I find my favorite cookbooks to be written by people thoroughly familiar with the cuisine they are presenting. They are not simply visitors passing through on their way to their next cookbook. They know the landscape, the history and cultural background of the cuisine and can explain why one ingredient might be used rather than another. Patricia Wells and Joyce Goldstein are wonderful in writing about the foods of France and Italy. Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless obviously have a great understanding and respect for Mexican food and it comes out in their recipes. Although I wouldn't call it a great cookbook, I'm very fond of Sri Owen's Indonesian Food and Cookery. In making the recipes accessible to western cooks she made some questionable choices, but her authority is undeniable. Her fondness for the cooking she grew up with is clear in her writing. These are authors whose books I admire because of their ability to convey the nuances of the cuisine to the reader, not simply compiling a collection of recipes.
An author I have increasingly come to admire is Bruce Cost. Several years ago my wife insisted we buy Asian Ingredients while in Chinatown one day. I didn't think we really needed it, but I always listen to my wife. This is a book that anyone who cooks Asian food should have. Its range and depth is astounding, and Cost writes with great clarity. He covers the history and uses of different ingredients and includes a number of unique recipes (Noodles Made from Shrimp with Sea Scallops; Chrysanthemum Leaf and Fresh Water Chestnut Salad). He explains how ingredients are commonly prepared and how they shouldn't be used. Some of the recipes are traditional and others are modern fusion interpretations. It is a book that I find myself going back to again and again to get more ideas and a better understanding of the ingredients I am using. Here is his recipe for twice fried long beans.
Sichuan Dry-Fried Long Beans
1 1/2 pounds long beans (about 1 bunch)
2 1/8 cups peanut oil
1/2 pound ground pork
2 TBS chopped fresh red chili peppers, including seeds
1 TBS chopped fresh ginger
1 TBS dark soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 TBS Shoxing wine
Cut the beans into 3-inch lengths and set aside.
Heat 2 cups of the oil in a wok or heavy skillet until nearly smoking. While it's heating, chop the pork to a finer consistency. Combine the chilies and giner and set aside.
When the oil is hot, add the beans (after making sure they are thoroughly dry), and cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until they wrinkle. Remove and drain.
Drain off the oil (it may be strained and used again) and reheat the wok. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and the pork. Cook, stiriing, over high heat just until the granules are broken up and the meat changes color. Add the soy sauce and stir for 20 seconds, then add the chilies and ginger and cook for another 30 seconds. Add the beans, sugar, salt, and wine, and cook, stirring, until piping hot. Serve.
What do you look for in a cookbook? What are some of your favorites? I'd love to hear any recommendations you might have.
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