This is the fourth installment of "Eat This List" - a regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about.
Nice, neat things make me nervous. I'm almost relieved the first time a pristine pair of shoes gets a scuff or there's a ding on the bumper of a new car. I'm no longer responsible for maintaining this object in a perfect state, and somehow through the rupture of it, it's finally marked as mine.
Cookbooks definitely fall into that category for me. The more one speaks to me, the more I'll crack it open, weight it down to splay the relevant pages, and muck up the pages in the frenzy of cooking from it. My most beloved are my most battle-scarred.
I fanned the least sodden ones over radiators and oven racks, allowed myself a few shuddering sobs upon seeing the extent of the damage, and then remembered to feel very, very grateful that the rest of my house was still intact. Blessedly, renters insurance will cover restocking of some of the essentials and I'll just have to endeavor to mess them up again, one recipe at a time.
These are the most stained, shredded, dough-crusted, oil-soaked cookbooks in my collection (before the flood), and a little bit about how they got that way.
1. The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories And Recipes For Southerners And Would-Be Southerners - Matt Lee and Ted Lee
There is no abuse I haven't heaped upon this compendium of Southern recipes, mostly because there aren't any that I haven't tried. With the Lee Bros.' guidance (I'm one of those "would-bes," but a very enthusiastic pupil) I've pickled peaches, watermelon rind and corn, rolled endless biscuits, braised acres of collard greens, soaked and baked half a dozen hams and fermented the smelly hell out of corncobs to make a wine that tastes like a honky-tonk Riesling. There's not a bad recipe in the bunch.
The book (pictured atop the pile above) was one of the first gifts my husband ever gave me, and one of the most extensively damaged in the flooding. The authors, who are now friends of mine, saw a picture I tweeted and surprised me with a brand new copy to mess up again. Now that's Southern hospitality.
2. Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home - Mario Batali
I'm half-Italian by heritage, but grew up eating boxed pasta, bottled sauce and cheese from a cardboard shaker. Mario Batali's restaurants - Babbo, Otto, Lupa and Esca - were a revelation to me when I made the move to New York City in the '90s. This cookbook - a gift from my niece and nephew - empowered me to attempt to embrace my culinary heritage at home by making fresh pasta, antipasti, meats, fish and sauces. I got my hands dirty making gnocchi, bruschetta and sauce, and the pages got caught in the crossfire. (It's at the top of the replacement list.)
I wrote about this a while back in a post sharing the five cookbooks that changed the way I think about food and drinks. It's only gotten more decrepit on the outside, since then, but its contents remain essential.
As I said then, I didn't drink much in college and grad school. It wasn't a matter of morality or self-restraint - just that I was intensely focused on other things, and if I was going to dive into the world of drink, I wanted to do it right. In the late '90s, Wired Magazine's now-defunct drink-centric website Cocktailtime.com became a semi-obsession for me, because they CARED. Oh, did they give a hang about the geeky details - ice cube size, glass shapes, shaking strategies and historical accuracy. I'll drink to that. Frequently, in fact.
Way back when, the notion of wi-fi and web-enabled smart phones seemed like the stuff of science fiction, so I bought the associated book. I make, if I may say so, a thoroughly splendid Sidecar, Jack Rose, Do Be Careful, Pegu Club or whatever classic cocktails might wet my guests' whistles. It's all because of this book, and that's evidenced in the fact that I've had to tape and re-tape the pages in the proper order and crack apart pages glued together by spilled simple syrup. I'd go ahead and replace the darn thing if used copies didn't start at around $75 - or $150 if you'd like one untouched by any other mixologist's paws.
4. Salt to Taste: The Keys to Confident, Delicious Cooking - Marco Canora
Chef Canora is at the helm of Hearth restaurant (my favorite in all of New York City) and his soulful, seasonally-attuned, "cucina povera" style of cooking draws the most possible flavor out of humble ingredients. His easy-to-follow techniques have become part of my everyday arsenal, and if there's one thing this book has taught me, it's that patience, salt, herbs and olive oil can transform just about any ingredient in your refrigerator into a satisfying meal. And did I mention the olive oil? If you buy this book, invest in a gallon jug. You'll need it.
5. The New Complete Book of Breads - Bernard Clayton
Anything I know about dough, I owe to the late Bernard Clayton. When I bought this book in the late '90s in an attempt to tantalize a new boyfriend with the scent of fresh baguettes and sourdough wafting from my kitchen, it was the best thing since unsliced bread. While the relationship was only ever half-baked, Clayton's foolproof approach to quick, yeast and traditional loaves made this book a keeper. In particular, I've referred to the braided bread recipes - especially the silken, saffron-kissed challah - so many times, and been so enthusiastic with my kneading (it's a tremendous stress reliever), that I somehow managed to tear those pages out completely.
6. Staff Meals from Chanterelle - David Waltuck and Melicia Phillips
The cookbook from the sadly departed Chanterelle restaurant is tucked away neatly with my pristine copies of similar cerebral feasts like the French Laundry, Alinea, Michel Bras and Ferran Adria tomes. They're stunning, inspirational and unfathomably far above my cooking level. They feed my eyes and brain, but rarely my mouth.
Staff Meals is the polar opposite of that. A key point of a restaurant "family meal" is that it feeds and fuels a crowd cheaply, so I grab it from from the shelf knowing I'll likely have a good deal of the ingredients in stock, be able to execute and have enough leftovers to feed an army. The brownies, in particular, are a prime example of an easily accessible recipe, with a little bit of chef magic (in this case, black pepper) thrown in to elevate it. There's also bacon in (and on) just about everything.
Perhaps there are people who can manage to make punch neatly. Bless their hearts. Without even sampling as I'm going, it's impossible for me to craft a high-proof punch like this, in the vast quantities that I tend to (for parties - not just personal consumption) without sloshing a little out on the counter. I consider it a gift to the party gods - if those gods happen to have names like Mrs. C. C. Calhoun and Mrs. Thomas A. Huguenin and possess a fondness for scuppernong grapes, apricot brandy and turtle meat.
8. Pie - Angela Boggiano
You can't craft a proper British meat pie without getting a little bit of lard on everything. I grew up reading British kid lit with endless references to sturdy, soul-warming meat pies bringing joy to orphans and ragamuffins. There was no way I wasn't going to try for myself when Angela Boggiano's book showed up on my desk. I've crafted her pork jelly-laden Melton Mowbray pie and rich, raisin-studded, sugar-crusted Eccles cakes, and spent a shocking quantity of free time and psychic energy on mastering her puff pastry technique (to little avail).
None of it's been pretty. Much of it has been delicious. All of it has been smeared across every surface in my kitchen - including this book.
– Now it's your turn. Talk about and show off your greasiest, grittiest, most sauce-splattered and gravy-flecked cookbooks in the comments below or on iReport and we'll share our favorites in an upcoming feature.
Follow Kat Kinsman on Twitter @kittenwithawhip