Friday, December 4, 2009

COOKBOOKS: The Year's Best

Is there any better gift to give at Christmas time than a book? Yes--a cookbook. Most people are compiling their best of lists and I am no exception. I didn't set out to make a ten-best list. I had six and then I remembered a seventh, and checked on the books I'd reviewed already and found a 8th and 9th and then I remembered the 10 anniversary edition of America's Test Kitchen which I hadn't reviewed, but had recently arrived and qualifies as a new book this year, and just had to add it to the list, and voila!--I have ten. 2009 was a terrific year for cookbooks, with many published that I admired. Let me start with a book that I bought earlier this year and thoroughly loved before I launched

WHAT WE EAT WHEN WE EAT ALONE: Stories and 100 Recipes by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin (Gibbs Smith). Deborah Madison's books have always held a pride-of-place position in my cookbook collection. She is a wonderfully inventive creator of delicious recipes, and an elegant writer. WHAT WE EAT WHEN WE EAT ALONE is a charming, unscientific investigation of the things we consume when nobody is looking. Madison uncovers some hilariously awful bad meals such as a mustard sandwich with reworked coffee, or boiled pork rinds mixed with fried onions and scrambled eggs and then put in a hot tortilla. She found that people loved telling her stories about the strange and creative things they prepared to eat while standing over the kitchen sink or sitting down to a solitary yet formally set dinner table. In between Madison offers a selection of recipe fixes for some of these bizarre combinations such as Spaghetti with Tuna and Capers, or Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Goat Cheese. The is a delightful book to read as well as cook from and Madison is superbly abetted by her husband Patrick McFarlin's humorous drawings. This is the best armchair book about food since David Kamp's The United States of Arugula.

RUSTIC FRUIT DESSERTS: Crumbles, Buckles, Cobbles, Pandowdies, and More by Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson (10 Speed Press). I launched this blog with this wonderful cookbook. Fruit desserts are amongst my very favorite sweet pastimes, and I predict you will want to bake everything here. I loved making the Upside-Down Pear Chocolate Cake as much as I enjoyed eating it. The recipes are clearly written and well within the baker's ability from beginner to expert. Another favorite was Caramel Peach Grunt.

NEW AMERICAN TABLE by Marcus Samuelsson (Wiley). To my mind, this is the most exciting cookbook published this year. Samuelsson surveys the incredible fusion of ethnic and modern foods in this country and has created in this large, overflowing volume many spicy, sweet, sour, pungent, hot, salty, tangy, and immensely satisfying dishes. Try the Lobster Orzo or Lentil Soup with Pork and Lamb Meatballs, and you'll see what I mean.

GOURMET TODAY edited by Ruth Reichl (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Published just weeks before Conde Nast closed down this beloved culinary magazine, GOURMET TODAY received an ironic shot of publicity that made the book a national bestseller. I'm a sucker for big, all-purpose cookbooks and this one now goes to the head of the class as one of the best all-purpose cookbooks available. Gemelli with Mushrooms with Parmesan Crumb Topping and Seared Scallops with Brussels Sprouts and Bacon are just two of the flavorful recipes that just might make it into your regular repertoire of favorite recipes.

SLOW: Life in a Tuscan Town by Douglas Gayeton (Welcome Books). Not a cookbook, but an art book about food that qualifies as the most beautiful book published this year. Gayeton, a documentary film maker was asked by PBS to do a film about the slow food movement in Italy. He decided on Pistoia, a Tuscan village town where he lived, and a place were every citizen knows exactly where their food comes from. The film never got made, but Gayeton's camera evocatively captures the hunters, foragers, wine producers, olive growers, cheesemakers, butchers, bakers, and other personalities who created and cultivated the foods enjoyed by this town's citizens. The glorious sepia-tone photo montages are enlivened by Gayeton's elegantly written perspectives on many of the images created here.

660 CURRIES by Raghavan Iyer (Workman). Here's another book that I purchased before I launched StoveTopReadings. Iyer, a Minneapolis-based cooking teacher and a fine cookbook writer broke through this year with this hefty tome. It's a great introduction to the art of curries and to judge from Iyer's expert excavation, the subject is as vast as the regions from which these dishes come from. Workman has always found those cookbooks that define a cateory such as Steve Raichlen's barbecue books or the Silver Palate ladies. Demystifying a great cuisine is always difficult and often it takes time to make a splash. 660 CURRIES definitely does. Curries are organized here by category such as beef, lamb and pork, or shellfish and other seafood, or by beans or vegetables. Try New Potatoes and Spinach in a Garlic-Red Chile Sauce or Beginner Almond Shrimp with Tomatoes. This book is an culinary adventure you'll want to return to again and again.

THE FOODIE HANDBOOK: The (Almost) Definitive Guide to Gastronomy by Pim Techamuanvivit (Chronicle Books). I was prepared to be put off by this title. Foodie sounds so cliquish, something this warm, funny and very readable books is not. The author of Chez Pim, a very popular food blog, Ms. Techamuanvivit's mission is for you to stop worrying about how to order foreign cuisine in a restaurant, pilot your way through a wine list, demystifies sushi, all while getting in touch with your inner foodie. She offers examples of shams, and other signs of culinary mediocrity. I'm going to quote one of my favorite lines in the book: "Frankly, I don't take people seriously when they tell me they can't bake." I wholeheartedly agree and Ms. Techamuanvivit sets about teaching the insecure baker how to make basic tart dough. The book is filled with wonderful recipes and the author is a confident-enough cook to offer her own improvements of a roast chicken recipe from none other than Joel Robochon. Simple Bread and Onion Soup is an astounding creation. I'll have more to say about this entertaining and encouraging book in the next few weeks.

THE COMPLETE AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN TV SHOW COOKBOOK: 2001-2010. Remember I said I love big cookbook collections? I cannot resist any episode of America's Test Kitchen and have been an avid fan for years. Even when I know I'm not going to make a recipe they are featuring, I won't skip an opportunity to find out about new equipment and learn new techniques. They rate products they have tested as well, so you find out who makes the best peanut butter or which cake mix produces the finest results. I gave away my individual yearly collections when this big survey arrived at my door. The Simple Roast Chicken is beyond dependable and utterly delicious. Brining ensures will emerge tender and juicy instead of the tough shoe leather frying on top of the stove invariably produces. This big book features popular daily fare from soup to desserts and everything is reliably tasty.

LIDIA COOKS FROM THE HEART OF ITALY: A Feast of 175 Regional Recipes (Knopf) by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich. My favorite TV chef has a new companion book to her PBS series, and as usual with this great teacher and food personality, it' a winner. Lidia is so consistent and always manages to provide a great sampling of recipes featuring everyone's favorite cuisine (or should I say, cucina?). Try the Lamb Chunks with Olives, a savory dish that is quite simple to make and addictive. Celery Steamed in a Skillet is a delicious way to finally liberate this vegetable from supporting player in salads, soups an stews, to "a grand side dish for grilled fish or chicken." There are always new things to discover in a book by Lidia and this outstanding new one is no exception.

THE COCKTAIL PRIMER: All You Need to Know to Make the Perfect Drink (Andrews McMeel Publishing) by Eben Klemm. A master mixologist distills the wisdom accumulated through his years overseeing and creating the cocktail menus of some of New York's most popular restaurants. This book doesn't seek to turn you into a bartender. But it will show you how to make outstanding versions of cocktails you will most likely make at home such as Martini's, Manhattan's, Sidecars, Mojitos, Margaritas, Sazeracs and a True Sour. Rather than being an encyclopedic survey of cocktails, this book entertainingly explores the nuances of mixing, stirring, pouring and enjoying. It's also a great-looking book to give this holiday season.

All these wonderful cookbooks are available at your local bookstore, or on or other websites.

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