The 5 Cookbooks That Taught Me to Cook (and I Still Use Today)

published May 19, 2015
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(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

When I have guests over for dinner, some of them have read my website and also know I write for The Kitchn, and this naturally leads to the assumption that I am a fairly good cook. The conversation leads to cookbooks, of course, and as I have many of them open or stacked about in my kitchen, people are always nosing around in them and asking me for recommendations.

I am always happy to recommend good cookbooks, but I need to come clean — I have a secret stash of cookbooks I sometimes feel secretly embarrassed to still use. They might not have pride of place next to brand-new books, but they taught me to cook, I love them to bits, and I will never ever get rid of them. Sound familiar to you? Time to fess up.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)
(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

The Ultimate Cooking Course and Kitchen Encyclopedia edited by Carole Clements

If you peek into the dark, hidden corners of my bookshelf, you will find this (not-so) little gem of a cookbook. This was one of the first cookbooks I ever owned, when I was first learning how to cook in the terrible kitchen of my university residence apartment. I was fresh off the boat from India, and I wanted to learn how to cook “Western” food, and this was my go-to book. I adore this book, and a lot of my basic recipes are from here.

I laugh about how often this book comes out of the cupboard (hint: more often than I will admit to), despite the fact that I sometimes feel I should have really outgrown its beginner — and quite outdated — recipes by now. But this book is my comfort blanket, however unfashionable its recipes may be. I really enjoy these retro-style dishes and no matter how many cookbooks I own, this one has a special place in my heart — as does its tomato soup, which is my go-to recipe.

This is the perfect beginner’s cookbook. It assumes you can burn water – which I will definitely not admit to, ahem! – and has step-by-step pictures of techniques that will teach you everything you need to know about cooking.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

My collection of “essential” Indian cookbooks

Most people assume I cook Indian food all the time (and I do). My secret arsenal, though, is this collection of fabulous Indian cookbooks. This is the first time I have revealed these in public, as I prefer to let people think that my Indian cooking is all my own genius or my mother’s teaching (well, wouldn’t you?).

These books are published by Penguin India, and they’re little treasures packed full of information and background on Indian regional cooking and recipes. I love the introductions of these books, which take you on a journey through the region and give you real insight into the culture and food. Indian food is very regional, and these books offer a rare insight into the cooking of rural and urban India.

The authors of these books assume that you know the basics of Indian cooking, and sometimes you do have to tone the spice levels down (okay, okay, way down), but the recipes are all authentic and the writing is all beautifully evocative. Some books, like The Essential Goa Cookbook, also have cute cartoons by celebrated Indian cartoonists, which add to their charm.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

The Time-Life The Good Cook Series edited by Richard Olney

I might as well bring these guys out of my closet and let you into my deep secret stash. I own every single book in this series — and I love them to bits. I got this collection from a very good friend who was downsizing and knew that I was one of the people in her life who would appreciate them, and I do. These books are encyclopedic, and cover everything from wine to terrines. My favorite is “Preserving,” though I have pretty much devoured (pun intended!) all of them.

I owe my skill and knowledge of food to these books, though I’d never let you know that if you were over at my house. That’s because I rarely like to reveal my learning secrets. While I have worked in a cooking school and learned a lot of professional techniques, I am very much a self-taught cook, and these books are my gurus. I prefer to let people think I am a natural cook, but I pull out these books way more than you’ll ever know. Really, I am devoted to constant learning and these books are a great resource.

So that’s my vanity exposed – but seriously, I will be surprised if a lot of home cooks don’t have at least a few books from this collection.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)
(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

Homestyle Vegetarian edited by Vicky Fisher

My daughter and husband don’t eat meat. I do eat meat (and come from a Mangalorean Catholic community, where if you say you’re vegetarian, people will still offer you chicken). Naturally, when I first met my husband, I struggled to understand the concept of this giant white Canadian male who didn’t eat meat. Fortunately for my husband, his mother took pity on him (and me) and presented me with this book. It might have been this book that persuaded him to marry me (eventually!).

While I still don’t quite get tofu burgers, they are pretty dang delicious. But I still prefer to keep this book hidden. I don’t need anyone to know that I might need help in the kitchen when I am cooking for vegetarians, no siree.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

The Foolproof Cookery Series (various authors), BBC Books

Well, I’ve pretty much bared my soul to you guys in this post anyway, and I have no more shame left, so here we go, everyone! My deepest, darkest secret, the source of all things delicious in my life — the BBC’s collection of foolproof recipes that made me into the cook I am today. And they don’t kid around when they say foolproof; these truly are the holy grail for those who want a crash course in cooking a cuisine they’ve never tried. It helps that the authors are all legendary — think Raymond Blanc, Ken Hom, Claudia Roden, my woman-crush Mary Berry, Aldo Zilli, and the inimitable Madhur Jaffery.

Yes, these are my culinary saviors and my inspirations, and BBC, I pay homage to you for bringing them together in this series. These are the books that will go with my daughter when she leaves home (if ever), and I will shed a tear when they do. These are the books that introduced me to some of the recipes I still make (good-looking Frenchmen have that effect on me) and techniques and ingredients that are now as familiar to me as breathing.

But these books definitely stay in the cupboard when I am entertaining. My husband teases me that these are my guilty secrets, because, let’s face it, the recipes they contain are very basic, and I feel that I should be beyond the basics now. But at the end of the day, one has to put one’s hands up and admit that basic cookbooks are pretty awesome, despite how brilliant a cook one might be. Sometimes even really good cooks need help in the kitchen, and those fancy haute-cuisine cookbook authors are not always so helpful. In the case of this collection, I might even go as far as sheepishly admitting that they are the books that inspired my love of food, cooking, and writing.

What cookbooks do you hide when company comes over?