By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
Recently, a friend asked me to recommend a few good cookbooks she could give as Christmas gifts this year. Cookbooks are my passion, so I took the task to heart—talk about food for thought.
In my personal collection, I have more than 500 cookbooks, whittled down from more than a thousand after a serious purge (wholeheartedly endorsed by my minimalist daughters). Of the remaining books, the ones I love the most and can’t live without number about 50, although I use most of the books as a reference throughout the year.
While I have never authored a cookbook, I’ve had recipes published in magazines, and I’ve done recipe testing for a couple of cookbooks. These endeavors gave me tremendous appreciation of the volume of work that goes into producing a cookbook considering the average one has about 100 recipes. The recipes are carefully chosen for relevance, tested several times, edited, photographed, and many never even make it to the publisher’s galleys. Nowadays, some cookbook authors self-publish, which is a pretty daunting undertaking once you have a 1000 or more cookbooks in hand and have no idea how to distribute them.
My beloved collection comes from many sources. They have been passed down to me, presented as gifts, collected via eBay and thrift shops, bought at Friends of the Library Book Sale (my favorite source, first Saturday of each month at East Bonner Library) and purchased on trips throughout the world. I also belong to a Facebook page (where I spend a little too much time) where we buy, sell and swap vintage cookbooks.
I love perusing vintage bookstores and can spend hours immersed amongst the delicious offerings. My two favorite shops sell only cookbooks and are located on the East coast (Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York City) and the West coast (Omnivore Books on Food in San Francisco). In between, you’ll find Kitchen Witch Cookbooks (New Orleans) and the Heirloom Book Company (Charleston). There are myriad others, dedicated to the printed word of culinary arts.
I also love to read memoirs, so naturally some of my favorite cookbooks tend to be fascinating storybooks with recipes. Chef-authors Anthony Bourdain, Julia Child, Ruth Reichl, Jacques Pepin, MFK Fischer and James Beard top my list of this genre.
My least-favorite cookbooks tend to be authored by “flash-in-the-pan” celebrity chefs. Often, these books are glossy, mass produced works “branded” by the “star chef” and pumped out by publishers, with recipes that aren’t even the chefs’ original creations.
Besides memoirs, I also reach for and rely heavily on cookbooks that teach technique. My go-to book for Italian food is still “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan. Though the book is nearly 30 years old, I have not found a more comprehensive Italian cookbook, and I feel the same about Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which is even older!
I still remember the day I discovered the “Silver Palate Cookbook” (and pesto!) by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso. I was a young ranch wife, overwhelmed with babies and bored by pot roast, when I was given a copy for my 30th birthday. Intrigued with the classy (and unfamiliar) ingredients and super-cool illustrations, it became my dinner party go-to book, and It still has a place of honor amongst my favorites (whenever I find a copy, I pick it up for friends or family).
For desserts and baking, I rely on “Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts” by award-winning pastry chef Stella Parks. Her recipes offer clear and exact instructions, which is important in the science of baking. Parks also stirs in some fun and engaging stories about the origins of some of her recipes.
Two of my favorite ethnic cuisines are Thai and Mexican. “Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand” by Andy Ricker is my favorite Thai cookbook. Ricker is a restaurateur (he has one in Portland). For me, recipes are a mix of cultures, ingredients and stories, and this author does a great job fusing those components. His recipes are very precise for beginners, and the book includes recipes from all regions (many Thai cookbooks concentrate on the south).
For Mexican food, though I have at least a dozen different cookbooks, my favorite is relatively new to my culinary library: “Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen” by Gonzalo Guzmán. I love the beautiful photographs which the author often uses to demonstrate technique. Restaurant owner Guzmán also carefully explains the ingredients that bring the recipes and flavors bursting to life.
I’m often asked if I will ever write a cookbook, and, honestly, it tops my culinary bucket list. Like my favorite genre of memoir-cookbooks, I imagine it to be written in that style, with beloved family-favorite recipes developed over the past 30 or more years sprinkled with lots of savory tales and sage advice.
One recipe sure to be included is my favorite pasta dish, seafood linguine. Now, I just need a title.
This is a delicious and versatile main dish– if you prefer, you can use more/less tomato juice/clam juice ratio or for a creamier sauce, you can even substitute some of the juice with heavy cream. Sometimes I toss in some scallops and/or squid, as well.
Serve with lots of crusty bread and (lots of) white wine.
• 1/2 cup dry white wine
• 1 pound small clams, scrubbed well
• 2 pounds mussels, scrubbed well,
• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more
• Sea salt and fresh coarse ground
• 1 large onion, finely diced
• 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
• 1/4 tsp red-pepper flakes
• 12 oz tomato juice
• 12 oz clam stock
• 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and
deveined, tails on
• 1 pound linguine
• Zest of 1 lemon
• 2 tbs fresh squeezed lemon juice
• 1/4 cup chopped parsley
Heat wine in a large heavy pot over medium-high until simmering. Add clams and mussels, cover pot, and cook until shellfish have opened, about 5 minutes. (Discard any unopened ones)
Using a slotted spoon, remove shellfish and transfer to a bowl. Discard any open, empty shells. Cover shellfish with foil to keep warm. Strain liquid through a fine-mesh sieve and reserve (You should have about 1 cup broth.)
Wipe pot clean with a paper towel. Heat olive oil over medium-high, reduce heat to medium and add onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 4-5 minutes.
Add red-pepper flakes and cook, stirring, 1 to 2 minutes.
Add shellfish broth and cook, stirring until mixture is reduced by half, about 2 minutes.
Add tomato and clam juices, simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until just cooked through and shrimp are bright pink, about 2 minutes (don’t overcook – they’ll be tough)
Cook pasta according to package instructions in a large pot of salted water. Drain, and using tongs, toss pasta with tomato sauce. Carefully toss in clams and mussels.
Transfer to a large serving platter; top with shrimp. Drizzle with oil, squeeze of lemon juice, zest and parsley, serve.
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