31ecx0ms61l_sl500_aa240_ Have just finished two food books back to back, something I don't normally do–I spending most of my days currently writing about food so I like to read away from it.  But these two I did truly enjoy.  Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen, is a collection of short essays about his forays in the kitchen with his nose in a cookbook.  His kitchen disasters can come off a little whiny (I am sure the man is not actually whiny), but I appreciate his anger at imprecisely written recipes for those who really need recipes to be written well. He's superb when writing about other writers writing about food.

Cover I'd been resisting Phoebe Damrosch's Service Included, worried that its take on the restaurant per se and the people who work there would be snarky and invasive.  I was pleasantly surprised to find her treatment  respectful without being coy.  I doubt it was embraced by the company–which surely saw it as talking out of turn–and I can hardly blame that thinking, given that she was hired as a server and surely didn't announce herself as a writer (as far as I know).  From a standpoint of the writing though, Damrosch's voice is clear and natural.  The narrative suffers a little from an over-reliance on her relationship with Andre, one of per se's sommeliers (they eventually move in together)–there's really not much of a story there, no matter how sweetly told–but the book is a promising debut and an accurate description of life in a world class restaurant. She has a child on the way, she said by email, so I wish her good luck with the next one!

Ward_edge Two interesting instructional books have just come out.  Chad Ward, a writer based in North Carolina, has written a handsome volume on knives and everything you might want to know about them, and about using them: An Edge in the Kitchen: How to buy them, keep them razor sharp and use them like a pro.  It's not only filled with good info put together with a good design, the writing is lively as well ("The knives found in most commercial and home kitchens are like supermarket tomatoes–designed more for sturdiness than quality."). 

And Ania Catalano's, a connecticut based caterer and whole foods advocate, has written Baking with Agave Nectar: Over 100 Recipes Using Nature's Ultimate Sweetner.  I was unfamiliar with agave nectar but bought some at the grocery store and have been playing with it in breads, cocktails, custards and cakes and I like it.  Agave Nectar is made from the sap of the Agave plant, a cactus relative that also gives us tequila, and has a low glycemic index, meaning it's absorbed slowly into the blood, unlike refined sugars.  This the first book I know of to address the subject.  Agave can be expensive when bought in small quantities (and at least one pastry chef I know believes it has a bitter note); the author recommends buying in bulk over the internet.  It's a whole food, organic and better for you and your kids than sugar.


46 Wonderful responses to “Books Worth Reading and Using”

  • Shannon

    I want to get my hands on “An Edge In The Kitchen”. I’ve had tons of questions about knives and I hope the book answers them.

  • ruhlman

    Disclosure: Notice the links to the books above go to amazon and have “ruhlmancom” at the end of them. I, like many who blog, have joined amazon associates so that we share a percentage of the sale for bringing the viewer to the site. That means that if you buy one of the books above, amazon puts about 7% of what you spent into my account. Moreover, if you go on to buy a set of knives or the collected works of Quentin Tarantino, I also share in these sales as well. It doesn’t amount to a lot of money each month, but it does help to justify the time spent writing this blog and reading and responding to comments. This issue came up in a couple of comments on the previous toaster oven post. People should know I have an interest in putting up links to amazon, but you should also know that I will not recommend a book simply to lure you to amazon. If you would like all of your purchase to go to amazon, please go to amazon.com. If you like this blog, and it’s all the same to you how your purchase is divided, please know that it helps me to continue this work.

  • dan s.

    Is there a way for you to get credit if I purchase something else from Amazon. Say I read your post and decide to buy The Pedant in the Kitchen. I hit the link, add the book to my cart and then browse Amazon and find another item. Can you get credit for other items purchased? It would seem fair seeing as it was your site that referred me there in the first place.

  • dan s.

    Sorry, I see you had already answered my question. Will try to read more thoroughly in the future.

  • Greg S

    I also just finished Service Included and I really enjoyed reading about the kitchen of a Thomas Keller restaurant.

    I am now reading Heat based on your recommendation and am really enjoy reading about Mario Batli’s Babbo kitchen (and his exploits in the 80s).

  • marlene

    Shannon, I have just finished reading Edge in the Kitchen.

    Chad’s book is full of humour, and down to earth advice. It’s like having a friend talking to you in the kitchen.

    I would definitely recommend Edge in the Kitchen. He’s also doing a couple of youtube videos, the first being the Pinch and the Claw here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wq0FH2IGPAw

  • French Laundry at Home

    Would love to hear more at some point about your experiences with agave nectar because I’ve only tried it a few times and haven’t quite figured out the substitution math. I’ll skim the book to see if it’s something I could learn from. And if Amazon gives me a Sandra Lee book in the “Readers Who Choose This Book Also Like” recommendations, I’m totally buying it so that you get the 7% from the sale of an Aunt Sandy abomination. You’re welcome.

    Phoebe Damrosch’s book had potential, but ultimately I was disappointed because as soon as I thought she was hitting her stride with a great story, it felt like it took an abrupt turn into yet another lament of, “I love Andre, but he’s cheating on me but I still love him, oh, who’s this woman calling his cell at 3 a.m., we were meant to be together, let me read his email because I don’t trust him, but I love him, oh if only he’d call me or come home at night instead of being with another woman” crap really distracting. It made me wish she would grow a pair and just dump his ass.

  • Natalie Sztern

    shouldn’t that also work for amazon.ca for all ur canadian readers…i would like to know that if i purchase one of these books that u, too, would benefit…for those not in the know the cost of shipping and duties can run very deep for us across the border….

  • milo

    I’m also curious about substituting agave for sugar. Is there a simple formula that can be used for different things, or does it require redoing every recipe?

  • Matt W.

    Well, there’s more books for my wish list. :>

    BTW: I just caught last Sunday’s ICA. Have you ever considered taking Arpaia and Knowlton on the road as a comedy act? You guys were hilarious.

  • ruhlman

    catalano recommends replacing sugar with 75% agave (by volume)–but for just over 10 bucks you can buy the book for specifics and ideas!

    matt: i wish i’d seen this episode! missed it. I’m glad we were funny. Donatella is a tough cookie, and Andrew is a good guy–I like and have fun with them both.

  • Jennifer

    Michael- I just love your blog and your books…

    That said, I also love agave and use it often. I recently heard from my friend who is a nutritionist and fellow blogger. She had someone write in who said they grew up in Mexico. They claimed that Mexican agave that is shipped to the US is full of corn syrup. Has anyone heard of this strange claim/practice? I’d be curious to know since those of us in the health community offer it as a healthier substitution for processed sugar.

  • carri

    It’s funny, because I also had been a little reluctant to read Service included, and just decided to pick it up a few weeks back, FLaH is right, the whole Andre thing just takes in a whole other direction…I barely finished it(I just wanted to kick her in the ass!) I liked her writing style, though and would venture to read something else she has written. Well, as long as it’s not about Andre. I just bought ‘The River Cottage Cookbook’ for my husband for fathers day.Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall’s ode to country life…it’s delicious!

  • milo

    Is agave really a healthier substitute for sugar? It’s made up primarily of fructose. The health effects of high fructose corn syrup are pretty hotly debated these days, and agave seems to be closer to that than to other types of sugar.

    Or do the agave fans think that HFCS is healthier than sugar? Many food producers, particularly high end ones, seem to be switching from HCFS back to sugar, and visibly promoting the switch. I’m skeptical about this one, is there real evidence to suggest that agave is healthier?

    I also came across claims that agave may be diluted with corn syrup although I haven’t seen actual evidence of that.

  • Cheryl

    I thought Service Included was a fun, light read. It’s tough to get an insight into the world of fine dining service, and I thought even with the book’s flaws Damrosch did a reasonable job. Good for the beach.

    And thanks for your brief, to-the-point explanation of why agave nectar is gaining a following. I never really understood how it could be “healthier” than sugar, but now I see it’s worth exploring.

  • luis

    I buy books and kitchen gadgets from Amazon. I hope you are getting your percentage from my purchases. Since I have been taking an interest in preparing food and learning techniques etc, I have found it very rewarding in many ways. There is much being shared here and much being learned. Keep up the great work.

  • Utenzi

    I agree with Matt W. ICA was much more interesting with the three of you as judges.

    The amusing repartee was great but also the judging included a lot of information concerning why y’all liked or disliked the dishes. And your strong connection with Chef Michael Symon made the show interesting also.

  • Schultz

    I’m apparently 500 years behind the times. I’ve just discovered your cooking books (oddly while researching child cardiology for other reasons). Great work. (Hopefully the cut you get for the actual writing of the book is better than 7%.)

    The Barnes book is amusing. Reading it, coupled with reading the critique of the Keller book/recipes, is striking. Maybe its the lawyer in me, but I’ll take a technical, exacting recipe that I am unable to perform, skill wise, (say Keller) rather than a thrown together jumble that might yield nice flavors, but bears no real relationship to the actual dish being described.

    Another great analogy is music. During this weekend’s US Open, Bob Kostas was discussing Tiger’s book “How I play golf” and suggested that we also buy Beethoven’s “How I compose a symphony” and would have just as much of a chance of emmulating the author. I have no chance to cook like Keller or play like a virtuoso, but I can read the instructions – the recipe or music – and appreciate the skill involved. I might even attempt to re-create at a less perfect, but still pleasing, level. Or, I can create my own music or food using the original as inspiration. But to do either, I need good instructions for the original. Bravo to Barnes (and Keller/you)for getting this right.

  • luis

    Well we like what we like. The books Rhulman blogged about don’t answer any of my burning questions this time. I am gearing up and have the time off to go on my duck key fishing vacation.
    As far as veggie pairing I am thinking I like veggies that are NOT STRINGY!. I am almost done with trying celery and ginger unles perhaps I can grate ginger and it blends seamlessly in the dish. I like ginger but so far the thing is inedible. Maybe in addition to color veggies should be paired by texture? You kitchen studs tell me….
    Anyway a couple of tough hurdles to jump over and I am on my way to a vacation.
    One day at a time, I am packing for whatever I am likelly to run into. This crowd loves to eat out and I am not one to get in front of that!. Even though I seldom enjoy it!.
    My strategy is to cook some stuff like for lunch and have these guys come to their senses about eating out. In any case one thing I am sure off…. I am not packing any thongs for me.
    Today I saw the ducks .. thought they were gone with the windd… Don’t know where these ducks go??? but they were hungry and acted just like puppies… breaks my heart I can not figure out how to feed them on a regular basis. Besides that since they started irrigagating Patricia lake the fish are back. Where the hell they were and where they came back from is another zen riddle but they are starving hungry as well. Gosh I wish I knew what I could get in the quantity I need to just see every one at the lake for one or two days a week.
    These creatures are all very very hungry. Overnight I am defrosting all veggies in my freezer and tomorrow its all going in the lake. I am seeding the lake banks and hoping the rainy season is here for good. But you never know?

  • Harry

    for Milo: a couple months ago I spent some time looking for hard info on HFCS, both online and from more reliable (ie. verifiably scientific) resources. None indicated that HFCS was worse for one than other forms of sugar. As far as my researches could inform me, no one type of sugar is better than another.

    There are a couple interesting little bits of information to keep in mind. One is that since HFCS is used in lots of junk food, avoiding it means avoiding junk food, which is healthier. But it’s not the HFCS per se, it’s that the HFCS is an indicator of junk food. Another is that HFCS is a highly concentrated sugar, making it deceptively easy to consume a lot of sugar when using it. The same is true with any other liquid sugar, such as regular corn syrup, molasses, or caramel.

    Question for the crowd assembled: is there any difference between “evaporated cane juice” and “sugar”?

  • ruhlman

    thank you harry for pointing this out. i haven’t studied the situation carefully, but my understanding is exactly as you put it. there’s nothing inherently evil about HFCS, it’s the fact that it’s allowed agribusiness to create really unhealthy food very cheaply. the crappy food, sweetened by this cheap sugar, is the real danger. same as saying salt is bad for you. in fact you will die without salt. salt in the cheetos and ketchup and campbells chicken noodle soup is what’s bad for you.

    HFCS, according to McGee’s book, is about 53% glucose and 42% fructose. Agave nectar is 70% fructose and 20% sucrose. the benefit of fructose, again, is that it must be metabolized by the liver and so is absorbed more gradually into the blood than other sugars.

  • Darren

    Just so you know, agave is in no way related to cacti. It is, in fact, in the lily family!


  • Deb Schiff

    Thanks so much for your insightful recommendations. I bought the agave baking book a few months ago and have been working my way through it.

    On my Altered Plates blog, I’ve been chronicling not only my own baking/cooking adventures with agave (prior to the Catalano book), but its meteoric rise in usage in the past six months. Just this morning there was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on agave nectar. Earlier in the week, Time magazine published an article as well. There’s definitely a trend here.

    Again, Mr. Ruhlman, thanks for providing such great information on your site.

  • ruhlman

    darren: according to mcgee, agave are “desert plants native to the new world that are related to the cactus family.” p670.

  • milo

    Thanks for the additional info on fructose and agave.

    I haven’t really seen much evidence that fructose is better for you than sucrose or glucose. It’s true that it is absorbed by the blood more slowly, but there doesn’t seem to be much agreement that that’s actually better for you. Some even believe that since fructose is only metabolized by the liver, foods high in fructose put too much of a strain on the liver and can cause liver disease similar to excessive alcohol consumption.

    It’s probably too early to know the effects of switching sugar heavily in favor of fructose. Maybe it will turn out to be better for you, but it might be worse. It certainly seems risky to switch from sugars that are a balance of different kinds to one that is heavily skewed to just one. People assume fructose is better since it is what is found in fruits, but it’s very different to extract it and concentrate it – the main reason it is digested well in fruits is because it comes in a package that is also high in fiber, which also slows the absorption of the sugar.

    If you have a recipe that works better with agave, then go for it. It seems like it works particularly well for things like sweetening iced tea since it dissolves in cool liquid better than any other sugar.

    But to switch a recipe that works perfectly well with regular sugar to agave because it might be healthier (but also might not be) seems unwise and potentially could make things worse. Agave IS a highly processed form of sugar after all, and no more “natural” than regular sugar.

    The whole agave thing reminds me of when people all switched their recipes from butter to margarine because they mistakenly thought it was healthier. They ended up with food that tasted worse and found out later that they had been cooking LESS healthy for a couple decades.

    If you are worried about refined sugar, swapping for a different kind isn’t going to help much. Sure, buy organic sugar, and use raw sugar when you can. But if you’re worried about things like glycemic index, there’s no substitute for simply eating less sugar. Tweak your recipes when you can to use less sugar, and simply eat less sweet things (less often or smaller portions). People generally eat too much sugar, period. There are no shortcuts or cheats, if you want the benefits of less sugar, you really just need to eat less of the stuff.

  • Jaxie Waxie Woo

    Many thanks for the suggestions. Since first reading Monsieur Bourdain’s rockstar-making “Kitchen Confidential”, I’m always hungry for more proverbial peeks behind more restaurant curtains. To that end, I now look forward to getting “Service Included” from our friends at Amazon.

    One question: If you get a cut of anything else we order from the same pass through, does that mean you see everything we had in the shopping cart? If so, I swear the econo-saver box of Twinkies are for a friend….

  • ntsc

    Most cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Agave, according to wiki and which I can’t corroborate, is a succulent related to the lily.

  • Shelley

    Thanks for the book recommendations, Ruhlman — I practically tithe to Amazon, and I’ll try to remember to come here first and click my way there next time I’m shopping.

    Actually, I have been working my way backwards, it seems, with food books. So many writers like yourself cite MFK Fisher, I’m now plowing through the 50th anniversary edition of _The Art of Eating_. Love her! Next I might even dive into Brillat-Savarin or Escoffier himself…

    Whoa, lookie here — I see on Amazon that a new edition of _The Physiology of Taste_ is coming out in October, with an intro by Bill Buford? Interesting!

  • Doodad

    In regards to your post on amazon, is there a way to maximize your profit on the sale of your books Michael? I am slowly buying all of them and if a certain way brings you more cash for your efforts I am in favor of it.

    I just bought Bouchon a few weeks ago and it is great.

  • stephanie

    Is there a difference between Agave and Blue Agave?

    (It just so happens I turned around in the Organic section of my local market, and sitting on the shelf was a bottle of Blue Agave… which I promptly purchased, having just read this.)

  • Elana

    I purchased the agave book and am enjoying it!

    I use agave in place of sugar in all of the recipes on my website and have found it to be an ideal sweetener for myself and my family.


  • luis

    Duck Key sabbatical for mua!… Later dudes…don’t over think it. Just cook it!. obtw Eric is at it again with the white pepper and zucchini.

  • RI Swampyankee

    Service Included made me crazy. Sex and the City meets Thomas Keller. Nothing good can come from this pairing. It’s too bad; it could have been a really good book.

  • Deborah Dowd

    I have been wanting to try agave nectar since I have a husband who is pre-diabetic, and anyone who has had sugar alcohols can tell you they have some pretty nasty (and sometimes loud) side effects! Summer is the time I usually read a lot and so I am always looking for something different than the usual “beach reads”- thanks for the recommendations!

  • Pavlov

    There is some evidence that a high fructose diet leads to insulin resistance and a whole host of metabolic disorders. A large long-term human study has not been done, and is very difficult to do due to the usual confounding factors associated with human dietary studies: lack of strict dietary control, lack of suitable control group. The evidence that exists, however, is compelling. Glycemic index is only a measure of immediate effect and should not be the primary criteria for recommendation.

    As for HFCS, this has comparable fructose content to table sugar; sucrose being a disaccharide composed of 1 unit fructose and 1 unit glucose. The chemical bond that holds the units together is rapidly cleaved by enzymes in the saliva and stomach. The common HFCS used in softdrinks and processed food is eithe HFCS 55 or 42, which have 55% and 42% fructose, respectively, the balance being glucose. The physiological effects of sucrose and HFCS are, therefore, similar.

  • Pavlov

    The belief that agave are related to cactus is based on the same faulty reasoning that can prove that Socrates was a cat:

    Agave are succulents.
    All cactus are succulents.
    Therefore, agave are cactus.

    In fact, even though both are succulents, they are not related. As Milo said, agave are more closely related to the lily (and asparagus) than to cactus.

  • Pavlov

    The belief that agave are related to cactus is based on the same faulty reasoning that can prove that Socrates was a cat:

    Agave are succulents.
    All cactus are succulents.
    Therefore, agave are cactus.

    In fact, even though both are succulents, they are not related. As Milo said, agave are more closely related to the lily (and asparagus) than to cactus.

  • Martha Cheves

    I have a book that was released last month that I would love for you to take a look at and tell me what you think. It a cookbook that gives alternative ingredient suggestions, tips and stories about the recipes. The stories may be something I remembered about the dish when I was young or mistakes I made while working up the dish. If you would contact me I will gladly send a copy for your review. The name of my book is Stir, Laugh, Repeat – Finding Joy While Playing in the Kitchen. My publisher is Tate Publishing Enterprises and the book is available through Borders, Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks,Amazon and ebay. Please let me know if you would be willing to review and hopefully like and write a short review.
    Thank you in advance

  • sam

    Thanks for reminding me I meant to get a copy of Service Included.
    I am not certain, but I think Agave may be ok for diabetics. If so my dad might be interested (or rather, my dad might be interested if my mum gets a copy!)