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I have been compiling my best-of-the-year cookbook list for years now.
Just when I think there can’t possibly be anything new left to say about the culinary world, along comes a whole slew of great cookbooks filled with enticing recipes and food writing that makes me want to run into the kitchen and start cooking.
After all, the whole “goal” of a good cookbook is to make you hungry to cook. And eat.
Here are some of my favorite new books published in 2012. Any, or all, of them would make great holiday gifts.
Last year I raved about “Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi,” a vegetable-focused cookbook written by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I went nuts for the book, cooking my way through much of it. This year the duo has published “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” and it is every bit as good as “Plenty.” Tonight we are having the Roasted Butternut Squash and Red Onion with Tahini and Za’atar for the second time. Who knew hummus—ground chick peas and tahini—could look so positively irresistible? Jerusalem’s photography –from street scenes and spice shops to beautiful finished food shots– makes you want to forget about the Middle East crisis and get on a plane.
“The diversity and richness of Jerusalem, both in terms of the cooks and their disparate backrounds and the ingredients they use, make it fascinating to any outsider. But what makes this city doubly exciting is the emotional and spiritual energy that pervades it. When it comes to people’s emotions, it is hard to overstate how unique the city is.” And clearly how unique the food is.
I can’t wait to try the burnt eggplant with garlic, lemon and pomegranate seeds; the tomato and sourdough soup; or the prawns, scallions, and clams with tomato and feta. This is food that, despite its ancient roots, feels new and exciting.
If you think sauces are something only restaurant chefs make and something you have no time for, you might want to think again. “Modern Sauces: More than 150 Recipes for Every Cook, Every Day” by Martha Holmberg and Ellen Silverman have taken a huge subject and broken it down so that every cook –from the beginner who is learning their way around the kitchen to an accomplished chef—can learn something new about how to make sauces and find new ways to serve them.
The book is divided by the type of sauce — from vinaigrettes and herb sauces to tomato, butter, and cream sauces, not to mention hollandaise, gravies, custards, caramels, and chocolate sauce. Each chapter offers an invaluable section called “What Can Go Wrong and How Can I Fix It?”
For instance, I have had trouble (big trouble) making caramel. Holmberg explains (as if she was talking directly to me and my caramel issues) that if the stray sugar crystals that form along the sides of the pot fall into the caramel it can seize the sauce into a gloppy mess. I had a major “ah ha!” moment. I tried one of her caramel sauces and, lets just say, it looked like a pro had made it.
There is much more here than just a collection of sauce recipes. After you learn the basics, Holmberg offers dishes that showcase the sauce, like Grilled Eggplant Antipasto with Creamy Walnut Sauce, Tomato, and Feta; Coconut-Sesame Chicken Breasts with Jalapeno-Lime-Ginger Butter Sauce; Grilled Figs with Classic Sabayon and Balsamic Drizzle; and Buttery Apple Bread Pudding with Ginger Caramel Sauce.
I’m afraid Diane Morgan has written the book I always wanted to write. Winter food and root vegetables don’t have a very sexy reputation, but in “Roots: The Definitive Compendium with more than 225 Recipes” you’ll find yourself drooling over parsnips, lotus root, ginger, celery root, carrots, beets, radish, jicama, and more. I learned about Scorzonera (black salsify/black oyster plant) Galangal (also called Thai ginger) and Malanga (a type of taro root), and discovered that horseradish root can be sautéed in a gnocchi recipe. I found myself flagging dozens of recipes I want to try in order to transform and elevate my winter cooking.
I didn’t want to like this book. I really didn’t. But “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook” by Deb Perelman won me over. Smittenkitchen.com is a blog written by Perelman. She didn’t go to cooking school and she isn’t really an expert in any particular type of cuisine. But, over the course of several years, she has built her blog into a site that—ready for this? — 5 millions visitors go to every month. So what’s so special? Well, Perelman is kind of a fanatic. She won’t stop until she gets a recipe just right. Not just that, she takes really good food photographs. The cover shot –Tomato Scallions Shortcakes with Whipped Goat Cheese– looks like something you just have to make. Same goes for the Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette, Sesame-Spiced Turkey Meatballs and Smashed Chickpea Salad, and Chocolate Silk Pie. I could go on.
“The Great Meat Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Buy and Cook Meat” by Bruce Aidells is encyclopedic in its scope. The subtitle says it all: “Everything you need to know to buy and cook today’s meat.” Learn, once and for all, the difference between “natural,” “organic,” “grass-fed,” and “sustainable” meat. Recipes cover the globe, with influences from Spain, Morocco, and France to Vietnam and China. Aidells covers beef, bison, pork, lamb, goat and veal, and offers an entire chapter on making sausages, pates, potted meats, and cured meats. I would say the recipes range from uber-simple to “lets take a new challenge.”
“I came to Japan for the food, but stayed for love. Organic farmer boy Tadaaki Hachisu captured my heart with his ‘Would you like to be a Japanese farmer’s wife?’” writes Nancy Singleton Hachisu in her new book “Japanese Farm Food.” Hachisu writes about her journey becoming that Japanese farmer’s wife, her education into Japanese cuisine, and how the seasons dictate what’s eaten in much of Japan. This beautiful book is simple, but filled with exciting ideas. I love the pickle section—turnip and turnip leaves pickled in salt; cucumber pickled in soy sauce and mirin; and young ginger pickled in plum vinegar to name just a few. You’ll learn how to make your own udon noodles, flawless tempura; and make deep-fried ginger chicken. The photography of the Japanese countryside, family dinners, and food fresh from the ground makes you understand the depth of Japanese country cooking. This food feels clean, approachable, and written by a woman clearly in love with the Japanese kitchen.
I like tofu just fine. We have several family favorites that revolve around tofu. It’s a food I turn to when I feel I’ve eaten too much meat, too much sugar, and too much in general. But reading “Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home” by Andrea Nguyen made me realize I don’t really know much about using tofu creatively. Nguyen traveled all over the globe learning about the intricacies of tofu—from making your own to using it in vegetarian dishes (Panfried Tofu with Mushrooms and Spicy Sesame Sauce; and Simmered Greens with Fried Tofu) to meat dishes (crisp roasted pork belly with red fermented tofu; or tofu, pork, and kimchi dumplings). There’s a really interesting chapter devoted to using tofu to make “mock meats,” where the tofu is transformed to look and taste like meat or fish. And a great “homemade tofu tutorial” explains the basics of making soy milk, silken tofu, smoked and preserved tofu. While some of these recipes take time, none of them seem overly complicated.
One of the country’s great bakeries happens to be in Portland, Maine. Yes, that Portland. “Standard Baking Co. Pastries” by Alison Pray and Tara Smith offers recipes for some of Standard’s best treats. Their Almond Biscotti, a traditional Tuscan cookie, is simple and straightforward. The Almond Macaroons (no flour, or dairy) are addictive. Oh, and the Lemon Tarts. The Almond Croissant are the flakiest, most delicious you’ll find outside of France.
You’ll find breakfast pastries, tarts, cakes, and sweet and savory snacks. The writing is clear and the recipes are straightforward. Standard Baking is worth a trip to Portland, Maine, (the bakery is just across from the waterfront and below Fore Street, one of Portland’s best restaurants), but if you can’t get there this new book is almost as good as the real thing.
Here & Now resident chef and cookbook author Kathy Gunst shares her list of the best cookbooks of the year.