Keeper Cookbooks: Classic finds and a must-have vegetarian recipe

We started this week with gorgeous coffee table cookbooks worth owning for the sheer cooking inspiration they offer.

In the last post we looked at food books, some good and some less so, that were worth only a library flip through.

And, today, we've got books that would be worth a place on your reference shelf. Books you can now afford because of all the money you saved in the last post!

A San Francisco treat
Whether you like in San Francisco, The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market Cookbook is a wonderful reference book. Especially for us almost vegetarians.

Organized by season, this handy dandy reference book gives you everything from how to choose and store your market finds to a ton of recipes to help you enjoy them such as Cherry Clafouti, Cardoon Gratin, Avocado and Grapefruit Salad with Frisee, Shaved Raw Asparagus with Lemon Vinaigrette, Raspberry Lemon Tarts.

Yes, yes, very nice and all, but the juicy part here is that when I can’t resist some vegetable I have never heard of, I can flip through this book and figure out what to do with it (and we’ve got some pretty handy substitutions in these recipes so if I didn’t pick up another needed ingredient, I have options). So is that handy or what?

Now, predictably, while there is tons of information on all sorts of produce, there is also an emphasis on California products. But there is so much valuable information that even if you are not in San Francisco or your local grocer does not stock California items, this cookbook still has enough wholesome goodness to warrant a place on the bookshelf. Besides, the Ferry Plaza Market is one of the preeminent food markets. Meaning just browsing this book is as much food for the soul as it is inspiration for the pot.

And the tons of gorgeous photographs don’t hurt!

Despite the very unfortunate title . . .
No one wants hair on the food, of course, but if it is Beard, James Beard, we make an exception. And we make an exception in Beard on Food: The Best Recipes and Kitchen Wisdom from the Dean of American Cooking.

If you've never read Beard, then this is the book to start with. It is a delight: Engrossing, contagiously enthusiastic, and delightfully witty.

Okay, there are not a lot of recipes I would make here. But who cares. I am having a glorious time reading through the fascinating and delightfully opinionated essays from the famous (and, in latter years, a tad but infamous) James Beard.

Instead of writing a long review that can only give you a peek into the delight that is James Beard, let me give you a short excerpt so you can have a taste.

“I happen to be crazy about onions, so I can never understand why they are so unpopular with certain people who banish them from their lives on the grounds that they are disagreeable — to the taste and on the breath.”

See? What a delight to read.

Knife skills are everything
Ask any chef and he or she will tell you it comes down to the knife skills. Okay. So where to get those skills (and the other cooking skills needed to excel in home cooking) without going to culinary school? By having culinary school come to you!

Let me explain.

The Culinary Institute of America has a small library of books well worth reading. Such as Cooking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America and In the Hands of a Chef: The Professional Chef's Guide to Essential Kitchen Tools. I’ve always been a big fan of the Culinary Institute of America books. Not, mind you, for the inspiration. But purely for the super-clear instructions. Instructions which often come complete with great photographs.

For example, Cooking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America, which is the at-home / amateur version of their much larger and much more intimidating New Professional Chef, has the straightforward tone you expect from the CIA coupled with an amazing assortment of tips and, of course, tons and tons of classic recipes from Spinach and Escarole Lasagna to Gnocchi with Herbs and Butter, Chocolate Mousse, Cream of Broccoli Soup, and Puree of Split Pea. And, along the way, you’ll learn everything from how to seed tomatoes to how to make pasta. (Handy tip: Next time you are looking for a temperature chart or weight or volume equivalents, this is the book to grab.)

Of course, if what you are after is predominately knife skills, the cornerstone of nearly all cooking technique, than the latter book is the book for you.

A plethora of, yes, dull, but also instructional photographs goes hand-in-hand with very clear text so you will learn everything from the difference among the types of knives to how to care for and use your knives. And, of course, you’ll learn a variety of cutting techniques (many of which only a professional chef would use, but it is fun to read about them). And, as a bonus, you will also get information on a range of measuring, baking, and mixing tools from pastry bags to peelers. Oh, and let’s not forget the handy equipment sources to help you turn inspiration into action!

What goes on inside a professional kitchen?
Is it just me, or does it seem like very book out there that promise to give you the inside scoop on restaurants, does not. Oh, sure, you get the odd waiter complaining about how guests are such cheap tippers or how owners have explosive tempers. Or you get the wife of the chef who is a secret slob. Or how the head chef is so busy with TV appearance, he doesn’t actually cook any more. Or stories about how this chef burned his arm, that chef destroyed an expensive dinner, the other chef cut off the tip of her finger. But you never get a real, complete picture of what happens in the back of the house.

That is, until now. Because Chef Eric Ripert’s On the Line takes you behind the scenes of his famous New York restaurant, Le Bernardin.

And when I say behind the scenes, I mean it. Because you get everything from a listing of all the key positions and what each one does, from the saucier to the pastry chef, to a discussion on how new dishes are created, a peek at the front of the house positions, an explanation of the business side of restaurants including food costs, and, finally, a nice selection of recipes.

Fascinating. Just fascinating.

Classic cooks
The Silver Palate Cookbook is one of those books that has become a classic. And for good reason.

What I love about this book is that there are so many interesting tips and quotes and historical tidbits to help you shop, cook, and enjoy. And, of course, there are some really tempting recipes from Spicy Sesame Noodles and Eggplant Parmigiana to Cranberry Bread and Pureed Broccoli with Creme Fraiche.

But enough with all these book reviews. Let's get us a vegetarian recipe.

Vegetarian recipe from Eric Ripert: Tomatoes Proven├žal
2 tomatoes, sliced into thirds
1 ½ teaspoons herbes de Provence
¼ cup olive oil
1 small clove garlic, sliced thin
fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
fresh basil

Heat toaster oven to broil.

Arrange the sliced tomatoes on a toaster oven tray, season with herbes de Provence, salt, pepper, and olive oil and garlic.

Broil for about 4-5 minutes until the tomatoes are tender and a little caramelized.

Serve with fresh basil, making sure to pour the excess oil from the tray over the top.