It took me a long time to warm up to cooking. When I was young, I refused to help my mom in the kitchen, snottily insisting that I didn’t have to learn how to cook just because I was a girl. I only pitched in around the holidays, mixing up the ingredients for five different types of Christmas cookies, just so I could lick the bowl. Rolling out the crust for the pizza rustica at Easter, practically drooling when it was pulled out of the oven, the dense block of pepperoni, Italian sausage, mozzarella, ricotta, and more filling the kitchen with its savory scent.
Years later, when I moved in with my now-husband, I bought a thick, heavy cookbook filled with complex organic recipes, struggling to make them come together. Each meal took hours to complete. Once, after I had made it about three-quarters of the way through the cookbook, my partner and I got into an argument about the division of labor in our condo, and he shouted at me that nothing I made even tasted any good. I never opened the cookbook again, and the most I did in the kitchen from then on was boil water for pasta.
Until a few more years passed and I subscribed to Real Simple magazine. Suddenly, my mom—who had always been a formidable cook—was asking that I bring roasted Brussels sprouts and cauliflower puree to family gatherings.
I began to expand my repertoire from there. Online, I found now-favorite recipes for baby-back ribs with a brown sugar rub. Shrimp pad Thai. When my doctor told me to make chicken soup from scratch in order to combat a cold, I found a recipe that included pasta, chickpeas, and pesto, which I had to vigilantly guard from my husband. I collected cookbooks and worked my way through them, folding down pages so I could come back to tortilla soup again and again. So I could come back to the easy but delicious applesauce cake with a salted caramel glaze that people raved about.
I even embraced some of my mom’s classics. The breaded chicken cutlets with “special” sauce (lemon juice, garlic, parsley, and the drippings from the frying pan), made so many times it’s the only dish for which I don’t need to follow a recipe. The spinach balls that are so steeped in butter I can’t even pretend they’re healthy.
At this point in my life, the kitchen is one of my favorite spots in the house. I like to roll up my sleeves, turn up my dance mix, and make a mess, dancing around the kitchen as I crush garlic or devein shrimp or pound breadcrumbs into boneless chicken breasts with my bare hands. I have even been known to say out loud, within the hearing of others, “Man, I wish I could just do this all the time.” (I’m sure my mother feels vindicated.)
Now, as the weather turns colder and bright red and yellow leaves blanket the ground where I walk to pick up my daughter from school, I find myself craving comfort foods. And I find myself reading comfort food cookbooks.
Here are the four that are giving me the most delicious warm fuzzies lately.
Relish by Lucy Knisley
I read this one a while ago, but I still have fond memories of propping it open so I could bake Knisley’s chocolate chip cookies with my daughter. Relish is a graphic memoir by the daughter of both a chef and a gourmet. In it, Knisley charts the course of her life as shaped by what she was eating at the time. I was charmed by these stories of her life, accompanied lush illustrations and simple recipes. And for a book so rooted in family and home and coming of age, I can’t help but consider it a comfort food cookbook, even though the recipes within run the gamut from spiced tea to pesto sauce to cookies.
Eat Joy edited by Natalie Eve Garrett
The vibrancy of this cover, seen in several articles online, brought me joy long before I finally spotted a copy at my local indie bookshop and brought it home with me. In fact, I mentioned this book in a post about the new nonfiction book releases I was most looking forward to and, thus far, it does not disappoint. This collection contains illustrated essays about how comfort food can carry you through the roughest times in life. Contributors include Carmen Maria Machado, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Melissa Febos, and each short essay is accompanied by a recipe. I’m already looking forward to trying Chantel Acevedo’s Los Merenguitos de Nena.
Let’s Make Ramen! by Hugh Amano and Sarah Becan
I spotted this beauty when out at a book event at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn. I knew immediately that I had to have it. Much like the other comfort food cookbooks on this list, Amano and Becan’s book is not your traditional cookbook. Rather, it’s a comic book cookbook, filled with the history of ramen plus a ton of recipes for all of the building blocks you need for a delicious ramen dish. I have only just begun reading this one and my head already feels dizzy with the amount of information I’ve been forced to consume. But I cannot wait to make my first bowl of shoyu ramen. So perfect for the cool, rainy days we’ve been experiencing lately!
The Best American Food Writing 2019 edited by Samin Nosrat
Okay. This last one isn’t technically a cookbook but, as a lover of food, this annual Best American anthology is my fave. And reading the latest mix of kick-ass food journalism always makes me feel as if I’m being fed an amazing feast. It leaves me inspired to try new cuisines—or at the very least daydream about them while curled up in my favorite chair in the living room, wrapped up in (at least) three blankets, sipping hot coffee. It doesn’t hurt that the latest edition is edited by Nosrat, the acclaimed chef, TV host, and food writer, and the author of Salt, Fat, Acid Heat. Nosrat knows her stuff!
And just in case you were wondering, my husband doesn’t dare insult my cooking these days.
But I’m pretty sure I’ve also upped my game.