Features 3 minutes 01 May 2020

Travel in Place with these Five Classic Cookbooks

Take a figurative culinary tour with a handful of our favorite transportive tomes.

Odes to the transportive power of literature are common enough, but when it comes to escapism, the humble cookbook is still often overlooked. What better tool to conjure up not only fondly remembered travels and past culinary indulgences, but also feasts and locales as yet unknown? In these times of necessary isolation, cookbooks can be marvelous wards against the menace of cabin fever. Better yet, with the right ingredients on hand (whether from a well-stocked larder or a judicious grocery visit), you can summon up a taste of places (and even times!) beyond the mundane.

Each of the following books embodies the knowledge and passion of its author (or authors), a diverse range of culinary experts—and each is a portal beyond the confines of your door.

If ever a cookbook has captured the spirit of a place, this wonderful snapshot of Bangkok’s incredibly diverse food culture manages the feat. Leela Punyaratabandhu (whose blog about Thai food and culture, She Simmers, is also fantastic) presents a rich and varied collection of dishes and stories, drawn from her family history and beloved restaurants. Her book covers the gamut of dishes from common to obscure, historical to modern. It is a portal to the food and culture of Bangkok that will speak to both those who have never been and those who can’t wait to go back.

Some recipes we love...
24-hour Chicken Matsaman Curry: An outstanding take on this popular Thai dish—and don’t worry, the titular 24 hours don’t involve active cooking.
Caramel-Braised Eggs with Pork Belly: A personal, quirky, and above all delicious example of a ubiquitous food stall dish.
Omelet Roll with Crabmeat Filling: A version of the exquisite crab-loaded omelet found at Jay Fai, a One-MICHELIN-Starred restaurant in an unassuming venue adjacent to Bangkok’s temple district.

Book cover reprinted with permission from Bangkok by Leela Punyaratabandhu, copyright © 2017. Photography by David Loftus. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

This book is an excellent compendium of Southern cuisine and an irresistible love letter to the cooking of the American South. It is simultaneously the story of the intergenerational friendship between Lewis (arguably the most important figure in bringing Southern cooking to national prominence in the 20th century), and Peacock (a respected authority in his own right, named “Best Chef in the Southeast” by the James Beard Foundation in 2007, among other accolades). The recipes include well-known favorites (as in a terrific version of shrimp and grits) as well as offerings that might be unfamiliar to non-Southerners (like the recipe for a luxurious She-Crab Soup). The result is a compelling exploration of Lewis and Peacock’s shared heritage, and a winning collection of well-tested recipes.

Some recipes we love... 
Turtle Soup with Dumplings: A far cry from everyday cooking, this decadent dish is a glimpse of Southern cooking known to few.
Southern Pan-Fried Chicken: On the opposite end of the spectrum, this is an outstanding, best in show example of a dish everyone knows and loves.
Lemon Chess Pie: A simple but delightful dessert that is still regrettably uncommon outside the South.

Photo © Knopf/Penguin Random House LLC

The Lutèce Cookbook
by André Soltner and Seymour Britchky 

André Soltner casts a long shadow in the realm of French fine dining in New York City, and, indeed, America. During the decades he helmed Lutèce, Soltner’s artful personal take on classic French cuisine made it the crown jewel of NYC’s dining scene. Unusually for a restaurant cookbook, it was written after he stepped away from the stoves. The result is a sentimental memoir of sorts, covering both Soltner’s reign at Lutèce and his culinary life as a whole. Beyond capturing the mystique of a celebrated restaurant and chef, it serves as a fascinating window into a bygone culinary era, when crème fraîche was still exotic and fresh tarragon a rarity. And, surprisingly, many of the recipes aren’t out of reach for home cooks—although a degree of exactitude is to be expected.

Some recipes we love...
Crêpes Soufflées aux Champignons: This, although it sounds fussy in the extreme, is actually (relatively) approachable, and would make for a terribly impressive first course for a dinner party (after we’ve weathered the current storm).
Tarte Flambée: A faithful rendition of the classic from Soltner’s native Alsace, from a time when it was much less well-known than it is today.
Kugelhopf: The recipe for this traditional Alsatian yeast-leavened cake comes from Soltner’s grandfather, who was a baker.

The_Art_of_Mexican_Cooking copy 2.jpg

The Art of Mexican Cooking
by Diana Kennedy 

With this book, originally published in 1989, Diana Kennedy became one of the first English language authors to spread the gospel of Mexican cooking. She gained a wide audience and exposed many Americans to regional Mexican food for the first time. Kennedy, now in her 90s, is credited for her tireless efforts to document the diversity of Mexican cuisine. Filled with carefully crafted recipes and larded throughout with Kennedy’s sharply uncompromising perspective, it is an exemplary introduction to the cuisine and a wonderful companion for anyone serious about Mexican cooking.

Some recipes we love...
Frijoles Refritos: A simple recipe, but the results are hard to argue with.
Chiles Rellenos: A bit more involved, but with carefully detailed instructions to ensure excellent results.
Entomatadas: A simple tomato-based relative of the enchilada, this delicious recipe (along with the other masa-based offerings in the book) speaks for itself.

Photo © Clarkson Potter/Penguin Random House LLC
More than any other cooking personality in the 20th century, Marcella Hazan educated Americans about Italian food: a cuisine that is proudly regional and spans dishes from humble to rarified. Part of the appeal is Hazan’s unyielding rectitude—seen in her painstaking guidelines for hand-rolled pasta sfoglia, or in her insistence that pesto Genovese must be ground using a mortar and pestle. Hazan’s clear, detailed instructions make even the most ambitious recipes attainable. This volume, which combines her seminal work The Classic Italian Cookbook and its follow-up, More Classic Italian Cooking, is dense with recipes from across Italy, and should be considered essential to lovers of Italian cooking.

Some recipes we love...
Green Tortellini with Meat and Ricotta Stuffing: A stirring rendition of a beloved Bolognese dish.
Risotto with Saffron, Milanese Style: Hazan’s introduction to risotto is characteristically thorough, and she generously provides the tools for perfectly executing this dish, which is the very picture of elevated simplicity.
Veal Scaloppine with Marsala and Cream: Though now seen only infrequently on menus, this is a classic dish whose appeal is readily apparent.

Photo © Knopf/Penguin Random House LLC

Hero Image © AlexRaths/iStock

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