Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Top Five . . . or Six Cookbooks of all Time

I’ve got more cookbooks than should be allowed by law. Many years ago my cookbook addiction began when I bought my first one which was an updated version of my mother’s favorite "go to" book the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. I venture to say that I am not alone. This red and white checked book could very well be sitting on your kitchen shelf right now and why not, its user friendly recipes housed in its three ring binder with easy to use tabbed subject dividers make finding a sought after recipe a breeze to locate.

Before I became experienced enough to make things like pie crust or biscuits by memory, this was the book I turned to. I’m sure the day will probably come when my memory fails me and I have to reference this book for these recipes once again. It is comforting to know that this old friend will be on the shelf patiently waiting for me when that time comes. Oh the circle of life.

Several years after my Better Homes and Gardens acquisition, my sister gave me a copy of her church’s homespun cookbook for Christmas. You know the kind, the plastic GBC bound book with a photo of the church on the front brimming with the favorite recipes of the women of the congregation. I have to brag a bit about these women because these are not just any church ladies, these are south central Texas Lutheran church ladies.

 For those of you who aren’t familiar with this area, it is a melting pot of Czech and German cuisines with a little Mexican thrown in. These cooks were kicking their recipes up a notch before Emeril’s grandmother was born. I am ashamed to say that this book sat idle on my shelf for a year or two before I pulled it down and made the Buttermilk Sheet Cake recipe that my sister coaxed me into. I was hooked. Whenever I want to bribe my husband or the teachers at school by giving them a downhome homemade treat, chances are this is where I go for inspiration. It’s kind of my secret weapon.



My other red covered favorite is a relatively new acquisition, The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. I haven’t made every recipe in this book but the ones that I have made have been close to perfection. The Snickerdoodles, Cinnamon Buns and Spaghetti Carbonara may seem simple and old hat to experienced cooks, but using their recipes and methods, you just might discover something new about these old standbys. I trust these recipes so much that I wouldn’t hesitate making any of them for the first time for guests. Packed with suggestions for easy substitutions, cooking tips and hints, this book is a clear favorite. It is also bound in a three ring binder with tab dividers. Hmm, I think I see a pattern here.

Over the course of the four plus years we lived in the UK, we learned to love Indian food. To this day, one of my favorite restaurants that I have visited anywhere on the planet is Laguna Tandoori in Nottingham, England. The perfection of their Chicken Tikka defies description. Even the simple poppadums and chutney that are given to you upon your arrival are a perfect combination of crispness, sweet, salty and tart. Sometimes some restaurants just do everything right. I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you a description of the full menu.

 Since we left Nottingham and only get to visit this restaurant once a year or so I started looking for a really good cookbook to make my own Indian deliciousness at home in the US. I managed to pick up a book or two here and there with marginal results. On a trip back to the UK several years ago I bought a copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s Foolproof Indian Cookery. This book has helped me cook many an authentic tasting Indian supper. If I want to cook something special for my family, this is the book I crack. Madhur’s Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Tikka Masala and Chicken Korma recipes are the closest thing to Laguna Tandoori on this side of the Atlantic. Thanks Madhur!

The final place on my shortlist was a tough choice between two really great books. I really love anything that Southern Living puts out especially The Southern Living Cookbook circa 1987. Three of my all time faves are in it which earns it a place close to my heart. It may be because I have a recipe in one of their later books and a couple on their website, but even at that I think I must stray and choose Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course.

I guess I would describe Delia as England’s answer to Martha Stewart but nicer and without the crafts. In my opinion her recipes are far superior to that of the better known (in the States that is) Nigella Lawson, but I guess she just doesn’t feel like she needs to come and conquer America. Too bad I think she’d be a real hit. I bought her book back in 1995 when we first moved to the UK out of desperation. Nothing and I mean NOTHING I cooked seemed to come out right so I waved the white flag and converted to the cooking of my new homeland, and it’s a good thing I did.

Under Delia’s direction I discovered the true beauty of traditional English cooking, and if you wince when I say that you don’t know true English cooking. Sure, there are some really gross recipes we’ve all heard about, but don’t laugh lest you forget we Americans invented Spam. We all have dark moments in our past. Delia’s Meatballs in Goulash Sauce, Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding and Little Sticky Toffee Puddings never fail to earn me no less than raves when I serve them. I miss you Delia, but I’ll survive because I brought your recipes back with me.



Well there they are, my five, well six, top favorite cookbooks. I know some of you must be dismayed because there is no Dori Greenspan, Martha Stewart, Ina Garten or Rick Bayless books on my list. I do own some of their books and on occasion pull them down and make something from them, but these books are the ones that have earned my undying devotion and a special place in the cookbook nook by my stove. Because of their simple and unassuming recipes that I find easy and inviting, these books are like a well-worn pair of jeans or some old comfortable slippers, they just feel right.

Choosing a recipe to accompany this post was a snap. I have chosen a family favorite, and at risk of contradicting myself, I must admit that it is a little bit fussy to make but oh so worth it. I have chosen my own version of Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe for Chicken Tikka Masala with a little help from the folks at America’s Test Kitchen. This recipe is easy enough on its own but it must be started with Madhur’s recipe for the long marinated Tandoori Chicken. This recipe was originally developed by an unknown to me chef in the UK as a way to use up leftover chicken so they already had it on hand and got to skip the first step. If you’ve got special guests coming for dinner on a Saturday, start this on Friday night or Saturday morning and you’ll have a fabulous supper later that evening.



Tandoori-style Chicken

2 pounds (1 kg) skinless and boneless chicken breasts or 2-1/2 pounds (1.25 kg) bone in chicken pieces, skinned
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 large onion, cut up
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1 inch (2.5cm) piece of fresh gingerroot, grated
1 – 2 hot green chillies, roughly sliced
2 cups (500ml) plain yoghurt
2 teaspoons garam masala
Lime or lemon wedges to serve

If using chicken breasts, cut into 2” square cubes. If using chicken pieces cut breasts into 4 pieces and make 2 deep slits crossways on the meaty parts of the pieces. Lay the chicken in a single layer on a clean surface. Sprinkle evenly with the salt and place in a gallon size zipper seal bag. Pour lemon juice over the pieces, seal the bag and knead to cover; refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.

In a food processor or blender, grind the onion, garlic clove, gingerroot and chillies until they are finely chopped. Scrape the contents of the food processor into a large bowl and add the yoghurt and garam masala and mix well. At this point Madhur's recipe calls to strain this mixture through a sieve, but I like to grind my ingredients really well and skip the straining. If you are going on to make the Tikka Masala recipe, reserve 1/2 cup of this mixture at this time for use later on.

Pour the yoghurt mixture into the bag containing the chicken and knead well once again to cover all the pieces before resealing and returning to the refrigerator to marinate for 8 – 24 hours but no longer as the meat can begin to breakdown too much after that point and get mushy.

After marinating time prepare the chicken for cooking which can be done on the barbeque or in a very hot oven. If cooking in the oven, preheat the oven to its hottest temperature and set a shelf in the top third of the oven. Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade and spread them out in a single layer on a large, shallow baking tray. Watching carefully, bake for 20 – 25 minutes (for bone in pieces) or 10 – 15 minutes (for boneless breast cubes) or until cooked through.

If you are cooking on a barbeque grill (my personal favorite method), heat the barbeque to high. If using breast cubes, skewer them onto wooden or metal skewers being careful not to crowd them so they cook evenly. Watching carefully, cook for approximately 20 minutes, turning after about 10 minutes. Since grills heat differently and are affected by outside conditions, adjust your cooking time accordingly, cooking until the chicken is cooked through and juices run clear.

Serve as is with lime or lemon wedges or continue on with the Tikka Masala recipe.

Serves 4

*One important thing I have learned about Indian cooking is how important it is to have all of your ingredients measured out and ready to go before you start cooking. Because of the high heat and abbreviated cooking times you can quickly burn your ingredients if you are trying to measure or chop as you cook.

Chicken Tikka Masala

5 tablespoons oil
5 green cardamom pods
2 inch (5 cm) piece cinnamon stick
2 onions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons finely grated gingerroot
2 teaspoons garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more if you like it hot)
1 tablespoon paprika
1/2 cup of the reserved Tandoori Chicken marinade
1 large tomato, chopped with all of its seeds and juices saved
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 cup (250ml) water
1 teaspoon fenugreek (an optional addition of mine)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar (an optional addition of mine as well)
Salt and pepper to taste

Pour the oil in a large non-stick frying pan set over medium high heat. When the oil is very hot and glossy, drop in the cardamom pods and cinnamon stick; stir around for a few seconds before adding the onions. Cook until they are softened and slightly browned. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for approximately 1 minute. Add the cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne and paprika and stir for a minute longer. Add the reserved yoghurt mixture from the marinade a 1/4 at a time, stirring in well after each addition.

Add the tomato, tomato paste, garam masala, fenugreek and sugar, stir in well and cook for 1minute. Stir in the water and bring to a simmer; cover and reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 10 – 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add the cooked chicken and any cooking juices if you cooked your chicken in the oven. Increase the heat to medium and cook until the chicken is heated through and the sauce thickens enough to cling to the chicken.

Serve with rice and chopped fresh cilantro.

Serves 4 - 5
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