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Culinary Heavy Hitters

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Cookbooks Worth Their Salt

Written by Cornelius O’Donnell

I ’m what you might call a “cookbookaholic,” if there were such a word. I have about—I’ve never counted them— something over a thousand. My grandnephew started to count them and then lost interest after the first wall of bookcases. Organizing the piles on the floor will be a winter project. Someday. But if I had to pick three to recommend, I thought I’d suggest the ones that surely helped me be a better cook. I’m certain they’ll be of great value to you too, whether you’re a practiced cook or culinary neophyte.

Let’s start with Julia Child: I could not live without her teaching volume, The Way to Cook, published in 2010. When you are not cooking from it you may use it as a doorstop. It’s oversized, like the six-foot- plus Julia, and, as one reviewer noted, it’s “her magnum opus—a distillation of a lifetime of cooking.” She is most famous for the blockbuster Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volumes I and II. But look at The Way: This book is filled with color photos and the text features master recipes and variations. The steps are not difficult to follow and she provides tips throughout. I can hear her unique voice as I read the pages. You’ll learn so much here. Just know that it isn’t all French food and the photos taught me, through “how-to” pictures, to make classics like rolled omelets, heavenly hash and burgers! The Fish and Meat chapters are reason enough to own the book, but then there are the Desserts and Salads and Sauces, Breads and …

The same sense of Julia’s personality that enlivens her books also can be felt in the books of Julia’s great friend, James Beard. I have all 20—true—of Jim’s, but the one I’d recommend as a textbook is his Theory and Practice of Good Cooking, with an introductory note by Julia Child and a foreword by another great food writer, Barbara Kafka. The charming and informative sketches by Karl Stuecklen are an added feature. First published in 1977, it was republished in 1989. That’s the book I use—and use.

Beard starts out with a treatise on the importance of good tools, especially knives. Next you can turn to the Kitchen Equipment Checklist. There are chapters on broiling, braising, frying, freezing, etc. You get the point. This is like the Boy Scout Handbook for any cook. Surely this 430-page, well-indexed book is Jim’s masterpiece. I’ve read study after study that confirm Italian food as a favorite U.S. cuisine. And each year brings new books on that cuisine. Take my advice: If you want to cook Italian, buy Marcella Hazan’s masterpiece Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. This book is a combination of her two “Classic” and “More Classic” books, to which Hazan added 150 new recipes. The title says it all, and I love reading it as much as cooking from it. That’s true of all three of my choices here. She was the authority on Italian regional cooking, and her legion of fans have never used a store-bought pasta sauce once they have made Marcella’s. So easy, so good.

And here goes, I’m bragging: All three of these culinary titans were my friends. It wasn’t only Jimmy Stewart who had a wonderful life. But writing about that tomato sauce drew me to the kitchen to make a batch, and it’s ready to serve.

Cornelius O’Donnell is an award-winning chef and cookbook author. He lives in Horseheads with his cookbooks.

This article originally appeared in the January-February 2020 Issue of the magazine.

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