J M Hirsch

J M Hirsch on Cookbooks as Inspiration.

J M Hirsch

My job makes it hard not to be a little jaded about cookbooks. As food editor for The Associated Press, I get sent virtually every cookbook published, sometimes several times (when the PR people aren’t all that on the ball). The result is a tidal wave of recipes clamoring to be consumed.

Some are obvious winners that I immediately assign to my reviewer. Dorie Greenspan’s “Around My French Table,” for example, was a no-brainer.

Some are obviously not. Anything with 750 muffin recipes, for example. Especially if they are gluten-free. And vegan. Nothing against any of that, but we really have reached a saturation point.

The rest of the books fall into a sort of mushy middle from which my reviewer and I must tease out those which merit attention.

Should we be swayed by good stories? Wooed by increasingly common, yet still stunning photography? Impressed by celebrity or intrigued by oddity?

More often than not, it’s a simple matter of which books draw me into the kitchen and make me hungry. Which is to say, it’s an inexact science.

That’s for the job. For me it gets even harder. I don’t generally cook from recipes. At least not while I’m standing in the kitchen. In fact, only rarely do cookbooks even make it into my kitchen.

To me, a cookbook’s place is at my desk in my home office. That’s where I’m most likely to have the time and peace to flip through a book, get a taste for it.

I like being inspired. I don’t like following recipes. I want a cookbook to present me with an idea or a flavor I can run with. That’s when I start jotting down notes. That’s when my recipe – my dinner – is born, often from just a nugget within somebody else’s recipe.

For example, I recently was drawn to a recipe for easy steamed shrimp dumplings. I immediately considered a chicken version spiked with ginger and hoisin with a soy sauce-rice vinegar-Sriracha dipping sauce. They were delicious. And I have no idea which cookbook inspired it.

It’s an admittedly odd relationship with cookbooks, especially for a guy whose job is so intertwined with them. Odder still, I suppose, for somebody who recently wrote a cookbook.

I considered that before I ever started “High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking.” Should a guy who prefers to cook more by instinct than instruction really be writing something he doesn’t use?

In the end, the answer was easy. I’m a bit of a freak. Most people are not me. Most people want, appreciate – some even need – that guiding, silent hand in the kitchen.

And so I wrote a book that satisfies them and me. My recipes are easy. They are weeknight friendly. They are versatile and easily riffed upon, adapted, substituted and generally messed around with.

Because while I love to hear people say they enjoyed my recipes, I love even more to hear how they made those recipes their own. And that maybe they left my cookbook in their home office when they went into the kitchen.

Eat Your Books says:

View the indexed recipes for J M Hirsch’s book High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking

Find out more about J M Hirsch at his great site – find out why he thinks it’s OK to give a 2 year old a knife!


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