Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook: The Basics and Beyond

This post originally appeared on the Foodbound blog on the Wellfed network on April 11, 2006.

The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook found its way into my house the way many best-loved pets find their way into people’s lives—it was a stray. I was working at the Austin Public Library in Texas at the time. We could order books at a discount through our distributor. Once a year they would sell the books that someone had ordered but not picked up at a significant discount. I saw the GHIC languishing among the other unwanted books and picked it up.

What entranced me right away was the format. The first section of the book, broken up by categories, has over one hundred pages of pictures of every recipe in the book, starting with appetizers and ending with cocktails. After browsing through the book, I knew it had to come home with me.

I was not the most accomplished cook at the time. I knew how to boil an egg, I could bake some, and I made a pretty mean eggplant parmesan. I knew how to make most of the dishes I grew up with, but I didn’t like them very much. There were maybe four or five entrees that I could cook that I actually liked; the rest of the time I just sautéed up some vegetables and threw in an egg for protein, or made sandwiches. But I liked to cook and I wanted to learn more. And more importantly, I wanted to impress my friends with my culinary skills.

The GHIC was the perfect cookbook for me at that time. The color-index at the beginning of the book shows each dish as it should look when prepared, including plating and garnishing ideas. In addition, below each photo is a caption that gives the number of servings and the time it takes to prepare the dish. And since I didn’t have my own repertoire of tried and true recipes for entertaining yet, I would spend hours looking through the pictures to help me put together a menu.

The recipes themselves are clear and straightforward, with simple line drawings to illustrate specific techniques, and there are many helpful hints peppered throughout the book. It covers all the basics, and at the same time makes it easy to attempt something just outside your comfort zone so you can continue to grow as a chef. The recipes were tested several times to make sure they were right. Every recipe I’ve made from this cookbook has come out the way it’s supposed to. There were a few I didn’t like, but none that didn’t work.

There’s a chapter of useful information at the end of the book that includes menu planning (including place setting information), a guide to herbs and spices, a storage guide, a calorie guide, and a glossary of food and cooking terms. At the beginning of each chapter there’s a section that gives basic information for the food covered in that section—handling, preparation, and cooking times.

Originally published in 1980, it was revised in 1989. The main change was an added section on microwave cooking. I’m sure it seemed like the direction we were heading back then, but while it doesn’t take anything away from the book, it really doesn’t add much. Other, more helpful changes are calories per serving and some limited nutritional information for each recipe.

This is not a sexy book. Most of the recipes are standard American fare with the usual classic French, Spanish, Mexican, Asian and Italian dishes represented. If you’re a seasoned cook who’s looking for something new and different, this is probably not the book for you. But if you’ve mastered the basics and are looking for something that will challenge you, inspire you, and take you to the next level, then this cookbook will get you off to a great start. It would also make a great housewarming or shower gift for someone just starting out in the kitchen.

Rating: 8.5

Pro: The recipes are clear, straightforward, easy to follow and always turn out well. The photo index in the front of the book makes it easy to visualize what each dish will look like and tells you how long it will take to prepare. Good basic information provided throughout.

Con: While the techniques presented in the book are timeless, the recipes are a little dated.

(2010): This review refers specifically to the 1980 edition of this book. Later editions have been modified so I can't speak to those, although I would still speak for the general format and presentation of the later edition(s).


Hornsfan said...

Its funny how the simple things stick with us, I still remember my 'first' cookbook. I grew up with two parents who cook and at some point when I was between 5 and 7 my mom picked up a spiral bound Fischer Price kids cookbook. Some of it seemed so cool at the time (frozen yogurt pops and grilled sandwiches) but some of it sounds gross to this day (copper pennies)! Yea to the cookbooks that first inspired us!

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