My first essential cookbook suggestion is really a category. Every vegetarian kitchen needs one, basic, all purpose cookbook. The kind of cookbook whose first sentence reads: Stand facing the stove. This is the cookbook you will go to when (like me) you can’t remember how long it takes to hard boil and egg. I hate hardboiled eggs. I don’t eat hardboiled eggs. And I don’t want to take up vital brain space remembering how long to cook hard boiled eggs.
This is also the cookbook you will go to if you live in New Zealand, which is metric, and most of your cookbooks are from the US and, consequentially, not metric.
This is also where you will go if you come home from the farmer’s market with a huge bunch of Cavolo Nero, and you don’t know what it is or how to cook it. Actually, if that happens, you will come to the Kale Whisperer. But you know what I mean.
When I was learning to cook, that cookbook was The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. I read it cover to cover. Several times. It was my mother’s default wedding gift. Every new bride needed a copy of Joy. When I got married, in 1981, I got at least five copies. In my mind, it remains the essential all-purpose cookbook. If you aren’t a rigid vegetarian, and you might want to know how to poach a salmon, you’ll want this as your basic cookbook. Be sure to get the 75th anniversary edition, not the controversial 1997 “All New” version. It lacks the vital “Know Your Ingredients” section and some of the more “quaint” sections, like canning, pickling, and preserving. If you can find a used copy of the original, preferably with someone’s notes scribbled in it, all the better.
A newer, cooler, more vegetarian-focussed option is Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (Wiley, 2007). Bittman is a food journalist and a leading advocate of sustainable cooking. How to Cook Everything Vegetarian includes two excellent introductory chapters on equipment and techniques, numerous instructive sidebars offering variations, lists, and charts by ingredient. It uses an icon system, so you can quickly identify Fast, Make-Ahead, and Vegan recipes, and includes a table of “Recipes by Icon.” There are a few menus, and an extensive and useful index, so it is easy to find what you are looking for. Even if you are not vegetarian, you can’t go wrong with this one; although, if you prefer a more all-purpose cookbook, his How to Cook Everything is also excellent. Obviously, however, you will lose some of the specialised vegetarian cooking content.
My third recommended option is Deborah Madison’s The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Ten Speed Press, 2014). This one is weaker than Joy and How to Cook Everything on technique, but its excellent first chapter, “Becoming a Cook,” includes valuable advice on Composing a Vegetarian Menu, Menus for Holidays and Special Occasions, and Wine with Vegetables. Chapter Two: Foundations of Flavor is also excellent and includes sections on various types of ingredients — herbs, chills, cheese, dairy and dairy substitutes, to name just a few. The thing I like best about Madison’s cookbook is that she includes flavour matches for individual vegetables and fruits. This is where you turn if you want to know what goes with Brussels Sprouts — butter, olive oil, mustard oil, cream, béchamel, blue cheese, cheddar, mustard, capers, lemon, vinegar, caraway, oregano, parsley, dill, curry spices, and juniper.
Depending on where you live, you may have other, preferred all-purpose cookbooks. If so, please tell us about it! For my mother’s generation, the classics were the Good Housekeeping or Fanny Farmer Cookbooks. In France, it would be the classic Larousse Gastronomique (1938). Times change, and different cultures have different basics. The important thing is to have one. It will be your touchstone and security blanket. Years from now, it will be splattered, scribbled on, and held together with duct tape and rubber bands. It will be the outward and visible sign of your cooking journey.