Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Bookcase in the Pantry

I recently moved a bookcase into our kitchen. It’s a tall, skinny thing, all white. The friend who handed it down to me no doubt bought it from Scandinavian Designs or IKEA. It fits in a space about one foot wide next to the monstrous metal shelves that fill one wall of the pantry space off our main kitchen area. (It fits now, anyway; those shelves were about 11 1/2 inches away from the wall until I moved most of their contents to the floor, pulled them over about an inch, and then replaced everything I had taken off them.)

Once I moved the bookcase in, I had to figure out what to put in it. Books, of course, and food books at that. But which ones? My collection of food books sprawls far beyond what one slim little bookcase can hold, even with the books grouped by height and squished together for maximum efficiency.

Part of the answer was simple practicality. Certain books show up often when I’m planning meals, and it makes sense to keep them close by. Super Natural Cooking, which guides gourmets through a world of interesting grains and veggie dishes. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, perhaps my very favorite cookbook, with its long essays about the simplest dishes. Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, the perfect book for slow cooker owners. Kitchen Sense, a good reference for all those classic dishes that I mostly know how to make but sometimes need a refresher for. The Art of Simple Food, which reminds me that sometimes a souffle or pizza is a great dinner.

Others are books that I use often, but less often than the ones above. The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion serves my needs when I need to look up a simple baked good. Bouchon occasionally scratches a food craving itch, and The French Laundry Cookbook provides inspiration for fancier meals. The Perfect Scoop gives me ice cream ideas. The River Cottage Meat Book provides a nice reference for uncommon meat cooking tasks. Mediterranean Street Food has a stellar collection of recipes that give variety during the week. The Cheese Board Collective Works has a smattering of bread recipes and, at the moment, my favorite granola recipe.

There are, of course, reference books scattered about the shelves. I almost never look at these books, but I like to think that I do, and so onto the bookcase they go. On Food and Cooking, the must-have encyclopedia of food science for laypeople (and lapsed science nerds like myself). The Elements of Cooking, a handy pocket guide to unfamiliar kitchen terms and proportions for common preparations. Culinary Artistry, a collection of voluminous lists of flavor pairings. Putting Food By, the classic book about preserving foods. Sauces, with its no-nonsense title and thick spine.

But there is a final category to the books I fit in to the little white case: guilt-inducing. These are the books I feel like I should be cooking from, but almost never do. Perhaps I hope that by placing them next to my kitchen staples, I will finally pluck them from their shelves and give them the attention they deserve.

Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes came out ahead in an illuminating survey of bread books done by James Macguire in The Art of Eating a couple years back (though “came out ahead” hides the fact that he skewered every bread book on the market). I’d like to make my own bread more. But we live so close to Acme Bakery that making my own seems silly.

Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cookbook is a thick sheaf of interesting vegetarian dishes from cuisines I rarely explore, and yet I haven’t cracked it open in years. The dishes are unfamiliar enough that I don't get a “Oooh, I want to make that” rush like I do when I flip through Zuni’s familiar French/Italian/California ideas.

Similarly, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking promises to give me the basics of a cuisine I enjoy when I eat it, but know very little about cooking. I know it’s not hard. I know I could start with one or two simple dishes and add them to an otherwise European meal. Maybe I could make steamed pork buns for lunch. All good ideas that never happen.

The Whole Beast and Beyond Nose to Tail are witty, charming cookbooks that everyone should own. And yet I no longer make a point of keeping offal — the mainstay of the two books — in my freezer, and the meat vendors at the market don’t usually bring any. I know I could put in a special request, but that takes layers of planning that even I haven’t gotten around to yet. And so Fergus’s warm prose stays folded in the covers.

Charcuterie lives in this category. One of these days, I plan to set up a corner of my basement as a meat-curing area. I have everything I need, except a free few hours to plan it all out and set it up. And since I rarely have the extra meat on hand that would steer me to salumis and hams, I never get up the inspiration to set up my meat cave downstairs.

I’d really like to use Cooking By Hand more. The sprawling, in-depth look at making pasta is reason enough to pull it off the shelf. But I hate making pasta by hand. Its conserva technique is good, but I’ve done it enough times now that I don’t need to reference the book anymore. I’m probably missing yet more fascinating ideas simply because I never look to it for pasta suggestions.

But you know, I might start opening these books. Maybe I'll plan a vegetarian week that forces me to open Jaffrey’s book. Maybe I’ll make potstickers. Maybe, for real, I’ll make myself some pasta.

Or, you know, maybe not. But the books will sit there, right where I’m bound to see them, making me feel guilty for neglect.

Got any books you feel you should cook from more? Share your guilt-inducing cookbooks in the comments.