Monday, December 5, 2011

BEST COOKBOOKS OF 2011; Plus a Few More Worthy of Your Attention

Was there a big trend in cookbooks in 2011? Not that I could see, though meat was a big single subject item with at least six or so coming across my desk.  I got a slew of single subject books (more bacon, more cupcakes, even a pie-baked-in-jars collection, which I think are called cutie pies).  There were also some thundering disappointments which I'll skip over because they came from sources that I've admired and written about extensively (nobody hits a home run with every book, and cookbook writers are no exception).  But there were a bunch of fine cookbooks published this year, some which took me by surprise, while others, long anticipated, lived up to expectations.

My Favorite Book of 2011

I couldn't wait for the American edition of Nigel Slater's TENDER: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch (10 Speed Press; $40.00), because I so much enjoyed The Kitchen Diaries, his previous work.  While that book dealt with a seasonal approach to cooking around the year, TENDER is about something I suspect many city dwellers often long for--a garden patch of their own.  Since 2000 Slater, one of Great Britain's most admired food writers, has planted vegetables in the small, forty-foot back yard of his London home.  In the process of sowing and creating meals with his own lettuces, potatoes, carrots, etc., Slater shares with the reader the thrill of watching something grow, tending to his garden patch with devotion and awe.  In all he writes with glowing affection and respect about twenty-nine different vegetables, from seeds to finished dishes. Slater is a wonderful creator of recipes. A Gratin of White Cabbage, Cheese and Mustard is a good example. He smartly points out that "the 'white' cabbages that sit on supermarket shelves like rock-hard footballs can be put to good use in a gratin." I think of celery in tuna fish or potato salad, or as my mother used to do, a celery stalk slathered with peanut butter. Slater gives us a lovely and simple soup of celery and blue cheese or another satisfying gratin of celery napped in a bechamel, Parmesan and breadcrumbs.  Here is that rare cookbook that belongs on the nightstand or armchair table, to be dipped into over and over again. But don't forget to  whisk it into the kitchen.  Kudos to 10 Speed Press for making this outstanding book available to American readers and cooks. Have I already said this is my favorite cookbook of 2011?

I became an enthusiastic member of the website run Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs.  Presiding over a community of stylish home cooks, Hesser and Stubbs have found like-minded food lovers who share their recipes, suggestions, time-saving tips, selected genius recipes from some of the finest cookbook writers, and contests where members are asked for their best recipes for spinach or holiday cookies, etc. I confess that I've cooked more recipes from this site and now THE FOOD52 COOKBOOK: 140 Winning Recipes from Exceptional Home Cooks (William Morrow; $35.00) by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs and the Food52 community, than any other book or source this year.  All the recipes seem fresh, contemporary and even old favorites seem reborn.  The book represents "a year's worth of contests--every recipe comes from one of our members and was chosen as a winner by his or her peers," Hesser and Stubbs write in the book's Introduction. Each recipe is accompanied by comments from members,  a few words about the or by the cook, and tips and techniques. In my review a few weeks ago, I called it one of my favorite cookbooks of the year.  Two recipes from the book appeared on my Thanksgiving table, including Lazy Mary's Lemon Tart, an ethereal creation that uses Meyer lemons--rind and all--with sugar, eggs and butter poured into a pre-baked tart dough and given a thirty minute setting in the oven.  I also adapted their recipe for Luciana's Porchetta, using a turkey breast instead of a butterflied pork shoulder. The substitution worked perfectly, and I didn't have to stare at a pile of leftover turkey. I've already raved about Daddy's Carbonara, a fantastic Wishbone Roast Chicken with Herb Butter, and especially Simple Summer Peach Cake.  We've all got cookbooks with one or two really good recipes that we hang on to, but THE FOOD52 COOKBOOK is loaded with lots of recipes you'll want to use over and over again. The bonus is the website great cooking ideas, recipes, and community come together every week of the year.

The twelve states that comprise the Midwest received a valentine in the form of HEARTLAND: The Cookbook (Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC; $35.00), Judith Fertig's magnificent tribute to the rich culinary traditions of this area of the country.  A wonderfully contemporary collection of recipes, historic anecdotes, profiles of food purveyors, and farmers HEARTLAND also soars because of the superb location and food photography of Jonathan Chester and Ben Pieper.  Page after page of images of communal dinners, livestock, covered barns, farmlands, gorgeous produce, and homemade foods, provide ample evidence of the sophistication, pride and sheer goodness of the food available in the very center of the United States.  A single recipe for No-Knead Clover Honey Dough provides the wide application of Clover Honey Boules, Clover Honey Challah, Farmhouse Yeast Rolls, Cider-Glazed Cinnamon Rolls, Apricot-Cream Cheese Strudel, and Berry Pickin' Coffee Cake. I made a batch of Rosy Rhubarb Syrup last spring, and which was a delightful syrup for pancakes, and a delicious component for Rosy Margaritas and Porch Swing Lemonade. And it freezes beautifully to be enjoyed all year long.  Mindful of the seasons, you'll find an inspired Prairie Panzanella that takes advantage of summer's garden bounty, and a rich Butternut Squash, Morel, and Sage Brown Butter Lasagna for an elegant fall dinner party. HEARTLAND reminds us that America's culinary heart is right in the middle of the left and right coasts!

In 1993, the culinary world found it's best stand-up comedian/cookbook writer since Peg Bracken with the publication of Beat This! and two years later, Beat That!  Not only is Ann Hodgman funny, she's a brazen kitchen wizard who immodestly declares her recipes for apple pies, hot chocolate, macaroni & cheese, brownies, french toast, roast turkey and strawberry short cake are the best of the best! And dammit, she's right! Nearly twenty years later, it was time to give those recipes a second look. Some were dropped, others improved, as if gilding the lily were needed. In BEAT THIS! COOKBOOK: Absolutely Unbeatable Knock-'em-Dead Recipes for the Very Best Dishes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $14.95), Hodgman not only gussied up a collection that will brook no arguments she upped the ante by adding fifty new entries.  Now that's crust for you.   

When a writer comes up with a line like, "Might as well start liking goat cheese--it's not going to go away," I pay attention. That's funny.  Or the opening to World's Best Bread:  "I've stolen this recipe from myself; it first appeared in One Bite Won't Kill You (which she wrote)" I howled when I came across this confession:  The first time I dropped the poor thing (the lobster, I mean) into the steaming pot, I inadvertently shrieked out, 'God have mercy!'" And She knows a prime example of the emperor's new clothes: "Why are people always so proud of their brownie recipes?" she wonders.  "Katharine Hepburn, for example.  If there's anything I'm sick of--besides the way she always says she's a regular person and not an actress--it's reading about how sinful her brownies are. Actually, Hepburn's is the dullest brownie formula there is, and one of the most common." 

But amongst all the merriment, you'll find the skill of a master home cook.  Ann Hodman's Powerfully Better Than Any Other Pot Roast, is exactly that.  She uses first-cut beef brisket, because it is superior to such supermarket manicured cuts as "Yankee pot roast." In Perfect Fudge (If You're Lucky), she admits, "You do have a chance of screwing up this recipe, alas.  Because it has more chocolate and more butterfat than most fudges, its temperamental. Even with superfine sugar, which helps ward off crystallizing, it still might crystallize. But if you treat it very respectfully and don't overbeat it and don't make it on a damp day and don't let the chocolate scorch and don't scrape the pan when you're pouring the fudge and don't do all the other things that make fudge cranky, you'll find this fudge sublime (to use a food writerly-word)."  At least she gives you the bad news before you attempt it, unlike other books that insist in making it your fault by not warning you.  Make Ann's Pesto Torta (Best Cocktail Party Cheese Thing).  I made this recipe to get over a bad culinary memory.  I had bought a large wedge of something similar in name at Balducci's in New York years ago for a holiday party.  It was very expensive and tasted just awful.  Every ingredient in this oily, cheesy mess tasted way beyond its sell-by date.  But Ann's recipe is fresh, elegant and festive and proves that it's better homemade. No wonder she's so proprietary about it (you'll just have to read the book to know what I mean).  These recipes are not to be beat, and really, how many cookbooks do you know that have as many "best" recipes or great comedic one-liners as BEAT THIS!? This book could be your most inspired stocking stuffer yet.

Reading James Villas cookbooks takes me back to the culinary gods of my youth--Julia Child, James Beard, Marcella Hazan, Maida Heatter and Barbara Kafka.  These personalities wrote with such authority. They were masters, not to be argued with. The food and wine editor at Town & Country magazine for more than twenty five years, and author of many fine cookbooks, James Villas (who counted many of these personalities as friends) also combines craft, knowledge and conviction.  FROM THE GROUND UP: Hundreds of Amazing Recipes from Around the World for Ground Meats, including Beef, Chicken, Pork, Seafood, and More (Wiley; $22.99), should be the final word on this wide-ranging subject. Villas covers the ground meats from appetizers, canapés, and dips, soups and salads, patties, balls and dumplings, loaves, croquettes, and cakes, pies, quiches and soufflés, to casseroles and pastas, hashes and chilies, stuffed dishes and forcemeats, sausages, and sauces. I would have bought this book for his French Country Pate recipe alone.  The good news is there are more than 200 recipes in this divine collection, which goes far beyond meatloaf.  

And speaking of James Villas, I thought he had written the definitive book on Pig in 2010 and Bacon in 2007.  As a writer, I am seldom careful with the word definitive and toss it around far too many times. It always comes around to bite me later on, as it did late this summer when THE WHOLE HOG COOKBOOK: Chops, Loin, Shoulder, Bacon, and All that Great Stuff (Rizzoli; $30.00) arrived. Libbie Summers, who is currently the culinary producer for Paul Deen's network show and the senior food editor for Paul Deen Enterprises, produces here a stylish and totally complimentary cookbook to Villas's efforts.  The organization of this book is very appealing, with each part of the pig receiving it's own chapters. I'm one of those people who needs a picture or a diagram to locate or define details for me.  I now really understand the difference between baby back and spare ribs, or Boston shoulder and picnic shoulder.  I know now how to render leaf lard, wet-cure bacon or carve a fresh ham. And I have a new batch of terrific recipes. The first thing I made from the book was Grilled Tenderloin and Fingerling Potato Salad, which I've made at least twice since then. There's a crowd-pleasing Cuban Pork Roast with Sweet Cilantro Rice that can feed eight.  Spicy Meatballs and Simple Sunday Red Sauce could change the way you think about using pork instead of beef.  Porkovers and Bacon and Cheese Puffers make me want to have friends over for cocktails. Nothing is definitive. Lesson learned. 

I have come to the Claudia Roden party a bit late.  Arabesque is one of the most gorgeous cookbooks I've ever seen and the recipes are superb.  So are many of the other ten cookbooks she has authored, including The Book of Jewish Food and The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. Born in Cairo, she has long made the Middle East her culinary beat. But she has also written extensively about Mediterranean cuisine.  When I bought a copy of THE FOOD OF SPAIN (Ecco; $39.95), I thought Ms. Roden  had wandered off her usual path, but as she explains, her Grandmother was a descendant of Sephardi Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, the year Columbus set sail for the Americas. So it makes much sense that Ms. Rodin would deliver an impressive survey of Spanish food by region in gorgeously illustrated cookbook that you shouldn't miss.  Spanish food has been hot, hot, hot for the past decade.  I'm sure to catch hell about this, but during my lone visit to Spain in 1999, I found myself very disappointed in most of the food I encountered in Madrid and Barcelona. It's not that I ate badly, nor did I think my usually good food radar was off. But overall, I found the bread to be flat. The food had a musty old-world feel to it and seemed to lack the creativity and variety of French and Italian cuisine. This was a few years before the country seemed to undergo a huge culinary reversal as Spain emerged from the repressive Franco era. Ms. Roden points out that San Sebastian, in the Basque Country, has become the culinary capital of Europe with "the greatest concentration of Michelin three-star restaurants in Spain." And who can ignore the intense food media focus on the work of Ferran Adria, the iconic master chef of molecular gastronomy who packed them in to his celebrated restaurant, El Bulli in the Catalonian city of Roses (now closed). Adria has influenced chefs globally, and he delivers the cover blur on front of the jacket cover. 

You won't find Adria's culinary thumbprint on this book. Ms. Roden notes "Throughout the country, there is a palpable feeling of nostalgia for the old rural life that was too quickly swept away by the booming tourist economy. It has translated into a new found passion for regional cooking and products," she continues.  Like Italy, Spain is made up of many different communities, each divided into provinces, and each has its own cooking traditions.  In the 200 recipes, Ms. Roden explores this diversity in rich detail.  Of course there are recipes for paella, the Spanish national dish, and Salsa De Romesco, which American chefs have recently rediscovered and re-popularized.  There are also many dishes that ought to be far better known such as Fried Goat Cheese with Honey and Scrambled Eggs with Asparagus and Shrimp from Andalusia, Angelita's Tuna Pie from Galicia, Mushroom Flan from Navarre. "Wrinkled" Potatoes with Red and Green Sauces from the Canary Islands, Roast Pork Belly with Baked Apples from Asturias, Orange Flan from Valencia and Murcia, Chocolate and Almond Cake from Catalonia, and Puff Pastry Filled with Almond Custard from Navarre and the Basque Country. Ms. Roden explores all these regions and more, while describing the food products each region is famous for .  There are detailed sidebars on Spanish kitchen utensils, discussions of olives and olive oil, cheese, various pimenton (paprika), Spains's celbrated cured hams, almonds, safron, and bacalao (dried codfish), which have given Spain its distinctive dishes, as well as profiles of food personalities and chefs she met during the research for this cookbook.  

THE FOOD OF SPAIN plunges the reader into the country's diverse culture of food, revealing its influences, and its richness. The 600 photographs will make you want to book a flight there as soon as possible. It is the book on Spanish cuisine and belongs in any serious cookbook collection. 

DESSERTS FROM THE FAMOUS LOVELESS CAFE: Simple Southern Pies, Puddings, Cakes and Cobblers from Nashville's Landmark Restaurant (Artisan; 24.95) will save you a lot of time and money by allowing you to bake your own desserts based on the beloved Nashville eatery.  The reason this book should get your attention is for its superb collection written by the co-author of Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes.  That amazing baking book was seriously overlooked by the food press when it was published two years ago.  People have been mobbing the Loveless Cafe since it opened its doors in 1951.  With the arrival of the dazzlingly talented Alisa Huntsman in 2004, the restaurant added desserts to the menu and the crowds have just gotten bigger.  A master baker, Huntsman was instructed to "come up with a banana pudding, a rice pudding, several assorted pies, and a cobbler--typical Southern staples," she relates in her Introduction. "Turns out I had some learning to do...That included ramping up the sweetness of her confections to match the Southern sweet tooth.  "So I tweaked the recipes gradually, notching up the sweetness to please our customers palates, yet not going overboard."  

DESSERTS FROM THE FAMOUS LOVELESS CAFE highlights the best of Southern confections. These are desserts dear to every American heart. From Blue-Ribbon Pies (Peekaboo Blueberry Pie, Muddy Fudge Pie, Tennessee Sweet Potato Pie), turnovers (Naked Berry Pies), and cakes (Big Momma's Blackberry Jam Cake, Southern-Style Coconut Cake, Root Beer Float Cake), to crisps, cobblers and shortcakes (Apple-Gingersnap Brown BettyPeach Cobbler, Fourth of July Berry Shortcakes with Buttermilk Biscuits), cookies, bars and cupcakes (Chocolate Cherry Cha-chas, One-bowl Brownie Drops, Lady Lemon Bars, Black Bottom Cupcakes), and old-fashioned puddings (Butterscotch, Tapioca and Brownie Bread Pudding).  The first thing I made was a fantastic and elegant Butterscotch Pudding.  This is the real deal--a pudding with old fashioned butterscotch flavor and a texture that is silken. The recipes are gathered into a nostalgic-looking, soft-focus package that make it feel vintage. The Red Velvet Cake on the book's jacket says it all.  This is dessert book to dip into all year long.  

(My apologies here to Ms. Huntsman--my Amazon link won't let me copy and paste her book for some strange reason).  DESSERTS FROM THE FAMOUS LOVELESS CAFE is available at,, and in bookstores nationwide).  

SUGARBABY: Confections, Candies, Cakes & Other Delicious Recipes for Cooking with Sugar (Stewart, Tabori and Chang; $29.95) was my other favorite dessert collection.  Gesine Bullock-Prado's approach is to leave the oven (mostly) off and see what you can do with sugar on top of the stove. The sister of Sandra Bullock, Ms. Bullock-Prado has a showbiz personality that she's perfectly aligned with her inner-sweet tooth.  The result is a divine assortment of sweets that are organized by the degree on a candy thermometer. You can make your own Rock Candy, Bittersweet Pudding (Pops), Candied Citrus Peel, Candy Corn, Old-School Chocolate Fudge, Pecan Butter Crunch Tart, Gesine's Fruit Gummis, Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels, Buttery Almond Toffee, Parisian Macarons, Mango Moose Cake, Salted Dulce de Leche Cupcakes, and Cotton Candy.  The author's reassuring voice is light and humorous and instructions are crystal clear. 

The following books didn't make it into my list of best cookbooks of the year, but for various reasons (listed below) and because they make for great Christmas gifts, I couldn't resist talking about them. 

It figures the most beautiful cookbook of year is titled:  PLUM GORGEOUS: Recipes and Memories from the Orchard (Andrews McMeel Publishing; $25.00). Written by Romney Steele, the granddaughter of Bill and Lolly Fassett, the creators of the legendary Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur, this is a book that celebrates the sheer gorgeousness of fruit at its peak. The book is loaded with beautiful recipes from savory (Fig Relish and Ham Sandwiches (panini), Pear and Butternut Squash Soup and Marmalade Chicken) to sweet (Blueberry Lemon-Lime Gratin, Plum Blackberry Sorbet and Plum Gorgeous Almond Tart).  This is one cookbook that requires no gift wrap.  

The Cooking Channel unleashed the sui generis charms of Nadia G, and Bitchin Kitchen became a hit for the fledgling network.  Fusing a glam rocker/biker chick image with a Brooklynese accent and culinary school chops, Nadia G's shows are hilariously orginal. She says she's part Italian and she knows her Neapolitan dialect. Sounding like a feminine version of the Fonz, NADIA G'S BITCHIN KITCHEN COOKIN' FOR TROUBLE (Ballantine Books trade paperback; $22.00) delivers in her first sassy slice-of-life cookbook.  

Nadia G created her own culinary platform online and then took it to TV,  Decked out in bad girl couture, tatted, her long locks streaked eighty shades of blond and bedecked in jewelry of questionable taste, Nadia G attacks a kitchen in stiletto heels with menus for all the emotional ups and downs of a girl's life.  Her depression desserts may not cure you of your affliction, but while you're eating them, you'll be smiling.  Try Rebecca's Psycho PMS Chocolate Balls, or Inverted Lemon Meringue Pie.  Her advice is good too: "When life hands you lemons, make lemon custard." Actually when Nadia G isn't cooking, she's riffing. I cant' resist her recipes or her philosophizing. In her Bitchin' booty camp XTREME, Nadia G relates, "Let's face it, I'm ripped.  But it wasn't always this glass of wine used to cut it." Her creamy cream-less soups such as Carrot-Ginger, Spinach and Tomato-Pepper, might make you as sleep in a vinyl cat suit. Did someone mention kitten with a whip? Nadia G has put the fun back in cooking shows. No cupcake competitions or Iron Chef nonsense for this culinary dynamo.  

A Cookbook I Should Have Covered in 2010:

I think India may be the only other world cuisine that matches Chinese cooking in sheer variety and exotic splendor.  The works of Julie Sahni and Madhur Jaffrey have long dominated U.S. cookbook shelves when it comes to Indian cuisine. But lately they've been joined by 660 Curries, Raghavan Iyer's huge exploration  on that particular dish, and Suvir Saran's Indian Home Cooking and American Marsala. Good as those books are, they can't begin to define the enormous range and completeness of the INDIA COOKBOOK (Phaidon; November, 2010; $49.95). Pushpesh Pant, renowned Indian food expert and cookbook author has produced a rich immersion in this astonishingly varied and easy-to-master cuisine with 1,000 recipes.  The book is lavishly illustrated with 200 color photographs and is to India what Joy of Cooking is to the U.S. or The Silver Spoon is to Italy.

Vegetables in Indian cookery attain the level of genius and my eye immediately was struck by a recipe for Cauliflower with Oranges. I love cauliflower and I'm always looking for new ways to cook it.  Start here with this heady mix of cauliflower, potatoes, turmeric, bay leaf,  ground fresh ginger, onions, chili powder, cumin, green chilies and orange slices. Easy to put together and with plenty of simmering while you prepare other parts of your meal.  A good use for the popular home deep fryer would be Cauliflower Fritters (I'm purposely using the recipe titles in English).  With nine other cauliflower recipes, you begin to see the range of and creativity of Indian cookery for this single vegetable. But I'm digressing.

Open the INDIA COOKBOOK and get caught up in its encyclopedic charms. Professor Pant offers a history of Indian cooking by region with lots of fascinating details about feasts, food traditions, and spices and the vital role they play. If you have one Indian cookbook to buy this year, this one pretty much covers the whole field.  


  1. i'm truly honored to have made the list! congratulations to everyone else who did as well and a big thanks to greg for including my book!!!

  2. Curry Point Restaurant
    congratulations dear,
    I thought that can help you to get lots of reader..i like your spirit and all the topic which include in this book.
    It is really interested details about feasts, food traditions, and spices