Lessons from Cooking through 31 Cookbooks

At the end of 2014, I set off on a journey to cook at least 5 recipes from every cookbook in my collection. To keep the mission even more focused, I tried to avoid buying new cookbooks until the task was complete. Although I wasn’t 100% strict about the shopping part, I have been diligently cooking through my collection for the past 2+ years, and am finally pleased to report a mission accomplished.

One thing I learned is that I am not a huge fan of baking. Ever the cliché dietitian, I am constantly tempted to forgo most of the butter and sugar, and then I get frustrated when nothing turns out right.

However, I also learned that I am a huge fan of plant-based recipes, as the ingredients are refreshingly affordable (no expensive meat or cheese!), and yet completely full of flavor. In fact, my favorite, most-cooked-from cookbook was Food52 Vegan, by Gena Hemshaw. This cookbook is from the folks behind the popular recipe and food website, Food52, so it’s no surprise that nearly every recipe from this book was a hit. However, it is surprising that a vegan cookbook stole the heart of this grilled chicken and Greek yogurt loving girl.

Food52 Vegan gets top billing, not only because I made more recipes from this book than any other (9 and counting), but because nearly every dish was so crave-worthy that I kept scooping them up into my regular rotation. Below are some of my favorites:

  • French Lentil and Arugula Salad with Herbed Cashew Cheese, from Food52 Vegan
  • Orecchiette with Creamy Leeks and Broccoli Rabe, from Food52 Vegan
  • Roasted Cauliflower and Freekeh Salad, from Food52 Vegan
  • Roasted Ratatouille, from Food 52 Vegan (I like to toss this with whole wheat pasta)
  • Zucchini Quinoa Cakes, from Food52 Vegan (I served mine atop kale tossed with avocado)

Honorable Mentions (cookbooks that I had lots of success with and highly recommend)

If you purchase or borrow any of the books above, the recipes listed below are a great place to start. All the following recipes are ones I have tested and would highly recommend! 

  • Avocado, Citrus, and Radicchio Salad, Kitchen Express
  • Basic Hummus, Good and Cheap
  • Black Bean Soup, Kitchen Express
  • Broiled Eggplant Salad, Good and Cheap
  • Chicken Curry with Raisins, Kitchen Express
  • Chicken and Vegetable Biryani, Everyday Whole Grains
  • Creamy Bulgur with Honey and Tahini, Simply Ancient Grains (this also tastes dreamy with millet instead of bulgur)
  • Curried Chicken Salad Sandwich, Kitchen Express
  • Minted Summer Couscous with Watermelon and Feta, Simply Ancient Grains (I use often bulgur instead of couscous)
  • Peanut Butter and Jelly Thumbprint Cookies, Everyday Whole Grains
  • Roasted Portobello Mushrooms with Hazelnut Buckwheat Stuffing, Simply Ancient Grains
  • Super-Fudgy Teff Brownies, Everyday Whole Grains

Other Favorites

Part of the reason this journey took more than two years is that I was often tempted to revisit recipes, rather than constantly trying something new. Below are a few other recipes I fell in love with while working through my collection.

Breakfast

  • Family Favorite Granola, from You Have it Made, by Ellie Krieger

Mains – Fish

  • Garlic Basil Shrimp, from So Easy, by Ellie Krieger
  • Mussels Provencal, from So Easy, by Ellie Krieger
  • Salmon Cakes with Lemon-Caper Yogurt Sauce, from Weeknights with Giada, by Giada de Laurentiis

Mains – Chicken

  • Black Rice Chicken Congee, from The Grain Bowl, by Nik Williamson
  • Chicken-Farro Salad, from True Food, by Andrew Weil

Mains – Vegetarian

  • Curried Red Quinoa and Peach Salad, from The Oldways 4-Week Vegetarian and Vegan Menu Plan
  • Orzo with Roasted Vegetables, from Barefoot Contessa Parties, by Ina Garten
  • Thick Crusted Greens, Onion, and Feta Pie, by Aglaia Kremezi, from The Oldways Table (I sub whole wheat flour for the AP flour)

Soups & Sides

  • Butternut Squash and Apple Soup, from Barefoot Contessa Parties, by Ina Garten
  • Honey Roasted Carrots with Tahini Yogurt, from Plenty More, by Yotam Ottolenghi
  • Stewed Lentils & Tomatoes, from Barefoot Contessa at Home, by Ina Garten
  • Swedish Pea Soup, from Plant-Powered for Life, by Sharon Palmer

Dips & Dressings

  • Tofu Green Goddess Dressing, The I Hate Tofu Cookbook, by Tucker Shaw
  • Warm Spinach and Artichoke Dip, from The Food You Crave, by Ellie Krieger (I replace the sour cream & mayo with nonfat plain Greek yogurt)

Dessert

  • Baked Fruit with Ricotta, from Giada’s Feel Good Food, by Giada de Laurentiis
  • Cardamom Currant Snickerdoodles, from Food52 Baking
  • Summer Fruit Crostata, from Barefoot Contessa at Home, by Ina Garten (I sub whole wheat flour for the AP flour, and cut the sugar from the fruit filling)

What next?

Now that I have given my existing cookbooks sufficient attention, I’m allowing myself to browse the food section of Brookline Booksmith and Amazon to add to my collection. Here are some cookbooks that are at the top of my shopping list:

For another sneak peek into my cookbook & coffee table book wishlist, check out my related Pinterest board.

– Kelly

Recipes on My Radar

While my previous two recipe posts indicate otherwise (here and here), there’s actually a lot more to my diet than just steel cut oatmeal. In fact, in an effort to cook more from cookbooks, I try to make at least 2 or 3 new recipes a week. So today I’m sharing a few of my favorites. Some are new discoveries, some are old standbys, but all are absolutely spectacular!

Curried Lentil Soup

Curried Lentil Soup from Mollie Wizenberg // The Bon Appetit article that accompanied this recipe was required reading for my Food Writing Class, and I have made this recipe MANY times since then. Chickpea puree lends a delightful heartiness to this Eastern Mediterranean inspired soup, making it quite possibly my favorite lentil recipe to date (and that’s saying something)! As you can tell from the multiple Instagrams, warm whole grain toast is the ultimate companion to this meal.

Honey Roasted Carrots with Tahini Yogurt

Honey Roasted Carrots with Tahini Yogurt from Yotam Ottolenghi // There are so many delicious recipes in Plenty More, that I am almost embarrassed to admit that a humble side dish is my favorite. But it’s too good. Thanks to this recipe, I scarfed down 12 large carrots in only two sittings, and then polished off the tupperware of the remaining tahini yogurt dip. Unfortunately for my pale winter skin, I didn’t turn orange. Guess I’ll have to make some more!

Salmon Patties

Salmon Cakes with Lemon-Caper Yogurt Sauce from Giada de Laurentiis // True story: this recipe singlehandedly got me over my aversion to canned fish. (Giada calls for canned salmon in the cookbook version of this recipe.) Ashley copied down the recipe as soon as we finished eating, which I’m pretty sure is a good sign that dinner was a hit. I made a few substitutions (Kashi Original 7 Grain Crackers instead of Saltines, nonfat plain Greek yogurt instead of mayo) but the final result was completely delicious!

100% Whole Wheat Honey Oat Bread

100% Whole Grain Bread from Ashley Higgs // Okay, this recipe isn’t actually new to you. I blogged about it almost exactly a year ago. But in recent weeks I have been on a bread baking kick, and this is the recipe that I use every single time. If you haven’t had a chance to make it yet, consider this a friendly nudge!

What are some of your favorite no-fail recipes?

– Kelly

The Best Cookbook Organization Trick

Cookbooks are an underutilized treasure trove of culinary expertise, recipe ideas, and winning flavor combinations. But as the printed word gives way to Pinterest and recipe blogs, cookbooks have been pushed to “coffee table book status,” collected as much for the pictures as the recipes within.

Cookbook Organization Tips

Not one to let a book go to waste, I devised a simple tactic to make sure that I get the most out of my ever-growing cookbook collection. In fact, until I make at least 5 recipes from every cookbook I own, I don’t plan on buying another. Here’s how it works…

Cookbook Organization Tips

When I first get a new cookbook, I curl up in a cozy chair and flip through it like a magazine, marking the recipes that I want to make with a flag on the side of the page. Once I actually make one of these recipes, I move the flag up to the top of the page.

Cookbook Organization Tips

With just a quick glance at the top of my shelf (see above), I can tell which cookbooks I’ve used the most, and which need a little more love. When I want to try a new recipe (which I aim to do once or twice a week), I look for a sparsely flagged book top, then start flipping to some of the recipes that I marked. With this system, it’s easy to track my progress towards my 5-recipes-per-cookbook goal.

So far, my favorite, most used cookbooks are:

We’ll see how this list changes as I get closer to reaching my goal…

Cookbook Organization

What is your favorite cookbook?

– Kelly

Learning to Cook

Learning to Cook

My roommate’s new years resolution (with no influence from me, might I add) is to learn how to cook. I 100% applaud this goal and I think that we should all take note. Learning to cook is an invaluable skill and no one is too old to learn. Cooking is important to health for 2 reasons:

1) You know what you are putting into your body. This is true not only of the homemade meals you whip up in the kitchen, but also with meals that you eat out. How so? Once you learn the basic ingredients and preparation techniques of classic dishes, you are better able to gauge what ingredients go into meals when you eat out, making you a more educated  consumer. Additionally, cooking also obviously allows you to know what you are putting into your body at home, as you have complete control over which ingredients to include or omit.

2) You become less dependent on processed foods. By developing cooking skills, you become less dependent on fast food places to take care of the meal preparation for you. Experienced cooks are not intimated if they don’t quite have the exact ingredients, or don’t have a recipe in front of them. Experienced cooks can confidently adapt, and aren’t at the mercy of convenience foods and prepackaged junk. By taking time to cook things yourself, you also learn which steps of processing are unnecessary, and which ones are worth taking advantage of. Additionally, mastering a challenging cooking technique will help you better appreciate that food when eating out, and mastering an easy cooking technique will give you confidence to incorporate that skill into your normal routine.

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Mallory in the kitchen

So how does one learn how to cook? Practice Practice Practice! Sure, you can sign up for a cooking class or read about techniques, but the best way to learn is hands on experience. My advice is to pick a cookbook that looks good to you and get started! Challenge yourself to make at least one new recipe each week, using a variety of ingredients and techniques. Once you master a new ingredient or technique, you have that in your repertoire for future use, and will slowly become less and less dependent on the food production system (or at least better appreciate its complexity).

Cookbooks

Mallory’s new cookbooks, chosen “because they had pretty pictures” 🙂

Mallory's cookbooks

All bookmarked and ready to go. Keys to the Kitchen has been her go-to so far.

If you are new to cooking, don’t give up! While it might seem to take forever at first, cooking gets much quicker and easier with practice. If you want to take up cooking but are worried about the cost, here is a helpful article about stocking a kitchen inexpensively. And let’s not forget that cooking things yourself often ends up saving you money.

Anyone else learning how to cook this year?

– Kelly