Good basic cookbook using few ingredients?

Joined Jun 22, 2011
Hi Guys,

New here. I'm trying to find a good basic cookbook that's pretty healthy and uses a lot of the same ingredients. It's just my girlfriend and I, so often things will spoil and we eat and take a lot of leftovers to work.

She's trying to diet so a healthier one would be a big plus. I like to eat and I'm not picky.

Thank you!
Joined Jun 13, 2011
here's 2 classics and another good one that i like

edouard de pomiane, french cooking in 10 minutes

elizabeth david, italian cooking

jacques pepin's table (lower fat and sugar yet tasty)

many "healthy" cookbooks take regular recipes and just cut the fat and sugar (sometimes substituting in less obvious ways); ive found few useful healthy cookbooks.  i think it's better to eat healthier from a good cookbook by choosing more veggies and less deep fried and sweets etc.

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Joined Feb 1, 2007
I agree with Neal about "healthy" cookbooks. Sure, they reduce the fats and sugars. But look at the things they do use, and you find that other not-so-good-for-you ingredients are included, and calorie counts are often high to boot.

One thing to keep in mind is that almost all savory dish recipes can be easily halved, or divided even smaller. So, let's say a recipe is designed to serve 6. You cut it in half and wind up with three full servings. You and the g'friend have it for dinner, then the third serving becomes lunch for you both the next day.

When cooking for two, the freezer can be your best friend. Example: You roast a chicken. That's a pretty hefty bite for just two. But you can break down the bird and freeze the leftovers, then use them later on in a dish calling for cooked chicken---perhaps a chicken pot pie; chicken a la king, or a nice chicken salad.

In a similar vein, you can use the main ingredient of many dishes to create several entrees. Cook a hunk of salmon today, for instance. Put the leftovers in the fridge. Then on, say, Saturday, use the cooked salmon in a totally different dish.

It's not hard to adapt and modify in this manner. You just have to have the mindset to do it.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
How about it how, TinCook?

There are quite a few of us here at Cheftalk---me included---who don't think much of Mark Bittman at all. While he's a legend in his own mind, his writing leaves much to be desired, and his recipes are far from exciting.

But if you find the book valuable, that's all that counts.
Joined Jun 14, 2002
I was just thinking he's a better choice then the new Joy of Cooking editions. Plus the general structure of the book (technique, fundemental recipes, variations) strikes me as a good way to learn to cook and it reminds me of Le Guide Cunlinaire. I think the major fault of most comprehensive cook books is that they are mere collections of recipes.

Also, please keep in mind that 'exciting' is a very relative and subjective word. What gets our motors running, would probably discourage Joe Can O'Shroom Soup as too complicated or fancy.

Kammon's Making of a Cook might also be a good choice, but she seems pitched to a semi pro audience.

Personally, I grew up with Fannie Farmer, 1946 edition.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
Fannie Farmer is a good choice. I grew up with that and The Settlement Cookbook, which, in some respects, is even better. 

'exciting' is a very relative and subjective word.

Very true. But so are "mundane," "commonplace,"  "boring,"  and "uninspired," all of which can apply to Bittman's writing.

Excitement doesn't have to mean fancy and complicated. Lot's of straightforward foods and approaches trip my trigger. But when you add grapes to a green salad, top it with the same vinaigrette, and present it with an "oh, what a creative guy I am" attitude the only person you're fooling is yourself.

Worse than his writing, IMO, is his TV show. Ever seen it? I watched it once, to see what it was all about. He made one dish with about 22 ingredients, using  five or six techniques, and smugly proclaimed how it was "true minimalist cooking." Yeah, right!

Me, I'll take an honest hot dog on a store-bought bun over that sort of nonsense any day of the week.
Joined Jun 14, 2002
Expecting Rachael Ray? Yummers!

I'm not real familiar with his writings, mostly because I refuse to shell out for the overpriced NYT. Didn't he do a column or tv series where he cooked with a different exec chef each week? That might be worth watching.

Rhulman's Ratio book would be a good supplement for the beginner.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
I like Rhulman, but, oddly enough, have never seen his ratios book. Go figure.

One problem with Rhulman is that he mostly writes for foodies and advanced home cooks, rather than beginners. So, while his writing style is great, and his recipes worthwhile, the beginner is sometimes left in the dust. His buddy Michael Symon does a better job reaching the newbie cook, IMO.

But all this is taking us far from our muttons. I don't believe there is a single book that will serve the OPs needs; not as he expressed them. What he really should be concentrating on is learning techniques. Learn the many ways there are to cook chicken, for instance, or fish, or whatever. Otherwise he'll have to build an entire library of cookbooks to accomplish his goal.

As an exercize I often have students run the changes on pan-fried chicken, for instance. We start with pounded breasts, then modify the breading materials, the sauces, etc. Each final dish can be describes as pan-fried chicken. But each of them has a different flavor profile.

Extrapolate that out to the various cooking methods you can use, and you could have chicken every night without once repeating a dish.

That's the sort of thing I believe the OP wants. Ways of reusing the same main ingredients to create different dishes.


Staff member
Joined Mar 29, 2002
Generally, the low ingredient count cookbooks rely on pre-processed ingredients to make up the shortfall in ingredient count. So instead of using tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, they use a can of Ro-Tel or something. I don't see this as really simplifying anything and you lose control of the seasoning.

I think a person looking for  simple dishes for one or two is best off working with saute/pan seared techniques. This focuses on cutlets of meat or fish and simple sides generally. And doesn't generate lots of leftovers or other storage issues. This can raise your meal cost though as these cuts tend to be more expensive than some others.

As a fan of chinese food, the stir fry is also a great technique, but the ingredient list tends to be longer. Still, many vegetables keep a few days in a partially cut condition until your next stir fry or sauce or garnish uses up the onion, peppers, carrots or whatever. Chinese food also requires a certain stockpile of condiments but these aren't expensive and have a long storage life.

The introduction to Rick Bayless's Mexican Everyday is also worth reading. He discusses how much of what we see in cookbooks and food shows is event food rather than what is eaten daily. Simpler foods, quicker foods. He then extends this into a lifestyle philosophy of exercise, moderation, and how to shop. He advocates shopping around the edges of the grocery store. That's where all the fresh unprocessed food is. Produce, dairy, meat, eggs, quality breads all array on the outer edges of the store. In the aisles, it tends to be more a wasteland of food from the factory. Not totally, but he makes a good point. 

Americans have a fear of going to the grocery store more than once a week. Most other countries shop fresh for the day as part of the errands or coming home from work. A local program espouses a two week menu/shopping list so you don't have to shop for groceries so often. I can't get behind that. Too many things don't store that well and are better picked up during your day and used fresh. As has been mentioned, this is a mindset issue.

Similarly, the US citizen spends less on groceries (as a percentage of income) than citizens of countries where food quality is of high cultural value. Italy, France and so on. America has come to value convenience and low price over quality. That too is a cultural value, but one that doesn't fulfill me. Nor does it seem to fulfill you.

Cooking well for one or two is a values change, a mindset change, a shopping change. And you need to develop some skills to do it well.

Technique, James Peterson's Essentials of Cooking is a decent start. I think it lacks some detail in knife skills, but that's a hard thing to teach in a book. Watch some youtube videos on chef knife technique. Martin Yan, Jacques Pepin are good knife users. Watch their hands and fingers when cutting.   You should probably refer back to Essentials of Cooking every 3-4 months for a year as quite a bit of what he is saying what click in your mind until you've had some practical experience trying it out.

You might also benefit from something like How to Cook Without a Book. Disclaimer--I wasn't really impressed with this, it didn't deliver what I was looking for from it. I was the wrong audience though.  What it does do is teach some simple things with a couple of variations that you can memorize fairly easily.  As an analogy, rather than learning to play the piano, this is like learning 15-20 songs with a couple of twists you can apply to each song. As a cook and diner, I enjoy knowing more than this and being able to improvise myself. But it might be good for you.
Joined Jun 14, 2002
KYH- Pretty much the reason I suggested the Bittman book.

I haven't seen that particular James Peterson book, but if it's anything like Sauces or Soups, it's got my thumbs up.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
Generally, the low ingredient count cookbooks rely on pre-processed ingredients to make up the shortfall in ingredient count.

Or they cheat by not considering certain products as ingredients. F'rinstance, one of the loudest proponents of five-ingredient cooking excludes salt, pepper, water, and sometimes oil from the count. Well gee! That brings us up to nine ingredients. And she counts different forms of an ingredient as one. Example: Orange zest and orange juice are different ingredients, except when they're used in the same recipe, in which case they count as only one.

My real problem with those low-ingredient-count people is their implying that few ingredients are automatically simpler, which simply is not the case. Take my seafood lollipops recipe. It only uses 9 ingredients (I count salt and pepper as ingredients, though). But it involves prepping different seafoods, separating eggs, pureeing, poaching, and deep frying among other steps. Hardly a simple dish. On the other hand, I have recipes using 12, 13, 15 ingredients that whip together in about ten minutes using one pot.

The complexity of prepping and assembling is what determines whether a recipe is simple or not, not the number of ingredients per se.
Joined Oct 15, 2012
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's latest book, "Three Good Things". All about making the best (and healthiest) of a small number of ingredients...
Joined Jan 30, 2012
While I firmly believe the original poster is long long gone... 1 post in the last year and a half... I'll add the following for those that find this thread via a search.

Alton Brown - I'm just here for the food - basic level with the who/why things work and well tested recipes.
Joined Jan 16, 2013
If you like New Orleans food try out After the Roux: New Orleans Cooking Made Easy. It's a step-by-step cookbook that anyone can follow and the results are great.
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