April 09, 2019

Six cookbooks that changed my life

Behind the Book by

Murder from Scratch author Leslie Karst shares six cookbooks she finds herself returning to over and over again.

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In Leslie Karst’s fourth Sally Solari mystery, Murder from Scratch, the restaurateur stumbles onto her latest case after taking in her blind cousin, Evelyn, who is convinced that her mother was murdered. Sally and Evelyn’s investigation takes them into the fast-paced, high-stakes world of pop-up restaurants and celebrity chefs, giving Karst the opportunity to feature even more delicious recipes. Here, she shares six cookbooks she finds herself returning to over and over again.

Okay, that title may sound a tad dramatic, especially since—being more of a seat-of-the-pants style cook—I don’t even use recipes all that much. I do, however, love to read cookbooks and to study the techniques described by the experts who’ve come up with or compiled the recipes therein. Moreover, several cookbooks have had a huge impact on me from a young age, opening my eyes to a world of food and cooking far beyond the TV dinners and Jello salads so prevalent during my 1960s childhood.

So here are some of the cookbooks that have most influenced me over the years, listed in the order in which they came into my life.

The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne
I remember first noticing this big blue tome on our kitchen bookshelf when I was about eight or nine years old. The book was all the rage in the early ’60s, with its recipes for hip, “new” dishes such as rumaki and curried chicken and Eggs à la Russe. It harkens back to the days when the New York Times was the king of newspapers and people enjoyed their food with no qualms about butter or salt or excess calories.

But what was different about the book for me was that both my parents cooked from it. This was a big deal because my dad rarely ventured into the kitchen save to spread butter on saltines, slice a few stalks of celery and mix up a glass of chocolate milk for a light lunch watching the Saturday afternoon Dodgers game on TV. Dad only made two recipes from the book, however: Steak Diane and potato pancakes, which he would make on the same night, to be accompanied by a salad prepared by my mom. I thought it was heaven.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck
This selection is somewhat disingenuous, as I actually first came to the book by way of Julia Child’s television show, “The French Chef,” during which this big, charismatic gal with a funny voice would demonstrate how to make many of the recipes from her newly published cookbook.

My mother adored the show, and she and I would sit on my parents’ bed in the afternoon and watch it together, Mom with a pen and notepad in hand to take down any recipes that struck her fancy. Later, she would try them out for the grand dinner parties my folks used to throw back in the day when that was a thing. (I miss those fabulous “days of the dinner party” but do my best to keep the tradition alive in my own home.)

Years later, I finally bought my own copy of the cookbook and have tried many of its wonderful recipes, including the to-die-for coq au vin and the labor-intensive-but-well-worth-the-effort cassoulet (which Ms. Child poetically translates into English as “baked beans”).

The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer
My mother presented me with a copy of this book when I went away to college. For some years it was the only cookbook I owned, as it contains pretty much everything you need to know to be a quite passable cook—from how to stuff, truss and carve a chicken, to coring artichokes, to whisking up the perfect white sauce.

I once cited The Joy of Cooking as a “learned culinary treatise” in a brief I penned during my years as a research and appellate attorney. I needed to show how much was in the “three glasses of wine” our defendant client had testified that he consumed, and Mrs. Rombauer’s declaration that “an average serving of wine” was the genteel amount of three and a half ounces was highly beneficial to our case.

Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making by James Peterson
This was one of my textbooks during culinary arts school, and through it, I discovered the wonders of the five “mother sauces” (béchamel, hollandaise, velouté, espagnole, tomato), from which all the secondary, or “small,” sauces are derived in classical French cooking. In addition, the book instructs about stocks, liasons, butter sauces, vinaigrettes, Asian sauces and even dessert sauces.

If you’re as much of a sauce junkie as I am, then you need to get this book now.

The Classic Pasta Cookbook by Giuliano Hazan
After I’d completed the first book in my Sally Solari culinary mystery series, Dying for a Taste, I realized I should really learn how to make my own fresh pasta if I was going to write books about a restaurant-owning Italian-American family.

This was the cookbook that taught me how. Giuliano is the son of the renowned Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, so he should know his pasta—and boy does he ever.

What’s especially wonderful about this book is all its terrific photographs, which not only give step-by-step tutorials on how to mix, roll and cut your pasta but also provide mouth-watering illustrations of what you have to look forward to once you add the luscious sauces and toppings (recipes for which are also included) to your handmade noodles.

Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey
Several years ago, I resolved to teach myself to cook Indian food, since it’s one of my favorite cuisines. The first book I bought in my journey toward unwrapping the secrets of curries, dal, raita and chutney was this one, by the food writer I consider to be the queen of Indian cookery. This book was an offshoot of a TV show Madhur Jaffrey did for the BBC and makes for a perfect primer for learning about the cuisine.

A couple of years later, I was brainstorming ideas for Murder from Scratch and hit upon the idea of featuring a pop-up restaurant serving the kind of Southeast Asian dishes you’d buy on the street from a food vendor—which of course gave me reason to further my culinary education regarding Indian food. Many of the dishes featured in Murder from Scratch were inspired by Jaffrey’s book, including the butter chicken, lamb curry, dal, samosas and naan.

Leslie Karst

Get the Book

Murder from Scratch

Murder from Scratch

By Leslie Karst
Crooked Lane
ISBN 9781683319535

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