So, I like to buy cookbooks. I then put them in the cupboard and forget about them, or sometimes read through them. What I rarely do is actually cook from them. A big part of this blog is to encourage me to actually use them. I plan to pick a recipe, cook it, and write up my experiences with it. Hardly startlingly original in terms of blogging – Julie Powell says hi, for one. But, you know, it might get me cooking more. An audience to keep me honest, so to speak.
I generally like to go for old second-hand books, and ones that are a little bit unusual. I think that they can tell you a lot about the time and society they were written in, just by their approach to ingredients and even things like portion sizes. What was readily available? How many people were they expecting to cook for? What tools and kitchenware were to hand? With that in mind, I like books that have a bit of background to them. Things that talk about the cuisine they’re describing, and so on, rather than just straight up recipes.
At the lovely second-hand book shop My Back Pages (which always sounds a little smutty to me), I bought the following.
Cooking with Herbs | Irma Goodrich Mazza
I think that starting with the flavouring is a really interesting approach, and as the book has almost 70 pages of background before the recipes even starts, it certainly meets my ‘background’ criteria. The intro calls it ‘a highly personal book’, and this certainly seems true. Mazza talks about her difficulties growing tarragon in her garden, and how her neighbours have it in abundance. Even though I have no garden, and my closest experience of growing fresh herbs is those little pots of windowsill basil from the supermarket, the propogation information is still really interesting. Did you know that you should ‘never let anyone talk you into sowing tarragon seed if you want the flavourful variety’? I certainly didn’t. Apparently ‘new plants must be made either by slipping or root division’. I’m not entirely sure what those things are, but that’s just another thing to learn. I’m actually quite excited about reading all this extra detail, before I even try cooking from it.
The People’s Republic of China Cookbook | Nobuko Sakamoto
(Random House, 1977)
Although Nobuko Sakamoto is clearly of Japanese origin, she grew up and lived/s in America (it says here). Although there are countless Chinese cookbooks, this one struck me as interesting, because it’s an American ‘translation’ of recipes from government-published Chinese cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s – The Treatise on Famous Chinese Dishes, The Cookbook of Famous Dishes from the Peking Hotel Restaurant, and The Masses Cookbook. It’s got a lot of details of technique, nicely illustrated. I never really knew how to devein a shrimp, for example. While some of the recipes are rather beyond my comfort zone (Roast Suckling Pig Banquet, anyone?) and it presents the common difficulty of American ingredient terms (I’m not entirely sure what to make of pork butt) and enormous portions (anything that starts with ‘two pounds of ham’ isn’t a dinner for one), I’m certain I can find things in here that are interesting and achievable. Also, it does use meat other than cuts of pig.
Check back later for the first recipe from the cookbook project. Not from either of these books, mind.