Collecting cookbooks

I never set out to collect cookbooks. At no time did I say to myself or anyone else, ‘‘I’m going to collect cookbooks’’, and it was only when my wife and I were repacking the book cases recently that I realised I had a collection. She, I told her, could put her ratty old cookbooks on that shelf and I’d put my 50 or so cookbooks on these shelves. Since she refused a year or two ago to accept any more cookbooks as gifts I’ve claimed all the cookbooks I’d bought in her name.

Apart from the age and tattiness of her books and the glossiness of mine, there is one crucial difference. Mine have glorious photographs, in delicious colour of course, which I use to try to persuade my wife to cook the particular dish. She is not interested in the photos, other than to point out that the finished dish will look nothing like that in the photo. See, she says with a stabbing finger, the food in the photo is raw, it hasn’t been cooked! So when I compare the finished product with the photo I have to do so surreptitiously.

Today I’m going to tell you about my favourite cookbooks and a few dishes we’ve cooked from them (‘‘how dare you say we!’’ she’ll snap). My current fave is written by a Kiwi, Wendy Hutton, who has worked as a food and travel writer in Asia for decades, and it has the unwieldy title Southeast Asia’s Best Recipes from Bangkok to Bali. I came across it when I saw it mentioned on someone’s best-ever-cookbooks list, which is usually good enough for me if it has photographs.

The book’s best attribute is that its recipes don’t have ingredient lists that take us half a day to assemble. I’ve cooked a few things from it, among them Malaysian lamb curry, and we’ve cooked Thai grilled beef salad and sweet and spicy green papaya salad, one of the best we’ve made and good reason to grow a papaya tree in the backyard.

We have many old Chinese cookbooks written by Chinese people, and any book by Yan-kit So is worth the price. I, as opposed to we, count among my favourite Asian books Adam Liaw’s Two Asian Kitchens, bought with a rush of blood because I liked his dividing the book into old and new kitchens, Nhut Huynh’s little vietnam, which I like because it is unpretentious, and Kylie Kwong’s Simple Chinese Cooking, from which we have made many dishes.

But if I had to choose one it would be Neil Perry’s balance and harmony, the secrets of Asian cooking, even if the photos are scarce and tricked up. Perry suggests using the book as a cooking course, starting at the first recipe, and I’d like to do that if I can find a gofer who’ll stay the course.

But we, as in she, is about to fly home from Italy and so I’ve gathered my favourite Italian books and using strips of torn paper I’ve been marking dishes for her to show the value of her cooking courses in Italy.

One of those books is Two Greedy Italians, by Carluccio and Contaldo, and one of the dishes is mixed meat stew with polenta, which is much more enticing as scottiglia con polenta alla spianatora, and the food in the photo is cooked. This book has a good version of one of my family’s favourite dishes, Roman semolina dumplings, which are neither dumplings nor the gnocchi they’re described as in Italian.

The most interesting Italian cookbook in my collection is not a book but a magazine, Gourmet Traveller’s The Italian Cookbook, and not only because it has great photos. I’ve just noticed in it a photo of the classic tomato and mozzarella salad, which is simply alternating slices of each with basil leaves and olive oil, and my wife told me this week that the same salad she’d just had in Rome was much better than any she’s made. And I must squeeze in mention of Maeve O’Meara’s Italian Food Safari, and indeed all of her Food Safari cookbooks.

I’m going to leave them in the kitchen opened at the recommended page, so we can get a quick start.

What are your favourite cookbooks? And what do you cook from them?

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