Tuesday, May 27, 2008

America's Best Kitchen

Wow! Huge kudos to the editors of Cook's Country (and Cook's Illustrated). Last year I picked up a copy of America's Best Lost Recipes when I went to a book-signing by Christopher Kimball, nerd-in-chief at the America's Test Kitchen operation. It's a cool book, but I have to admit I haven't spent a ton of time with it. The magazines serve up more than enough dishes to keep me salivating. I flip through it occasionally. I'm amused that more than half of this book is given over to desserts.

So, that's my excuse when I say that it wasn't until Kathryn's recent visit that I realized the book I have contains a printing error. Er, maybe a binding error. Anyways, it's missing about 24 pages, and an extra copy of another 24 pages. I was bummed when I discovered this because, well, those were the pages with cakes on them.

I tracked down the web site for the publishing arm of the Kimball Empire, which included (in plain view!) an email address to contact them. I wrote a nice email explaining my situation. They wrote back saying, "Send us your address, and we'll ship you a new book." So I did, and they did! Wow!

It's hard to convey how happy this makes me. It's really gratifying to not need to go through a lot of hassle to get at those missing pages. And I'm especially impressed because, on their end, they didn't even demand the receipt (which I'd long since tossed) or other proof that I actually, y'know, bought the book. So, again, kudos to ATK for doing it right. They're a class act all the way!

While I'm writing on the topic, I figured this would be a good time to take a quick inventory of the cookbooks I have in my kitchen. In rough order of acquisition, they are:

The Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book: This was the first cookbook I got when I went off "on my own," a wonderful gift from my parents. It was a terrific first cookbook: it contains almost any American standard you can think of, and doesn't overwhelm you with a lot of exotic ingredients and preparation techniques. It isn't afraid to use easy resources like cream-of-chicken soup cans, which helps get people cooking. I still pull this out occasionally; if anything isn't in Joy, it will be here. (Note: There are like 14 editions of this thing, I think mine is earlier than the one on Amazon.)

Joy of Cooking: Hands-down my go-to book. A gift from my Aunt Fran, this one collected dust until nearly a year after I moved to California, after which it has rarely left my counter. It is simply an amazing book that contains everything you could want to know about cooking. When I started going to the Campbell farmer's market, I would drag home bags full of vegetables that I'd never eaten before, then pore through the book to figure out what the heck to do with them, and would inevitably be delighted with the response. It does demand more of you than BH&G, but it is also the best teaching book I've ever read. It explains how to do all the basic tasks that a lot of recipes take for granted - I'd never understood before what "saute" or "braise" meant. Again, due to the magazines I usually don't need to go looking for entree recipes, but virtually every side dish that reaches my table arrives by way of Joy.

The Pirate Cook Book: Arrrr! Anything with pirates is automatically awesome. They sadly failed to take advantage of easy cross-promotional monkey opportunities, though. This is mainly party food and so it doesn't get a lot of use, but it still makes me smile.

The Best Light Recipe: The first book I got from the Kimball company. They actually are generally pretty defiantly anti-light-cooking... almost none of their recipes contain nutrition information, and they will always choose a more flavorful option even if it is less healthy - I use lots of butter and oil. The trade-off, though, is that when they do make a light recipe, it is darn good... they refuse to put their names on anything that doesn't taste great. This book can be roughly divided in two. About half of the recipes are "naturally" light: tasty ways to prepare a white chicken chili, stir-fries, oven-baked fish. The other half are intriguing, where they tackle traditionally unhealthy foods and come up with amazing renditions. I have made, and practically swooned over, their recipes for Chicken Parmesan, Meat Lasagna, Chocolate Chip Cookies, and Cinnamon Rolls. The most amazing, though, remains what they put on the cover, a New York-style cheesecake with strawberry sauce. It simply stuns me. This isn't an all-purpose book like Joy, but wherever there is overlap, I tend towards this book's version.

Extending the Table: A spiritual successor to More with Less, this book combines international cuisine with international perspectives, making for great reading even when I'm not cooking. I'd probably cook out of it more often if I was closer to an international foods store - the recipes actually look really simple, but the most intriguing ones ask for stuff I don't have on hand (plantains, mung beans, tumeric). Still, it definitely gives me ways to stretch myself.

America's Best Lost Recipes: And are they ever! This is kind of a funny book, actually. For some reason, a majority of the recipes in here come from Eastern Europe. I don't know if that is reflective of Cooks Country's readership, the biases of the editors, or the quality of the cuisine (?). It does kind of make sense, though... American food has been dominated by British, French, and Italian influences, so it stands to reason that other immigrants would number among the lost. I've already picked out a dozen or so dishes that I really want to make - and yes, a lot of them are desserts. Everything just looks so tasty!

That's it for now. In all honesty, it's probably more cookbooks than I need... in addition to the above, I've held onto every issue of Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country, plus I occasionally grab recipes off the internet. It is wonderful, though, to know that I'll never be at a loss for meal ideas. As you all are my witness, I'll never go hungry again!

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