Publishers like to save their best cookbooks for the fall. I'm certain this has to do with expectations for holiday book buying. After all, a cookbook makes a nice gift, especially if you wrap it in a pretty dishtowel. I think it's also because after a summer of avoiding kitchen heat, we're ready to spend an afternoon cooking for a crowd or for ourselves. And who doesn't get inspired by a new cookbook, whether it's to think about new flavors, or ways to cook with others, or a place that can evoke aromas and tastes. Most of all, a cookbook can immediately make us crave the satisfaction of both the making and the eating.
This autumn has a particularly bountiful selection of new titles. A few of our most beloved cookbook authors have new books, some chefs have produced very personal statements, and there are also some that take a new and inspiring approach to the ways we really want and need to plan, shop for, cook and eat our meals.
This isn't to say there also aren't some confounding new titles. As editor of The City Cook, I get sent review copies and all too often, it's such a waste. Right now there is a stack of nine cookbooks sitting on my dining table and not one of them makes me want to cook, eat, or even read. One can only wonder if the people who write and produce them ever have a conversation with a real home cook given how irrelevant some of these titles are to the pleasures and practicalities of cooking.
Then again, if you look at the Amazon list of bestselling cookbooks you'll see a dichotomy because most of the top selling titles are about either weight loss or making cheesecake.
But for the serious home cook, I am happy to tell you that you will have a wonderful time choosing from some of the outstanding new cookbooks now being published. Here are five of my favorites, each excellent and each special for a different reason.
Barbara Kafka is one of our best and most loved cookbook authors and teachers. A winner of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, Ms. Kafka taught us how to make fabulous meals in our microwaves instead of just using it for reheating coffee (Microwave Gourmet); she took away the fear of high heat (Roasting - A Simple Art); she brought the world of soups into our kitchens (Soup - A Way Of Life); and she gave us 750 ways to make our favorite vegetables (Vegetable Love). And there are others.
Now responding to her own adult food intolerances, Ms. Kafka has written The Intolerant Gourmet: Glorious Food without Gluten and Lactose (Artisan Books, $29.95, hardcover, 240 pages, color photographs). It is an all-purpose cookbook with 300 recipes for those with lactose and gluten intolerance. But it's far more than just recipes in that it brings an informed approach for how to buy ingredients -- and she boldly names brands and advises on which to buy -- and convert a kitchen into a place that can be generously flavored instead of restrictive. Her recipes cover a wide range of cooking and baking from breakfast to dinner, for every meal and every occasion. For families in which one is intolerant and the others aren't, this book will be particularly loved because there isn't a recipe in it that anyone would feel deprived eating. Plus it is written with Ms. Kafka's signature no nonsense and plain talk, which will give you confidence that you can indeed eat happily and be an "intolerant gourmet."
Ms. Kafka has generously let us share some recipes and I've chosen two that I think showcase the big flavors and astute ingredient tips that are typical of the book. The first is "Not Your Mother's Couscous" which substitutes quinoa for couscous, the wheat-based Moroccan pasta. The second is a vegan version of "Black Bean Feijoada Over Spicy Rice," the Brazilian dish usually made with pork. See our recipe links.
For anyone who has, or cooks for someone with a food allergy, this book is an essential.
I love this book.
America's Test Kitchen is a publishing enterprise that produces titles for both "ATK" as it's called, and also Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines and television programs. Working from its Boston-area test kitchens and guided by founder Chris Kimball's home cooking philosophy, the books that are produced by ATK can be counted on for recipes that will always perform and have good flavor. We may get tempted by other volumes that have star chefs on the back cover or some traits of molecular gastronomy or ethnic tradition, but when we want to know for sure that the ingredients for which we just paid a lot of money can be turned into something we'll want to eat, we can turn to ATK.
In a stroke of "what took you so long," ATK has now organized many of their best recipes into a volume called The America's Test Kitchen Menu Cookbook: Your Guide to Hosting Stress-Free Dinner Parties and Holiday Feasts (America's Test Kitchen, $35.00, 344 pages, hardcover, color photographs plus black and white illustrations). But this book is not only about entertaining: If this were the only cookbook you owned, you would cook well, be everyone's favorite host, have a well-run kitchen, and eat happily every day.
The book is organized by the four seasons and it offers ten menus for each, with recipes for everything -- hors d'oeuvres, main courses, sides and desserts. Plus there are eleven menus for what the editors call "Celebrations and Holidays," which are all secular, unless you consider "Big Game Day" a high holy day. Before getting into the cooking, the volume gives you guidelines for having a well-stocked kitchen and tips learned from two decades of ATK cooking and testing.
Because so many of us get performance anxiety when it comes to dinner parties, the book includes an "Entertaining Troubleshooting Guide," tips for making "Emergency Substitutions," and best of all, something they call "11th Hour Recipes" -- a section with five last-minute appetizers, six easy sides, five no-prep salad dressings, and five easy ice cream desserts.
What I love the most about this book is that it shows us how to think and cook about the whole meal and to do so in the context of time of year, which of course influences ingredients and appetites. And let's face it -- the toughest part of cooking is rarely the cooking itself. Instead it’s the planning and shopping. Even if we have our own repertoire of recipes, as I've often written about and ATK Editor Chris Kimball spoke of in his recent podcast interview with me, we still get repeatedly stumped by the question, "what's for dinner?"
The recipes in this book include dishes from a variety of ethnicities and all types of ingredients (poultry, meat, seafood, vegetarian). You may also recognize some of the most popular recipes from previous ATK books and television programs, but they're put into a fresh context so that they seem brand new. There are color photos throughout plus lots of those illustrated instructions that are an ATK signature.
When thinking about which recipe to request to share with you, I thought a fall dessert might be a good choice so here is their Gingerbread Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream and Caramel Sauce.
I am generally not a fan of chef-authored cookbooks. The reason is simple: in my experience the recipes are often terrible and obviously haven't been tested by home cooks in home kitchens. Plus, restaurant dishes can include ingredients that are costly, hard to find, or superfluous to the final flavor. All too often chefs seem to want to do "mini-me" versions of their restaurant recipes in their cookbooks instead of transforming flavors and techniques for the home cook.
So when I was offered a copy of Cooking My Way Back Home: Recipes from San Francisco's Town Hall, Anchor & Hope, and Salt House" (Ten Speed Press, $35.00, 264 pages, hardcover, color photographs) by Chef Mitchell Rosenthal with Jon Pult, I didn't pay immediate attention. Rosenthal is a chef of three San Francisco restaurants (Town Hall, Salt House and Anchor and Hope) and a fourth in Portland, Oregon (Irving Street Kitchen). His roots are in a New Jersey deli and his culinary DNA includes something southern, which altogether makes for quite a delicious mix that comes from chef Rosenthal's 35 years of professional cooking.
But I finally spent some time reading and cooking from this book and discovered that Chef Rosenthal's ideas about big flavor move successfully from his restaurants to the home kitchen, producing, as he writes in his book, "… something memorable and delicious."
For those who eat out often and get habituated to thinking dishes have to be complex to be good, cookbooks are sometimes faulted for being "too simple" (I got some of this criticism for my book). But what matters is the final flavor and it is the accessible techniques and simple bold flavors that Rosenthal demonstrates throughout his book that make it so winning. Dishes like Cured Salmon with Potato Latkes and Dill Crème Fraîche, BBQ Shrimp with Toasted Garlic Bread, Roasted Veal Meatballs with Green Peppercorn Sauce, Mustard Seed Marinated Pulled Chicken Thighs, and Lemon Chess Pie are just some of the 100 recipes, most of which have robust flavor as their hallmark.
We're sharing a recipe from this book that is an example of chef Rosenthal's idea of home cooking: Fish Tacos with Avocado Crème and Spicy Chipotle Salsa.
Staying on the west coast, Bi-Rite Market is a popular grocery store in San Francisco. Second-generation owner Sam Mogannam and writer Dabney Gough have created an inspiring cookbook that celebrates and demonstrates the philosophy of cooking from the ingredients up.
Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food (Ten Speed Press, $32.50, 304 pages, hardcover, color photographs) has as its subtitle "A Grocer's Guide to Shopping, Cooking and Creating Community Through Food." For the home cook who is often flummoxed by meal planning, cooking in season, and buying the right groceries, this book is a road map. For the more practiced cook who wants to refine and improve his or her ability to buy the best possible ingredients, this book is a practical translation of all the high-gloss mediated food language like "locavore," turning such concepts into something that can make an actual difference on your dinner table and food budget.
The authors translate the growing vocabulary of food that can make the most practiced shopper go numb in the market. Like the terms on a can of imported tomatoes, or on a bottle of olive oil (if it says "estate bottled" is it really worth $10 more?). Or the alphabet soup of letters: DOC versus DOP versus COCC, which was a new one to me. How should we choose a squash? Or store carrots? Or buy a turkey?
Food is expensive and it's getting more expensive. Every choice we make at a market impacts our food budgets and it also impacts the flavor and nutrition we finally bring to our tables. When reading this book it make complete sense to me that a second-generation grocer was the perfect choice to write a book like this, especially when you know that Sam Mogannam is also a cook. The photo-packed, well written, and engaging book is organized according to how most stores are organized: the grocery, the deli, the produce department, the butcher counter, the dairy case, the cheese department, the bakery, and wine and beer. But the recipes are clustered by season of the year. And tips and ingredient info is throughout the book, placed right where it makes the most sense, authenticated with advice from farmers, butchers, cheesemongers, and other experts.
The 90 recipes include some routinely made in Bi-Rite Market's in-house kitchen, and all have an honesty and flavorful appeal. We've been given permission to share two with you: Ginger Lemongrass Chicken Skewers with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce and Delicata Squash Salad with Fingerling Potatoes and Pomegranate Seeds.
We'll finish with dessert and who doesn't love pie? And what home cook isn't somewhere between intimidated-and-terrified with the prospect of making one? But here's a charming and instructive new cookbook has some delicious help.
Michele Stuart owns and operates Michele's Pies in Norwalk and Westport Connecticut. For those not lucky enough to live near either of those two bakeries, Ms. Stuart has written Perfect Pies: The Best Sweet and Savory Recipes from America's Pie-Baking Champion" (Ballantine Books, $25.00, 244 pages, hardcover, color photographs) which includes recipes for 80 sweet and savory pies. Several of the sweet pies also have sugar-free versions.
Beginning with the story of how Ms. Stuart came to be an award-winning pie maker, the book sets a foundation with a chapter properly called "The Crust." Following chapters are dedicated to recipes for fruit pies, nut pies, cream pies, party pies, and savory pies which include quiches, chicken pot pie and other main course pies.
There are photographs throughout which is very helpful since presentation and finish can make a big difference in a pie's appeal. Stuart also has photos in the crust chapter that show how a pie is assembled -- the step in pie making that so often unravels the best home cook.
When I received this book a couple of weeks ago I needed a dessert for a dinner party and I made Michele Stuart's recipe for Lemon Meringue Pie. It was the first time I had ever made a meringue pie but following Ms. Stuart's instructions, it was perfect. And gorgeous. And exquisitely lemony.
Next up will be her Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie, which we've been given permission to share with you. This could be a wonderful choice for a Thanksgiving dessert. But as for her piecrust recipe, you'll have to either use your own recipe or buy her book to get her treasured version. Some things shouldn't be given away.