By Patricia Lightfoot

I have two cookbooks that I bought because I thought one recipe in each book was particularly enticing. The first of these books was Lucy Waverman’s A year in Lucy’s Kitchen. It was an excellent purchase. I have made almost every recipe in the book and have been very pleased with the results. The recipes are well-written, designed for the home cook and clearly extensively tested, so that they always work. The arrangement of the book by month means that key ingredients will be in season at that time. The “paella of the Caribbean” is a particular favourite, being easy to prepare and size up or down as needed. It is almost a one-pot meal, though the chicken stock and saffron have to be heated separately. That first recipe, cannellini bean and arugula crostini, featuring a roasted head of garlic and smoked paprika, is an excellent hors d’oeuvre or contribution to a potluck that I regularly make.

The other book that I was tempted to buy for one recipe was Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, a beautiful and erudite work, in which recipes are organized by plant family, from carrots and cauliflowers to legumes and morning glory. I have made a number of the dishes, including the kale and potato cakes with Romesco sauce but, most often, I just go back to that first recipe: grilled halloumi with seared red peppers, olives and capers. It is delicious and oily and tastes of summer at any time of year.

I asked a few friends whether there was a cookbook they had bought for one recipe? If so, was it a good purchase?

Helen Curran, who lives in Paris and wrote about storytelling for this blog, responded, “I’m afraid I have the Alice B. Toklas cookbook simply because of the hashish fudge recipe. I have never cooked the fudge, nor any other recipe in the collection. It is a good read though, full of anecdotes. When I bought the book, I was intrigued by the fudge recipe. I was in my early twenties and led a fairly blameless, hashish-free existence. Drug intake was pretty much limited to happy-hour cocktails on Fridays! Was it a case of opposites attract? Probably.

When I wanted to buy the “definitive” French cookbook, I looked for clafoutis in the encyclopedic books of the early nineties. I’m not sure why it was clafoutis, as we never cook it, but it was my defining French recipe! I then bought the Larousse de la Cuisine (1990 edition) for J.P.’s birthday as it was the only one with clafoutis. I think we only cooked it once; however, we have used the book extensively, and it is our first reference for classic French recipes. We don’t always agree with it. It includes cheese in the gratin Dauphinois, and everyone from the Dauphiné will tell you that with cheese it becomes a gratin Savoyard and that the true Dauphinois has no cheese. Some of the recipes are very dull too.”

Rita Hampton in London responded, “I have a large stack of books, many of them I have not cooked from at all. These are usually restaurant based, e.g., River Café, Wagamama. I would rather go to the restaurant and let them cook for me.  I do have a core selection of books to inspire especially when I get that – oh, what to cook now – feeling: Valentina Harris for Italian food, Yotam Ottolenghi for all things veggie and Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey is fab. Huge Fearnley-Whittingstall is good for all-year-round stuff and the wonderful Elizabeth David for all things French.”

Lawrence Humber in Ottawa shared his cookbook habits, saying that “Cookbooks are an interesting subset of literature and I find that I return to different books for different things. As a chef, I used to trawl through a variety of cookbooks searching for inspiration. It wasn’t so much that I was looking for recipes to try. I was searching for a combination of ingredients that might serve as a jumping-off point for me. As a home cook, I’m less often involved in that sort of search and less often trying new recipes.

I have books that I look through and love but almost never use. I have books that I reliably refer to for a small number of recipes and books that I turn to if I’m searching for something. Of all my cookbooks, the one that gets pulled off the shelf most often is The Science of Good Cooking from Cook’s Illustrated. It doesn’t have the most beautiful pictures or the most interesting recipes, but it is filled with tips and techniques and the story of why preparing certain things a certain way will yield a certain result. The recipes are precise and often no frills. What I find is that they provide me with a starting point. There is a clear explanation of why a recipe works and I can use that information to decide how I might alter or expand it to make something that is catered to our family’s tastes.”

Someone I spoke to about star recipes who shall be nameless, given their admission that they sometimes photograph recipes in cookbooks while looking through them in bookstores, asked whether cookbooks had gone out of fashion, given that so many recipes are available online. That is a good question, and I’ll occasionally search online for recipes for a particular ingredient, but I feel that the merits of a good cookbook lie in the care that has gone into testing the recipes, so that when home cooks follow the instructions, they get the results they expect, and the context that they provide for a particular cuisine. It is also worth noting that, as Helen reminded me, those online resources can disappear without warning.

Photo and cooking credit: Phil Lightfoot