I had to buy another bookcase last week for my cookbook collection. I have been collecting cookbooks for the past thirty years, and I had run out of space for them. I was squirreling the books away in closets and boxes and was not able to read them. I just love to browse through my favorite cookbooks—I don’t necessarily make any of the recipes—but I read them as I would a novel. I love the unrealistic photographs of perfectly executed food. I enjoy reading how spices are combined to make the consummate Moroccan stew or how zucchini and eggplant match up together into a wonderful casserole. I find the whole experience meditative and relaxing.
I sometimes get stuck in a rut when I cook. I discover a combination of ingredients that I love and make it over and over. Now that I am spending more of my time cooking and I no longer buy prepared or processed foods, I have challenged myself to be innovative and it is my goal to develop a repertoire of delicious menus. I want to be a creative cook, and most importantly I want my food to be delicious, appealing, and tantalizing. I have found that cooking is so much more than following a recipe and adding specific ingredients to a pot. It nourishes me in so many ways. The act of cooking and eating is a way that I heal myself physically, mentally and spiritually.
I grew up in a traditional 1950’s family where my mother did most of the cooking. I don’t think she owned a cookbook but cooked by instinct and intuition. Once in a while I would spot my father at the stove cooking an Italian tomato sauce or a Chinese chop suey, which was very confusing since we were Jewish. But it taught me to look beyond my own heritage and traditions. We never ate in restaurants and I was in college when I had my first taste of pizza. Home cooking was always preferred and considered healthier. I loved my family’s cooking. I fondly remember my grandmother’s stuffed cabbage and her beet and cabbage borsht, recipes she learned as a young girl in Russia. I can still smell the aromas of her challah, apple cake or chocolate babka as I climbed the stairs to her apartment.
Not all of my cookbooks are vegan, vegetarian or macrobiotic, although I have lots of those. Even though I have over 200 cookbooks, the passion to continue searching and buying them persists. I especially love second-hand bookstores with the books stacked high and searching for a cookbook that might have been owned by a homemaker of the early 20th century. I wonder what her life was like, how different and difficult it might have been to prepare meals for her family.
The thrill of reading cookbooks for me revolves around taking a traditional recipe and playing with it until it becomes a healthy meal. Since I no longer eat meat and dairy, many of the recipes that I used to cook from are no longer suitable. It’s interesting to play with and transform a recipe depending on what foods are available seasonally. Many traditional cookbooks that do not have a vegan focus have lots of recipes that do not use dairy or meat. I have found that ethnic cookbooks are especially useful when looking for a non-meat dish. The vegetable cutlet recipe, found in many Jewish cookbooks, had been around long before the veggie burger was marketed by Boca Burger. Middle Eastern cookbooks have a plethora of bean, legume and rice recipes. Pasta and risotto are the bases of many Italian meals. Most cookbooks have vegetable dishes, and some of my favorite dishes emanate from collections from many different chefs and cooks. The braised lentils, carrots with lemon zest and thyme, and braised artichokes with lemon, fennel and olives are just a few of the dishes that I’ve recently enjoyed cooking and eating.
Even with all of the cookbooks that I have, I have recently ventured into the realm of cooking without recipes. I have acquired a lot of information and skills from just cooking. Not all of my meals turn out perfect. I have tossed away some that were just not edible. But, as I continue to cook and gain confidence in my skills and abilities as a cook, the food becomes tastier. I am learning that cooking food is much more than something I do three times a day.
Enter your kitchen with a sense of awe and curiosity. Be adventuresome and create a meal for the family that you love and cherish. Experience it as a gift rather than a chore. Your food tastes better when it is made with body, soul and a lot of love.