The Reluctant Gourmet Cookbook Challenge

September 29, 2011 35 Comments


Get Out of That Comfort Zone!

Like most home cooks, I rarely put new meals in front of my family each week. Yes, I have more opportunity to try new dishes because I’m looking for recipes to write about here on my cooking blog, which I usually try out on my family. Saying that, I still find myself reverting back to those few meals that I’m comfortable with and I know my kids will eat.

Let’s face it, for entrees, what do we have to work with?

Chicken, fish, beef, pork and a bunch of vegetables. It may not sound like many alternatives, but think about how many different recipes there are on the Internet using these few ingredients. Thousands? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?

It’s sort of like the alphabet. Think how many words you can create with 26 letters. If you had 26 ingredients including chicken, fish, beef, pork and some vegetables, how many recipes could you come up with?  I have no idea how many cookbooks have been published since the beginning of the printing press, but I do know I have two bookcases full.

My wife will tell you that I have never met a cookbook I didn’t like, and she is right. Even though I don’t have much room in my office for more, I can’t help myself when I see a cookbook that catches my eye. We were at a farm fair this weekend where they were selling books at $2 per carton. Although we arrived late, I was able to find some great used cookbooks that I “had to have.”

So Many Cookbooks

So here I am with hundreds of cookbooks sitting on those shelves, including my recent must-have purchases, staring at me and crying out, “Pick me! Pick me!” hoping that I’ll choose one off the shelf and pick a new and interesting recipe to prepare for that night’s dinner. I usually disappoint my cookbooks. I typically choose from one of 4 or 5 cookbooks I’m really comfortable with or make something up on the fly using ingredients I have in the refrigerator. And my huge selection of must-have cookbooks just sits there gathering dust.

If I am honest with myself and with you, the truth is that even though I have access to thousands of recipes in my magazines, cookbooks, my own site and the Internet at large, I don’t take advantage of them. Unless I’m researching a recipe for a new post, I rarely go to my cookbooks to find a recipe and when I do, I usually make variations based on what I have on hand.

Pick Up a Cookbook and Start Cooking

I’ve been asking myself “why don’t I cook more from this great selection of cookbooks that I own?” and I’m not sure of the answer. I guess I could blame the Internet or all my cooking magazines (that’s another challenge) but I don’t want to pay the blame game. What I want to do is grab a cookbook off the shelf, browse through it, pick a recipe and prepare it from start to finish.

I think the real answer to why I don’t fully utilize my cookbook collection is a combination of wanting to stay in my comfort zone and lack of time.  Having a family with busy schedules, sometimes it’s just easier to stick with what I know.  Is there anyone else who can relate to this?

I think of myself as a pretty good amateur cook but like many of you, I have my own fears of trying something new. Baking is my biggest fear in the kitchen but I’m lucky to have my good friend Chef Jenni Field help me with your questions and my own.

Well, I think it is time to get out of my comfort zone and have some fun in the kitchen. I don’t plan on anything too aggressive like sous vide or working with sweetbreads but something new, quick and easy that I can serve my family during the week. French, Italian, Mexican, Danish, American. I don’t care as long it is new to me.

The Reluctant Gourmet Cookbook Challenge

So here’s my challenge to myself, and I would like to invite anyone who reads this to challenge themselves. I am going to pick a new recipe, one that I have never prepared before, from a different cookbook every two weeks, and make it for my family.

You may think two weeks is not much of a challenge but I looked at a typical week with two kids and all the stuff we have scheduled, and I don’t think I can realistically commit to one new recipe each week. If you can, hey, go for it, but for now, I’ll start with one every two weeks and then write about it on this blog.

If you accept the challenge, I would like you to come back to this post or my Facebook every couple of weeks and let me know:

  • what cookbook you used
  • what recipe you cooked
  • how it turned out
  • whether you would prepare it again
  • what you might do differently

You don’t have to post the recipe, just let us know where it came from.

My Challenge Goal

My goal is to encourage myself to start cooking from my expansive cookbook collection, many of which were written by some very special chefs and professional food writers. I know I’ll learn some new cooking techniques as well as learn to work with new ingredients, especially spices and herbs.  More importantly, I’ll be expanding my cooking repertoire by trying new recipes, and I think that’s something I think we can all benefit from.

So I hope you take up this challenge and try just one new recipe from one of your collection of cookbooks every two weeks and share your results with my readers and me. I look forward to hearing from many of you.

I’ll be posting whatever recipe I’m trying on my Facebook page in case any of you have the same cookbook and want to try the same recipe. This way we can compare notes. I hope many of you take this challenge.  I think it will help those in a cooking rut to climb out. I know it’s going to help me get more familiar with my cookbooks.

Last modified on Mon 9 March 2015 1:42 pm

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  1. Richard says:

    I think this is a great idea! I am going to try one new recipe a week at first and see how it goes.

  2. sue young says:

    Please select a darker ink color…it is currently hard to read. sue young

    Hi Sue, I’ll fix that next time. – RG

  3. Conal says:

    I’m in! I’m a long time reader but relatively speaking I’m lazy (I have no kids therefore no excuses to not cook! Does a new puppy count?) anyway, this is, as us Irish would say, the kick in the ar*e I’ve been waiting for! I’ve gotten so bad I’ve devolved from bought pasta sauce to takeaways so it’s time for a change! When you start? Hopefully you appreciate how exciting I think this is whereas my family and friends think I’m nuts! ( but don’t mind getting free food lol)

    Good luck with the challenge Conal – RG

  4. Shawn says:

    I’ve made this same challenge to myself as a New Years resolution for two consecutive years. So far, I’ve managed a new recipe about every three weeks, on average; sometimes a new one for two consecutive weeks and then not again for another 3 or 4 weeks. You’re right, it depends on your other commitments. I DO USE MY COOKBOOKS! sometimes only for inspiration, and at other times follow a recipe meticulously. It always comes down to time. Love the blog, keep it up!

    Thanks for sharing Shawn. Look forward to seeing what you are cooking. – RG

  5. Deana Allary says:

    Great idea. I accept the challenge!

  6. Cathy Hagin says:

    Good luck to you!! I myself started a blog in January in an effort to cook at least one recipe from every cookbook I own (100+) It has been a lot of fun re-living the excitement of going through a [new] book; not to mention having something different to cook. If you are interested check my blog out
    Thanks for your newsletter!!

    Ok Cathy, we are thinking alike. I’ll check out your blog and see how you are doing. – RG

  7. Joy says:

    Fabulous idea! Im in. I’m tired of hearing the dreaded ‘oh no, not that again.’ I tried this before and was amazed at how receptive my kids were to new things. It’ll be interesting.

  8. Lisa says:

    I am a home cook, that has a passion for cooking. I love following cooking blogs, have tons of cookbooks and a few cooking magazines that I subscribe to. I can’t even walk out of the library without a cookbook in hand. I even teach cooking classes! I am a little obsessed (just a little) and have been for years. Ha! I try at least two new dishes a week if not more. I have three kids at home right now and we are smack in the middle of football season with the boys and I currently live in the car- for now I keep my new recipes on the simple side and so whenever I can I prep ahead . It’s not always easy for sure, and some times things don’t always happen- but I try and the family really enjoys it and enjoys helping when they can.

    Now that’s what I like to hear Lisa. You sound like you are doing great. Thanks for sharing. – RG

  9. J. Young says:

    You’ve got me duly motivated! Thanks for the inspiration.

  10. Leslie B says:

    I love this challenge! I too have tons of cookbooks, (400+) I recognize some on your shelf. I usually use them for inspiration, if at all. I could have written your post. Must have it, read through, but then onto the shelf, never to be used again. I accept your challenge, and am looking forward to more interesting meals!

  11. Diana says:

    I love your idea! I am up for the challenge! I love to try new recipes but with two kids and a full time plus job it’s difficult just putting something on the table each night. But that’s what Sundays are for!

    Great Diana, look forward to reading about your new recipes. – RG

  12. Jeannie Jensen says:

    I needed a tush push….
    I am up for it, thanks

  13. Chef Pierre says:

    Game on!

  14. Chef Garrick Ogburn says:

    One day I asked my Grandmother why she collected Elephants, she said ” Well, I got my first one as a gift, then people kept giving them to me.”
    I try and keep my cookbook collection to special and interesting ones; as my floor is starting to sag, under the weight of them all. My most recent one is Pie Mei’s Chinese cook book vol. 1&2 an out of print from 1973.
    I know so little bout “real” Chinese. While the dishes are simple enough “Hou Pao Yao Hua” Sauteed Pork Kidney, the number of dishes for a full dinner can be staggering, one dinner menu suggests 20 dishes.

    What are your desert island books?

    Hi Chef Garrick, that would be The Sugar Mill Caribbean Cookbook: Casual and Elegant Recipes Inspired by the Islands – just kidding. I still enjoy my New Basics Cookbook, one of my first cookbooks when I started learning how to cook. Anything from Marcella Hazan or Patricia Wells would be fun to have. How about you? – RG

  15. Great challenge! I am a fellow recipe-aholic with 300+ cookbooks. With kids and a full-time job, yes, it is easier to stick to the tried and true–but I do try to find time to make a new recipe once a week. Sometimes when I’m on a roll, I’ll do 3 new recipes in a week–but sometimes I’m lucky to make one new recipe in two weeks! With a bit of prodding I finally started a recipe blog to document both my tried and true recipes as well as the new. Sometimes I think I’m crazy to have started it because it is indeed work, but it is truly a labor of love and I’m having fun with it.

    Thanks Fran and I look forward to reading about what you are cooking. – RG

  16. RG says:

    Cookbook Challenge – I’m going to start with something easy from my Craig Claiborne’s 1979 New York Times Cookbook for Flounder Fillets a la Moutarde although I may be using fluke instead of flounder but that depends on what’s available at the market. I think I picked up this cookbook at a farm fair or flea market years ago but haven’t cooked from it in ages. Look for the post here and you can also keep track or mention your own challenge recipes on my Facebook page at and if you like anything you see, please click the like button.

  17. Jacqueline aka Jackie says:

    For my first cookbook challenge attempt I chose Pork Loin Chops with Pear and Vidalia Gravy from “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook”. I picked this recipe because I had all ingredients on hand.

    Turned out great and husband ate all of his tho he usually balks at sweet sauces. I would prepare again (but after I try more “challenge” recipes). Next time I will not cook the pork chops as long. I need to learn to rely on roast thermometers more than seat of the pants timing. Thank you RG for your challenge incentive.

    Hi Jackie, sounds delicious and yes, pork is very easy to overcook. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and we were all so afraid of Trichinosis that my mom overcooked all pork products. A thermometer can really help but it is important to let the meat rest so you have to take into account that it is still cooking. Thanks for sharing. – RG

  18. LADawg says:

    I’m not into cookbooks too much. Only have 3 or 4. I do have my own cookbook that are for recipes that I have cooked over and over during the past 40+ years. One recipe that I make is from a small paper bound cookbook that the Federal Government printed and distributed during the early to mid 1930’s. That was the heart of what has become to be known as “the great depression”. This book was given to me by my mother when my wife and I got married back in December of 1958. I guess she somehow knew that I would end up doing most of the cooking.
    The recipes were simple and were always made from ingredients that most people had on hand. Here is one of the recipes that I have cooked over and over again.

    3 Medium Potatoes
    1 Tablespoon All Purpose Flour
    2 Tablespoons Butter
    3/4 Cup Milk
    Salt and Pepper to Taste

    Peel potatoes and slice into thin rounds. Place half of the potatoes in a greased glass baking bowl. Sprinkle with half the flour and dot with half the butter. Sprinkle with Salt and Fresh Ground Black Pepper. Repeat with the other half of the ingredients and again sprinkle with Salt and Fresh Ground Black Pepper. Pour the Milk over the top. Cover and bake at 350° oven for 30 minutes. Remove the cover and continue to cook for another 20 to 25 minutes. During this time you need to check the potatoes from time to time and add a little more Milk if needed.

    Thanks LADawg for sharing this with us. Can’t wait to try them. – RG

  19. hollygon says:

    This is just the thing for my cookbooks to earn their keep! Love the idea!

    The other night I was browsing through my cookbooks looking for inspiration and came across a vegetarian meal in this wonderful cookbook – frame>by>frame quick & easy. The photo looked wonderful, plus I had all the ingredients, so I decided to give a go. By the way, this book goes beyond your typical cookbook, it includes bright photographs of all the ingredients for each recipe, cooking steps, and final presentation.

    I made Tacos with Chickpea Salsa. I like the simplicity and freshness of this dish, but it lacked seasoning, even though I modified it with cumin, Mexican oregano, garlic, and scallions. I’d make it again with more seasonings and maybe try a blend of different beans.

    Also, the recipe title seems misleading to me, it seemed to be just bean tacos with avocado salsa. One thing I did like was how they used a whole romaine leaf and placed it in the bottom of the taco shell then filled it with all the ingredients.

    Happy Cooking!

    Hi Hollygon, thanks for sharing. What was the name of this cookbook? I like that you altered the recipe to your own tastes. Many people follow recipes to the letter and when just starting out, that may be a good idea but as you become more comfortable, it’s fun to experiment with ingredients you like and think will improve the dish. Keep up updated and please tell your cooking friends about the challenge. – RG

  20. Terri H. says:

    So glad to join in on this challenge… I had this idea myself today after eating yet another hastily prepared, throw-together one skillet meal. I also have lots of cookbooks and a desire to learn to be a great cook, but I realized something key today– I only cook when I’m hungry… That makes me not want to take the time to wade through a new recipe, but get something on the table NOW. So, I am going treat cooking like anything else I want to learn–set aside time on a weekend, eat a sandwich, and then slowly go through new recipes and learn to do it right!

    Great point Terri. Something else you may want to try is planning a couple of meals at one time. If you are going to have the oven on to roast a chicken, why not roast a squash or some garlic or an ingredient that might be used the following day. I also like to plan a meal so I can have another meal with the leftovers. For example, osso bucco over pappardelle or egg noodles the next night is incredible. Good luck and please keep us updated with your progress. – RG

  21. Deana Allary says:

    My first Cookbook Challenge attempt was baked brie. I have had a brie baker for ages, never used. I dusted it off and followed a recipe for “Baked brie in a phylo pastry with an apple compote”. It turned out remarkably well! I always thought it would be difficult but it wasn’t. I impressed myself!

    Way to go Deana. – RG

  22. Rick says:

    I love this idea… I love to cook but lately life has gotten so hectic with work that I have slacked on cooking quality meals for me and my wife. I think that getting back into the kitchen will help relieve stress. Consider me in! Thanks

  23. Debbie says:

    This is a fantastic idea! In fact, since recently becoming an empty nester this is exactly what I’ve begun to do. That is, trying a new recipe each week from my vast collection of cookbooks. My taste testers at work anxiously await to see what I’ll have for them on Monday mornings! Cannot wait to share what I prepare this weekend.

  24. Kim C says:

    Looks like I may be a little late to the party, but would love to join in. I have tons of cookbooks that need the dust brushed off of them. Now with two kids in college, I have lots of time to fill. Thanks

    Kim, never too late for this party. – RG

  25. hollygon says:

    RG – the Tacos with Chickpea Salsa recipe is frome frame>by>frame quick & easy (yes, all lower case).

    This cookbook was a present from last year’s White Elephant Gift Exchange and I’m finally using it! I made I’m-Gonna-Slap-You-with-My-Whisk Tomato Bisque from Cookin’ with Coolio – 5 Star Meals at a 1 Star Price. And yes, this is the same Coolio as the Rap singer from back in the day. Be warned – there’s colorful language in places, but it’s good for a laugh!

    To be honest I don’t really like tomato soup, so the fact that I really enjoyed this says a lot. It was very rich, creamy, and very filling. I added caramelized shallots, and since I forgot to buy whole milk I replaced with condensed milk. Plain yogurt would probably work too. If I made it again, I would try it with rosemary instead of basil and less milk. I’m excited to try more soup recipes now that Phoenix is FINALLY cooling down !

  26. Terri H. says:

    OK, first week down! I made a 14″ deep-dish pizza from scratch and Italian -style smelts. The pizza recipe was from an insert in the Chicago Metallics bakeware I had, and it turned out great! I was always intimidated by yeast breads, but my dough rose beautifully! The Italian smelts were a fling….never had a “smelt” before, and probably never will again! Got the recipe from online blog, but won’t be keeping it! Oh well, now I know I don’t really care for the taste of oily little fish… I read they are best breaded and fried, but I don’t eat fried foods, too bad…

  27. Debbie says:

    This weekend I made a delicious Fire Roasted Tomato Bisque, Food & Wine Fast & Easy. My attempt at a Carrot Cake, however, was not so great. In fact, it was a total failure; I ended up throwing it away. I got the recipe from a demonstration class I attended at L’Academie de cuisine cooking school in Bethesda, MD. I will keep trying until I get it right!

  28. JYoung says:

    I started with the Cooks Illustrated Hearty Tuscan Bean Stew served with French Bread. It was awesome. I substituted the dried cannelini beans for great northern beans and added canned cannellini beans as a mixed. It was great and my family loved it.

    Thanks for the challenge!

    You are welcome and the dish sounds delicious. – RG

  29. Stephanie says:

    I actually did use a cookbook for tonight’s dinner without even realizing it was cookbook challenge day! It wasn’t a huge step outside of my comfort zone but it was probably a good primer for the first challenge. I made Turkish Chicken Pilaf from a Mediterranean cookbook I bought at the used book store a few days ago (Mediterranean Cooking from the Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library). I left the almonds in the pan just a touch too long so a couple went from lightly roasted to burned, but apart from that it was delicious. Will definitely be making again – basmati rice is delicious!

  30. Jill says:

    I love that you are having this challenge. I thrills me when I see people encouraged to step out of their mudane day to day cooking routines and explore new flavors and techniques.

    I can’t really participate because although I do consult cookbooks and cooking websites I prefer to make up new recipes on my own. Usually once every week or two.

    I believe cooking is the greatest of the Arts. It is not only a pleasure for the senses but doubles as sustenance as well. How great is that?

    Anyways, today I’m making what started in my mind as a kale pie and has expanded to a chicken, kale and spinach pie with maple and brown sugar glazed bacon, sundried tomatoes, caramelized onions, eggs, cream and 3 kinds of cheese, all wrapped up in buttered phyllo pastry and baked till golden. I’m hoping it turns out as good or better than I’m imagining (fingers crossed).

    I’m adding all kinds of goodies to enhance the flavor such as a dollop of grainy dijon mustard, chopped dill, a splash of balsamic vinegar in the caramelized onions, a bit of pesto, and the chicken breast is cut up and poached in chicken broth. The kale and spinach are chopped and steamed in chicken broth.

    I know this isn’t something you can just whip up for dinner in a jiffy. What can I say, my daughter is all grown up and now that I have time on my hands it’s my turn to play with my food. 🙂

    Oh, I haven’t used any particular cookbook for this recipe but I did get the recipe technique for how to caramelized onions right here on your site.

    Thank you. I’ve added your site to my favorites. Have fun with your challenge.

    Hi Jill, thanks for sharing your new recipe idea with us. Sounds incredible. We get kale now and again from the farmers co op we belong to and I never really know what to do with it so the kids will eat it. This sounds like a great idea. Please send me the recipe when you have it worked out. – RG

  31. hollygon says:

    Do you remember the soup nazi episode of Seinfeld? In the end, by a series of crazy events, Elaine ends up with all his soup recipes – one of them is for Mulligatawny.

    If you love curry and soup, then this is a must have. It’s very hearty, with chicken, veggies, and an apple for a touch a sweetness. I’ve made this a few times and it doesn’t disappoint! The recipe I use is from The Book of Hot and Spicy Foods, given to me by my best friend.

    I love cumin, so I doubled the amount and added 5 cloves of garlic. Next time I may add some coconut milk, since I found some other recipes online that called for it.

  32. Debbie says:

    Last night I made Chicken Tikka Masala (Saveur Comfort Food Cookbook) and today my co-workers are raving about it! This one’s a keeper!

    Thanks Debbie for letting us know. I don’t do much Indian cooking because the kids don’t like spicy foods but I love it and can’t wait to try some new recipes. – RG

  33. stephanie says:

    I found your blog while I was browsing around food blogs and I love this challenge. I have over a hundred cookbooks and rarely cook from them, although I love looking through them and “planning” on cooking from them “someday”.

    I’m definitely going to take up this challenge, but I’m going to start in the new year! I’ll blog about it and will make a link reference back to you for inspiring me to do this!

    Great New Year’s Resolution Stephanie! I look forward to hearing about your adventure into some of those old cookbooks. – RG

  34. stephanie says:

    Checking in! 🙂

    I’ve done 2 recipes from 2 cookbooks!

    On Dec. 24 I made Sticky Gingerbread from Nigella Christmas by Nigella Lawson – stunning success. It was really easy to make and the results were perfect – a really thick, spicy, moist and sticky gingerbread that my whole family really likes.

    Last week I tried Baked Chicken with Onions, Garlic and Rosemary from the Joy of Cooking – All About Chicken book. Was a little disappointed. The chicken came out perfectly cooked – very moist and tender, but it was pretty tasteless. With all the onions and garlic in there I was surprised it was so bland. Not sure if it was because I halved the recipe (the recipe was created for 4 and I divided by everything by 2).

    Already looking through my books for my next attempt!

    Hi Stephanie, I’m thrilled you are keeping up with my challenge. I have not done as well although I’m trying lots of new recipes but mostly from my cooking magazines. My mom and dad have been ill and my dad died on Monday so I’ve been caught up with a lot of “stuff” but I’ll get back to the challenge as soon as possible. I’m glad readers like you have continued on. Thanks, RG.

  35. Janie says:

    Hi-Just found your posting. A friend and I at work were just talking yesterday about doing this very thing and supporting and cheering each other on to ‘just do it’. Love the idea of a different cookbook recipe as I too have hundreds! Noticed no recent posts. Still ‘ON’ or ???

    Hi Janie, it is. I have been a bit behind in my cooking. My dad was in the hospital for a month and then died a couple of weeks ago so I’ve been busy with that. I have been cooking new recipes but more of them are quick and easy from my cooking magazines. I’ll get back to this challenge soon. Thanks for the reminder and please don’t let my digression stop you from participating and letting me know what you are cooking from what cookbook. – RG

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