In cookbooks this was the year of the TOME. Publishers issued huge, thick and densely photographed and illustrated books including The Essential New York Times Cookbook, The Sunset Cookbook, Bon Appétit Desserts, Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade: The Complete Cookbook, a new edition of Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, Williams-Sonoma Cooking at Home; Molly O’Neill’s One Big Table, and Pushpesh Pant's wildly exotic India Cookbook. Even Jane Hornsby’s What to Cook & How to Cook It feels big because while it contains only 100 recipes, each recipe has photos of various stages of a recipe’s progression, making for a larger book. Plus Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson delivered two “large” cookbooks this season. Rachel Saunders’ The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook feels big, and so does Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan. Fortunately most of them added substantially to our cooking pleasure.
When selecting my list of top cookbooks of the year, I noticed an interesting development: none of my choices involves either a restaurant celebrity chef (a category of cookbook that I rarely find useful to home cooks), or a current TV personality. While most of the writers here are well-known, few are household names. What they tend to share in common is the ability to produce outstanding and reliable cookbooks year-in and year-out, and most of them are women. This is worth crowing about.
I’ve been hearing dire predictions that cookbooks are a dying genre. Not so if one were to count the number that made it to my door this year, and we’re still in the midst of a difficult economy. It was nearly impossible to whittle down so many cookbooks (I review on average four cookbooks a month, or about 50 books per year). I’ve selected a few more worthy titles—in other words, my top ten list blew up a little.
In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite by Melissa Clark (Hyperion)
Reading Melissa Clark makes me smile. Cooking any recipe by Melissa Clark makes me swoon. Her food is so delicious, so personal and so good. There’s nothing complicated here—nor is it dumbed-down, quick-cook short cuts (and those that are quick delight us in their brevity). This is food you can get on the table every day and creative enough to lay out on a tablecloth with candles and cloth napkins and a good bottle of wine for company. Clark creates great home cooking, and finds inspiration everywhere. Whether she’s creating recipes by the seasons, or discovering a new ingredient, finding something special at her local farmer’s market, or recalling a culinary memory from childhood, Melissa Clark is welcoming to good food ideas wherever she finds them. A Good Appetite is a column that I read without fail every Wednesday in The New York Times. I’ve already raved about My Mother’s Garlic and Thyme-Roasted Chicken Parts with Mustard Croutons. But you have to make Spaghetti with Spicy Tomato, Clams, and Bacon, Pesto Scrambled Eggs with Fresh Ricotta, and Karen’s Chorizo Corn Dog Bites—you really have to. Here’s a book that is guaranteed to be splattered with overuse and read over and over again for her warmth, humor, generosity, and scrumptious food.
If you are going to publish a big survey about my favorite meat, then commit to finding the right guy to do the job. James Villas, who spent a long period of his life as food and wine editor for Town & Country magazine) is just the writer for this delightful exploration. Despite his many years in New York, this North Carolina native has never abandoned his southern roots and gives us lots of a tasty recipes for all parts of the pig plus all the hoglore you’ll ever need to know. I loved his rant about breakfast sausage, which southerners take far more seriously than the rest of us Yankees. He abhors the bland stuff in supermarkets above the Mason-Dixon line (and of course he's right). This is a book that will remind us that southerners use all parts of the pig, much like the French and Italians. I was over the moon about Carolina Pork and Sweet Potato Pie with Biscuit Batter Crust, Ham Croquettes with Parsley Sauce, and Bacon Cheddar Biscuits. Pork is the most flavorful of all meat, and whether you’re looking for “cue”, ham, sausage, roasts, chops, casseroles (or those items that make today’s bland supermarket shoppers squirm: Deviled Pig’s Feet, Hog’s Head Stew, Mississippi Crusted Pigs’ Ears, etc.), and so much more, James Villas delivers tasty recipes and strong opinions in equal measure.
One of the most pleasurable aspects of visiting Spain is to go to a local bar or pub, order a glass of wine or beer or sherry, and indulge in the little plates of food that are available to accompany the aperitif. These creative little snacks will keep you satisfied until dinner. It’s a wonderful social ritual, but all too often tapas bars in the U.S. have blown the concept up. Instead of a little bite of this or that, we get groaning plates of abundance that all but overwhelm the appetite. The Book of Tapas is steeped in authenticity—it’s creator is Simone Ortega, author of the much admired 1080 recipes, Spain’s version of Joy of Cooking (an co-written with her daughter Inés Ortega). I often go crazy about the production of cookbooks. But The Book of Tapas is truly one of the most gorgeous books you’ll ever hold in your hands. It’s distinctive yellow paper with red type for the headnotes and black type for the recipes is eye-catching. There are five generous color photo inserts of hunger-inducing tapas, lavish even by today's standards for a cookbook.
And the food? Ranging from easy to a little more complicated, wouldn’t it be nice to eat your throughout the categories (but not in one seating!) beginning with vegetables. How about Mushroom and Olive Salad or Prunes with Roquefort, Raisins and Pine Nuts? For eggs and cheese there’s a classic Spanish Tortilla, or Cheese Fritters with Tomato Sauce. For fish and seafood there is Saffron Rice with Clams or Salt Cod and Potato Croquettes. Bite-sized Melon Balls with Ham, show off the country’s justly prized Serrano ham, and Chicken and Bell Pepper Empanadas is an excellent example of Spain’s pocket-sized snack in a crust. The book showcases traditional tapas, but the authors also include updated tapas recipes from celebrated international chefs. A striking-looking and useful cookbook.
In a year of big, ungainly cookbooks, this might have ended up as just another massive doorstop corporate cookbook. The great recipes she has culled from the Times’ archives over the past 150 years instead, are framed by Hesser’s witty, engaging (and sometimes bracingly peckish) headnotes. Hesser is full of good advice and history in this big survey. She has tested every one of the more than 1,000 recipes often providing tips and ideas that improve on the originals. While respectful of the great food icons, she doesn’t stick them on a pedestal. Intriguingly Hesser selects a recipe for Maida Heatter’s Cuban Black Beans and Rice while passing over her famous East 62nd Street Lemon Cake (opting for another cake she thinks is even more lemony and moist). As someone who religiously cooked from the NYTimes food pages for nearly four decades, I can assure you that all the famous recipes are here from Le Cirque’s iconic Spaghetti Primavera and James Beard’s Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic, to Monte’s Ham and the wildly absurd Bacon Explosion (a frat-house inspired recipe of sausage stuffed in a bacon lattice wrap and basted in barbecue sauce) and No-Knead Bread (“easily the most famous recipe ever to run in the Times.”). But there are plenty of little known recipes published in the paper over the years. While reading the book, I ran across a recipe for Fried Green Tomatoes, and was struck by Hesser’s description: “The strange thing about fried green tomatoes is that if you close your eyes, you might think you were eating fried lemons—good jammy lemons, tart but not painfully so.” I tried them that night and the simplicity of preparation (a light dusting of flour, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and a quick frying in canola oil, produced lovely, tart, jammy, green tomato slices). The range from simple to fancy is vast and the vintage photographs are a nice touch. This is a cookbook I’ll dip into regularly and use often. When you consider that not only did Amanda Hesser take on this heroic assignment and pulled it off magnificently, she did it with her food partner, Merrill Stubbs, while they launched their popular Food52 website. Impressive indeed.
Yes, I worked on the publicity for this book (I actually previewed it on my blog before the publisher hired me), but the avalanche of press this superb collection received couldn’t have been achieved unless the writer didn’t already have a mountain of good will from her readers and the food press. The best cookbook of the year, and I got to work on it. It doesn’t get better than that. For details do a Google search, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about that avalanche.
Insalata by Heidi Insalata Krahling (self published)
This stunningly beautiful, self-published cookbook comes from a chef in Marin County whose popular Insalata restaurant in San Anselmo, California has been packing them in for more than thirteen years. Krahling’s excellent Mediterranean recipes, are set off by Laura Parker’s magical color illustrations of fruits and vegetables. I made her recipe for Preserved Lemons and more importantly Fattoush Salad, a Middle Eastern bread salad with black olives, red onion, cherry tomatoes, cumber slices, feta cheese, romaine lettuce, cilantro and mint. What a combination of superb flavors. I served it to a friend, and we consumed a large salad for four very easily. The Cataplana with its mix of clams, chorizo sausage and tomatoes is fabulous. Krahling told me she self-published in order to produce the book she had in her head. What a fine imagination she has on the plate and off. This book amply demonstrates that vision isn’t always with the big publishers. And my thanks to Elizabeth at Ste. Maine, a gorgeous shop in Portland that sells amongst other things really nice cookbooks, for bringing this lovely book to my attention.
Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners (Simon & Schuster)
If there is a less pretentious, more accessible, and creative cookbook that gets great food on the table in good time with the least amount of fuss, I haven’t seen it this year. Sara puts convenience foods and salad bars, and takeout to shame, where it belongs. Just try the Creamy Garlic Dressing Two Ways: Rich and Slim. Whether you use yogurt or heavy cream, you’ll be pouring this wonderful emulsion with glee over everything, salad greens, asparagus, green beans, cold meats or fish. She loves Kimchi, the Korean cabbage pickle full of garlic, and uses it in at least four recipes (including a breakfast dish). I’ve already eaten three of the sandwiches (a substantial and creative chapter), including “Fried” Catfish BLTs, which really elevates that classic. There’s an attractive assortment of whole grain entrees, and the vegetarian chapter is really creative (the Rustic Potato and Greens Pie is a delicious example). But the reason this book has stuck in my head is the Butterscotch Pudding Cake—easy, few ingredients, and really wonderful. For the moment, Sara doesn’t have her own TV show, but if anyone can teach America to cook at home, it is Sara and this new book belongs in every family kitchen.
The Italian Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
I was skeptical. The slow cooker is not my favorite kitchen appliance. But I’ve cooked my way through at least six of her other fine books on Italian food, so Michele has instant credibility with me. That credibility was put to the test with Beef in Barolo, a rich braise of boneless beef chuck with Barolo wine, tomatoes, carrots, celery, onions and pancetta. I served it with gnocchi as a first course. The kitchen locusts descended and not a scrap of food remained on the platter. So now I’m a semi-believer. Certainly the slow-cooker lends itself easily to adapting Italian food, such as soups, stews, and pasta sauces, all of which Scicolone delivers with low-key expertise. We all need first rate convenience cookbooks such as this in our collections.
The Gourmet Cookie Book: The Single Best Recipe from Each Year 1941-2009 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
In music there are collections of Elvis’s #1 hits, the Beatles #1 hits, and Michael Jackson’s #1 hits. How about a cookbook of #1 cookie recipes? The fabled and now sadly shuttered magazine offers more than 60 years of sensational cookies, one for every year the magazine was published. I’ve baked many of these cookies over the years and its wonderful to have this collection in one convenient volume.
The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders (Andrews McMeel)
Another one of the most beautiful cookbooks of the year is from the San Francisco-based purveyor of artisanal jams. Rachel Saunders has assembled a stunning collection of fruit jams and marmalades that updates this popular and homey method of preservation in a very sophisticated way. While there are fine recipes for simple orange marmalade, plum, strawberry and other preserves, Saunders has concocted outstanding combinations that just beg for a piece of toast. Virtually pectin free recipes emphasizes the ripeness of the fruit with their jewel-like colors and sheer spreadability. Showtime Plum Jam with Rhubarb and Sour Cherries, Black Fig and Tempranillo Grape Jam, and Citron Shred are just three intriguing possibilities. This is a serious book for jam-makers wanting to expand their repertoires and understand the techniques of the jam-maker’s art. And the delightfully vintage look of the book is very special.
Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People who Cook by Anthony Bourdain (Ecco)
Not a cookbook, but a rangy, often bracing, not always respectful and always intriguing look at today’s food scene. Bourdain deflates a lot of big food egos out there and not a moment too soon. I love the fact that he is worried about being a sellout. He knows his life became something else entirely with the publication of Kitchen Confidential. And he’s used his success to create really interesting TV programming that you won’t see on the Food Network, which often deserves the kick in the ass he gives it. Bourdain cares and has the writer’s chops to deliver one helluva an entertaining rant. Because he loves food, writes so imaginatively about it and takes no prisoners, Bourdain easily made this list. No other book I read this year was as much fun to read as Medium Raw.
A Newly Discovered Classic
Arabesque by Claudia Roden (Knopf)
I don’t know how I the world my radar managed to ignore the work of Claudia Roden, a London-based specialist in Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cooking. I discovered Arabesque (published in 2005) on a friend’s coffee table and became immediately smitten. The jacket of the book is Mediterranean blue with gold and features a pretty dish of raw ingredients such as eggplant artichokes, cinnamon, pine nuts, saffron and peppercorns—pretty but not very revealing. Inside however, Roden conjures up the intoxicating flavors of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon, giving them an urgency and relevance to American cooks, they’ve rarely received in the past. And the food is as flavorful as it is gorgeous to look at. In the chapter on Moroccan food, Skate with Preserved Lemon and Green Olives, is a perfect example. The skate-wing fillets (a favorite fish in my house) with their distinctive corduroy-like ridges, are seared first with the addition of chopped preserved lemon, green olives and parsley. The dish is so easy to put together, utterly delicious and very handsome on the plate. The tagines with their combinations of lamb and other meats, fruit, nuts and aromatics are great entrees for a dinner party. Peppery Bulgar Salad in Baby Romaine Lettuce, Zucchini Fritters, and Chicken Pilaf in a Pie are three fine examples of dishes from Turkey. Lebanese cuisine, may be my favorite of the three. The sweet/sour combination found in Eggplant Slices with Pomegranate, Yogurt and Tahini make for a distinctive starter, and Grilled Poussins with Sumac just hits all my favorite flavor combinations. So does Spinach and Beans with Caramelized Onions. Food this good deserves further investigation, and I’ll be investigating more of Ms. Roden's cookbooks.
OOPS--I CAN'T LIMIT MYSELF TO ONLY A FEW GOOD COOKBOOKS!
I told you it was hard to limit myself to only a few favorites this year. So here a small and equally select group of cookbooks ALSO worth considering for the gift-giving season.
INDIA COOKBOOK by Pushpesh Pant (Phaidon): An exhaustive, handsome survey of Indian cooking with 1000 recipes from India's renowned culinary expert.
FALLING OFF THE BONE by Jean Anderson (Wiley): The award-winning author of many cookbooks (and a cookbook writer I've long admired), turns her attention to those tougher cuts of meat that when cooked correctly, yield tender results, savory results. A timely book to savor in this recessionary era.
MY CALABRIA: Rustic Family CooKing from Italy's Undiscovered South by Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher (Norton): The first important cookbook to explore this little known culinary region. Costantino was born in Calabria and continues the family tradition of teaching, food preservation and gardening in Oakland, California where she also teaches and writes a popular website (www.cookingwithrosetta.com).
HIGH FLAVOR LOW LABOR by J.M. Hirsch (Ballantine Books): The food editor of the Associated Press is also a busy father who by necessity has become a master of flavorful kitchen shortcuts. There are 150 fine recipes here, all worth your attention.
BAKED EXPLORATIONS: Classic American Desserts Reinvented by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito (Stewart Tabori & Chang). The popular owners of Baked in Brooklyn, New York, offer heavenly fresh new takes on the baked goods we love to eat. Try Nutella Scones or Caramel Apple Cake.
SEASONAL FRUIT DESSERTS: From Orchard, Farm, and Market by Deoborah Madison (Broadway): Deborah Madison is a master recipe writer and turns her affection for these rustic and refined sweets into sweet inspiration.
GIFTS COOKS LOVE: Recipes for Giving by Diane Morgan (Sur La Table/Andrews McMeel): Into this awful economy steps the gifted Portland-based food writer with great gift ideas from your kitchen just when we need it most.
READY FOR DESSERT: My Best Recipes by David Lebovitz (10 Speed Press): The Paris-based expat baking master and blogger delivers a new collection of his most sinful creations.
AS ALWAYS, JULIA: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): A chance letter launches a critical friendship between an unknown Julia Child, co-writing her magnum opus (Mastering the Art of French Cooking), and Agnes De Voto, who would not only recognized the quality of the work itself, but also acted as a broker in its long and tortured route to publishing glory. The letters are an intimate window into the minds of two fascinating American women who played an important part in America's modern food revolution.