Do food blogs get more iconic than Smitten Kitchen? I've long turned to Deb Perelman's blog for cooking inspiration, my mouth watering at her photos of acorn squash and mac and cheese, brown butter-crumb covered cauliflower, and balsamic-glazed cipollini. I couldn't resist making this Cappuccino Fudge Cheesecake on her recommendation... and then I couldn't resist eating way too much of it.
But where does Perelman look when she's on a recipe hunt? I recently had the chance to chat with her about cookbook favorites, new and old.
How many cookbooks do you currently own? How are they organized?
I just counted and it's apparently 144. I'm a little horrified; this is too much for a small apartment and another pruning (I just thinned out 25 last month) is in order. Once every year or so, we dump our bookshelves out, dust them off, and put the books back nicely—I file cookbooks by author's last name. It's been a long time so it currently looks a bit like the Wailing Wall, with books shoved sideways and wedged in every crevice. I wouldn't call them organized.
What do you look for in a cookbook?
I'm usually looking for one of two things: either an authority on a type of regional food (for example, Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking or George Lang's The Cuisine of Hungary) or something fresh and teeming with inspiration, a cookbook that combines ingredients or techniques in a way I hadn't considered before (i.e. Ottolenghi).
I'm always amazed by the amount of times a year I pull down books in the first category I mentioned—The Silver Spoon, The Russian Heritage Cookbook, The New Spanish Table, Vietnamese Home Cooking, and a newer addition, The New Midwestern Table. I find it impossible to even consider making a Russian recipe, for example, or a recipe that riffs on Russian influences, without looking at a few core recipes which make the dish in a classic way.
When I'm looking for inspiration, however, I almost always take out one of the Moro cookbooks or Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques, as they combine regions and ingredients in unique ways. I'm actually making a full summer menu from Sunday Suppers tonight! Just because it's been too long.
What was the first cookbook you really loved?
Growing up, we cooked a lot from Julia Child, The Joy of Cooking, Moosewood, and The Silver Palate Cookbook. The first two cover so much, they can teach you anything. The second two felt so fresh and modern to us at the time, with a lot of seasonal and vegetable-focused dishes that wouldn't be unusual today but struck a chord back then.
What lesser-known cookbook authors do you think deserve more attention?
One of the things I was struck by in bookstores when I book tour-ed a couple years ago was the amount of really classic, excellent, cookbooks I was missing because, I think possibly like a lot of people who have gotten into cooking more recently (the last decade or so), my cookbook purchases gravitated toward the new books that were getting a lot of press, while neglecting timeless ones.
I've made a big point to even things out since, thinning a lot of trendy cookbooks (I'm going to go out on the limb and wager that the last big bacon cookbook is not going to be the one you're still cooking from in 10 years) to make room for even woefully out-of-print cookbooks (there's some Richard Olney, Maida Heatter, and MFK Fisher in there) that are no less relevant to read and cook from, despite their age.
Can I plug Bonnie Slotnick for used cookbooks in the West Village? Nobody who loves cookbooks in the city or visiting it should miss a chance to swing by.
Do you think cookbooks as a form are here to stay? What about food blogs?
It's hard to keep my bias out of this because, of course, I hope so. I feel like interest in blogs has waned a bit in recent years as the initial fervor wore off, but I am still a great fan of the self-publishing medium, which has allowed legions of no-name writers a chance to show the world what they could do. I'm, of course, speaking from my own experience: I started Smitten Kitchen because no food magazine would hire me (I had no connections and couldn't afford to work as an unpaid intern to build my resume).
I know a lot of people thought that food blogs would eventually put cookbooks out of business, but I'm glad it hasn't been the case. I believe people still want to be transported by cookbooks (most people tell me they keep ones they want to cook from on their bedside table, not in the kitchen). Google is an effective way to find a 30-minute meal or the most pared down no-knead bread recipe, but a book can share the whole narrative around it that makes the cooking experience that much more rich. There's a place for both.