Library cookbooks: Save your pennies and whip out your card

There are tons and tons of cookbooks (and food books) out there.

But, alas, I only have a few shelves in my bookcase I can devote to cookbooks. Well, that, and the chair on my side of the bed, the arm on my side of the couch, my side of the coffee table, my side of, well, you can see I am running out of space.

So I have to decide which books are worth owning.

The books I wrote about in my last post are gorgeous, inspirational books worth owning. The books in my next post are classic keepers worth owning. But today's post is about what I call library fodder - books worth browsing, but not worth cluttering my home with or spending your hard-earned dollars on.

France, oui?
I adore French food, so you had to know I would want to peek at New World Provence: Modern French Cooking for Friends and Family. But, alas, while it is a nice little book, it is, ultimately, one I could have been just as happy getting out of the library.

Sure, there are more than 100 recipes, but of these, there were less than five that screamed "Make Me!" And, even these were nothing that I had not seen in other cookbooks. Where the book does shine, however, is in the pretty photographs, of which there is a generous amount. So flip and enjoy, but save your money.

And speaking of France, another book that recently hit the stores is the biography We’ve always had Paris . . . and Provence: A Scrapbook of our Life in France by food writer Patricia Wells and her husband Walter.

This one was a well, if oddly, written book. Well written in that both she and her husband can write. Oddly written in that the book bounced from a segment written by him to a segment written by her and back and forth. You would think it would be interesting to see two different sides of a life. But I found it a bit disjointed.

That, and the fact that there was less about food in there and more about them (Doh! What did I expect in a biography?!) and I found myself hastily sweeping past page after page.

But give me a Patricia Wells French cookbook, and I am entranced. C'est la vie!

When foodies write about . . . foodies!
And while we are on the subject of biographies, another one I read was Mediterranean Summer. About a chef who spends two summers on a yacht, I expected a totally riveting read. And it was interesting. But, the only way a biography can really work is if you like the subject. Alas, at least in print, I did not.

He knowingly served a second rate meal to Alice Waters, he had no passion for food and was fired from a non-paying gig because of it, and he blamed a crew mate for bringing him inferior stock when it was his job to do it in the first place.

The book made the chef seem insipid. Which is such a shame.

On the other hand, one chef I admired is the author of Out Of the Frying Pan: A Chef's Memoir of Hot Kitchens, Single Motherhood, and the Family Meal.

Take one determined woman. Give her an alcoholic husband who walks out on her just as she is on the cusp of a major career change. Throw in two young daughters. Add to that the fact that her new career insists on dreadful hours and pays terrible wages.

And let the fun ensure.

I like this woman. She thinks. She thinks about what is best for her daughters and for her restaurant and for her staff. And she cares. She cares about her girls and her employees and her food.

I’m so cynical sometimes that it is so refreshing to read a book where cynicism falls away and I can just cheer someone on.

And that someone is Chef Gillian Clark, author of this book.

On one hand I'm all full of You go girl! But, on the other, having read this book, I know I will not read it again and again. So there is no need to own it. Hence why I recommend you take this out of your local library, home to an amazing array of good books (my husband and I are the only people I know who check out libraries of foreign cities when we go on holiday!).

Beans me up, Scotty
These days, I am getting more and more interested in learning how to cook with beans. I mean, they are cheap, plentiful, healthy, and delicious. So I was pretty eager to grab a copy of Heirloom Beans: Great Recipes for Dips and Spreads, Soups and Stews, Salads and Salsas, and Much More from Rancho Gordo

But, you know, I just wasn't all that inspired by the recipes.

First, these are not necessarily simple recipes. which can be tricky for the time-pressed. And most of the recipes call for meat (which kind of defeats the purpose of using beans for me). And almost all of the recipes call for heirloom beans it is going to be pretty difficult for everyone to find.

So is there any good news here? Sure. This book has a nice primer on bean varieties and methods of cooking beans. Which is well worth the read. And there were some recipes that looked interesting, including Indian-Spiced Cranberry Beans (I just bought a bag of cranberry beans at the farmer’s market; serendipity), Spicy Tepary Bean Dip, and Cannellini Bean Confetti Spread with Roasted Garlic.

So go your library and flip!

Fig this
What I love about A Platter of Figs and other recipes is the philosophy: "This book is a collection of menus: meals of simple food, simple served." Yep. That's pretty much me. Add something about vegetarianism and it is exactly me.

But the problem with this engagingly-written book are the recipes. There are just so few that I haven't seen variations of before. And fewer still that cry out to be made. Making this simply library fodder.

Alas. Because it would be a pretty book to own.

Vegetarian flips
Next up, we have a book called Totally Vegetarian.

Now, of course, you would think this is right up my alley. And it should be. But, while it does have it's good points, this is a classic example of why I tend to steer away from vegetarian books in favor of trolling for vegetarian recipes in more mainstream cookbooks.

Let me explain.

First, there are the pictures. Not only is there not a picture for every recipe (a problem that, admittedly, crops up for mainstream cookbooks, too), but the pictures are uninspired and uninspiring. And I want to be inspired.

Then we have the commentary. While the writing style is fine, the advice is sometimes, well, a bit banal or disingenuous. Take this tidbit for keeping “... organic foods within our budget.” The author advises you “Buy in bulk or on sale and divide your purchase with friends and family.” Buying in bulk or on sale — Doh! Ya think? But, oh my, I’ve never seen organic food in bulk or on sale. And as for dividing my purchase with friends and family — I can think of nothing more cumbersome than dragging home bags of groceries and saying “That’s two peaches for you and one peach for me and three peaches for . . . and that was 7 peaches at $8.24 and . . .”

And, finally, the recipes (which is my big complaint) tend to either be been-there-seen-that (such as the cream of green pea soup with mint — I just made a version of this in a Sur la Table class) or not particularly appealing (such as the fried potato-cabbage patties).

So, go ahead, and flip through the book at the library. And if it really interests you, pop by your bookstore. But don’t plunk down your $27.50 unless you will get more value from this than I.

Oprah flips, too
I know, I know, what is a vegetarian doing flipping through an Oprah cookbook? Oprah, the woman who toots the horn of the likes of Skinny Cow products (the first one I clicked on, an ice cream sandwich, contained everything from high fructose corn syrup to polydextrose, microcrystalline cellulose, mono and diglycerides, and artificial flavor) and who just adores Bob Greene and his support of high fructose corn syrup products. Well, in my own defense, I like great recipes from serious chefs. And, with 175 recipes from the likes of Edna Lewis and Art Smith, this book is loaded with more than 60 serious chefs.

Oh, before I forget, the book is The Oprah Magazine Cookbook.

There are some nice recipes such as Tiramisu, Cuban Grilled Corn on the Cob with Queso Blanco and Lime, Black Currant-Tea Chocolate Truffles, and Fried Green Tomato Salad with Homemade Ranch Dressing. But, again, nothing earth-shattering. Nothing that said "Own me and cherish me and find space for me in your overloaded kitchen."

So I recommend a nice library flip. Because, for me at least, this is not worth finding room in an already crammed full bookcase.

(Oh, and before we leave old Oprah behind, if you do pick up the book, take a look at the photograph of Oprah on the back "... whipping up a batch of her corn fritters." Is that the most posed photograph you have ever seen or does anyone really hold a whip that way?!)

And, yes, even Nigella Lawson flips
Finally, we have Nigella Express: 130 Recipes for Good Food, Fast. Now, I have a handful of Nigella recipes I use. But this, this book did not really inspire me.

In all fairness, I doubt I am the target audience here. I think mother with three kids and no time and no knowledge about food (and a hunger for meat) would be more appropriate. Still, I was always able to find something, something to make in her other books. But not this one.

Still, you may have different needs than I, so, by all means, hit your local library and flip to your heart's content. As for me, there is an earlier book or two of hers I plan to hang onto. At least, for now.

What makes a book library fodder for you?
For me, the answer is recipes. If there are lots that I can't wait to make. If they are original. If they are reasonably low in fat, reasonably low in sugar, healthy, easy, with few ingredients, and incredibly delicious. Well, then I want to own it.

If not, however, then it is library fodder. Or worse (ignore fodder).

So where is the line for you? At what point do you put down your hard earned money? Or, at what point do you walk away? I'd be interested in hearing your criteria.