In the early days of my learning-to-cook journey, (before Al Gore invented the Internet), I was a sucker for just about any cookbook that had “Vegetarian” in the title. My library was impressive. It took a cross-country move (i.e., packing) for me to realize I didn’t cook from most of those books. Some had a couple dog-eared pages with smears of dried sauce, signifying my go-to recipes. But the rest? Inspired writing, and hunger-inducing, air-brushed food photography do not always translate into useful cookbooks. I gave many of them away. (Today, I’d deposit them in my Little Free Library, but those weren’t invented yet, either).
Now, here’s how I buy a cookbook.
First, I read a review by a trusted source, the New York Times Best Cookbooks lists (sorry if you hit a paywall); Bon Appetit; or vegan.com. Then, if my interest is piqued, I walk down the block to my favorite bookstore, plop onto the floor in front of the Cooking Section, and study the recipe list of the book(s) I’m considering. Will I make at least half of the dishes? If not, the book — no matter how sublime the photography — goes back onto the shelf.
Buyer Beware: These days, social media food influencers are cranking out cookbooks faster than it takes a mustard seed to pop. If an Instagram star is popular enough to land a book deal, chances are you can find dozens, likely hundreds, of her recipes on-line. For free. That said, some are huge talents, whom I want to support. When that’s the case, I walk down the block to my local bookstore …. (see above).
My 10 Favorite Cookbooks
- East, by Meera Sodha. Possibly my favorite cookbook ever, new takes on recipes “from Bangalore to Beijing.” This was my COVID project: I cooked almost every recipe in this book.
- Isa Does It, by Isa Moskowitz. Isa’s recipes are easy to follow, and work. The ingredients are simple and accessible; the way Isa combines them is nothing short of genius. (You can tell how much I’ve used this book by it’s damaged spine in the photo).
- Veganomicon, by Isa Moskowitz. See #1, above. I have the 2007 edition, and there’s a “newer” one from 2017. Should I buy it?
- I Can Cook Vegan, by Isa Moskowitz. See #1, above.
- Love Soup, by Anna Thomas. I love making soup, and I love this soup-making book. The author dedicates her book “To the farmers, and to all the workers who labor in the fields and the orchards.” It made me tear up. Really.
- Vegetarian India, Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey’s written a number of cookbooks, I assume all as excellent as this one. But this is the one I have. Her recipes are simple, delicious, and doable for the home cook. May require a trip to an Asian food store for spices.
- Love Real Food, by Kathryne Taylor. This was the first cookbook I bought after following someone on-line. Taylor’s recipes are straight-forward, her salads and dressings are stand-outs, and most recipes can be made in under 30-minutes.
- Viva Vegan, by Terry Hope Romero. Empanadas, tacos, tamales, inspired plant-based Latin cooking. Every time I make the sweet potato chipotle tacos from this book I proclaim, “this is my favorite meal.” Then, my husband Max reminds me, “you say that about a lot of meals.”
- Minimalist Baker’s Everyday Cooking, by Dana Shultz. Another cookbook author with a strong on-line presence. Shultz’s website and books make most “Best of” lists, and it’s easy to understand why. Her specialty is “10 ingredients or less” recipes, perfect for weekday nights.
- The Buddhist Chef, by Jean-Philippe Cyr. The most recent addition to my cookbook library, sent to me by a Canadian friend, who couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of this guy. So far, I’ve made about a quarter of the recipes, and each one is a repeater.
Special Mention: The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page. This is not a recipe book. It’s a history of vegetarian and plant-based gastronomy, a nutrition primer, an A-Z guide to the herbs and spices that best enhance fruits and vegetables, and tips for combining ingredients for maximal flavor. It’s a Geek’s Guide to Plant-Based Cooking.
Caveat: Some of the favorites on my list are vegetarian, not 100% plant-based. Most of the vegetarian recipes are easily vegan-ized.