Adam Roberts posts about his dinner party successes on The Amateur Gourmet—but he doesn't hide the flops. In a world of Pinterest-perfect sites that can make cooking feel even more intimidating, Adam shares the recipes he loves and the techniques he's learned, without making anyone feel bad for being a beginner cook or baker.
Running a food blog for more than a decade means that Adam has quite a cookbook collection: he's edited it down to around 150 titles. I asked him about his favorite books for beginners, his favorite sources for dinner inspiration, and the lesser-known cookbooks he loves. Here's what he had to say.
When did you start collecting cookbooks? I have a memory: I'm in college, senior year, and my then-boyfriend Michael and I are in a bookstore in the Phipps Mall, killing time before going to see a movie, and I spy The Betty Crocker Cookbook. That was the first cookbook that I ever bought and I went home and made chili out of it, which was pretty good. The next ones that came along were The Barefoot Contessa books; soon after I discovered the Chez Panisse books and the collection grew from there.
What lesser-known cookbooks do you think deserve more love? So I moved to L.A. three years ago, and one of the best things that's happened to me here is that I've discovered a treasure trove of cookbooks at used bookstores in both my old neighborhood (Franklin Village) and my new neighborhood (Atwater Village). In particular, I've picked up books like The Food of Campanile by Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton, Simple Pleasures by Alfred Portale, The Lutece Cookbook by Andre Soltner, The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert, and—most recently—Jacques Pepin Celebrates by Jacques Pepin.
These books harken back to a time that was less about the flash and dazzle of food TV, or the cult-like worship of influential food figures, and more about a deep, all-encompassing love and respect for food and all its possibilities. These cookbooks aren't easy—I've yet to cook from the Wolfert one—but I love their specificity and how carefully researched and tested they all are. The voices behind them are passionate and genuine, which is rarer and rarer in these days of InstaFoodCelebrity.
What cookbook would you recommend for beginner cooks? The Barefoot Contessa books are all good starter books because Ina (we're on a first-name basis) knows how to achieve maximum impact with a minimal amount of steps. I'm a firm believer that, when you're starting out cooking, you want to see big results; you want things to be so flavorful and so good, that you're immediately convinced it was worth all the time and energy it took to make dinner. Ina's books get you there, and that's saying a lot.
That said, a more quirky choice—and one that I've been cooking from quite a bit—is Staff Meals by David Watluck. The recipes in there are all very straightforward: a good one for hummus (which I blogged here), a good one for black bean soup, etc. If you want to choose something more unconventional, I'd go with that.
What cookbook do you turn to for inspiration? The second shelf down from the top of my cookbook collection holds all my heavy hitters, the ones I turn to the most frequently for ideas: the Ottolenghi books, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, Molly Stevens's All About Braising, Michael Symon's Live to Cook (an underrated gem—everything in it is superb, especially the chili), my Suzanne Goin books, my Chez Panisse books, and the previously mentioned Staff Meals.
What cookbook really taught you something new? I'm madly in love with April Bloomfield's A Girl and Her Pig; it's packed with so many good ideas. From it, I learned that you get a cleaner Caesar dressing if you use grapeseed oil instead of olive oil; that citrus in a curry works wonders; and that the secret ingredient to a superior panzanella salad is anchovy.
What's your favorite cookbook for Italian food? I most often turn to my Lidia Bastianich books—her PBS show (which you can also watch on Hulu) taught me more about cooking, probably, than anything else. The dish that my partner Craig requests the most is Cavatappi with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Cannelini Beans, a Lidia dish.
That said, I also turn to Marcella Hazan (her simple tomato sauce is a favorite) and Mario Batali, whose books once provoked an argument with a friend who claimed that Mario didn't really write them, that he farmed them out. Nowadays, as his empire grows and grows, that actually may be true to some extent, but his early books—Simple Italian Food, The Babbo Cookbook, Molto Italiano—are all terrific.
What newer cookbooks impressed you recently? Suzanne Goin's new A.O.C. Cookbook is a gift from the food gods, especially because her business partner and sommelier, Caroline Styne, pairs every dish with wine and writes about it in such a clear-cut, relatable way, even a troglodyte like me feels like Paul Giamatti's character in Sideways after I put the book down.
David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen is such a gorgeous book, I literally want to tear the pages out and nail them to my wall. Plus the recipes—including these caramel ribs—are just as extraordinary as you'd expect any David Lebovitz recipe to be. I've also been enjoying Lisa Fain's new Homesick Texan's Family Table, which captures a cuisine I don't know a lot about and that makes me hungry to know more.
What older cookbooks do you love? Well, in addition to all the gems I mentioned above, I have some quirkier books in my collection that I enjoy just for the novelty: Mary and Vincent Price's Come Into the Kitchen, Robin Leach's The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook (it's hilarious, I love to show it off to dinner guests; you can see Kardashians in there in the '80s!), Uta Hagen's Love for Cooking, Craig Claiborne's Veal Cookery (a whole book of veal recipes which I may actually cook from some day), The Graham Kerr Cookbook from 1969, and Bless This Food: The Anita Bryant Family Cookbook, which I own for camp value.