by Jack Van Amburg, GSAS Guest Blogger
When my mom graduated from college and moved out on her own, my grandmother gave her a new copy of Joy of Cooking. She taught herself how to cook from exploring its pages, from her first roasted chicken to quick breads, stews to angel food cakes. It shows a lot of wear and love, especially in the ‘Cookies and Bars’ chapter, which, let’s be honest, is the best chapter. It also reflects a good deal of the past in American cuisine, as there is another chapter devoted to ‘game meats’ (porcupine, raccoon, beaver, woodchuck and even armadillo!), which is always good for invoking a good laugh.
However, Joy of Cooking isn’t my go-to for grad school. While it has received two major updates since, it still wouldn’t be a good thing for me. Joy of Cooking is sort of the cookbook that makes sense once you are married. Many of them require more time than most students/young professionals have available to them. Others require expensive ingredients or kitchen supplies that most grad students don’t have access to. Don’t get me wrong…there are great recipes in there, but it doesn’t feel like practical cooking I’d want to do every day of the week. Moreover, many people who cook now (myself included) find recipes online, or from the many, beautifully photographed food blogs out there. Downside of food blogs is they don’t really explain how to buy produce or select cuts of meat, or walk you through cooking techniques you have never encountered before.
That’s where Mark Bittman comes in. Apart from being a regular contributor to the New York Times in most food matters, his How to Cook Everything (1998) has taken on a life of its own as the Joy of Cooking of our generation, revered by high-end chefs and home cooks alike. It centers itself around three things: understanding how to find and prepare quality ingredients; cooking simple, healthy, yet flavorful and satisfying meals; and developing a comfort in the kitchen that encourages freedom and experimentation. The book was revised in 2008 for its 10-year anniversary and reflects many of the modern changes in food, such as the big rise of Indian and Thai cuisine in everyday American life. There is a step by step guide to finding, storing and preparing almost every kind of produce you could want and nearly all the recipes serve as a “master” for which he offers countless variations to change the flavor and, as a result, turns knowing one recipe into knowing eight. The kitchen basics chapter serves as a nice reference section for food safety, how to stock a pantry, knife skills, and cooking techniques if you find you’re a little rusty. If things don’t sound good enough already, you have three versions to choose from:
If you are an OMNIVORE who has LOW or more experience cooking:
Get How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition). It includes all the goodness described above and over 2,000 recipes.
If you are a VEGETARIAN/VEGAN who has LOW or more experience cooking:
Get How to Cook Everything – Vegetarian. It is basically what you get above, just without a meat section and more vegetarian recipes to compensate (it still reaches a 2,000 recipe total). Many of the recipes are vegan just because they naturally are that way, but don’t go into it expecting a vegan cooking section. Odds are if you are vegan, you’ve gotten pretty good at cooking for yourself out of necessity already.
If you are an OMNIVORE who has ZERO/LOW experience cooking:
Get How to Cook Everything – Basics. This book has significantly less recipes (185) but each one has step by step pictures and it has a visual index of all the cooking skills you could probably need to teach yourself how to cook. Once you master a technique/skill through making one of these recipes (such as recognizing ‘doneness’ when cooking meat), you will have the confidence to move out and try more adventurous things. It’s designed to make your first experiences in the kitchen successful and have delicious results.
Ultimately, the best thing to do is head to a bookstore and check them out in person to see which fits you best…though don’t get discouraged by the price of a new book. You can find used ones in IMPECCABLE condition (as I did) from Half.com. Pick one of these up (or a cookbook of your choice) before deciding what to get for your new graduate school kitchen: many of them have advice on what you need (as well as what not to waste your money on) to be successful. It is a good investment you will keep coming back to for years to come…and ensure you aren’t trapped cooking pasta and grilled cheese for the rest of your graduate career.