Holiday gifts: A baker’s dozen of great cookbooks
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,” by David Tanis, 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 salé 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,” by Molly O’Neill, 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
“My Calabria,” by Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher, W.W. Norton & Co., 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
“Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine” by René Redzepi, photographs by Ditte Isager, 354 pages, Phaidon, $49.95
“Noma” might be the most transporting cookbook of the year, the next best thing to scoring a (near-impossible) reservation at the Copenhagen restaurant that seems to have food cognoscenti everywhere going gaga.
The book opens with a two-week journal that chef René Redzepi kept during a tour of the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland that he took when he was 25 years old. It was a trip that would inform his cuisine, a progressive tribute to Noma’s particular niche in the Nordic world, expressed with an earnest, enthusiastic and hyper-careful attention to local, seasonal ingredients such as wood sorrel foraged from South Zealand, beets grown in Lammefjorden, or sea urchins from Bodo, north of the Arctic Circle.
Many of the next 200 pages of the book are filled with gorgeous photographs — full-page close-ups of ingredients — thuja cones, ramson leaves, Danish blue lobster. And food porn of dishes such as musk ox with milk skin and caramelized garlic; sole with green strawberries and beach cabbage; pickled vegetables with smoked bone marrow. The photos refer to the pages for each recipe collected at the back of the book, which are more inspirational than practical for anyone with limited access to elderflower blossoms, sea buckthorn and goosefoot leaves.
— Betty Hallock
“Southern Pies” by Nancie McDermott, Chronicle, 168 pages, $22.95
When Nancie McDermott came out with her recipe collection “Southern Cakes” a few years ago, I probably gained 10 pounds the first week I had the book. I wanted to make each and every recipe as I read the book cover to cover, each was so engaging. So when I heard she’d come out with “Southern Pies,” I was excited. Nervously excited.
If you love pie, this book is a winner. Like “Southern Cakes” before it, this broad collection celebrates a wonderful culinary tradition of the American South, with recipes that include both family heirlooms and modern variations on classics. McDermott introduces each recipe with a story — the history of the pie itself, or perhaps the background of its author, personalizing each recipe for the reader and bookmarking its place in the South’s rich tradition.
I loved her double-crust apple pie, the lightly sweetened apples cooked in two layers and separated in the middle with an extra layer of flaky crust. I tried my first bean pie, supposedly developed in the 1930s, the mashed navy beans mixed into a custard filling and spiced like a pumpkin pie. And I was fascinated by her sliced sweet potato pie, from a recipe developed by George Washington Carver, the sweet potatoes sliced and layered, rather than mashed.
— Noelle Carter
“The Lost Art of Real Cooking” by Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger, Perigee Books, 233 pages, $18.95
No matter how many cookbooks you have on your shelf, you probably don’t have one like this. First off, there are no recipes. At least not in the traditional sense. The preparation for each dish is delivered as a narrative. At first glance, the blocks of text might seem overwhelming and a little dulling to the senses. (There are line drawings, but no pictures.) Give it a chance, though, and you’ll find that the effect is as if a gentle teacher — a grandmother, perhaps — is standing at your shoulder guiding you through each step.
You’ll also find all the added bits of knowledge that the beginning cook needs, but that today’s in-a-hurry recipes don’t bother to impart. The student is encouraged to experiment at every turn. But there is plenty to challenge the experienced cook as well. Here’s how to make pasta: “To start, pour some flour in a bowl. ... Next, break an egg in, or two. Or none. Or two yolks. It all depends on how eggy you like your pasta.” Few of the recipes offer a yield. That’s because you are really the only person who knows how much you’ll eat.
Its selection is eclectic, with recipes for making butter, wine, miso soup and sauerkraut, as well as “American pizza,” marmalade, tortillas and fruit pies. A gem of a book, the title says it all. Even the casual user will walk away with a deeper understanding of the kitchen, and a new appreciation for the difference between recipe cooking and “real cooking.”
— Rene Lynch
“Primal Cuts” by Marissa Guggiana, Welcome Books, 288 pages, $37.50
Marissa Guggiana’s “Primal Cuts” is a celebration of the art of the butcher. The book profiles some of the best butchers and meat-oriented chefs in the United States, letting them introduce themselves and their love of craft in their own words and share some favorite recipes.
The book is also a primer of sorts. There are chapters on dry-curing meats and raising your own chickens, how to make sausage and homemade stock, even how to break down a cow to share with seven of your closest friends. Guggiana also touches on such issues as how to find a local farmer, and factory versus sustainable options.
While the book covers many common cuts and options, it also explores — and gives recipes for — some lesser-known cuts and under-used animals. You’ll learn the primal cuts for lamb, goat and venison in addition to understanding the different “personalities” of steaks (what distinguishes a filet from a strip steak, a rib-eye from flank). The recipes are both informative, and fun. I loved the chorizo “doughnuts” — savory little dumplings reminiscent of hush puppies but with a kick. The duck breast and beer sandwich immediately caught my eye, the breast slow-simmered in a sweet beer reduction, then sliced thin and piled into a rustic sandwich. The pork belly confit is so deliciously rich you almost feel sinful eating it, but you can’t stop.
— Noelle Carter
“Tartine Bread,” by Chad Robertson, Chronicle Books, 304 pages, $40
I’ve had periods in my life when I kept up a steady rhythm of baking bread, mostly late at night, but it’s been years. Still, when this beautiful new bread baking book from Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco came my way, I found myself longing to make a loaf or two. Tartine is a San Francisco treasure, renowned for its pastries but perhaps even more famous for Robertson’s breads. Suffice it to say that when they come out of the oven at 5 p.m. every day, they generally sell out within the hour.
In this hefty tome, Robertson, who spent a decade working with the country’s best artisan bakers, offers a terrific primer for a basic country bread. I love the simplicity of his method. No packaged yeast required. All that’s needed is flour (white and whole wheat) and water. The starter gathers wild yeasts from the air. Granted, it takes several days to get a starter going, but then it’s always there, ready to be turned into olive bread studded with green and oil-cured black olives, walnut bread or a polenta loaf. You can use the same basic dough to make pizza or focaccia.
He doesn’t cut corners on the advice with this basic recipe but guides you through the steps, illustrated with numerous detailed black-and-white photos by Eric Wolfinger, which help tremendously in visualizing how the dough should look at various stages and how to form it. Learn how to make baguettes and Provencal fougasse, a flatbread cut to resemble a leaf or ladder. He guides the reader through making croissant and brioche. I’m itching to try his olive oil brioche.
— S. Irene Virbila
“Around My French Table” by Dorie Greenspan, Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pages, $40
Dorie Greenspan is one of the best baking and dessert writers around. But even the queen of pastry cannot live by macarons alone. In this book Greenspan gathers 300-some of her favorite recipes, sweet and savory alike, gathered from her home kitchens in New York, Connecticut and Paris, and from her favorite chefs, including longtime collaborators Pierre Hermé and Daniel Boulud.
Greenspan has earned a huge following — her recipes are written not only in great detail but with great charm as well. That’s not an easy balancing act to pull off, but the result is a voice that is both informed and reassuring. You get the feeling she’s cooked these recipes hundreds of times, and she’s there to hold your hand and reassure you if the going gets a little sticky.
Her “go-to beef daube,” braised in red wine with carrots and parsnips, is rich and comforting and tastes just like it came from a French home kitchen. But you really have to try her “long and slow apples.” A two-hour spin on the fashionable French restaurant dessert 20-hour apples, they are sliced very thin, layered in individual ramekins with a little sugar and some orange zest, and baked. The result is almost like an apple custard. I’ve already made it four times.
— Russ Parsons
“Bake!” by Nick Malgieri, Kyle Books, 224 pages, $29.95
If there’s one thing that can intimidate someone new to the kitchen, it’s baking. Savory recipes are often forgiving — a slip on the stove-top or a mis-measurement in preparation can often be remedied with “a little of this or a little of that.” Baking — considered the science of the kitchen — is not so forgiving.
Nick Malgieri has spent more than 30 years teaching the art of baking, and his new book is a great introduction to the essentials of this art. He details more than 30 essential techniques, including quick breads, layered and molded cakes, bar cookies and puff pastries. Each chapter starts with a basic technique or master recipe in which Malgieri lays the foundation and explains the science behind the technique. Similar to a textbook in format, “Bake!” includes full-color step-by-step instructions with tips in which Malgieri demystifies his subject, reassuring the reader. After he’s introduced a master recipe, Malgieri gives variations, showing the reader that the foundation is only a starting point to a given technique, and explaining both where the reader can be creative with a master recipe, and where the reader cannot — and why.
— Noelle Carter
We ran our reviews of 10 great cookbooks in print in Thursday’s Food section, but we just couldn’t contain it. Here are three other cookbooks that caught our eye this fall.
“At Home With Madhur Jaffrey” by Madhur Jaffrey, Knopf, 320 pages, $35
As much as I love to eat Indian food, I confess to being intimidated by cooking it. All those herbs and spices, how does a beginner find the right balance? All those grains and pulses, it’s like a new vocabulary. For as long as I’ve admired Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbooks, I’ve also wished for some kind of elementary introduction.
This book fills that need. The recipes are simplified but don’t feel dumbed-down. They seem like dishes a talented cook would prepare when she was cooking informally just for friends and family, not for a big production of a dinner party. Jaffrey’s chicken with spinach would be great for just such an occasion--legs braised with onions, garlic and ginger, with fresh spinach added just before serving. But the dishes I really loved were even simpler. Her pilaf of basmati rice (rinsed and soaked) with slivered almonds and golden raisins is one I’ll cook many times. And her “Everyday Moong Dal” -- she describes it as her family’s “soul food” -- tastes amazingly complex considering how easy it is to make.
— Russ Parsons
“My Sweet Mexico” by Fany Gerson, Ten Speed Press, 215 pages, $30
Pastry chef Fany Gerson, who worked at Eleven Madison Park and Rosa Mexicano in New York, opens up a world of Mexican pastries, candies and desserts in her cookbook “My Sweet Mexico.” Born and raised in Mexico, she traveled her native country for recipes and lore and combined them with her own take on sweets in a book that both inspires you to read chapter by chapter while curled up on the sofa and to get into the kitchen to start rolling dough for huachibolas, cream cheese morning rolls.
Each chapter begins with a few engaging pages of background that reveal a sweets culture steeped in history. In “Sweets From the Convents,” Gerson describes how each order of nuns had its own specialty, such as the virgins of Santa Catalina, who poured cajeta (goat’s milk caramel) into boxes infused with the scent of orange blossom. Gerson’s recipe for chestnut flan is inspired by nuns in Puebla who coat the molds with a little butter and sugar and top the flan with apricot jam. Her polvorones -- the “wedding cookies” that came to Mexico via Spaniards (and before them, the Arabs) ? call for more than a modicum of almond flour that makes for a crumbly, nutty cookie. But Gerson’s pastry training is thoroughly contemporary (and mainly French), and besides chapters on pan dulce (morning sweet breads), frozen treats and fruit, she ends the book with a grand finale of modern desserts: a trifle that layers a mezcal-tinged meringue with passion fruit; a terrine of sorbet and hibiscus compote; and a Mexican opera cake with chocolate and almond cake, hazelnut croquant, ganache, canela buttercream and tequila syrup.
— Betty Hallock
“Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Kitchen” by Ethan Stowell and Leslie Miller, Ten Speed Press, 228 pages, $35
Baked Stellar Bay Kusshi oysters with garlic breadcrumbs, cannelloni with braised pork cheeks and sweet cicely, zatar-rubbed leg of goat with fresh chickpeas and sorrel -- this is the gutsy Northwestern spin that Seattle chef Ethan Stowell puts on Italian cuisine. Big flavors, local ingredients and compelling flavor combinations are the hallmarks of his recipes. Some of the dishes you’re probably not going to find the ingredients for at the supermarket -- such as for braised rabbit paws, geoduck crudo or pan-roasted squab. But none of the recipes are fussy. And for every recipe that calls for the somewhat hard to find, there are simple, bold alternatives such as soft-boiled eggs with anchovy mayonnaise, rapini with garlic, chiles and lime, and lentils with pancetta. The latter make a hearty side dish or even a main course for a simple supper.
Even a sweets lover such as myself will like the chapter titled “Cheese for the Civilized and Desserts for the Rest of You,” which includes straightforward desserts -- lemon verbena panna cotta with poached peaches, for example -- and cheese-and-condiment pairings such as La Tur with oven-roasted tomato petals.
— Betty Hallock
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