Poivrade artichokes.  Veal kidneys.  Gilt-head bream.  Mastic crystals.

These are a few of the ingredients I’ve seen as I page my way through hundreds of cookbooks on my long, slow path to holiday roundup.  And, though I try to be level-headed when judging cookbooks, each of these made me see red.

What is it about unannotated obscure ingredients that’s so very annoying?  you may ask.

Well, it’s not their obscurity.  As cooks, our lives are enriched and our horizons expanded when we embrace diverse ingredients and unfamiliar cuisines.  When a Caribbean or Cambodian grocer opens in the neighborhood, it’s a reason to celebrate.  When you can count on finding guajillo chiles as easily as you can find bananas, that’s cause for joy.

So that leaves the other half of the equation: annotation.  A cookbook is fundamentally a teaching tool–you wouldn’t need it if you knew how to cook everything in it already.   So when a cookbook author uses an ingredient that’s a little tricky to source, I think they have a responsibility to reach out to the reader and help.  There are so many ways to do this–here’s the ones I can think of, in order of preference:

  • Headnote:  In that critical part of the recipe at the beginning, authors have a chance to share important tips and insights with their readers–and it’s a perfect place to explain where you can buy pig cheeks and what to substitute if you can’t.
  • Sidebar:  See above.  A great place to put the information if there’s no room in the headnote.
  • Glossary: Some ethnic and regional cookbooks make an extra effort to define their less well-known ingredients.  This is always welcome, and often the glossary is an education in itself.  But it still pays to also have the information next to the recipe.
  • “See Sources/Resources”.  “Resources” seems to be the preferred term for bakers; “Sources” for restaurant chefs (I don’t know why).  I don’t particularly like this workaround, because you have to go look in the back matter to find the Sources/Resources section, and then more often than not order something online, paying shipping and waiting a week before you can try the recipe.  But it’s better than nothing.
  • “(optional)”.   With that one little word, a cookbook author  demonstrates thoughtfulness, compassion, a sense of shared humanity! with his or her reader.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able to try a great recipe I’d otherwise have skipped just because the one ingredient I couldn’t get was “(optional)”.

When an author doesn’t use one of these easy tools, it sends a message: “if you can’t get this ingredient where you live, don’t make this recipe.” So why am I buying this cookbook?  Or it might be saying, “If you can’t get this ingredient where you live, you’ll just have to come and eat it here, where it’s available.”   If I could go and eat it there, you again have to wonder, why am I buying this cookbook?