If you're going to have good cooking gear, you need some recipes to cook with it. I lean heavily on Epicurious, but I also have a lot of cookbooks. A lot of cookbooks. Here are the ones I use all the time:
1. Julia Child I consider three of her books absolutely indespensible: Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volumes 1 and 2), for when you have a lot of time to do something perfectly; the Way to Cook, for when you have a decent amount of time to do something very well; and Julia's Kitchen Wisdom, for all the shortcuts. Any of these is a really lovely gift for an aspiring chef, as is the new Julia bio. Did you know that Julia Child and I were the same height?
2. Marcella Hazan Her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is to Italian what MTAOFC was to French: the utterly indespensible how-to for everything.
3. Union Square My family uses the original cookbook and their new volume constantly for its relatively simple, delicious, hearty fare.
4. Jasper White is our seafood go-to guy; we're particularly fond of his lobster book.
5. Betty Crocker No, seriously. The 1950 picture cookbook is my bible for basic baking; it also contains a number of fine recipes for simple things like macaroni and cheese, eggs, and pancakes. I wouldn't touch their "foreign" recipes if you paid me. But hailing from the era just before processing and overreliance on things like salad oil turned baking into a largely lost art, this is probably the single best manual for turning out high-quality, simple, cakes, pies, and cookies. And the weird, anachronistic recipes for things like clam juice cocktail and chop suey, plus the hilarious hints for desperate housewives, are part of what makes the book such a delight to have around.
6. Jacques Pepin I am besotted with Fast Food My Way, which is all about cooking well in a hurry.
7. Alton Brown I actually don't particularly care for Brown's recipes. But his explanation of methods, and the science behind them, is first class; it will make you a better cook even if you never try one of his recipes. I own both I'm Just Here for the Food, and I'm Just Here for More Food, which is his baking book. Or I should say, I owned them--they were stolen by friends. This is a particularly fine gift for the engineers and scientists you know; even if they don't like to cook, the chemistry lessons and strange construction projects will get them hooked. There are books that do a more thorough job of explaining the science behind cooking, but none that do it so charmingly.
8. Gourmet magazine Their encyclopedic cookbook is just the thing to tackle a monster dinner party with; whatever you want to make, I guarantee it's in there.
I don't have recommendations for other ethnic cuisines, either because I don't think there are super good ones, or because it's a cuisine (Chinese, Indian) that I don't cook. Though considering the state of ethnic food in much of the district, I may have to start. But readers are free to offer theirs in the comments.
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