left-overs and time-saving techniques.  Judith Jones was at the epicenter of the many great culinary movements during the last half-century and we are grateful to her for sharing her experiences, insights and some great cooking tips.

Food Lover's Cookbook

Food Lover's Cookbook

The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler herbst and Ron Herbst is an encyclopedia of more than 6,7oo entries about food.  With hundreds of illustrations, the Food Lover’s Companion is for cooks who want to sink their teeth into something substantial and become “more knowledgeable about good food and fine dining.”  This is a reference book that you will come back to time after time.  I know this is one book that I would like to have on my Christmas wish list this year.  This is a handy resource to consider recipe variations or track down the origins of some unusual condiment.

Elegant Entertaining

Elegant Entertaining

Dorothy Walker Stapleton is the wife to the former Ambassador to France, Craig Stapleton.  Next month, we will host a book-signing of her delectable new publication, Elegant Entertaining:  Seasonal Recipes from the American Ambassador’s Residence in Paris.  Co-authored with resident chef Philippe Excoffier, this stunningly photographed book takes you inside the 19th century US Embassy residence that is one of the most beautiful buildings in Paris.  Mr.  Excoffier is certainly one of the most talented chefs in Paris and he brings his considerable cooking expertise to the forefront by merging the great French culinary traditions with, perhaps, a more casual and relaxed American cooking tradition.  Partial proceeds form the sale of this book are donated to FXB, a charitable international organization which combats Aids and poverty in Africa.