Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series. Check back next week for additional picks.
Every Wednesday night at 10, I can be found curled on my couch, watching the grueling cooking competition known as "Top Chef."
There aren't many shows I'll stop my life for - I can't recall any show in recent memory that has become an addiction for me - but ever since my sister introduced me to Bravo's reality cooking show, I've been hooked.
Over the three seasons of the show, which will be winding down for the season in the next two weeks, I have gleaned a few kitchen pointers. For one, there are things about the kitchen and gourmet cuisine I will never understand. And for another, all great cooks are made so thanks to innovative recipes.
I've never been one to follow a recipe. I love cookbooks. I love reading them and looking at the pretty pictures. But when it comes down to it, I can't follow a recipe to save my life. I would rather do it my own way.
But, after seasons of watching the culinary masterminds of "Top Chef," I have slowly changed my ways and found several cookbooks that can add spice to every kitchen.
Whether you're new to the kitchen or just need a few quick and easy meal ideas, "Look, Dude, I Can Cook" (Syren Book Company, $16.95) fits the bill. Though this cookbook is designed for college kids and young adults just learning to cook, it offers advice that all chefs can use. Use fresh herbs. Have a supply of canned vegetables and sauces on hand. Start with the basics and work your way up. Author Amy Madden offers flavorful recipes, from simple chilis and dips to the more technical, like French-style beef bourguignon.
No meat, no dairy, no animal products of any kind. That's being a vegan. It seems like a vegan cookbook would include recipes for, say, how to peel a mango, but in actuality, this strict diet can go far beyond the reach of fruits, vegetables and simple salads. "Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook" (Marlowe and Company, $27.50) by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero brings out the rounded flavor of this eating lifestyle.
Some 250 recipes, menus and bright photos give ideas for dishes that will make you forget there isn't any meat in there. Dishes for all occasions are depicted, centering on convenience, easy-to-find ingredients and experimentation. Moskowitz and Romero tested every recipe in the book at least seven times to ensure that everything is user-friendly.
There are few dishes I love more than a plate of well-executed seafood. While these fishy meals seem so simple in theory and look so enticing in the restaurant, creating similar splendor at home can be tricky. David Pasternack and Ed Levine have brought forth a beautifully done seafood cookbook, "The Young Man and the Sea" (Artisan, $35), which makes whipping up water creatures more accessible.
Recipes range from starters and salads to crustaceans and tentacles, and side items are included with each recipe to complete a whole menu. With a baby blue cover and page upon page of dazzling imagery, "The Young Man and the Sea" is a must for the at-home cook and seafood lover.
E-mail staff writer Anna Ferguson at firstname.lastname@example.org.