© Nicole Franzen

Last year, overwhelmed by the number of cookbooks I had squirreled away in my apartment over the years, I resolved to make at least one recipe from each.

M. Elizabeth Sheldon
October 21, 2015

Years ago, I swore off all New Year’s resolutions. Who needs a list of inevitable failures hanging over their heads before the year even gets going? But last year, overwhelmed by the number of cookbooks I had squirreled away in my apartment over the years, I made an exception: I resolved to make at least one recipe from each—if I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) cook from it, the book had to go. If nothing else, I figured, this project would help alleviate my perpetual cooking indecision; ideally, it would help me figure out which tomes were worth the valuable NYC real estate they were taking up.

There were a few obvious candidates to start with—like any of the handful of books requiring specialty ingredients and/or equipment that had been languishing on my bookshelf for years, unsullied by cooking grease or wine stains (the marks of a truly great cookbook). First up, I tackled a beautiful book by Claudia Roden, Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon, that I had coveted for a long time before buying, and which I flipped through constantly but never quite got around to using. One of the roadblocks I came up against was that so many recipes called for preserved lemons, which are hard to find premade. But Roden brilliantly includes instructions for preserving your own lemons, a process that requires about ten minutes of actual work and is a perfect January project to take advantage of Meyer lemon season. I had fulfilled my one-recipe quota for Arabesque, but throughout the year, I found myself going back to the book again and again, drawn in by Roden’s beautifully written lessons on the subtle differences between Moroccan, Turkish and Lebanese cuisines as well as by her ultimately simple recipes (I committed her eggplant and tomato salad to memory).

"I won’t list every book that I rediscovered over my year, or every book that didn’t make the cut. But I will say that the project fundamentally changed the way I cook."

My experiments with Arabesque ultimately led me to the Canal House’s collection, another book I love to read but had never actually used. Their incredibly easy, slowly rendered pan-fried chicken thighs call for a final sprinkle of preserved lemons—which I now had on hand. With fewer than three ingredients and barely any technique required, the dish was a revelation, nearly as satisfying as actual fried chicken.

I won’t list every book that I rediscovered over my year, or every book that didn’t make the cut. But I will say that the project fundamentally changed the way I cook. Even though I think of myself as an adventurous eater, I had gotten into a pasta and salad rut that sorely needed a shake-up. It also forced me to hone my skills (see: Gabrielle Hamilton’s gazpacho) and tackle new projects, like canning and salt-roasting. The books that I ultimately gave away had similar things in common—dishes I had lusted after for years as a reader didn’t live up to my expectations as a cook. If only I had cooked from these books years ago, I wouldn’t have had to drag this huge collection from tiny apartment to tiny apartment.

We’re lucky enough to live in an era when each new season brings a crop of gorgeous cookbooks, many of which instantly find spots on my wish list. The cook-it or can-it project helped me think twice before adding any new book to my shelf, and it also helped me see past the tunnel vision that sometimes comes from being so focused on news and trends. Some of the books I most relished as I went through my collection were older books, books that proved they still stand up to the test of time. The project was so successful, in fact, that I plan to do it every year—although everyone in my life has officially banned me from putting preserved lemons in anything. At least for a while.

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