The Cruel Temptations of Fancy Cookbooks

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Michelle Anne Schingler, a former librarian and Hebrew school teacher, is the managing editor at Foreword Reviews. Her days are books, books, books; she knows how lucky that makes her.  Twitter: @mschingler

Michelle Anne Schingler, a former librarian and Hebrew school teacher, is the managing editor at Foreword Reviews. Her days are books, books, books; she knows how lucky that makes her.  Twitter: @mschingler

Unless you live in a place where exotic spices and proteins are readily available, and are the kind of person who would never say “omelets are my specialty”, flipping through fancy cookbooks is pure masochism. Tantalizing pictures, mouthwatering descriptions: you get the wild idea that you can make these. But you cannot. The realization is slow and demoralizing.

Stage 1: typing “substitutions for–” into Google.
Stage 2: Staring at the place in the produce section where fennel, or fancy mushrooms, or, God help you, even bean sprouts should be.
Stage 3: Crying over take-out pizza.

Perhaps perusing cookbooks is a hopeless exercise for the casual cooks among us. Maybe they just highlight the gulf between the spaghetti you were thinking of making and the fancy cuisine with the French nickname that requires kitchen tools and techniques you’re not sure you can pronounce.

Or maybe there’s something to the aspiration. Maybe they’re like reading Anna Karenina at twelve, hoping that you’ll get it someday.

In that spirit, I dare you to resist these titles:

Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune. Be warned: a lot of what you’ll want to taste most will end up on the necessary-pass list. Pigeons, whole suckling pigs, and duck just aren’t that easy to come by.

I, personally, am not confident that I could de-beak an octopus even if octopi were plentiful where I live. Here, vanilla beans are also no-go. Figs: I keep looking, but they never show up.

Some of the recipes, though—like the beef short ribs with pho broth—seem within the realm of possibilities…until you hit their sub-recipes, and realize you also don’t have oxtail, and are probably just going to make Rice-A-Roni for dinner.

Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem is more hopeful reading. In fact, running through these pages, there’s not much that seems impossible, even with time, budget, and rural-grocery-store-selection limitations.

If I add coriander and caraway to my pantry, I’m pretty much Jerusalem-ready.
Setting aside memories of the lackluster shakshuka I once produced, I feel pretty good about what time with these recipes could do for my kitchen.

Marinated sweet and sour fish? Well within my grasp. Israeli salad? I’ve devoured it before, and I’ll devour it again. Even occasional calls for things like rose water and barberries don’t throw me here, and an informative introduction makes for a nice amuse bouche.

Nobu: the Cookbook is a bit more fantastical, especially if you’re inland. Everything looks and sounds delicious, but let’s just acknowledge that culinary laypeople attempting raw fish recipes, of any sort, hours from the next ocean: not the best idea. I cannot get octopus or abalone; I hope I’d know better than to try to prepare them if I could.

Nobu, then, is one of those books best for when you want to fantasize about food, rather than make it. Fiddlehead ferns are seasonal and northern and a delicacy, so I know they’re out. Maybe bonito flakes, shiso buds, and enoki mushrooms are things I could find at the farmer’s market in the city, but that’s a trek, and that’s a big maybe. No, best to just meditate on these exquisite teases of recipes—fairy squid with kinome su-miso sauce, yes please!—and wonder what you’d winnow your dream order down to if you were sitting before Nobu himself.

Still, it’s Bouchon that proves to be the most formidable challenge for me. Thomas Keller, even when he’s walking you through buying bibb lettuce and poaching eggs, exudes genius. I’ve burned Pop Tarts. These unassuming descriptions and seductively familiar-looking photographs don’t deceive: Bouchon’s recipes exist in a different dimension than my kitchen.

Bouchon. Bouchon is the mountain that looks ascendible from a distance, but which I know better than to try to climb. I resent everyone who checks out this gorgeous, vast, politely unpretentious book with confidence. If they attempt the stuffed quail or the duck confit, I secretly hope it is lackluster.

I want their tarts to fall apart. I want their crème fraiche to go watery. Or, if all else fails and these other cooks are successful in a way that I sense I cannot be, I’d love a dinner invitation. Or a whiff. Or tips.