2011's Best Cookbooks, Tested And Tasted

There are many ways to describe the season between Thanksgiving and New Years, but for cooks, it's cooking season. People across the country are dusting off pots, pans and favorite cookbooks to prepare for multiple holiday dinners and all the meals in between. Host Audie Cornish speaks with Susan Chang of NPR's Kitchen Window about the best cookbooks to cook from or give for the holiday season.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There are many ways to describe the season between Thanksgiving and New Years, but for cooks it's cooking season. People across the country are dusting off pots, pans, and favorite cookbooks to prepare for multiple holiday dinners and all the meals in between.

NPR Kitchen Window Contributor Susan Chang started her holiday cooking early. She's been busy in her test kitchen coming up with a list of the year's best cookbooks to use and to give in the holiday season.

Susan Chang is at the studios of New England Public Radio in Amherst, Massachusetts. Susan, welcome to the program.

SUSAN CHANG, BYLINE: Great to be back, Audie.

CORNISH: So, in my house, I have a rule: No buying cookbooks that you don't think you're going to cook at least five recipes from.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: So please tell me that in this giant stack of books you've sent my way, some of these meet the criteria.

CHANG: Absolutely. In fact, I have a new way of deciding which are the best cookbooks and one of them is, is it useful? Would an enthusiastic home cook find something to cook in that cookbook for at least a week, without getting tired of it?

CORNISH: 'Cause a lot of the times they're for the pictures, right? They're coffee table books more than kitchen books.

CHANG: Yes, there are an awful lot of books that are just wonderful for reading or browsing, but you really don't want to put them on your kitchen counter.

CORNISH: A lot of people are starting to or getting ready to hunt for holiday gifts for family and friends. And are there any books on your list that you think make particularly good gifts?

CHANG: Absolutely. I think there's a book in my top 10 that I think is ideal for people who are weeknight cooks or just starting out, and that's Melissa Clark's "Cook This Now." It's an incredibly versatile everyday book. And it's tremendously entertaining and also reliable. It's - I consider Melissa Clark one of my emergency cooking people, like she's right up there with the flashlight and bottled water.

CORNISH: Right, she is the food writer for The New York Times' dining section.

CHANG: That's right. But I think what Melissa does so beautifully is she takes what she's learned from cooking in so, so many idioms over the years and she applies it in different contexts.

CORNISH: There's a mean mac and cheese recipe in here, too.

CHANG: Oh, I believe it.

CORNISH: With carrots - shredded carrots, which I was very disbelieving of this but I kind of read into it. And there's enough cheese to convince me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHANG: I'm sure.

CORNISH: You've tested a lot of recipes to come up with this list; any favorites - official favorites?

CHANG: Official favorites, yes. I really enjoyed a dish called orzo with lemon and yogurt sauce from "American Flavors" by Andrew Carmellini. He's a chef who's written an unusually thoughtful cookbook. Oh, and you know, I just loved the roasted cauliflower with pomegranate seeds, mint and salted yogurt from "Cook This Now."

CORNISH: Wow, that sounds really good.

CHANG: It's outrageous.

CORNISH: So, another book that I found interesting was actually the smallest book, when I fish about in my pile here. It's called "What Chefs Feed Their Kids: Recipes and Techniques for Cultivating a Love of Good Food." Tell me more about the people behind this book.

CHANG: Yes, I will. This is actually the first time I'm recommending a book that geared towards feeding kids. And what I love about it, is that it's not patronizing. You know, this is a book that realizes kids can eat pretty much like adults. And what's great about it is that all of these recipes come from working chefs who are also parents.

Now, chefs are really busy people and those brave enough to be parents have this problem they have to solve. Number one, they have to teach their kids to eat well. And number two, they've only got like five minutes before they have to go feed all these other people. Right? So, this book has been tested under much more difficult conditions than you or I might face.

CORNISH: And the recipes are recipes are interesting. I mean one of them is for nori chips, which is seaweed...

CHANG: Oh, yeah. Yes.

CORNISH: There's another recipe for risotto-style brown rice. And the book is helpful, I find, because it gives you literally year-by-year suggestions on how to deal with the kid who is two years old. Who's, you know, two and half years old and all the up to the teens.

CHANG: That's right. I think that it's a very thoughtful book that way. And I think its realistic in I think that kids are more sophisticated than we give them credit for.

CORNISH: Susan, there is one more book I wanted to ask you about. And this book was called "The Food 52 Cookbook: 140 Winning Recipes from Exceptional Home Cooks." And what's interesting about it is it's like a crowd-source cookbook, like essentially a website - people who run a website kind of took in recipes and made a selection. And it seems like an interesting marriage between the digital and the tactile.

CHANG: It is. That's Amanda Hesser's and Merrill Stubbs' book. And "Food 52" is a blog. I don't tend to necessarily always chose blog books because very often they're just sucked off the blog and nothing particularly special about it. But this one was different.

First of all, it's a collection of recipes from clearly very committed home cooks who are serious people, who are passionate about food. And that came through in the recipes. And furthermore, it was beautifully curated by the editors. It was clear that Amanda and Merrill had been testing these recipes and thinking about them, and streamlining them to make them useful in any person's kitchen. So I thought that was worth appreciating.

CORNISH: Susan Chang is a regular contributor to NPR's Kitchen Window. And her new book, out this month, is "A Spoonful of Promises." She joined me from New England Public Radio in Amherst.

Thanks so much.

Thank you so much, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

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