The newly released River Cottage Fish Book (by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall & Nick Fisher; Ten Speed Press; $45) is more than 600 pages long, but only about a third of it is devoted to actual recipes. The rest is an amazingly detailed guide to everything anyone could possibly want to know about seafood, from the best way to humanely kill a fish (with one sharp bash of a heavy stick) to the migration pattern of European eels (they swim nearly all the way to Bermuda to spawn—and die—and then their larval children float back to Europe on the trans-Atlantic current). It's an example of that rare kind of cookbook that's worth reading cover to cover—in other words, like a real book. (Though the recipes, for such treats as mussel, spinach, and bacon gratin, and home-cured lox, should not be dismissed.)
Fearnley-Whittingstall, a British chef and champion of organic and local food who takes the idea of sustainability so seriously that he's been known to cook roadkill, has accomplished this particular feat more than once (his River Cottage Meat Book is a must-read for all carnivores), but he's not the only one to have pulled it off.
Here are four more cookbooks you'll want to keep on your nightstand and read with a bookmark so as not to miss a page.
French Cooking in Ten Minutes, by Edouard de Pomiane
(North Point Press; $12)
The title sounds like a joke, and the tone is determinedly lighthearted ("The first thing you must do when you get home, before you take off your coat, is go to the kitchen and light your stove."), but it won't take long before you realize Pomiane is totally serious. If you follow his advice, you really can cook a gourmet French meal in minutes. A typical Pomiane five-course lunch for one: poached eggs with black butter, fried veal scallops, green peas, green salad with cream dressing, cheese, and fruit.
The Unprejudiced Palate, by Angelo Pellegrini
(Modern Library; $14)
Pellegrini was a modern Renaissance man: English professor, gardener, winemaker, cook. This immensely entertaining and opinionated guide to the good life, which in Pellegrini's mind necessarily includes the growing and cooking of your own meals, is almost as much fun for its disdainful views of mid-century American food culture (he considers most cookbooks to be "phony, impractical, misleading, and decadent") as it is for its culinary inspiration.
The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, by Alice B. Toklas
Gertrude Stein's longtime companion never wrote a memoir of her years living with Stein in Paris, but this cookbook, which includes not only Toklas' recipes for coq au vin and pork rillettes, but also countless literary anecdotes of meals shared with Fitzgerald, Wilder, and Picasso, comes pretty close. (It also contains an infamous set of instructions for making hash brownies.) Fans of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris need to buy this, ASAP.
Serious Pig, by John Thorne
(North Point Press; $18)
This Maine-based food writer has a consistent approach: He takes a simple, traditional food (cornbread, Texas chili, clam chowder) and, with the help of ancient cookbooks and expert interviews, traces the dish back to its distant origins, sharing every step of the way with his readers. In the process, he not only finds a way to make a 30-page essay on rice and beans into riveting reading, he also makes it impossible to eat that meal ever again without thinking of its historical roots.
—Timothy Hodler, research director at Details