Choosing a favourite cookbook is like choosing a favourite dessert. Or child. There are certainly books I love dearly that are not on this list. But if I had to go and live on a desert island and could only take five, I would take these (assuming of course that someone has built a kitchen for me on this island). Why these? Because they pass the test I set for myself of what a favourite cookbook should be: it must be enduring, timeless and comprehensive. It must be a cookbook that you keep coming back to again and again, and one that you would leave to your children.
You may notice that my top 5 cookbooks are all by women. Nothing against blokes who cook – far from it. Perhaps it’s something to do with the type of food I like – traditional food, classic recipes to make at home for every day cooking, or special occasions. Not food to put on a pedestal. I don’t mean to be controversial about this – I love the cooking of Jamie Oliver, Neil Perry, David Thompson, Rick Stein, et al. And I get off on Anthony Bourdain as much as the next person. But these just happen to be the books I take down off the shelf more often than any others.
What are your favourite cookbooks, and why?
1. Claudia Roden – A New Book of Middle Eastern Food
I bought this 20 years ago from Gleebooks in Sydney. There are no pictures: it has more of a Penguin novel than a cookbook feel to it. Egyptian-born Claudia is almost a food historian of the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. The recipes alone in this book are an incredible collection, the historical vignettes she presents around them make it even more special. This is a cookbook you can curl up in bed with for a good read.
Favourite recipes: stuffed capsicums; chicken awsat (chopped chicken mixed with mint, pistachios and cooked chicken livers, and stuffed into a loaf of bread – just incredible); dolmades; cheese & spinach pastries.
2. Pleasures of the Table – Florence Fabricant
This was a gift from a good friend 23 years ago on the, wait for it, occasion of my wedding. Yes, I was a child bride, and the cookbook has outlasted the marriage by well over 20 years. I couldn’t cook when I was given this book, and stashed it away in storage. Years later, bitten by the food bug, I dusted it off, and was thrilled to discover it was full of timeless classics. It’s like finding old Vogue Entertaing mags from the 80’s in opshops – you pounce on them because you just know they will never go out of fashion. Florence still writes for the New York Times.
Favourite recipes: vitello tonnato; raspberry cream tart.
3. Feast – Nigella Lawson
I know it’s probably a bit cliched and predictable to have a Nigella book on the list, but it passes the test with flying colours. I’ve repeatedly cooked so many things from this book that it is a classic in my kitchen. At her best, she is the queen.
Favourite recipes: cranberry, oat and white chocolate biscuits; chilli con carne with cornbread topping; old fashioned chocolate cake; basil and goat cheese dip; beetroot puree.
4. Apples for Jam – Tessa Kiros
My sister gave me this cookbook for my birthday when my son was one year old and I don’t know if even she realises how perfect the timing of this gift was. If you only had one cookbook for every day meals with children, this should be it. I adore Tessa Kiros and everything she does, and the cookbook is not only practical, but utterly lovely to look at.
Favourite recipes: banana bread; traditional lasagne; beetroot gnocchi; chocolate and cranberry biscuits; sausage and potato goulash.
5. The Complete Asian Cookbook – Charmaine Solomon
I’m cheating a little here because I don’t own this book anymore, but I used to and I loaned it or lost it. I used this fantastic book to death in my early 20’s when I was first learning how to cook, and I have had a soft spot for this great lady ever since. Charmaine’s contribution to Asian cooking has never been properly acknowledged, in my view.
Runners up: Old Food, Jill Dupleix; The Food I Love, Neil Perry; The Paris Cookbook, Patricia Wells; Preserved by Nick Sandler & Johnny Acton
And finally, my favourite cookbook to NOT cook from: the wonderfully camp and kitsch cookbook of former South Australian Premier, Don Dunstan. You would never see a former political leader publishing a cookbook any more, sadly.