Food learnin’ 

My mom is a good cook, so I grew up eating well and developed a taste for fine food. In my early 20s, I left the family nest and found myself cooking to avoid restaurant prices. Never satisfied with the likes of TV dinners, I was forced into the kitchen, which I found to be a pleasurable haven. Early on, I found cooking relaxing and rewarding.

My friends coaxed me into preparing larger quantities so they could partake; I welcomed their encouragement. One of my first cookbooks, Alice’s Restaurant Cookbook, contains a recipe for Karl’s seafood sauté, a simple recipe that combines a few ingredients for a delicious dish that I could master without fail even as a rookie.

At that time, I began to accumulate cooking magazines and cookbooks. From time to time I have been talked into getting rid of the magazines; I’ll never have time to reread them. I cannot, however, part with a cookbook. I now have more than 300 of them. Here are a few of my favorites.

Alice’s Restaurant Cookbook, written by Alice Brock and famous by its association with the Arlo Guthrie song “Alice’s Restaurant,” provides simple recipes that encourage young cooks.

On the subject of pizza, Pizzeria and Angeli Caffè Pizza Pasta Panini, by Evan Kleiman, are instructional and present imaginative ideas for a variety of pies. Pizza Napoletana! by Pamela Sheldon Jones and Richard G. Jung, explores the origins of pizza on the streets of Naples more than 200 years ago. In The Figs Table, by Todd English and Sally Sampson, English, the chef who owns Figs and Olives, a well-known restaurant in the Boston area, offers his recipe for one of the best doughs I have ever tried as well as recipes for some of the most unusual pizzas I have seen.

Marcella Hazan is considered by many to be the doyenne of Italian cooking in America. Her books, including The Classic Italian Cookbook, have become a bible for many Italian cooks. Her recipe for lasagne verdi al forno, using her ragu (the classic Bolognese-style meat sauce), is well worth the effort required.

Giuliano Bugialli’s Foods of Italy is the first in a series that includes Giuliano Bugialli’s Foods of Tuscany and Bugialli on Pasta; the three are among my favorites and make perfect coffee table books. I love the pictures, and the recipes work.

Several Italian restaurants have published their own cookbooks. One of the best is that of Rao’s, a small 100-year-old establishment located in East Harlem. The owner, Frank Pelligrino, is known as “Frankie No” because when you ask him if there is a table available, he says no.

Some of Rao’s sauces are sold in gourmet markets, and many of the place’s “secret family recipes” are in the book, Rao’s Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking. The preface, written by the late Dick Schaap of ABC Sports, is not to be missed. There are also photographs and stories about the many characters fortunate enough to frequent Rao’s.

Numerous cookbooks are published every year to meet interest in cooking ethnic and complex restaurant meals at home.

I got my first Mexican cookbook, The Cuisines of Mexico, by Diana Kennedy, in the 1970s. It has since been updated a couple of times. The latest edition contains many color photos which help to illustrate the techniques she describes.

Another well-known author is Rick Bayless, who with his wife Deann owns the Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, two of Chicago’s best-known Mexican eateries. His book, Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen, has a chapter titled “Essential Flavors of the Mexican Kitchen.” It contains, as Rick puts it, “the classic combinations of flavor that emanate from its platters and plates.” The chapter includes 15 essential recipes for sauces and seasoning pastes that are the basis for dozens of Mexican dishes. The book deservedly won the Julia Child Cookbook of the Year Award. Every photo in Bayless’ books will inspire you to try the recipes.

I rarely cook French food, but I do like to peruse the books. Both volumes of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck) are said to have brought French cooking to America. I am told that Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking is an excellent compilation of recipes of the provinces of France. Patricia Wells, another authority on the subject, has written Bistro Cooking (with Judy Kleiber Jones), Patricia Wells at Home in Provence and recently The Paris Cookbook.

I have never seen a cookbook that did not have at least a few good recipes. By reading them, you will get ideas that will help develop your own cooking style. Every dish that you prepare will become a part of the foundation for your success in the kitchen or outdoors on a grill. Your experiments will reward you and your family and friends.

Jeff Broder is a chowhound for Metro Times. E-mail

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