The Top 8 Cookbooks You Should Own, from Classic to Contemporary

The Farm: Rustic Recipes for a Year of Incredible Food. Courtesy: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The Farm: Rustic Recipes for a Year of Incredible Food. Photo credit: Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

We’re well into my favorite time of year—when friends old and new ask me for cooking and baking advice and secrets. I do have a lot of tips—though most seem like common sense—and I’m happy to help.

In developing my first website, (launching in 2015), I’ve been compiling a number of “Top Eight” lists. Everybody has top 10 lists—I’m more discriminating. Anyway, here are my top-eight standby cookbooks right now—not that the list is subject to much change. “The old standbys” are exactly that.

Nowadays, between our great local bookstores and Amazon, even long out-of-print books are just a few clicks away.

1. The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook (The Hearst Corporation, 1980). My grandmother gave me my first copy. I think I’m now on my third. The best cookbooks inevitably get destroyed in the kitchen. This one is pretty comprehensive and features nicely cheesy ’70s photographs of most of the dishes. Believe it or not, 1980 was in the “P.S.” era—pre-salsa. Apart from this exotic condiment, this cookbook has pretty much everything you’ll ever need.

2. The Ball Blue Book of Preserving (Hearthmark, 2013). This canning bible is reprinted every few years and is sold in most hardware stores. There are many recipes for a wide variety of preparations using fresh fruits and vegetables. The products don’t have to be canned to be enjoyed. Most recipes are easily cut in half. (Contains multiple salsa recipes.)

3. Sarabeth’s Bakery: From My Hands to Yours (Rizzoli, 2011). Every copy of this book sold on Levine’s website,, is signed by the James Beard award winning author herself. That’s so Sarabeth. I know because she’s a dear friend. But I’m not a fan of her book because she’s a friend—reading her book deepened my admiration of her work and led me to write about her, which is how we met. I’m not a “fan girl” by nature, this book is truly outstanding—a well-written introduction to Sarabeth’s baking know-how both for beginners and for more advanced bakers. If you bake your way through it, you’ll feel like an expert—and no doubt you’ll have many fans of your own when you reach the delicious end.

Her new cookbook Sarabeth’s Good Morning Cookbook is due out in the fall of 2015 from Rizzoli. I’ll probably have to make room for it in this list. I know it’s going to be gorgeous. I visited Sarabeth’s Water Mill house last month when the chapter-opening photos were being shot. And I got to eat some of the delish leftovers!

4. Loaves and Fishes Cookbook: Delectable Recipes from East Hampton’s Famous Food Shop by Anna Pump (Loaves & Fishes Press). If I could, I’d hire Loaves & Fishes to cater my every affair. But I’ll happily settle for cooking from this great, no-nonsense cookbook. Pump was a mentor to Ina Garten and it shows—there’s an emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients and simple preparations throughout.

The Loaves and Fishes Party Cookbook
The Loaves and Fishes Party Cookbook

5. Loaves and Fishes Party Cookbook (Harper & Row, 1990). Who says you can’t judge a book by its cover? This cookbook sports my favorite book jacket of all time. There’s just something about its tasteful simplicity and implied generosity—much like its mother-and-daughter authors Anna and Sybille Pump’s, recipes. Anna still runs the famous Loaves and Fishes Food Store in Sagaponack. Sybille (now Sybille van Kempen) runs the popular Bridgehampton Inn, which is currently expanding to double its capacity. From ice skating party to formal wedding, there’s a menu for your every celebration in this book.

6. The Farm: Rustic Recipes for a Year of Incredible Food by Ian Knauer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). I always enjoy reading cookbooks that are linked to family farms and farming. So rightly synergistic. This small, colorful volume is a favorite of mine because many of the recipes can be made solely from ingredients found in my own garden. For instance, now the only store-bought ingredients in my tomato sauce are olive oil and black pepper. I was a little disappointed that Knauer’s famous woodchuck pâté recipe is not included in this book—but I can’t say that I really miss it.

7. Cooking with Jams and Chutneys, Recipes from Beth’s Farm Kitchen (Beth Linskey, 2011) by Beth Linskey isn’t just for people like me who are really into canning jams and chutneys for holiday gift giving. It’s also for people who love to eat really good jams and chutneys all year. It contains the best, easiest-to-follow instructions around. I use it for my pepper jelly and for ideas on how to incorporate all the jams I make into meals.

8. It’s All Good: Delicious, Easy Recipes That Will Make You Look Good and Feel Great by Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Turshen (Grand Central Life & Style, 2013). Okay, don’t hate me because Gwyneth is beautiful. Last year there was a surge of controversy surrounding this book that was just stupid. Rumor had it in the media that she didn’t write it. Read it and you can tell that she did, with her esteemed partner Julia Turshen, right down to the use of the F-word in the intro. Movie stars can cook too. Did anyone question the authorship of Orson Welles’s recipes or Marlon Brando’s liberal use of butter? It put me in mind of the mindless criticism of the movie Julie & Julia—‘how much drama is there, really, in cooking?’ Obviously the critics who came up with this quibble don’t know the first thing about cooking.

So about this cookbook: I like it because the recipes are so very simple, I seem to always have the ingredients at hand, and I’m confident in making substitutions—which the authors encourage.

Ina Garten’s latest cookbook, Make It Ahead (Clarkson Potter, 2014), arrived on my desk just last month. I haven’t the time to try it out yet, but I plan to delve in over the holiday break. Garten promises “delicious recipes that taste just as good—or even better!—when they’re made in advance.” I’m totally down with that! Plus it features the photography of one of my favorite food photographers—Quentin Bacon. With a name like that he’s got to be good!

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