My Favourite Old Recipe Books

My recipe books take up two shelves of a big bookcase, and I have culled them to just the ones I use or am likely to use.

My recipe books take up two shelves of a big bookcase, and I have culled them to just the ones I use or am likely to use.

Remember the days when if you had a whim to cook something—beef stroganoff, say—you would have to trawl through your cook books, knowing the best recipe was…somewhere?

These days, I can simply google it and come up immediately with the right recipe via the internet. I put my iPad in the cook book stand in the kitchen and away I go.

But you know what? I still love my old recipe books. I still occasionally buy a new one. I have had some of these books since the 1980s when I was first starting out on my own and when I knew little more about food than grilled meat and three boiled veg (orange, green, white).

In the first flat I lived in at 17, my flatmate, Heather—who was nine years older—cooked for us on nights one and two. On the third night, we got home from work (we were both reporters, on rival newspapers) and she said, “Well, I cooked the last two nights, so you can do tonight. I’m going out to mow the lawn. Call me when it’s ready.” And off she went.

I was shocked: I don’t think I’d realised I’d have to cook. I probably hadn’t even thought about it, because Mum and Dad always cooked at home and I was too busy studying.

I can’t recall now what I made in entirety, but I remember calling out the window to Heather, “Umm—how do you cook potatoes?” She put the mower on idle and said, “Peel them, put some water in a pot and boil them till they’re soft,” before roaring away from me with the mower.

Heather didn’t stay long, and I soon had a new flatmate, Jan, who was my age but much more cluey about things domestic. Jan introduced me to the world of recipe books and I was soon serving 1980s wonders such as apricot chicken and potato-topped salmon bake.

These days, there are many fantastic and hilarious websites and blogs devoted to retro recipes: but I prefer my own little corner of history in my bookcase and I often still use my favourite old cook books. Coming up are just some of my favourites. Note that these are not my favourite coffee-table recipe books—this is a whole different category that I should write about some time. These are some of my favourite books that I actually use all the time for everyday meals. They are splashed, stained and creased with the efforts of preparing many meals past.

rec4The New Zealand Radio and Television Cookbook, edited by Alison Holst (1981)

This book was given to me by my godmother when I was 21, and I still use it all the time. It’s great if you want to cook a hearty beef casserole or vegetable soup, and has an “Eastern and Polynesian” chapter which—despite the unsophisticated grouping together of a very wide number of cuisines—is actually pretty useful still. Here we find recipes for sukiyaki, Indonesian barbecued duckling with gado gado salad and rempeh.

Alison Holst is one of my homeland New Zealand’s most famous cooks, and any book she writes or edits is accessible, easy to follow, and fail-safe. For this book, recipes were contributed by “listeners and viewers” throughout NZ.

The preface points to a bygone age when, supposedly, women were the only ones cooking in the domestic sphere (not in my family though—my parents shared the cooking, and my grandad did a fair bit at his place, too). The preface is worth quoting in its entirety, if only for its antiquated sentiments:

“This book contains a wide selection of recipes, favourites sent in by listeners and viewers from one end of New Zealand to the other—farmers’ wives and city women; those who cook for one or two and the mothers of large, hungry families; women who buy just what they fancy and those who watch their food budget carefully; young cooks and women with years of cooking behind them…”

Country Cooking: Regional and traditional recipes from Europe and North America, edited by Heather Maisner (1982)

Almost all my adult life, this book has been my go-to for traditional and authentic menus from Europe and America. It’s an artistically produced book, with historical photos and information about food production. So, if I randomly let this book fall open, I come across the “Spain and Portugal” chapter, from which I would choose vieras guisadas (Galacia) baked scallops, Sopa de almendras (Andalusia) almond soup, and paella Valenciana (Valencia).

rec6A Vegetable Cookbook, by Digby Law (1986)

This is my vegetable bible. I got this book in 1986 when I was literary editor of the Auckland Star and interviewed the author. I still use this book most weeks. It lists vegetables alphabetically, explains how to cook them simply, then for each has 6-10 recipes, which range from the well known, such as ratatouille and moussaka, to the exotic, such as choko relleno, “an unusual dessert from Mexico”. There are no photos, just the odd line drawing of a cabbage or an onion. Law’s Soup Cook Book is also excellent.

rec7South-East Asian Cookery: An Authentic Taste of the Orient, by Sallie Morris (1989)

I bought this unpretentious little paperback in 1991, when I was living in Thailand. Its recipes range from the highly complicated to the divinely simple, such as kha-yan-kyin thee thoke (Burma)—green tomato salad; raam long song (Thailand)—meaning “Rama’s bath”, a beef curry on a platter of green leaves; and goong pahd gratiem (Thailand)—prawns with garlic. There are a few coloured photos, but these are of produce for sale in markets and so on rather than of the recipes themselves.

rec3The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces, by Diane Seed (1987)

I started to get interested in cooking Italian food when I met my dear Italian friend, Rosa, at my first job in Australia in 1988. We’re still great friends after 25 years! She opened my eyes to a whole new world of cooking—olive oil, pasta, olives, fresh garlic, chilli and more. This was probably the first Italian cook book I bought, way back in 1989, and I still use it today. Some of its standout recipes, which I have probably made 50 to 100 times each, are penne al cavolfiore (penne with cauliflower), spaghetti con zucchini, and the supremely simple tagliatelle con cipolle (tagliatelle with onion sauce).

rec9Thai Cooking, by Kurt Kahrs (1990)

When I was first going to live in Thailand in 1990, I didn’t even know what the food would be like—this was before the craze for Thai food had hit Australia and the time when Japanese food, not Thai, seemed to be the most trendy international cuisine here. Before I left, my mother bought me this book and I’ve used it ever since.

I have lots of Thai cook books, since it is my particular area of interest, including two amazing books by Thomson  (describe and photograph all as a montage). But I keep going back to favourite recipes in Kahrs’s book: the khao op sapparod (pineapple baked rice), the khai phad met ma Muang (chicken fried with cashew nuts), and the lab kai (spiced minced chicken salad) among them. This book has photos for each recipe, too.

Rec2Country Cooking: Regional and traditional recipes from Europe and North America, edited by Heather Maisner (1982)

Almost all my adult life, this book has been my go-to for traditional and authentic menus from Europe and America. It’s an artistically produced book, with historical photos and information about food production. So, if I randomly let this book fall open, I come across the “Spain and Portugal” chapter, from which I would choose vieras guisadas (Galacia) baked scallops, Sopa de almendras (Andalusia) almond soup, and paella Valenciana (Valencia).

rec5The Best Traditional Recipes of Greek cooking, Editions D. Haitalis (1990s)

I bought this little gem in Athens in 1996. It has no date of publication, but the cover states that it is a “new edition”. I love Greek food, and this is the only cook book I need, really. It is full of marvellous authentic recipes of a much wider range that your average Australian Greek restaurant serves. One of my favourites is Spanakóryso, simply “spinach rice”. I make this every Christmas: don’t ask me why only at Christmas, it just seems to fit as a lovely side dish that can be eaten hot or cold. There is an error through this book, in that I think they have confused in translation the words for “teaspoon” or “tablespoon perhaps” and “teacup”: thus, we have recipes calling for “2 teacups of olive oil” in a rice dish. The book includes colour photos of many of the dishes.

rec81,000 Italian Recipes, By Michele Scicolone (2004)

This is a newer acquisition, given to my husband and me for a wedding present in 2006 by our foodie friend Kenny over at Consider the Sauce. If you have only one Italian cook book, make it this one. It is full to the brim of authentic regional recipes, many of them simple and requiring just a few ingredients. There are no pictures, but there are wonderful descriptions of how the recipes came to be.

rec1The dreaded clippings folder

Probably everyone had one of these, full of recipes we’ve clipped from newspapers, magazines and printed out from websites. Believe it or not, I recently cleaned this out, throwing away years-old recipes I’d never made and now had no interest in. But there’s lots of interesting stuff in here—it’s like a lucky dip. It can take some time, though to find a particular recipe. “Now where is it? I know it’s in here somewhere…”

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17 thoughts on “My Favourite Old Recipe Books

  1. The digital age is certainly changing how we access and story information but, like you, I still like to have my hard copy culinary library AND the obligatory clippings file (I have my most popular recipes in a ready access clear file)…I tend to use my tablet to match available ingredients with practical (for me) recipes…if one of these makes the grade, it is likely to appear in the clear. I do expect, however, that hard copy recipes will make a comeback once my tablet goes for its first swim in the sink…

  2. Caron – There really is something about a genuine recipe book isn’t there? I have one I treasure that my mother-in-law gave me shortly after I was married. Not only does it have some great recipes, but it reminds me of her. You can’t get that ‘personal’ feeling from a digital recipe. On the other hand, I have a whole collection of digital recipes that I use too. They both have their place.

  3. I love this post! I also still purchase cookbooks and I have a small bookcase in my kitchen for them–I actually find it very relaxing to read recipes. And yes–the dreaded clippings folder! Mine is a clippings box. I can usually find what I need, but it may take some time . . .

  4. I’m the same. I have dozens of cookbooks but there are 3 or 4 I turn to all the time. And I agree, sites like Epicurious are great, but I still prefer to use. My well-worn cookbooks.

  5. oh i have my old favs too, especially my betty crocker one from years ago, with the burnt ring marks on the back from my learning to cook phase when i set it on a still hot burner. have a clippings file too, with most i’ve never looked at again once they were filed. ) great post caron –

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