The NY Times book section this week has a piece on cookbooks, and the first paragraph states, as can be said about a lot of things, most cookbooks are not very good. I think this is a pretty true statement, and while there are some obvious tactics to use (be very careful buying a Food Network star's cookbook, especially if their name rhymes with Schmemeril or Schmachel Shmay; as a rule, try to avoid big coffee table/food porn type cookbook, especially if they're related to a restaurant, etc.), there is one equally obvious way to find good cookbooks for free:
I like to check my cookbooks out from the library. I find that doing this is a good way to check out a cookbook before buying, since if at least a couple recipes don't pan out, then probably the money you'd spend on the book would be better spent on something else (like good cheese at Southern Season, or beer, or...).
Lately, I've read several cookbooks, both good and bad, so here are my quick takes on them:
1. Charcuterie, by Ruhlman, et al. - This is a cookbook I really want to like. The writing is great, the subject fascinating, and the two recipes I tried (cured salmon, and breakfast sausage) were tasty, and taught techniques that are interesting enough that I'd like to make variations. The problem, and it's a big one, is that sausage making is kind of like making beer. You have to buy a bunch of equipment that can be hard to find (like casings, pink salt, etc), and at the end of the day, you end up with an awful lot of the end product. Now, I like beer and sausage as much as the next person (ok, probably more than the next person), but there's something to be said for just buying it sometimes. The whole time I had the book out from the library, I felt a little guilty for not doing more with it. That said, I'll probably end up buying it sometime when I'm really motivated, and when the weather is cool, so that sausage making sounds fun. I'll give it B/B-.
2. Mark Bittman's Quick and Easy Recipes...,by Mark Bittman - I love the columns in the Times that Mark Bittman writes as "The Minimalist". I find them to be inspiring in their simplicity, and I love how they bring home how easy it is to make good food, especially when you choose the right ingredients. None of the recipes in this book are complicated, and I think any semi-competent cook could pull any of them together on a weeknight. So in that sense, it's a good book. But on the other hand, none of the recipes stand out as being "wow!" meals. In fact, to be honest, I really wouldn't make any of the recipes that I tried (and I made 3 or 4) again. To be fair, I did make a grilled shrimp for lunch today, and I got the idea for doing it from looking at a different recipe in the book. Regardless, though, it's a C at best.
3. Fresh Every Day, More Great Recipes From Foster's Market by Sara Foster: Apparently, Sara Foster is some lady that runs a market in Durham. It's supposed to be pretty good, but I've never been there, so I can't comment on that. What I can comment on is this cookbook, and I'll say it's a really good cookbook. All the recipes work, they all jibe with the way I like to cook (simply, using ingredients bought from the outside aisles of the grocery), and they're good enough that I got compliments when I served them to others. What more can I say? I liked it a lot, there was plenty of room for improvisation, and the writing just felt right. Definitely an A.
As for the title, I made these pickles out of the Foster's book:
1 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp coarse salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
6 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1 tsp red pepper flakes
4 -5 small kirby cucumbers
1 small onion, sliced.
Combine the vinegar and sugar in a bowl, and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Add the next 5 ingredients, and put in a glass jar (I used a tall plastic container that probably held cole slaw or some other deli item at some point). Wash the cucumbers, and then peel the cucumbers in strips, so that you have alternating strips of green and white. Then slice thinly. Place the cucumbers and onions in alternating layers in the vinegar mixture, packing them in to cover all in the mixture. Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours (preferably overnight). They should keep for a couple of weeks.
These pickles are pretty darn good. Like all the recipes in the Foster's book, they strike a nice balance of acid and sweet, and the red pepper flakes lend just the right amount of heat.
Very good pickles.