My Essential Cookbooks

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Despite my love of a good clear-out I am in no way a minimalist. My home is not a sterile, comfortless place, it simply contains only the things its inhabitants want, use and need. Following my book clear-out I am left with only the cookbooks I really use whether it's to cook from or more often just to read and be inspired. Just three shelves. 

 


I used to have a lot more. A lot more. Some I have mentioned on this blog but are no longer on my shelves, not because they were bad books but because after the initial fun of reading through them I hardly, if ever opened them again. This is good example. Rereading that post makes me shrivel with embarrassment and despite the fact I gushed that there were dozens of recipes I couldn't wait to try I actually only made one. 

The cookbooks I bought when I began to cook for myself and Charlie are the ones I use most. I think if I were starting to cook today I'd choose new publications but for the stage I am at in my cooking life there is little the current trendy cookbooks can offer, unless I want to know how to cook without gluten or what to do with chia seeds and quinoa*,which I don't.

The thing is I don't need recipes any more. I don't say that to show off and I'm not saying I can cook everything, but I can cook all the things I want to cook. For example tonight I have some smoked haddock fillets for our supper. I'm going to poach them in milk and then use the milk to make a thick sauce. I shall flake the fish into a shallow dish and cover with the sauce and some grated cheese (gruy√®re or cheddar I haven't decided yet). I will put it under a hot grill to brown and we will eat it with crusty bread and spinach salad. If I were cooking for less fussy people (myself for instance) I would include cooked spinach with the fish. One could make a similar dish with large flat mushrooms instead of fish, they'd be delicious with blue cheese in the sauce. There are recipes for similar dishes in books but I won't be checking my books for one. It is a very rewarding stage to have reached in one's cooking life and very empowering. Learning to cook without a recipe is such a valuable skill. Luckily there are cookery books which can help develop this skill and the ones in the next picture are my favourites. 


The Art of Simple Food - Alice Waters
Appetite - Nigel Slater
The Modern Cook's Manual - Lynda Brown (out of print but there are bound to be second hand copies available)
An Everlasting Meal - Tamar Adler
The Thrifty Cookbook - Kate Colquhoun

Of the above Nigel Slater's Appetite is the one I have found most useful and pleasurable to read. As an experienced cook I find these books very inspiring but I do think a beginner needs something more prescriptive at least at first. I have a recommendation for such a book at the end of this post.


The two books above are my favourite and most often consulted baking books. Mary Berry needs no introduction and I have frequently mentioned her cake book. It's not just cakes, there are biscuits, cheesecakes and scones too. Susan Reimer's little book of muffin recipes has been my companion for many years. I haven't made every muffin in it but her basic muffin recipe at the beginning is so useful and the yogurt-oatmeal muffins are delicious and a good way of using up the homemade yogurt I always seem to have too much of.


The books above are my favourite budget/thrifty/frugal cookbooks. They are possibly my favourites of all my favourites. Simple, unpretentious and useful. 
More-With-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre
The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn -not a cookbook but containing a number of recipes and brilliant advice about running an economical kitchen. Full of creative solutions to living on less.
Feed Your Family For £5 a Day by Bernadine Lawrence. There is a newer edition of this but I like this one. The recipes are basic and maybe a little dull but as a framework for feeding a family on very little it can't be beat. 
The Pauper's Cookbook by Jocasta Innes. I have the original 70s edition plus the most recent one. You probably don't need both. This has some excellent thrifty recipes from various cultures.
Frugal Food by Delia Smith. Good old fashioned recipes. The new hardback edition has quite unnecessarily in my opinion expunged all references to lard and dripping and replaced them with more expensive oils. 
The Good Scots Diet by Maisie Steven. Not a cookbook but a comforting and reassuring reminder that a diet of simple home produced foods such as oatmeal, oily fish, fresh veg, berries and whole dairy is not only one of the healthiest in the world but much cheaper than flax seeds, coocnut oil and goji berries.

As for the best all round cookbook on my shelves, one that has recipes for everything the average Brit is likely to want to make, is great for beginners and experienced cooks alike, well, it's this one.


Delia, you can't go wrong with her. Not the best for encouraging experimentation perhaps, but that will come with experience.


*Buy a nice bit of steak instead.

45 comments:

  1. This is so true! I have a lot of cookbooks and return to the same ones again and again. There are some that are newer than others that become great favourites and some that I think I will love and then never use. I expect that we are all like that if we are honest. I tend to keep mine though because I like to look at the pictures and some I have because I like to read them even though I never have and never will cook from them.

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  2. I always love having a peek at someone's book shelves, and it's fabulous to hear what cookbooks you especially enjoy. I'm definitely not at the stage in my life yet where I can cook without a recipe, but I'm looking forward to that happening one day!! I love Nigel Slater's books, but I don't have Appetite - it's now on my list. xxx

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  3. So true, always returning to favourite books/writers when my own ideas become bland. I love Appetite too, also as each season comes around, I love to re read, and am inspired by, Nigel's Kitchen Diaries. Didn't you have his Eat book? Love the way that's written with loads of ideas.
    I go back to Hugh for his apple & blackberry crumble tart from River Cottage cookbook, one the of best tarts I've made
    And thank goodness for Delia's rather stained trilogy, always standing by for crumble measurements and other basic stuff and I've been hankering after that Food in England book for ages.
    I used to have a lot more too.

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    1. I did have Eat but I found it much less useful than Real Fast Food, his first book which is stuffed with ideas for quick things. I only have four Nigels now. The crumble measurements are what I use Delia for the most -can never remember them.

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  4. Thank you for the photos of your cookery book shelves. I have several the same and use them all infrequently. I took 10 off the shelves that were on my blog on the 16th Feb and added them to the car boot box, I could probably remove several more. The recipes I use most often are in plastic pockets in a fat folder so in reality I probably only need about 4 cookery books instead of the 65 I have!!

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  5. Anonymous5:45 pm GMT

    I have a lot of cookbooks too but at the weekend I was saying to a friend that if I had to save one it would be Delia - she explains things so well and her book covers most things we want to eat. I'm off to look at my shelves to see if can get rid of any, tho some I read like fiction (Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries which I love, for example)

    Cathy

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  6. Love seeing all your cook books. I, too have the Sarah Raven, and read it with great enthusiasm, have I cooked anything from it? No! I too have lots of cookbooks that I have used very little, some not atall. Some I keep because I find them so inspiring, others because I'm hoping to use them at some point! One of my great favourites is Alisdair Hendy's 'Home Cook'. I turn to it frequently when I need reminded of family meals that I sort of know, but just need to double check. So well written too. I am interested in the Scots kitchen book that you have, I might follow that one up. Oh and I agree re the flax seeds and goji berries! X

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  7. I am so happy that there are so many like minded people out there when it comes to cookbooks. I think I have all the ones on your shelves and many more but I just can't bring myself to have a clear out. I like nothing more than having a rummage in a charity shop or car boot and have got some great bargains and many that are now out of print. I also get inspiration from your blog and my husband can't get enough of your granola recipe.

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    1. Nor can my husband! I often find that older out of print cookbooks are more useful then the latest ones. Their ingredients are much more accessible and simple.

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  8. Some familiar titles on your shelf. Delia might not be trendy but it's surprising how often I go back to her Illustrated Cookery Course. Perhaps the fact that the hardback cover has come adrift and the spine long since gone is proof of how many times I've used it - not to mention the stuck together pages.

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    1. Ha, I just left a comment describing the state of my Delia cookbook - identical to yours!! There must be ones like that all over the country! The spine was clearly not made strong enough.

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  9. Hey Sue,
    The first cookery book I owned was Delia's Complete Cookery Course. My friend Nina gave it to me for Christmas. I had just moved in with Marc. She has lived with me for four years at University. She said "You really need to learn to cook." The first thing I made was her all in one sponge. My Mum is a great home baker, and I was probably trying to emulate her. I think the first cake was a disaster. I now cook a very good sponge. It won a competition once!
    I would say that I am a competent cook, who yearns to have boys that are not fussy eaters. Pasta, curry, pasta, curry, pizza, roast. To that end I have amassed a lot of cookery books in the vain hope that I may actually be able to use them one day.
    Great post.
    Leanne xx

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  10. Thanks so much for sharing and I completely agree there is something comforting about feeling you have the skills needed to rustle up a decent meal with whatever ingredients you have. Lovely post :)

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  11. How exciting to see another owner of the Tightwad Gazette :)
    I have a few of the same cook books but to be honest these days I tend to search the Internet for recipes.....instant and more importantly free.

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    1. Yes, I forgot to mention the internet which is fab source of recipes. The BBC Good Food site is especially good. The TWG was the first online purchase I made when we got our first computer. I love it.

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  12. I have so many of the same books especially from the second shelf. I too rarely follow recipes now but love reading old cookery books for old fashioned inspiration.
    Delia's books taught me how to cook.

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  13. I, too, have the Tightwad Gazette and the More-With-Less cookbook. I wish ours was spiral bound like yours. Ours is a paperback edition bought in the early 80s. The spine is off and it's held together with a rubber band. And I agree, wholeheartedly, that the older cookbooks are the best. They are full of real food, instead of this pretentious nonsense that most modern cookbooks offer.

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    1. My sentiments exactly.

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  14. I love your choices- probably because I have quite a few of them myself. I had Delia's Frugal Food when I was a student nurse in 1973 and struggling on £40 per annum!. I have always loved Nigel Slater, accessible, great writing and ideas on food and Jane Grigson for her love of good ingredients. I would love a copy of the Dorothy Hartley too. Great post.

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  15. I had that More with Less cookbook. I remember making apple jam when my parents in law brought us apples every autumn. Funny how you forget things you used to make on a regular basis. Tonight made a tomato & bacon sauce with pasta for my family. It always amazes me how the fussy one/two can eat the pasta and leave the sauce behind. It doesn't really seem physically possible.

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  16. I have far too many cookery books that never get looked in again...I stick to a few well worn favourites, probably time to have a root out x

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  17. I have a burgeoning cook book collection, that need’s a serious prune, but like you, my main go to is Delia’s Complete Illustrated Cookery Course. I just wish I could resist cheap charity shop finds!

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  18. I read cookbooks like fiction and rarely actually cook from them, although like you Delia is always there for the facts (although I truly lost faith in her with that cheating cooking stuff like buying mashed potato) and I have a really old book from the milk marketing board that I love, oh and the bero cookbook from when I was a child...... which ironic as now I have to cook gluten free nonsense..........

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  19. Sue, I'm with you all the way, got most of your favourites, and then my own.

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  20. I do so love having a look at other people's cookery books. I really wanted Sarah Raven's books, but you've made me wonder if I would actually use them. I notice a few men on your shelf now, I remember before you said you mostly had women. I'm a big fan of Delia as well, I often look on her website for recipes. I love your idea of mushrooms with a blue cheese sauce. You always come up with the loveliest things so effortlessly. Maybe you should write a cookery book... CJ xx

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    1. Still only the two men CJ -Nigel and Hugh and only 4 and 3 of each respectively. All the others are women. Oh, apart from Ben and Jerry's ice cream book.

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  21. I wish you could see the state of my copy of Friends and Family! Thumbed, stained, cracked spine and tufted with bookmarks.
    I never had Real Food but like his first Diaries.
    I will never Kondo Delia.
    I wish I wasn't so recipe book dependent. It is ridiculous when I think how many meals I have cooked in my life. Maybe I just lack inspiration. Luckily there's you to gee things up when I'm feeling jaded.

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  22. Think you are absolutely right - I have a real struggle with parting with books so some years ago did this in stages. I removed almost all of my cookery books to a shelf in the study and then lived with it for a bit to see which ones I missed. Not many it turned out, so I liberated them c/o Oxfam (and had a very nice note from them some time later saying how much they'd earned from them! feel good all round). I am left with an ancient Mary Berry Fast Cakes (no pics but great adaptable recipes), an equally ancient Delia's complete cookery course, a couple of Rose Elliott's (the Bean Book, Veg cooking), Grub on a Grant etc Most of the glossy, lovely to look at books didn't make it back into the kitchen. Though have to confess to having succumbed to the odd soup book since, got to love a good soup, more for inspiration than slavishly following.

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  23. Sue, it's been fun and informative to see this post and the prior comments. Some of your books do appear on my two cookbook shelves, but I thought you might be interested in the tried and true cookbooks I keep and return to, over here in New York. Joy of Cooking, .Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook, Julia Child's Masterning the Art of French Cooking, Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cook Book, The New York Times Cook Book, The Martha Stewart Cook Book, Alice's Restaurant Cookbook (yes, that Alice.) Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking, and Joanna Isles' A Proper Tea. (Of course, there are some others...) xo

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    1. Agree, Frances! I lived in NYC for many years before moving to London. Learned to cook in a kitchen the size of a small closet, which was entirely doable, I discovered.

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  24. I read your blog and went and went straight way and had a look at our cook books. You're right we have many and use but a handful. There are the old favourites with much loved recipes, those which inspire and are beautiful to read, those I've probably outgrown and those that just make me think 'why?'. Most of what we cook revolves around meals planned from what we have in the pantry, cupboards and freezer and are made without recourse to a recipe book. Being able to look at what we've already got and make a decent meal is a great source of satisfaction I must say.
    ps i have to admit to not having any of Nigel Slater's books but I love watching him on TV; wonderfully comforting and inspiring and so very down to earth about food.

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  25. I've just binned a huge pile of Taste magazines from the 80s; I hadn't looked at them for years but it was quite hard to part with them when I realised that fussy style of cooking is now food history. And I'd ticked every recipe that I'd actually made which brought back memories.
    Delia is great for learning - and Nigel for giving you confidence to chuck it in and hope for the best.

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  26. Very interesting post. My heroes are Delia, Nigel and Hugh, and of course Mary for the cakes. If I had to choose one to come and cook for me I think it would be Nigel. I've never got on with Nigella (although I make regularly a couple of her recipes that I picked up on the internet). My two daughters (20's) are inspired by Jamie but often come back to Delia for the basics.

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  27. As someone who has to be gluten-free, I'm right with you on the nice bit of steak. The easiest way of eating gluten free is to just not to eat bread and cakes (or anything processed where gluten might be lurking). It can be an extremely healthy way to eat, and in no way a 'diet'!

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  28. One of my favorites is anything by Ina Garten - The Barefoot Contessa and Mario Batali is great too.
    I learn to cook from Delia in the 70s and still make so many things of hers.
    i m afraid Yotam has to go - too many fancy ingredients and some I had never heard of.......life is too short !

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    1. Yotam certainly does have way too many fancy ingredients doesn't he? Funnily enough though he is the only food writer I enjoy watching on tv -loved the Mediterranean Islands series.

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  29. I have quite a few of those on my shelves. Particularly nice to see the Diana Henry's, think her books are some of the best around at the moment. I have the Sarah Raven books as well, her ice cream recipes are particularly good and I periodically rediscover them on the shelf . On the other hand I think I could cheerfully dispose of my Nigel Slater's, I never use them. And Tessa Kiros - lovely looking books but never ever used.

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    1. I am a fan of Diana Henry but I did donate her preserving book because the recipes seemed a bit too fussy and I didn't take to her Change of Appetite at all because I'm sick of this idea that a healthy diet equals no dairy and no wheat. A lot of food writers seem to be jumping on this particular bandwagon -Hugh FW for example.I shan't be buying her new chicken book either -I don't need that many chicken recipes. Agree about Tessa Kiros -very beautiful books but never used.

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  30. This was a great post with equally fascinating comments. As an American I must agree with Francis's suggestions. Fannie Farmer is our Delia in the States. Since moving to England I've discovered all your great cookery writers, including Jane Grigson. Actually, I discovered Jane through an American cookery writer named Laurie Colwin. Do seek out her food books if you can. They're wonderful. She loved English cookbooks and wrote about them often.

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    1. I know Laurie Colwin's books Deb, and yes she is definitely worth reading.

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    2. Oh I spelt Frances's name wrong--sorry.

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  31. One of our best wedding presents was the Delia Smith complete cookery course book. I was very young, had just left home and hardly knew how to boil an egg. I learnt to cook using that book, and I still have it 20 odd years later, it is in threads!! I will never throw it out although certain pages are stuck together and the spine has collapsed! Great post, Sue. x

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  32. Gosh so many of my favourite books here! Appetite is one i go to again and again - I think Nigel Slater is my favourite writer about food. My mum gave me Delia when I got married - 26 years ago. It is invaluable for all the basics. I also love How to Eat by Nigella - it is literally falling apart and I have cooked so much in it. Again I love her writing and of course it was written.before she was a brand. You have me thinking - what would be my desert island cookbooks and which one would I save from the waves?

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  33. What a fun post and comments. Cookbooks have always been my last defense against despair (reading them) and I love to cook. As a Yank, I second the nomination of Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking books and I use my 1964 Joy of Cooking rather like you mention using Delia--there's always an answer there. I was also so pleased to see Jocasta Innes' Pauper's Cookbook--I've relied on it since I bought it in the '70s (try her Swedish meatballs or Potato, onion, and bacon hotpot!). And Nigel's Real Fast Food--priceless. My adult daughter, as a very neophyte cook, surprised me one evening with his dish of sardines in a butter sauce. When I read the recipe I said,"but that sauce is a beurre blanc, a very tricky French sauce. How did you manage?" She smiled and said "I just followed the recipe." What a fond memory. Thanks for sharing. Kate in Oregon

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    1. The Pauper's cookbook is one of my absolute favourites. I've not tried the Swedish meatballs but the potato, onion and bacon hotpot is delicious and makes a regular appearance on my table.

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