If you could choose only one new cookbook this fall, you might have a problem. Publishing has had a little outbreak of seriousness, and the selection of new titles is wide and deep.
Say you’re looking for a taste of India, either in a light and easy recipe collection for weeknight cooking or a long and luxurious virtual journey. You might have to take both: “India With Passion” and “Mangoes & Curry Leaves.”
Or you might want to explore Middle Eastern and North African cooking, either with a respectful interest in how Syrian food differs from Jordanian, or just to find some jazzy new party recipes. Again, take two: “The Arab Table” and “Moroccan Modern.”
Or even, let’s get greedy, you want an Italian cookbook that will either transport you to Rome or Tuscany, or give you a one-stop source book for recipes with flavors well beyond the boot. You might have to take three: “Cucina Romana,” “True Tuscan” and “The Silver Spoon.” And you would still be tempted by “How to Cook Italian.”
Fall is always harvest season for cookbooks, with a veritable cornucopia as gift season looms. But this year publishers have something meaty for everyone, including irresistible books that will change the way you bake bread (“Dough”) and approach America’s new addiction (“Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best”).
For those who would rather ponder than saute, there is even a reissue of a 1927 French cookbook that almost makes Julia Child look breezy (“La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange”).
After a long dull spell when publishing seemed to be bunkering down with fast comfort food and silly celebrities, a new awareness seems to be growing of a big wide world out there. American authors are finding subjects they can really sink their teeth into, and foreign publishers are increasingly realizing how big an untapped market there might be for books with authenticity and soul.
These are not the cookbooks you’re likely to find front and center at your local Barnes & Noble, where such titles as “The Best Recipes in the World” and “In Style Parties” will probably always dominate. They are not the three food books among the top 100 bestsellers on Amazon, where a couple of television personalities hold sway. And they are certainly not the chefs’ vanity productions that too often pass for serious in recipe land.
They are either buried a little deeper in stores, are on display in dedicated cookbook shops or sold online, the equalizing outlet that should be the great liberator for timid publishers everywhere.
Imports for home cooks
After all, Ferran Adria’s $492 cookbook is the big news in some circles, but imports aimed more at home cooks are growing. Interlink Books in Northampton, Mass., in particular has three great titles first published overseas. “Cucina Romana” is a lively little neighborhood-by-neighborhood exploration of what makes the food of Italy’s biggest city so fascinating, by a writer raised near the famous Campo dei Fiori, with its amazing produce market and food shops. The recipes are a mix of the very classic (spaghetti alla carbonara) and restaurant modern (whole onions baked in sea salt). Both the food and street photography is almost like being there, without the Vespa din.
Interlink’s “Moroccan Modern” is just as lavishly photographed, but it’s less about a sense of place and more about a flavor profile. Written by a chef with a restaurant in Sydney, it has that singular Australian take on an ethnic cuisine: respectful of history but not afraid to mix in New World flavors.
A tortilla, for instance, is the typical baked egg dish with potatoes, but it also contains olives and harissa and is finished with a frosting of sour cream and caviar that does not exactly evoke Marrakesh. But this is just what makes “Modern” a keeper: The recipes can be integrated into a dinner party menu that does not contain a grain of couscous.
And Interlink’s “India With Passion: Modern Regional Home Food,” actually from Britain, is a small but vital book because the recipes are so doable, without a special trip or online search for ingredients and with an understanding of how an Indian meal is never about one dish but several. A dish such as stir-fried chicken in an exhilaratingly stinging, double-peppercorn sauce is so simple that you have the time to make the fragrant cumin rice and radish salad that take it to a higher level. Nothing is greasy or heavy, just satisfying.
Another import repackaged for Americans, by Kyle Cathie Limited, is borderline revolutionary. Not only is the basic technique for bread in “Dough” quicker, easier and less floury, but it is laid out in step-by-step color photos and on a DVD that is invaluable. The 50 variations on five essential recipes by a French baking teacher working in Britain are exemplary as well: Gruyere and cumin is just one flavor combination. Even if you give up on baguettes on your first sticky try and throw the dough into a loaf pan, you should get a loaf as good as you could buy.
But literally the biggest import targeted to mainstream cooks is “The Silver Spoon,” a five-pound translation of Italy’s best-selling cookbook for the last 55 years, from Phaidon Press, a publisher better known for photography books. It claims to be “the bible” of authentic Italian cooking, but the more than 2,000 recipes are all over the map, having been created over the decades at a magazine called Domus. Green beans, for instance, are done Polish style (with frankfurters and eggs) as well as au gratin and baked with a wonderful Parmigiano cream sauce.
At heart, though, “Spoon” may be Italian because the best recipes are so straightforward. Fish pan-seared and topped with capers, anchovies and parsley is as simple and direct as you might find in a seaside restaurant in Sicily. The recipes are also seasonally inspiring; this is the book to pull out when you get home from the farmers market desperate for a new way to serve carrots (with Roquefort sauce is as good as with rosemary).
If you’re looking for more straight-on Italian, there is “True Tuscan,” a native’s evocative and idiosyncratic take on a style of cooking that has been done so often that chicken under a brick sounds as ordinary as grilled. Here the recipes are more surprising (fish in a mushroom-oregano sauce is not what you think of in Lucca), although you still can’t escape the brick. This is a cook who hews to tradition but is also not afraid to turn beans into bombolini.
“How to Cook Italian” also offers a few recipes that have not been done to tiramisu death. All are by Giuliano Hazan, written in a clipped style that assumes readers trained at his mother’s knee who can sense a duck might be done earlier than he specifies.
Like those home-grown Italians, other cookbooks conceived and published in the United States this fall have singular merits. It’s hard to imagine “The Arab Table” finding a publisher four years ago, but the book goes a long way toward promoting at least one level of understanding: taste. The author, May S. Bsisu, Jordanian by birth and now living in Ohio, does an admirable job of explaining the similarities and differences among the cuisines of Middle Eastern countries.
Her recipes and headnotes both have a heartfelt sensibility; one of the best dishes is the equivalent of Arabian refried beans: lentils simmered with cumin, pureed and topped with sweet fried onions. And her pantry discussion is particularly useful in a world opened up by that great spice bazaar on the Internet.
Anya von Bremzen has an even more stellar take on Spain, the “it” country this year, both in the restaurant world and in publishing. While most books still approach the cuisine in the most predictable (read paella) fashion, her “The New Spanish Table” dramatically communicates how the essential ingredients have evolved beyond potatoes and peppers, and how some of the most revolutionary ideas in the world are germinating in kitchens there.
The recipes are a mix of restaurant innovations and centuries-old standards, and always rewarding. Something as simple as scrambled eggs with piquillo peppers and anchovies on toast could change your conception of tapas for home use.
Then there is “Mangoes & Curry Leaves,” the latest from the intrepid Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Canadians who have been traveling around the subcontinent for 30 years. This book, with its stunning photography and conversational text, is almost literally transporting to India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The recipes are accessible and the flavors almost like being there. If you have never had chai steeped by a sidewalk vendor in Kolkata, the recipe here will give you a sense of how addictive it is.
Two other books this fall are not meant to go near the stove, one intentionally and one by default. “Cheese” by Max McCalman and David Gibbons is not a cookbook but may be even better, because half of great cooking and entertaining in America today is about smart shopping, with an understanding of where ingredients come from. A staggering amount of information -- how to taste, how to serve, how to combine with wine -- is gorgeously packaged with photographs of every perfect cheese, from Aarauer Bierdeckel to Zamorano.
By contrast, “La Bonne Cuisine” is a bona fide cookbook but one it’s hard to imagine getting very grease-splattered, saddled as it is with a dense design, ponderous language and overly detailed ingredients lists. Still, you have to admire Ten Speed Press for unabashedly publishing recipes with techniques that begin: “Gut and clean the pigeons and put their livers back into the body; cut off the heads; scrape the bottoms of the feet.”
But that’s the exception among this new crop of books. The others are totally approachable without being so dumbed down that they start with a cake mix and wind up in the microwave. They are also free of gimmicks, of the idea that recipes in a complex cuisine can be distilled to six ingredients or fewer.
Many also assume a fair amount of knowledge, though, or at least cooking sense. Probably because a different type of cook will be attracted to them, not all recipes are spelled out in Julia Child-dense detail, which is fine if you’re supremely comfortable at the stove but can be a problem if you’re not sure how long fish needs to simmer before it starts to fall apart.
Some of these books are meant for weekend cooking, when you’re looking for recreation and have the time to lavish on one duck that needs to be stuffed, poached, chilled, carved into serving pieces and finally grilled.
Others make the old “60-Minute Gourmet” seem 45 minutes behind the times. Many of the vegetable recipes in “The Silver Spoon,” for instance, take all of three steps (cut carrots into matchsticks, melt Roquefort with milk, combine).
It’s hard to pin down what’s behind this burst of seriousness, and it may just be cyclical. Cookbooks always go through fat and lean times. But even Nach Waxman, the owner of the Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore in New York City, and the oracle of the American stove, says: “I’m not sure I can talk about trends, but I feel pretty good about what I’m seeing this year.”