Fall is the harvest season, right? That’s especially true when it comes to cookbooks, which every year arrive in a seasonal flood that puts apples and pears to shame. By some counts, as many as three-fourths of all cookbooks in the United States are published in the couple of months leading up to the winter holidays.
Small wonder, as cookbooks make perfect gifts. They’re relatively affordable, easily found, and, if used appropriately (read: cooked from), they’ll continue giving for years.
But sorting through that massive flood is no easy task. We looked at several dozen books this fall, reading and cooking from most of them, before narrowing it to this select group. There’s a little bit of everything here, including the utterly beautiful, completely uncookable “Noma” (got birch sap?) and the irresistibly homey “Southern Pies.”
Heart of the Artichoke
Artisan, 344 pages, $35
Six months of the year, David Tanis is downstairs chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley where, he writes, “every day I get to design a menu quite similar to the kind of food I also cook at home -- relatively simple dishes, somewhat traditional, fresh, clean, gutsy.” The other half of the year he cooks dinner parties from his tiny Paris kitchen. He draws on both halves of his life in writing this, his second cookbook. (The first is “A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes.”)
I’ve always loved his cooking, and reading through this book, I’ve stuck a good couple of dozen markers between the pages, there are so many recipes I’m eager to cook. These are not chefly recipes that require the help of an assistant to complete. His meals aren’t elaborate, but they sure are delicious. I had dinner guests e-mailing me the day after I served his New Mexico-style slow-cooked carne adovada to say they were still dreaming about that pork. The leftovers -- yes, there were some -- made a terrific taco filling.
Another night, his petit sale made a festive meal for eight of us. It’s a brined slab of pork belly and pork shanks served with cabbage braised in cider vinegar, with tart apple, caraway seeds and the pork broth. That one is going to become a household favorite. Next on my list: Duck leg confit in the oven with crispy pan-fried potatoes and a refreshing-sounding salad of celery, radish and watercress in walnut oil. The photos from Christopher Hirsheimer are absolutely luscious and very much in the spirit of the book.
-- S. Irene Virbila
One Big Table
Simon & Schuster, 880 pages, $50
In the 1950s, an intrepid New York food editor named Clementine Paddleford flew herself all over the United States in her own private plane, touching down from time to time just long enough to collect recipes from the best local cooks she could find. The resulting book, “How America Eats,” is what comes first to mind when reading Molly O’Neill’s latest project.
Granted, O’Neill had the luxury of using commercial airlines and the Internet to gather her material, but her reach is equally broad-ranging. In this thick, lavishly illustrated doorstop of a book, the armchair gastronome can embrace the full breadth of the contemporary American culinary scene -- old-favorite traditional dishes, immigrant introductions and modern reinventions alike.
For home-style cooking, I particularly liked a Low Country chicken-and-rice dish from Kensington plantation, a homey casserole sparked by the last-minute addition of chopped bacon and green onions. On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to top the reinvention of a San Pedro fisherman’s dish of tuna in tomato sauce made with olive-oil-poached tuna fillets, oven-roasted tomatoes and pickled onions.
-- Russ Parsons
Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher
W.W. Norton, 396 pages, $35
The cooking of southern Italy gets short shrift when it comes to cookbooks. We all know fettuccine and tortellini from the north, but dromesat, scilatelli or laganieddi? Probably not. These are all names of fresh pasta shapes from Calabria, colloquially known as the “toe” of the Italian peninsula’s boot, south of Basilicata and practically touching the island of Sicily. Oakland-based cooking teacher Rosetta Costantino, collaborating with San Francisco food writer Janet Fletcher, calls it “an Italy that few people know: a land of fragrant citron and bergamot orchards, ancient olive groves and terraced vineyards; a place of persistent tradition and ritual ... where women still roll pasta dough around knitting needles.”
People in this beautiful, isolated region had to be self-sufficient and so Calabria native Costantino learned how to make ricotta from scratch. She and her mother make their own tomato paste, put up tuna in olive oil, dry sweet peppers from their garden in the sun, and cure their own olives. That ricotta goes into delicate dumplings for a chicken soup, into a sauce for rigatoni with sausage. There are recipes for country bread, for pitta, the Calabrian pizza stuffed with chard and dill. Fusilli (homemade “knitting needle” pasta) is tossed in a spicy pork rib sugo just waiting for colder weather. A big plus are the southern Italian wine recommendations from Shelley Lindgren (co-owner of A-16 in San Francisco).
-- S. Irene Virbila