Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Assorted Holiday Stuff: Cookbooks for Grad Students / Dreaming of a 75 Degree Christmas

If you've got a special grad student in your life, chances are he or she is probably perpetually near-broke. One of the reasons I started this blog was to showcase how to eat well and economically from my own community, and I didn't get there by dining nightly at my favorite local restaurants (much as I would have liked to). I owe a lot to these cookbooks, so I thought I'd pass on my recommendations in case you still need a gift for your own grad student.

Top Picks:

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. This cookbook has been a lifesaver. Waters starts with the basic building blocks of a flavorful meal (how to pan-fry a pork chop, how to build a delicious stock, how to properly season vegetables) and offers several variations on most dishes. You've probably seen these kinds of recipes before, but Waters shows how each step in the process, each seasoning and each stirring, culminates in something, well, simple, but also magical. It's pretty easy to mix and match recipes because Waters starts with whole foods, so everything goes with everything else. My kitchen is pretty pared down, and I hate waste. I don't have a lot of extra condiments or spices that I'd only use in one dish. What I like most about this book is that the majority of the recipes call use the same basic oils and herbs, so I'm not spending precious time tracking down ingredients or having to store them afterward. Hands down, this is my number-one-most-used cookbook.

What I've Made: Check out the Caramelized Onion and Sausage Quiche (nature's most perfect food), Swiss Chard Frittata, or the Onion and Dried Tomato Tart.

Local Flavors by Deborah Madison. This cookbook is a bit more aspirational than Waters'. It's built around seasons and food categories (think greens, eggs & cheese, nightshades) rather than single whole foods. It's a great book for thinking about how what "grows together goes together" and for getting inspired to cook the things you find at the market that you've never dealt with before. Think sorrel, wild mushrooms, or crazy-hot peppers. The cookbook incorporates Madison's travels to various farmers' markets around the country, so some of the ingredients you might not be able to find in Memphis. I've had success adapting her recipes, though. Also, while I do not have Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, I have used it while house-sitting for friends and find it truly easy to cook from. Wish list!

What I've Made: Adaptations include Corn Fritters with Feta and Bok Choy (subbed for arugula and cheddar) and Strawberry Cream Tart (instead of raspberries). Straight-up deliciousness includes Eggplant Gratin.

Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann. Yeah, it's kind of a corny name, but if there is one absolute essential item for a grad student kitchen (beyond a sharp knife and a wooden spoon), it's a Crock-Pot. Your grad student is going to have days when she is buried under a pile of eighteenth-century manuscripts or page-long string citations or is at the theater until all hours of the night, and it will be a godsend to come home to a ready-made dinner. This cookbook covers it all, from breakfast to soups to big chunks of animal protein to dessert.

Honorable Mentions:

The Produce Bible by Leanne Kitchen. Jessica's mom got me this as a birthday present and I need to cook from it more often. It's more educational than cookbook-ey, but it's got some great recipes I've been eyeballing. I made a ridiculously tasty Carrot and Winter Squash Risotto from here not long ago.

This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. These two go together because they are both part-memoir, part-gardening how-to manual, part-meditation on industrial agriculture, part-cookbook. Gussow's narrative interweaves with her renovation of an old house and her husband's death, while Kingsolver details her family's year in eating only from their own land, turkey slaughters and all. They're both great reads with innovative recipes. In particular, I like Gussow's Eggplant Bhurta and have made Kingsolver's Sweet Potato Salad and variations thereon more times than I can count.

The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones. Though Jones writes as someone who's seen her household empty out, a grad student would probably still appreciate this cookbook for its respectful treatment of solitary cooking. When it is time to cook something nice for yourself? All the time. Life's too short to eat crap. Her Potato Dish for Julia (as in Child) is simple and amazing.

The green cookbook in the middle, Treasured Recipes from Near and Far, is one of our Mennonite cookbooks. Most of the contributors were farm women of a certain age, so there are all kinds of gems that include Coca-Cola products, Karo syrup, and crushed Cornflakes. The only recipe worth mentioning, however, is my grandmother's, which gets its own photo:

In other news, I'm home in Florida for the holidays and am happily running to and fro in a tank top, short-shorts, and flip-flops. Lord knows I love Memphis, but I was born here. Today I drank coffee and watched these guys on the homestead:

Also, 'tis the season: beers my mother got at a company gift swap and doesn't want.

From left, a Southern Tier Old Man Winter, a Smuttynose Winter Ale, a Heavy Seas Winter Storm Category 5 Ale, a Flying Fish Grand Cru Winter Reserve, and Lost Coast Winterbraun. I haven't tried any of these, so I'm pretty excited. Has anyone had one of these beers?


  1. They are beers your mother specifically chose in the Gift swap for her daughter to share with her father! Sorry is just not cup of tea....but it's good to cook with.

  2. Do you prefer Pepsi or Coke?
    ANSWER THE POLL and you could get a prepaid VISA gift card!