6 Cookbooks That Changed the Way I Cook

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Like most things, our real food and sustainable living journey began with baby steps.

First we started cloth diapering our babies, then I started making our own yogurt.

A bit later we frequented the farmers' market more often, started looking into CSA boxes, and sourced locally raised meats.

Then we started making our own soap and shampoo, I tried my hand at making cheese (only somewhat successfully), and jars of kombucha began to brew regularly on our shelves.

Pretty soon I started driving long distances to obtain raw milk and I began to experiment with sourdough and fermented vegetables. Cod liver oil became a staple in our diet, especially at times when I was pregnant, and at the same time, my husband became certified as a Permaculture Design Consultant and started working on an organic farm.

Through it all, I've lurked on various real food blogs and the Cultures for Health website excessively, memorizing their how-to videos and drooling over water kefir recipes and fermentation crocks.

Five years ago, I never would have pictured us in this place, but as with most things, this journey is even better than the one I originally imagined. With each step, we've learned something new and the joy in our home has deepened. We are so incredibly grateful for the richness of our lives!

And along the way, I discovered the joy of cookbooks. Strange, perhaps, considering I've always loved to cook and my mother is the fastest cook in the West. I've always had a stash of cookbooks, but I used them as recipe reference tomes, nothing more.

These six, however, are the ones that I dare not pick up when I'm in a hurry, as I'll invariably end up reading for an hour. I savor each page, usually calling to my husband at some point so I can read some paragraph to him. These books have inspired me to think deeply about food, to think differently about food, have taught me new techniques, and have fueled in me the desire to pass on the love of cooking to my own children as they grow.

Our Well-Loved Cookbooks

The Butcher's Guide to Well-Raised Meat – by Joshua and Jessica Applestone

This is one of the most beloved books in my cookbook collection and it has a charm all its own. The authors run a butcher shop in upstate New York and wrote the book to inspire and educate their readers about sustainable eating. “We're offering up the whole picture,” they write. “From farm to slaughterhouse to butcher block to plate – to empower everyone to make informed choices no matter where they live or shop.” They write with a tongue-in-cheek style I find irresistible – who can resist a butcher who wears a t-shirt that says “Live and Loin”?

The whole thing is peppered with helpful tidbits (“Our birds… are never prefrozen. We can tell by looking at the bones: if they have been frozen, you'll see red spots”), their recipes are mouth-watering (I've used several), their pictures are gritty and true to life (where else do you get a visual of hog-slaughtering and cooking it on a spit in the driveway?), and their many tutorials are delightfully candid and practical.

Living Cuisine – by Renee Loux Underkoffler

Though I'm not a raw foodist by any stretch of the imagination, this book has been a bit revolutionary in my kitchen because it caused me to think about vegetables and what I can do with them in a whole new way. Underkoffler has a knack for using raw foods in incredibly creative ways that I have found inspiring time and again. What mother doesn't think about new ways to serve vegetables to her family?

One of our favorite recipes from this book is her version of chocolate mousse. It uses avocados to make it dense, smooth, and creamy, dates to make it just the right amount of sweet, and carob or cocoa powder for the deep, dark, chocolately taste. You'd never know you weren't eating a chocolate custard. If you'd like, you can even make a raw-food version of a graham cracker crust, top it with bananas, and make a chocolate cream pie.

Nourishing Traditions – by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, PhD

Perhaps this one is de rigueur since I write here regularly about real food à la Weston A. Price's original landmark work, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. However, to say it hasn't affected the way I cook and think about food would be an outright lie, and I believe it to be an invaluable reference book in every real food kitchen.

I refer to this book constantly. When I want to a quick reminder of coconut oil's many benefits, I look it up in Nourishing Traditions. When I want to remember what the best length of time is to culture mayonnaise or how many days to cure salmon for lox, I use Nourishing Traditions. No matter where you are on your family's journey in using whole foods, this book is an excellent reference.

From a Monastery Kitchen: The Classic Natural Foods Cookbook – by Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette

This book was given to me several years ago and it was my introduction to thinking about strict seasonal eating. The monks at Our Lady of the Resurrection monastery in upstate New York practice mindfulness and the Rule of Benedict by eating largely what they grow in their own garden. Thus, their meals are tied strictly to seasonal eating and preserving the harvest.

They also focus heavily on preparing meals with great care as a way of giving thanks to God for the bounty of the harvest – thus, this book carries the deep thoughtfulness of the monastic tradition as well. And of course, frugality is at the heart of the monastic way of life, so the recipes are simple, hearty, flavorful, and frugal. It's a lovely, simple read.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child

The French really do have it right – and Julia Child is still the definitive proof after all these years. Through her contagious style, she shows that French cooking need not be difficult and that everyday good food is worth celebrating.

This is also the quintessential reference tome. If you want to know how to do pretty much anything – from basic kitchen skills like how to cut an onion to knowing how to roast a pheasant (my dream one of these Thanksgivings) and including traditional French ways of dealing with offal such as sweetbreads – this is the book that should reside on every cook's shelf. I can't tell you how often I have returned to these pages for both instruction and inspiration.

More-With-Less Cookbook, Simply in Season, and Extending the Table – three cookbooks from the “World Community Cookbook” series published by the Mennonite Central Committee

“More with Less” is the cookbook I grew up on. My mother's ragged copy was out on the counter at nearly every meal and it was one of the first cookbooks she gave me as a gift when I moved away from  home. It celebrates the global community – which makes sense, considering it's published by the Mennonite Central Committee, which focuses heavily on social justice in the Christian context – and its recipes celebrate the flavors and ingredients of the rich and poor alike around the world. It focuses heavily on frugal recipes and tells stories of communities around the globe.

“Simply in Season” and “Extending the Table” are sequels to the original “More with Less,” published in the last few years. Each one deserves a place on any cook's shelf who wants simple, flavorful food and who desires to feed his or her family frugally and intentionally.

And as a bonus (I know, I know… it's not a cookbook) but I absolutely have to mention Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

This is an irresistible read for anyone who likes to think about food in any way, shape, or fashion. The book details Kingsolver's move with her family from suburbia to rural with the intention of living for one year on local food eaten in season. The story chronicles their struggles and triumphs, occasionally breaking out for a (welcome) rant about our food system gone wrong or to sing the praises of a certain plant or two. Her style is witty: “We were about to begin the adventure of realigning our lives with our food chain,” she writes in the first chapter. “Naturally, our first stop was to buy junk food and fossil fuel.”

Ultimately it's inspiring and delightful and worth reading over and over again.

This post was shared at Fat Tuesday.
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