Cookbooks for Holiday Giving
Thinking that some of you might be planning to give a cookbook as a holiday gift, or wish for one yourself, here are four new ones that I've recently cooked from that I think are worth making room for on anyone's already crowded cookbook shelf.
Here's my criteria: It's not enough for me that a new cookbook just delivers new recipes. It also needs to help me become a better cook. Or develop my palate or my understanding of ingredients. Or it has to bring me closer to an unfamiliar cuisine. Or best of all, with an authentic voice and point-of-view, it makes cooking more fun.
The following books fit at least one of those categories.
But Mama Always Put Vodka In Her Sangria! By Julia Reed.
First up is a great choice for someone who cooks, drinks, travels, loves New Orleans, or just loves to eat. With a title that links Iberia to the Mississippi Delta, this is the latest collection of essays (hardcover, 258 pages, St. Martin's Press, $25.99) from the smart and hilarious Julia Reed who celebrates the pleasures of eating and drinking in the company of friends and family, including more than a few that are famous or infamous.
It is a mistake to call Reed simply a southern writer, despite her Mississippi roots and New Orleans home and her regular column in Garden & Gun magazine, because her hospitality adventures are global. With cerebral humor and self-deprecation, she tells stories about cooking, eating, and partying with a stew of friends, and it's rare when she doesn't make you wish you were there.
I first came to appreciate Julia Reed's writing when she had a regular byline at Vogue, writing about life and lifestyle, but not fashion. My regard for her rose even more after Katrina when she added candor, insight, and wit (not to mention style) to the Sunday morning shows as the other guests did little more than hand-wring and spit-ball. Now I look forward to her periodic Wall Street Journal columns in the weekend edition where once again she's the standout among that paper's food writers.
In Mama, etc. she tells stories that put the food into context. As when she was 11 and growing up in Mississippi she lied about her age to get a job at McDonald's to pay for repairing her parents' Buick that she had wrecked. There are stories about cooking her first Thanksgiving in New York and later ones in New Orleans post-Katrina. She writes of salads made from English gardens to prove that British cooking doesn't merit its bum rap. Another essay begins with Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins and continues on to cookbooks by Dinah Shore, Pearl Bailey, and Sophia Loren before finishing in the kitchen of her Nashville grandmother's cook. And how she was on assignment in Afghanistan where she found that despite war and scuttling scorpions, the right food and a reliable supply of gin can make any place normal.
And then there are the recipes. 99 of them, some of which are by Reed, others by celebrities (Bill Blass's meatloaf), and a few are by cooking greats (Julia Child's Roquefort Cheese Balls). Every essay ends with at least one: The McDonald's job ends with Basic Mayonnaise and Suzanne Goin's Pork Burgers. Thanksgiving includes Cranberry Conserve and Oyster Red Rice Dressing. English salads have Nigel Slater's Lemon Dressing For Summer and Elizabeth David's Cucumber and Chive Salad. Her grandmother's cook's recipes include Hot Water Cornbread and Black-Eyed Pea Salad. From Kabul she has the recipe for Buranee Banjan. And of course, there's the recipe for the title's McGee Memorial Sangria -- vodka included -- one of the many cocktails included in the book.
We've been given permission to share two recipes. Since we're now in peak holiday party season you can make Judy's Bloody Mary Mix. And as a nod to Julia Reed's love of New Orleans, Crabmeat Bruschetta.
This is a book that you will first read and then, after laughing a lot, you'll probably do like me and add it to your cookbook shelf. I wish there was a list of recipes in the front of the book, but there is an index at the back that helps. Or you can do as I did and read it with a handful of little Post-Its to mark recipes because you can't read Reed's essays without also developing both an appetite and a thirst. Give this one to the displaced southerner, the passionate host, and the friend who loves to eat and no longer apologies that she doesn't cook. Here is a link with more information.
The French Kitchen Cookbook. By Patricia Wells.
Patricia Wells belongs in the home cook's hall of fame. I know she's already won all sorts of cookbook awards but what matters most to me is that she writes books for us. With this, her newest, she has once again created a collection of superb recipes, practical wisdom, and confident encouragement that shows that despite her fame, she is at heart a home cook.
The French Kitchen Cookbook (hardcover, 312 pages, color photographs, William Morrow, $35.00) is an appealing, friendly book about the cooking she has done herself and with her cooking school students in Paris and Provence. It's full of stories and memories about teaching, her life in both Paris and Provence, and a sentimental tribute to Julia Child who was a close friend.
I can't imagine the home cook who wouldn't immediately want to try many of the book's 115 recipes. The first one I made was the Fricassée of Chicken With Fennel, Capers, Artichokes, and Tomatoes and it's already become part of my repertoire. Wow, it's good. I had six bone-in chicken thighs in my freezer so I used those instead of the whole chicken cut into 8 pieces that the recipe called for. The result was fabulous and good enough for company yet the cooking was simple, with big flavor coming from pantry ingredients that many of us would already have on hand. Other recipes that have called to me are Steamed Shrimp With Sesame Oil, Black Rice, Peas and Scallions; Pear, Fennel, Belgian Endive, and Curried Walnut Salad; Fresh Ginger Sorbet; and Zucchini "Spaghetti" With Garlic Tahini Dressing. I could go on, as there's almost nothing in this splendid book that I don't want to cook and eat.
This is typical Patricia Wells in that she showcases fresh, in-season ingredients and uses techniques that are within reach of most home cooks with advice spread throughout the pages. In the recipes vegetables seem to have pride of place and she is not shy with spices. Vegetarians and vegans (with a few adjustments) would find many dishes that could suit them.
My one observation -- not a criticism but still, something that struck me as odd -- is that despite its title, the book is filled with global flavors. Yes there are recipes that connect to classic French cuisine but there's also Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Moroccan, and Italian. The result is not exactly fusion but neither is it a French cookbook, although I appreciate that a modern French home cook probably doesn't only make French food. Wells notes in the introduction that she has taught cooking classes in Italy and Vietnam (a country once under French rule) and it shows with recipes like the classic Roman Cacio e Pepe and Shrimp In Spicy Coconut Broth, and ingredients like curry paste, kaffir lime leaves, Pecorino Romano, coconut juice, and polenta. I think if the book had a different title it would be less confusing but that aside, its international flavor is very appealing whether your kitchen is in Paris or Brooklyn.
We've published her recipe for Seared Duck Breast With Fresh Figs and Black Currant Sauce. Many of you write to me about being unfamiliar with cooking duck and in an example of what makes Patricia Wells' cookbooks so winning, this recipe will walk you through a perfect way to cook duck breasts.
Although Vegetable Harvest and Simply French remain my favorite Patricia Wells cookbooks, I'm very happy to add this to my collection and it would make a great gift for any home cook who wants to learn from a master about the joys of cooking in a French kitchen.
Cook's Illustrated Baking Book. By The Editors of America's Test Kitchen.
It's no secret that I love the books from Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen. I find them foolproof and comprehensive, and especially when I'm intimidated by making something for the first time, I turn to their books.
Speaking of being intimidated, baking might be at the top of a home cook's list of things they don't do. I recently was awed by a home cook's (my dental hygienist) Thanksgiving menu. It was ambitious, multi-cultural, and a five-day effort. But when it came to dessert she said, "I'm buying the pies. I'm not a baker." She didn't say that she wanted to be a baker, but had she, I would have recommended this book.
Teaching home cooks how to be fearless and successful bakers is an ideal use for Cook's Illustrated's culinary rigor and best practices. This book (hardcover, 518 pages, black and white photographs and illustrations, America's Test Kitchen, $40.00) is a practical and comprehensive introduction to all things baking. Cookies, cakes, breads yeasted and sweet, pizza, chiffon and angel food cakes, fruit desserts and crepes, savory and sweet pastries, baked custards and soufflés, and more.
The 450+ recipes range from simple (all-purpose cornbread, blueberry muffins, classic homemade pizza) to the fancy (individual fallen chocolate cakes, spiced pumpkin cheesecake, croissants, chocolate espresso dacquoise). As a sample, we've published their recipe for their Ultimate Banana Bread.
Tips about ingredients and equipment and 650 illustrations are throughout the book. A new baker might still be anxious the first time they make a pound cake, but with this book at least they'll stand a chance to succeed.
Moosewood Restaurant Favorites. By The Moosewood Collective.
The Moosewood Restaurant was opened in 1973 in Ithaca, New York. Forty years later they're still attracting customers to what they call "creative vegetarian cooking." The Moosewood legacy includes a dozen cookbooks, the latest of which is Moosewood Restaurant Favorites (hardcover, 402 pages, color photographs, St. Martin's Press, $29.99).
The restaurant is still run by The Moosewood Collective with 19 members who have grown the company from a small natural foods restaurant to a large company. This book is about forty years of continuous Moosewood Restaurant cooking with 250 recipes that include many that have been updated to fit today's diverse vegetarian cooking, including vegan and gluten-free.
Many of the recipes are ones that have been customer favorites including Greek Lemony Potatoes, Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage Two Ways, Vegan Cornbread, Tofu-Spinach Borekas, Zucchini-Feta Casserole, Caramelized Onion Pie, salad dressings, condiments and salsas, sauces and gravies, plus desserts like Moosewood Restaurant Brownies. In addition to the recipes there are sections about the Moosewood legacy; a guide to Organic Food, the Dirty Dozen and Buying Local; and a Guide to Ingredients and Basic Cooking.
If you're looking for a gift for a home cook who is already either a vegetarian or vegan, or has recently decided to eliminate gluten from their diet, or simply wants to have more vegetarian recipe options and eat in a more natural way, this lovely and welcoming book would be a great choice.
We've been given permission to publish two recipes: Red Lentil Soup and Vegan Chocolate Cake.
Whether it's for you or as a gift, there's little that's more inspiring than to read about the fun and pleasure and importance of home cooking and hospitality. Enjoy this month of holiday fêtes and time with friends and family and I hope you get to spend some of it in the kitchen.