There are many cookbooks in my personal library, but only a few would I enshrine in the list of Cookbooks I’d Rather Not Live Without. One of these few, proud, elite cookbooks is Forgotten Skills of Cooking by Darina Allen (the subtitle is “The time-honored ways are the best – over 700 recipes to show you why”).
It will surprise no one who knows me well that most of my favorite cookbooks are as much food science/theory books as recipe collections. I like to improvise. I like to understand. A book that can help me do this will always rise to the top. Forgotten Skills is one of those books.
I also like memoirs. Books that help me understand a person, a culture, or a philosophy are appealing. Forgotten Skills of Cooking is also one of those.
I like value. When I buy a book, I want to get my money’s worth out of it. Forgotten Skills of Cooking fits the bill here. 600 pages for $30? In hardcover? Glossy paper? With beautiful colorful photos throughout? Even if you just use it as a doorstop, it’s a bargain!
I eat seasonally, and produce a lot of our food. One challenge this can bring is coming up with ideas for food items. Forgotten Skills of Cooking takes a fairly novel approach to organization that can help spur ideas. It has chapters organized conceptually around types of food: Foraging, Beef, Dairy, Pig, Eggs and Poultry, Preserving, Cakes and Cookies, for example. Within each chapter, you’ll find information about that type of food, ideas and recipes for what to do with it, and information about the seasonality and social history of it.
So, if I turn to the Lamb chapter, for example, it starts with a story from Darina Allen’s childhood, and extols the virtues of lamb. It then explains some lamb anatomy and cuts of lamb, and the difference between suckling, spring lambs, lamb, hogget, and mutton and what they’re good for. This is followed by 8 procedures related to roasting lamb, a sidebar about using lamb fat, and 19 recipes involving or related to roast lamb. Then we get to slow cooking… There is even a section of recipes for offal: sweetbreads, liver, kidneys and the like. Most of the recipes offer good explanation of why things are done (mostly, but not entirely, in a traditional Irish style), as well as suggestions for modification and improvisation around base recipes and procedures.
Each chapter follows a similar outline. Taken as a whole, Forgotten Skills of Cooking encourages creativity, seasonality, improvisation, and thrift. The potato soup recipe, and the accompanying formula that can be applied to any vegetable, is worth $30 alone. It even discusses the merits of duck eggs (far better than chicken eggs for many purposes! And ducks are more fun than chickens), how to kill a chicken, or gut a guinea hen. How about comfrey fritters? If you spend some time with it, you will become a better cook. You will learn to utilize the food resources you have better.
Really, what more can one ask of a cookbook than that? When I am at a loss for ideas, Forgotten Skills of Cooking is often the first place I turn. When I have some rare or ephemeral food item I want to celebrate, I open the big green book. If I were stranded on a rainy island in the north Atlantic and could bring only one cookbook, this would be it.