Fall 2007 Cookbooks and Food Writing
Fall means dozens of new cookbooks and other food titles are heading for our bookstores. Some are due from best-selling authors (some excellent, some merely popular -- don't confuse the two), there will be books by or about individuals who changed the culinary landscape, and still more that were penned by chefs turned into writers. But should we buy any of them? After all, our shelves are already crowded, some with volumes dusty and left unopened for ages. And if we cooked something new every day from the cookbooks we already own, well, you know what I'm getting at. Why get another one?
Most of us just can't resist them. We love the glossy photos and the stimulation of new flavors and ingredients and we think "this will be the one" that will finally transform us from clumsy to confident amateur. A successful cookbook inspires us first to buy it, and then to actually bring it into the kitchen and use it. It does this by making us believe we can achieve some triumph of domesticity, health and pleasure.
Still, many aren't worth their shelf space so I've devised my own cookbook criteria. Before buying a new one, a cookbook must give me at least one of the following:
- It will teach me new technique. This could be mastering risotto or working with fish, but the book will improve my skills. Thomas Keller's Bouchon did this for me.
- It will change how I think about the way I already cook. Will the author inspire me?
- It will encourage me to try something new, or raise the level of quality or refinement in what I already cook. Like moving up from only baking brownies to taking on chocolate cake.
- It will give me at least a dozen recipes that can become part of my standard repertoire. The internet recipe search engines are wonderful but sometimes we need a point-of-view.
- It will replace a book I already own which I may have outgrown. I felt this way when I moved up from Betty Crocker to The Joy of Cooking to Julia Child's The Way to Cook.
Ten New Titles to Savor
In every book season there are stand-outs that can refine our palates, broaden our reach, and improve our technique so that we stand a little taller in our city kitchens. That's the case this fall. There is the inevitable bunch of TV chefs capitalizing on their personality (or décolletage), and some professional chefs from glamorous kitchens who may not have actually cooked a full meal in years. But look carefully and you will find some greatness among the coming cookbook and food writing titles. Here are ten to watch for:
1. The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. By Judith Jones. Knopf. $24.95 (hardcover). Publication date: October 23, 2007. This graceful, knowing memoir is by a woman who changed our culinary world over her 50 years as an editor at Alfred A. Knopf. You will know her best as the editor who discovered Julia Child and published Mastering the Art of French Cooking; her other authors include Madhur Jaffrey, Edna Lewis, James Beard, Claudia Roden, and an important but bumpy relationship with Marcella Hazan. Yes, these and other names are today so familiar, even common. But it was Judith Jones' adventuresome palate and her instinctive and personal understanding of the home cook that enabled her to do nothing less than revolutionize cookbook publishing -- and thus revolutionize how we cook. Her story, told in a voice that is a reward to finally hear after she helped so many others find their own, is one of modern home cooking -- ethnic, regional, national, hers, ours.
2. The Flexitarian Table: Inspired, Flexible Meals for Vegetarians, Meat Lovers, and Everyone in Between. By Peter Berley and Zoe Singer. Houghton Mifflin. $30.00 (hardcover). Publication date: June 11, 2007. Okay, it's not a fall book and the title is simply awful. But this still-new cookbook is a terrific and informative resource for any home cook who needs to cook one meal for many eating preferences or who wants to be mostly, but not all, vegetarian. It offers flavor-pairing advice and tips on converting recipes from meatless to not. Plus it's a four-season primer on healthy, accessible and still tempting dishes that pull from nearly every cuisine.
3. How To Cook Everything Vegetarian. By Mark Bittman. John Wiley & Son. $35.00 (hardcover). Publication date: October 15, 2007. It was inevitable that the hardest working man in food journalism would take on vegetarianism and good that he has. At 1072 pages, Mr. Bittman is about to deliver another fat volume for which we must somehow find space in our small kitchens. With a lettuce-green cover and more than 2,000 recipes, the book is a primer on how to work with vegetarian ingredients with flavor and versatility. If you need a prediction of his vegetarian skills, take another look at his recent New York Times "Minimalist" column in which he turned paella into a feat of tomato and rice (no chicken, no shrimp, no chorizo).
4. Mollie Katzen's Recipes: Soups. By Mollie Katzen. Ten Speed Press. $14.95 (spiral-bound paperback with slip case). Publication date: September 28, 2007. If like me you have happily learned and cooked from The Moosewood Cookbook since its 1977 breakthrough, it is a pleasure to anticipate her newest all-soup volume. 50 recipes. As the weather turns to a chill, I can't wait.
6. A Great American Cook: Recipes From the Home Kitchen of One of Our Most Influential Chefs. By Jonathan Waxman. Houghton Mifflin. $35.00 (hardcover). Publication date: September 12, 2007. I'm usually disinclined to like cookbooks by mega-star professional chefs who I know spend their days in kitchens with no resemblance to ours. But Chez Panisse alum Jonathan Waxman has created a cookbook that encourages us to step forward from a repertoire of steamed vegetables, broiled chops and pasta to use non-intimidating methods to make meals that are truly special. The front text alone (technique, ingredients, tips) is worth the book. So is the recipe for "Hanger Steak Marinated in Soy, Ginger and Lime."
7. Desserts By the Yard: From Brooklyn to Beverly Hills. By Sherry Yard. Houghton Mifflin. $35.95 (hardcover). Publication date: November 1, 2007. I think there are two kinds of home cooks: those who make dessert and those who don't. For those who save ingredients and energy for a sweet last course, Sherry Yard has created 380-plus pages of sugar heaven -- baked, steamed, jelled, spooned and frozen. She is now Wolfgang Puck's global pastry chef, but she began as one of us -- a New Yorker with a sweet tooth. Her approach to desserts ranges from strawberry sodas to cookies to pies to triffles to doughnuts to sorbets, and each is spectacular. Although the celebrity stories can get a little tiresome, if you can't find something to love in this mostly (there are some that will intimidate) accessible collection that takes its inspiration from Brooklyn, London, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Vienna, and Hollywood, you're probably not alive and so don't need a cookbook anyway.
8. Sweet Myrtle and Bitter Honey: The Mediterranean Flavors of Sardinia. By Efisio Farris and Jim Eber. Rizzoli. $39.95 (hardcover). Publication date: October 23, 2007. Sardinia is an island off the coast of Italy that is a part of Italy, and yet profoundly separate. Many home cooks favor Italian cooking and this beautiful volume offers a rich look at one of Italy's particularly distinctive regional cuisines. If you are accustomed to southern red sauce or northern Italian dishes, this book will surprise you and give you a new understanding of what it means to cook Italian.
9. I'll Drink To That: Beaujolais and the French Peasant Who Made It the World's Most Popular Wine. By Rudolph Chelminski. Gotham Books (Penguin Group). $27.50 (hardcover). Publication date: October 18, 2007. From the author who so meticulously researched and beautifully wrote The Perfectionist comes the story of Georges Duboeuf who turned an inexpensive and quotidian wine into a global phenomenon. So when the third Thursday of November comes around and you unavoidably start thinking "le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivée," this book will tell you why you do.
10. In Defense of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating. By Michael Pollan. Penguin Press. $21.95 (hardcover). Publication date: January 1, 2008. From the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma comes an aggressive and provocative joy of eating in the modern world. This book takes on the nutrition machine and offers a manifesto: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." We've got about three months to get ready for the promised impact of another thoughtful declaration from one of our most political food writers. Michael Pollan just might change our world.
Feeling hungry? There's lots to read, more to cook, and much to enjoy. Happy fall.