I love this cookbook.
There. I’ve said it. So if you know and do not love this cookbook, or if your brain is too full of preconceived notions about vegetarian food to even consider the fact that there might be all kinds of good reading and learning in a cookbook about it (along with a few fish recipes, which I know are not vegetarian but which have confused many a reader of the Moosewood oeuvre), you might want to skip reading this review. But it’ll be your loss. I love this cookbook, and it taught me how to make granola, so there.
How much do I love Moosewood Restaurant New Classics, mostly abbreviated to “New Classics” in my house because I use it so often it needs a nickname? Well, I own two copies. The first I got as a gift from my parents not long after I walked across the graduation stage at Harvey Mudd College — they’d gotten their own copy maybe a year before, from my dad’s brother, who actually appears in one of the pictures in the book, which do not depict glossy shiny stylized food but rather the Moosewood Restaurant and the people who enjoy it, from customers in the front of the house to cooks and bakers in the back. This first copy is worn-out, used-up, and just plain broken. Its pages are stained, torn, and falling out in big chunks. The covers are ratty and bent. There are handwritten notes on recipes indicating when they were first tried and what kind of changes I made. Working with Moosewood Restaurant New Classics helped me figure out that my beginner’s luck with new foods often translates into bad news on second attempts, when I actually have all the relevant ingredients around and there’s less inspired improvisation. I know that fact appears nowhere in the pages of the book, but I will nonetheless always associate New Classics with that important revelation, a valuable little bit of kitchen wisdom learned by experience.
My other copy of Moosewood Restaurant New Classics is still shiny and pristine, a more recent gift from my aunt and uncle (again, the one who appears in the book). However, as this new book is also the one I keep in the kitchen, for better or worse, it is unlikely to stay in mint condition. The battered older copy migrates back and forth between the kitchen and my writing office, where it often sits on the desk like a lucky charm or shares a shelf with the works of Marion Nestle and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. It’s that important to me. (I go back and forth as to whether maybe McGee belongs in the kitchen after all, for easy food science reference awesomeness, but while I’m digressing I should mention that sometimes I wish my writing desk was closer to the kitchen or even in the kitchen, the better to keep an eye on whatever’s on the stove while I’m writing.)
I’ve said this before and I will say it again: the function of a cookbook is not to teach cooking. It isn’t even to share recipes, although that’s very useful, don’t get me wrong. The function of a cookbook (to borrow the title phrase of a fantastic biography of the women who created The Joy of Cooking) is to inspire its readers to stand facing the stove. These days when I read cookbooks, I’m looking for writing that makes me want to cook something, even if it isn’t something new, even if it isn’t exactly what the recipe describes. Moosewood Restaurant New Classics is just such a cookbook for me, in the best possible way.
Like I said before, this book is good reading about good food. I’ve read it like any other book, cover to cover, including the little interstitial pages with essays about the history of polenta (not originally corn!) and the basic theory of fritattas (put leftovers in eggs, top with cheese, and live happily ever after). I think New Classics is the first cookbook I ever read in this way. I know it’s the cookbook I first learned to read not for recipes, but for inspiration. “What does Moosewood do with soba noodles?” I’ve asked myself, or “what’s their take on mac ‘n cheese?” and although I own three other Moosewood cookbooks, New Classics is the first one I’ll open unless I specifically remember a recipe in one of the others.
Which brings me to my final point: I love Moosewood New Classics because it led me to the rest of the Moosewood cookbooks, which are among my very favorites in the world. I think New Classics is their best, of course, but I’m also a huge fan of Moosewood Restaurant Cooks At Home and the original Moosewood Cookbook and New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant, just to name the Moosewood books I actually own. I’ve borrowed Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special and Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers from my friendly local public library, with great success of the wishlist-enhancing persuasion. I’ve also borrowed Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates and looked at Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant without checking it out, but I liked these less, mostly for organizational reasons that I need to ponder and write more about later. My point here is Moosewood New Classics helped me learn what I’m looking for in a cookbook, and that it’s all about finding what works for you. Which leads me to one of the best pieces of cooking advice I’ve ever read: when you find a cookbook you like, check out the author’s other books. I don’t remember where I saw that wisdom first, but when I did, my first thought was: Moosewood New Classics… yum.