Favorite Cookbooks

150 150 Kristin
  • 1

Note to our lovely readers: No post next week. Kristin and Frances will be at QuiltCon, having all sorts of adventures and staying up way too late, and just generally frolicking. We’ll be back on March 3rd. See you then!

Dear Kristin,

We’ve had any number of cookbook conversations over the years, but I don’t know that either of us have ever said, “This is my favorite cookbook ever.” You’ve always been a fan of the Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, and now I am too. In fact just writing out the title makes me want to whip up the black bean soup on page 23. I ate at the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, NY, way back in the day, and the original Moosewood cookbook is probably the first cookbook I ever purchased. I still make the vegetarian lasagne as a special occasion dish.

My most beloved cookbook is my mom’s 1964 Joy of Cooking. I first used it back in fourth or fifth grade, when I began my life as a chocolate chip cookie baker. I also made a ton of those no-bake cookies with chocolate, oats and peanut butter (now I feel vaguely ill when I think about them–so much sugar in one little cookie bomb!). I still use the brownie recipe on a fairly regular basis–it’s Jack and Will’s favorite, though Will loves Irma’s oatmeal cookies too. The funny thing is, I’m not sure I’ve ever cooked anything from Joy of Cooking that wasn’t a cookie or cake. Priorities, I suppose.

I’m pretty sure my first cookbook was this one, given to me circa 1970: 

Hot dogs and cake! My kind of meal!

I’d love to tell you that my number one cookbook these days is something sophisticated and urbane, such as Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem or Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy. I own both of these and have cooked one or two recipes from each. But between you and me, my family is not the sort of family that delights in the Ottolenghi experience. We just aren’t foodies. If left to my own devices, I might be–but so far history has proven that when I’m left to my own devices, I like to read or work on a quilt. 

For many years, my go-to cookbooks were a Weight Watcher’s recipe book a friend picked up for me at a yard sale circa 2006 and a Family Circle cookbook that was published when FC rolled out their Eat What You Love and Lose diet. Both books are filled with easy-to-follow, crowd-pleasing dishes. In fact, the baked lemon shrimp dish Clifton often requests for his birthday dinner comes from the Family Circle cookbook. 

One cookbook I love and that feels a bit more legit is Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard. This is one of those cookbooks that’s just as much fun to read as it is to cook from. One of the reasons I love it is that Howard is an NC girl and her recipes incorporate ingredients (especially produce) that are part of the local landscape. Her tomato pie is decadent, but I make it three or four times during the peak of tomato season anyway because it’s too good not to. 

These days, I get most of my recipes from the New York Times Food section. You can save recipes to an online recipe box, and mine is close to overflowing. Sometimes I print the recipes out, and they go into one of my recipe binders that I started keeping over the many years I subscribed to Cooking Light, which delivered a cornucopia of good recipes every month. I also subscribed to Cook’s Illustrated for a while, but that’s not the sort of magazine you tear pages out of.

The funny thing is, for all of my cookbooks and my online files, I have a three-week rotation of meals (which I’ve read is pretty common). My menus shift with the season, and I do try to include new recipes periodically, though a lot of times the new recipes are just variations of my old recipes (I must have twenty recipes for peanut sesame noodles). This is where having an un-foody family comes in handy. I could serve meatloaf twice a week and I don’t think anyone would care. In fact, I think they’d kind of dig it. 

Of course, now that I’m cooking for two, I can up my game a little bit. Clifton is definitely a more adventurous eater than Jack or Will ever were–or at least he’s more willing to tolerate my experiments. So maybe this spring I’ll crack the Ottolenghi and cook my way through. I’ll keep you posted!


Dear Frances,

I love cookbooks. When I was in my 20s you could find me in the cookbook section of any bookstore, flipping through piles of them. Not surprisingly, I used to have quite a cookbook collection! I’ve winnowed it down over the years, but it could use another once-over. As much as a love a good cookbook, I’ve realized that my go-to recipes now are mostly clipped from magazines from 20 years ago (Cooking Light and Eating Well were my faves) or printed from the internet. The Food Network was really taking off in my mid-20s, so I spent many hours copying down recipes from The Frugal Gourmet, Jacques Pepin, Jamie Oliver, and the Urban Peasant by hand. What a relief when the internet made it possible to just click over and print out that Alton Brown recipe!

I do have a few cookbooks that I return to over and over for tried and true recipes, but I also have favorites that I just enjoy reading. I aspire to make every recipe in them, but short of that, they just tell a good story.

Favorite cookbooks that I actually use:

Moosewood Cooks at Home: I’ve talked about this one before. It’s vegetarian (plus fish, so actually pescatarian), but everything is so good, I didn’t even notice there was no meat in the recipes for months. Someday I will visit the mothership, the actual Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca, NY. But until then, I will continue to collect their cookbooks (seven and counting at this point). I also have the first one and have made the quiche recipe from it. What’s fun about this cookbook is that it is full of recipes that the cooks from the restaurant actually make at home (thus the name). This means that they are delicious, doable, and don’t use a million pots and pans. Some favorites from that book are the Muffin Master Recipe (lots of variations), Roasted Vegetable Salad, Black Bean Soup, Cajun Skillet Beans, Spicy Kale, and Asian Fish in a Packet. These are all staples in our home. (Amazon just told me that I purchased this book in 1998. And it looks like it! Pages curling and falling out–exactly what a cookbook would want to be, in my opinion.)

Betty Crocker 40th Anniversary Edition: I’m almost embarrassed to admit to this one, but I bought a standard Betty Crocker cookbook when I was first out on my own, over 25 years ago. It is my go-to for all the standard fare: meatloaf, pot roast, stew, pancakes, waffles, pie crust, and apple pie. Boy was I surprised that my apple pie tasted just like my mom’s! (It turned out that she used the Betty Crocker cookbook as well and I always thought it was her super-secret recipe!)

Rachael Ray 30-Minute Meals 2: This cookbook was a life-saver when I was cooking for kids! I used to say that Rachael may not be a formally trained chef, but she knows what tastes good! And she has a way of simplifying recipes to get all the flavors of a dish, but quicker and simpler. Case in point: Chicken Piccata Pasta. One of Jonah’s favorite recipes, it has all the wonderful flavors of Chicken Piccata–the white wine, capers, and lemon, but the chicken is cut up and browned and tossed with pasta to make it quick and easy. There are fun sections in this book about dupes for takeout (think onion rings, fancy burgers, sloppy joes, and pizza), quick weeknight meals, and something she called Double-Duty Dinners. These are dinners with a plan for the leftovers. Like poached salmon one night and salmon cakes the next night with the leftovers. Or Chicken Divan the first night and Chicken Tetrazzini the next. There is more on that concept in An Everlasting Meal below. I don’t use this cookbook as much anymore, but I pulled it out a lot when the kids were at home.

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters: This is a beautiful cookbook that I aspire to use more than I do. It is simply a masterclass for cooking. Part I is called Starting from Scratch: Lessons & Foundation Recipes. She teaches you the four essential sauces and basic recipes in several categories: Salads, Soup, Pasta, Slow Cooking, Simmering, etc. And then, once you’ve mastered the techniques, there are many more recipes for everyday cooking. Why have I not used this book more? I know I’ve used it to make a roast chicken, and I have the Greek Salad and Beef Stew pages marked… so maybe I’ve made those? In any case, this book is going to the top of the pile to reinvigorate my menu planning this year!

Favorite cookbooks to read:

The New Laurel’s Kitchen: Can you tell that I flirted with vegetarianism quite a bit in my youth? The original Laurel’s Kitchen was published in 1976 and this reboot was in 1986. It is a quintessentially super-crunchy, 1970’s vegetarian cookbook with original block print illustrations. It has what is basically a nutrition class at the end. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually made anything out of this classic vegetarian cookbook, but I have read the introduction more times than I remember. It’s an essay called “The Work at Hand” and so perfectly depicts the aspirational side of cooking and living a healthy lifestyle. It’s 22 pages long and I’m going to read it again right now. And maybe find one recipe to make. Tofu mayonnaise? Definitely not.

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace: by Tama Adler: Here is another book that needs to go back on the stack to read again! I’m not sure I ever finished it, but it is often compared to M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. Although it has recipes, it is not a book of recipes. It’s a book about food and cooking and respect for ingredients and trusting your intuition in the kitchen. The chapters include How to Boil Water, How to Teach an Egg to Fly, How to Season a Salad, How to Light a Room, and How to Catch Your Tail. The last one is what gives the book its title. It’s about using what is left from making one meal as your jumping off point for the next. This includes saving the ends of your vegetables to throw into the stock pot, but also things like saving the end of a loaf of bread, sauteeing it in some olive oil, adding some broth and some veggies for a wonderful thick soup. Or taking those last few vegetables left in the pan after roasting and tucking them into an omelette for lunch. Or even saving that wonderful, savory olive oil in your frying pan to drizzle over rice. Really, it’s about the kind of cook I aspire to be–inspired by the ingredients at hand to make wonderfully simple, yet creative food. But in actuality, I’m a “give me a recipe and I’ll put food on the table” kind of girl. But, hey, a girl can dream!

All this talk about cookbooks and favorite recipes is really making me realize that we cook so differently as empty nesters. Many of the meals that were in constant rotation a few years ago, only get pulled out when the kids come home. I definitely plan menus for the two of us differently than when I’m trying to fill up two hungry teenage boys! This exercise has also made me realize that I’d like to get re-inspired by my cookbooks. If I’m not using them, then why are they taking up space? I may need to upgrade some of the staples from that Betty Crocker cookbook. Surely there are more interesting recipes for meatloaf on the internet! But then again, I make meatloaf as familiar comfort food, not as an adventure. Maybe somethings are best left alone. Something to think about.


  • Tracie

    Thank you for sharing your favorite cookbooks because I need inspiration. After years of cooking every meal for our family (homeschool and home offices, so three meals at home every day), I wish I never had to cook a meal again. Besides burnout, I’m a picky eater, which is embarrassing to admit. A lot of recipes you were describing actually made my stomach churn a bit. (Oh my, can I admit that?) I made turkey tetrazzini for my family years ago, and just the thought of it puts me in a queasy state of mind. Sign me up for meatloaf twice a week! Ironically, my mom loved to cook and bake, so I was subjected to her constant experimentation. Everyone else loved it, and she is widely known for her kitchen skills. She even won the Betty Crocker award in high school. My son loves to cook too, so the gift skipped a generation.

    I have a 1970s Betty Crocker cookbook and bought the newly updated version a few years ago. It’s definitely the cookbook I use the most! Three of my friends actually worked for Betty Crocker/General Mills. One wrote social media copy, another edited recipes, and the other friend still works in the test kitchen as a food scientist. I quickly learned to trust the recipes these people liked, so I have a nice stash of recipes in my recipe box. This year I asked my husband to give me a cookbook for Christmas: King Arthur Baking School. I love their blog, Instagram feed, and almost anything made with flour and sugar. There lies the problem: I can’t live well if I only eat cookies, pies, and cakes.

    Have you watched the movie “Julie and Julia”? I loved watching these two women cook. So, I’ve considered working through my Betty Crocker cookbook alongside the King Arthur Baking School cookbook. I took the first step this week by sewing up a new apron and potholders. Now, if I could just look at vegetables without wanting to grab a cupcake instead.

    • Kristin

      I have seen Julie and Julia! It has made me want to work my way through a cookbook in the same manner. I would love to do that with The Art of Simple Food. The King Arthur Baking Book would be another fun one to work through, but oh the sugar… 🙂

  • Robin Leftwich

    I love cookbooks too. My most dog eared ones are The Courier Journal Cookbook, that is my go to for casseroles and veggie dishes, and a Jewish cookbook that I got when I married my Jewish husband, but that’s only trotted out for Hannukah or Passover. I’m like Francis, I get recipes from the NYTimes, at least the simple ones. And my son gets a lot of recipes from Alexa, believe it or not. She scours the internet for you! Since it’s only the 3 of us, we do a lot of short order cook meals, where I am the cook, and I make a healthy pasta for me, lox and bagel for my husband, and green beans, that I love, and some leftovers for me.
    And Kristin, don’t throw out those old cookbooks, I think they are all treasures and family history!

  • Janet

    I so enjoyed reading the weeks letter.
    For years i had several shelves of cookbooks on the book cases in my house. I also could be found in the cookbook section at the library, bookstore or even second hand store seeing what recipes were printed between the covers of the books. Of the books I had on my shelves I made a point to use recipes from each book: I made menus for a two week period. Being an Air For e family and getting paid two times a month determined our shopping habits so that why the two week menus.
    Meal selections were chosen from four to six cookbooks at planning time. I would rotate through the books on the shelves to try a recipe from this book or that book. I had a list for weekend meals and a list for evening meals. I would mark the recipe in the binder and cookbook to flag me in how the family liked the dish. I seldom made the same dish twice a year. If the three kids wanted something specific for a meal they needed to request it at planning time.
    When the last of the three kids left home to go to college that’s when I stopped the meal planning since I always had so many leftovers. I eventually reduced the number of cookbooks on my shelves. Before donating or selling the books at garage sales I made sure to copy out the recipes that my family really liked.
    It turns out the cookbooks that I kept include the 1970s Betty Crocker cookbook, the Fannie Farmer cookbook, the Pillsbury Kitchens’ cookbook and a collection of published cookbooks from various churches or organizations. I do also browse on Pinterest for recipes frequently. Over time I have also rewritten my recipe files and discarded others no longer of interest.
    Today two of my three kids and their families are coming out to the island for dinner. I’m making a family favorite: enchilada casserole, a recipe I was given by a neighbor when my husband and I lived in Texas. I’m also making a Finnish blueberry pie , a recipe I found through Pinterest.

  • Colleen

    When I moved out from my parents’ home, I copied all of my favourite recipes from my Mom’s recipe cards and her cookbooks onto my own recipe cards. I used my recipe box for several years. Then, in the mid-eighties, we bought a computer, pre-loaded with WordPerfect. What to type? My recipes! I typed them all out, printed them out on my dot matrix printer, and put them in a binder. Years later, we switched to Word, and I had to re-type them all. I pull out that binder almost every day to cook something. If I find recipes online, I print them out and put them in the pockets at the front and back of the binder. If the recipe is good, I’ll type it out and add it to my collection. Each type of recipe is one file (Breads, Cakes, Cookies, Eggs, Poultry, Salads, etc) so if I add a recipe, it’s easy to print out that one section and replace the one in the binder.

  • Theona

    My mother used to have the Betty Crocker recipe card subscription and I loved poring over those recipes as a teenager. My first cookbook was The New Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook (1976) which I used for pie dough and a few other basic recipes. I used to read the Fannie Farmer Cookbook (1979) like a novel. I learned so much from that cookbook when I was first married. Since then, I’ve picked a few recipes here and there from local church and school cookbooks (fundraisers) and the Internet!

Comments are closed.