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7 Cookbooks for Getting Started with A Paleo Diet

by Esther S. - February 29, 2016


Esther Schindler's been writing about computers since it was oh-so-cool to have a 2400 baud modem. She has never lost the sense of joy for the many ways in which technology can improve the quality of life.

Photo Credit: by Esther S
Photo Credit: by Esther S

Do you want to try out the popular paleo diet in order to improve your health, but aren’t sure where to start? I’ve been mostly-paleo for three years. Here’s the cookbooks I’ve found most useful along the way.

I didn’t adopt a paleo diet with the goal of losing weight – even though that’s what happened. Instead, my husband’s doctor put him on a modified paleo diet to control his blood sugar. And as I’m sure you know: When your spouse is on a diet, you’re on it, too.

As a committed foodie, I took on paleo as a challenge to eat well without compromise. Certainly, I could rely on recipes from my existing cookbook library – did I mention that I own 400 cookbooks? – but I can cook from a Paleo cookbook without fiddling with ingredient modifications or sighing over what isn't on the diet.

Because I find it difficult to resist acquiring even more cookbooks, I keep my obsession under control by checking them out from my public library. If I prepare three recipes and I still want to cook more of them, I give myself permission to purchase the cookbook. This triage has prevented some unfortunate mistakes. It’s also yielded a shelf full of cookbooks with “paleo" in the title.

Before I tell you about my favorites, let me point out a few things that affect your choices – both in cookbooks and how to be paleo.

Everyone seems to have his own definition for paleo as well as the reasons to adopt it – whether philosophically or for dietary health. At its heart, paleo means no grains (which means no wheat, corn, rice, etc.); no legumes (beans, including soybeans and others that are used in cooking oils); no white potatoes; no or limited refined sugar. Some people accept dairy; others don’t. Sweeteners are debated, too; you’ll find some folks use honey or maple syrup, while others considered those too “refined."

Thus each cookbook has its own rules, as well as its own common substitutions for the banished food items. I don’t particularly care which one is “right," only which dietary choices match mine. (For example, we eat legumes in moderation, and I’m fine with dairy.) Everyone uses almonds and cauliflower liberally, but some authors rely more on coconut flour where others choose arrowroot. A few expect you to acquire unfamiliar, hard-to-find ingredients.

Happily, there are lots of good paleo cookbooks. These are among my favorites.

The “starter kit"

If you’re only going to buy one of my recommended cookbooks, start with these. Not because they excel above all others, per se, but because they give you a good cross-section of the basics. Both give you plenty of reliable and easy-to-follow recipes that are suitable for either a busy weeknight supper or for a Sunday afternoon happily puttering in the kitchen. They also help you learn the “standard" substitutions for traditional dishes, such as serving mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes. Plus, these cookbooks’ explanations of why-and-how to adopt a paleo diet make sense without belaboring the point.

Danielle Walker’s Against All Grain has a lot of photographs – I know that matters to some people – and friendly text that encourages you to try new things. The author also blogs regularly, so you can try out her recipes beforehand. Among the pages with honorable food stains: banana porridge (with soaked cashews, almonds, and pecans, along with banana, coconut milk, and cinnamon); sandwich bread (which uses eggs, cashew butter, honey, cider vinegar, almond milk, coconut flour, baking soda, and salt); clam chowder (using celery root in place of potatoes); spiced pumpkin muffins; chocolate cream pie (using coconut milk and maple syrup). This cookbook may not replace all your old-favorites, though, as Against All Grain has only 28 entrées (good ones: chicken cobb salad, a slow cooker pot roast), with lots of attention on dessert (want banana bread, rosemary breadsticks? You don’t have to do without).

Dana Carpender’s 500 Paleo Recipes may be the cookbook I turn to most often when I need inspiration. With so many options, I can always find something to make for dinner. While 500 Paleo Recipes won’t blow you away visually – it has no pictures – none of the 500 promised recipes are “filler," and she usually includes helpful variations, such as adding caramelized onions and mushrooms to mashed cauliflower. Top on my list: pork sauté with apples and onion; venison chili; blueberry pancakes (using almond meal, flaxseed meal, coconut flour, and shredded coconut); maple glazed carrots.

Home style cooking

When you start a paleo diet, you’ll yearn for “comfort food." For most of us, traditionally that’s carbs: pasta, mashed potatoes, heavily-battered fish-and-chips. Surely one batch of cornbread won’t hurt? And that’s where we fall off the wagon.

But paleo doesn’t have to mean nothing but meat and not-potatoes. These paleo cookbooks scratch that “comfort food" itch quite well.

“Your favorite foods made paleo," boasts Primal Cravings, by Brandon and Megan Keatley, and it does a good job delivering on the promise. Philly stuffed peppers has become one of my go-to recipes for “I’m too busy to cook tonight." Thai chili chicken meatballs push my simple-and-relaxed button (with peach jam and chili-garlic sauce), and they require only 10 minutes of attention (before 25 minutes in the oven). In this cookbook, often the “substitute" ingredients are more appealing than the originals, such as using zucchini strips in a Mediterranean pasta salad or a browned butternut squash-and-sage puree. Somehow, despite my best intentions, I’ve never managed to make the recipe for lasagna that uses sliced butternut squash instead of pasta… but I will, I assure you. Note that in Primal Cravings, white potatoes are okay (though not used all that often).

We all have family traditions for special dinners, but few of them are especially healthy. Go on, count the carbs on the Thanksgiving table: mashed potatoes, bread stuffing, Parker rolls… shall I go on? When you want to put on a dinner party, take a look at Gather, the Art of Paleo Entertaining by Bill Staley and Hayley Mason, even if the party is just you and the family. It’s organized by season and menu, such as Thanksgiving or “A night in Tuscany," so you can follow along by making antipasti salad, pan-fried asparagus, baked salmon with lemon and capers, pizza Margherita, chocolate chip biscotti, and Affogato with dark chocolate gelato. Yes, that’s all paleo; the pizza dough uses almond flour and arrowroot, the biscotti are sweetened with maple syrup, and the gelato uses coconut milk. But I’ve made more of its recipes without regard to its suggested menu format, including fried plantain chips served with a guacamole that included Asian pear (my guests made that disappear fast), roasted lemon green beans with shallots, and the aforementioned pizza. There’s plenty more to inspire me.

Beyond Bacon: Paleo Recipes that Respect the Whole Hog is, more than anything else, a “nose to tail eating" cookbook for those of us who like pork, and comparable to The River Cottage Meat Book. …But yeah, I know I had you at “bacon." As far as I’m concerned, the book’s worth its price for the instructions on making lard; we used a slow cooker, turned to high, which ensured the lard didn’t burn. Naturally, most of the book is recipes: apple-ginger pork tenderloins; salad with prosciutto and figs; an old-fashioned lard pie crust (once again, almond, coconut, and tapioca flour); sweet potato casserole with lardons, banana, and crushed pineapple; Asian short ribs.

What’s for dessert?

You don’t have to give up sweet stuff when you eat paleo. I’ve a well-earned reputation as a chocoholic, and it hasn’t suffered. I gave up refined sugar long before paleo came along – or at least I save it for special occasions – so most of my chocolate consumption is from stuff I bake myself, using natural sweeteners. There’s a batch of paleo chocolate-chip cookies in the oven at the moment, in fact.

When it’s time for real baking usually I have turned to Paleo Desserts: 125 Delicious Everyday Favorites, Gluten- and Grain-Free by Jane Barthelemy. It includes cakes (whole apple spice cake, chocolate cupcakes), fruit crumbles, puddings – with an entire chapter devoted to chocolate desserts (German chocolate cake, anyone?). This has the best pie crust recipe of all my cookbooks. The hitch is that the author sweetens primarily with erythritol; most recipes call for a product called Just Like Sugar, which you probably can’t find in your local “ordinary" grocery store. My local health food store carries it, though I usually order it online.

My newest discovery is My Paleo Patisserie by Jenni Hulet. This isn’t a cookbook for beginners, though. The author expects you to be adept at basic baking principles, and some recipe instructions unapologetically have many steps. Among them is an amazing tiramisu, where we made the lady fingers the day before preparing the (coconut-milk-based) zabaglione, then assembling the dessert with espresso and cocoa and… did I mention it was incredible? But not everything is an all-day affair, such as chocolate chip cookies (pictured) or popovers. Next up on my dessert-cooking: éclairs.

Going paleo hasn’t made me ignore the rest of the 400 cookbooks on my shelves. I use them regularly, especially now that I’ve grasped the best way to adjust recipes. But that’s harder when you’re a beginner.

When you start out with a paleo diet, understandably your attention can get fixed on what you can’t eat. These cookbooks remind you how much delicious food you can have, without compromise – and often, you’ll forget that you’re on any kind of food plan. These cookbooks aren’t just “good… if you have to be paleo." They’re good.

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