I’m the librarian of the Food Network’s library. I am looking for winter, but struggling. I see Mindy Heiferling’s A Taste of Spring, Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking and Rick Rodgers’ Autumn Gatherings. Nowhere do I find winter.
This seems odd. Without the luxury of hibernation, I find that we’re forced into the kitchen during winter — if only in search of warmth or light. Our kitchens slow down to the pace of a simmer, larders get rooty, meats get more stew worthy. Winter may be low season in the farm cycle, but it is high season for cooking. Winter’s true harvest is to be found in the kitchen.
Cookbooks may pretend to have an aversion to winter, but don’t believe them. To find winter, look for it in bowls. Because bowl foods, literally and spiritually, physically and metaphysically, radiate warmth. Cold hands like a warm bowl. And the soups, stews, braises and other slow-cooking one-pot dishes that belong to bowls are the foods that truly deserve the name “comfort food” (everything else is the comfort of nostalgia).
So here are four favorite books from the Food Network’s library dedicated to bowl foods — much-loved books to celebrate a little-loved season, housewarming in the best sense:
All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking
Molly Stevens (W. W. Norton, 2004)
This is from one of our greatest cooking teachers. Serious, precise and deeply informative, All About Braising is as close to the last word on this subject as you are going to get. Stevens’ books unlock keys to understanding. Flawless as the recipes are, her achievement is in her talent for liberating readers from the tyranny of recipes. This book won’t just keep you warm in winter; it’ll make you a better cook.
Stews, Bogs, and Burgoos: Recipes from the Great America Stewpot
James Villas (William Morrow, 1997)
Don’t know your bogs from your burgoos? Follow James Villas as he travels the country on a brilliant ride through the regional American repertoire of long-simmering dishes. Here is Brunswick stew, Santa Fe posole, Sheboygan cider pork and apple stew, and on and on. Plenty of engaging history and local color keeps things moving. Villas leaves one with a newfound respect for the glories of American cuisine.
The Complete Book of Soups and Stews
Bernard Clayton, Jr. (Simon & Schuster, 1984)
“Complete” may be a bit much to expect from 400+ pages, but this marvelous book from an exceptionally well-traveled author covers a ton of ground — from Scottish Oatmeal Soup to Korean Bean Sprout Soup, traditional Philadelphia Pepper Pot to New England Clam Chowder. During the 1970s and ’80s, Clayton was perhaps America’s preeminent authority on breads and pastries. Soups and Stews is one of his lesser known books, but it shares his characteristic attention to technique. The recipes, laid out in an unusual two-column format, are generous in their clarity, precision and do-ability. Pencil illustrations lend visual charm. A classic.
The Soup Peddler’s Slow and Difficult Soups
David Ansel (Ten Speed Press, 2005)
Because winter is a slow and difficult season, a sense of humor helps. This slim volume is less a cookbook than a collection of rollicking, fictionalized tales of food and community, recounting a season in the life of a free-spirited purveyor of bicycle-delivered soup in of Austin, Texas. The book’s 40+ recipes share a center of gravity somewhere between Austin and the moon — global-frontera cuisine. Thus, caldo de pollo rubs shoulders with Ukrainian borscht, and green chile stew bumps up against Iraqi split pea soup. Whimsical illustrations complete the package.
Jonathan Milder loves cooking and reading, and reading and cooking. He is known to read while cooking and cook while reading. Which makes him a lucky man to hold the position of Food Network Research Librarian, where he has more than 5,000 books with which to read and cook and cook and read to his heart’s content.