hide captionWho can resist good old-fashioned chocolate pudding from Pure Dessert?
Who can resist good old-fashioned chocolate pudding from Pure Dessert?
Bunches of parsley, whole heads of garlic, handfuls of aromatics sweating in the pan. Bouquets of thyme; fistfuls of nutmeg and cloves, chilies and saffron. In this year's cookbooks, it's all about the seasonings — not the protein in the middle of the plate or even the sides and starches, but the invisible character actors who lurk in the background, unseen but quite impossible to ignore.
Of course, with 6,000 cookbooks published every year, any attempt to discern an annual theme is a little arbitrary. But — as a cookbook reviewer who sees at least 500 of them each year — I can assure you that the trend toward building fuller, deeper and stronger flavors has been on the rise for years.
So it comes as no surprise that there's a record catch of books emphasizing basic skills right now. Celebrity chefs and veteran cookbook authors alike are showcasing simple but powerful recipes that use kitchen arts to press the last mile of taste from a small list of ingredients.
As for ethnic cookbooks, learn to love your mortar and pestle (or at least press a coffee grinder into service), because amped-up, Indo-Chinese, Spice Road flavors are coming out in quantity for the season.
In previous years, we've seen comfort cookbooks, a blitz of entertaining books, even a massive outbreak of baking books after the Atkins backlash. But the good news about this year's emphasis on skills and seasoning is that the 2007 cookbook shelf has a stylish gift idea for everybody, from your grill-crazy carnivore of an uncle to your vegan massage therapist.
(You can print these titles, along with all our other year-end picks, using this master list.)
For the Rank Beginner, and Everybody Else
The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters, hardcover, 416 pages, list price: $35
It's a stroke of genius: The Food Guru of Berkeley — chef, activist, and sustainable-foods advocate Alice Waters — has finally written a cookbook that teaches you how to use it. The Art of Simple Food is divided into two parts: In the first, each chapter is devoted to a single technique (sauteing in a skillet, slow moist cooking such as braises and stews, how to deal with dried beans), accompanied by just four or five incredibly basic recipes, like lightly browned Sauteed Cauliflower or subtly tomato-y Red Rice Pilaf. The second half is essentially a massive portfolio-builder of recipes you can easily handle once you've prepared those in the first half. Once you've browned the skin and oven-braised the eight-ingredient Chicken Legs with Tomatoes, Onions and Garlic, it doesn't seem so daunting to take on Duck Legs with Leeks and Green Olives. It's a great book to brush up your technique if you already know how to cook, but there also probably isn't a better first cookbook for those learning for the first time. Remember, parents: Teach a kid to cook and you feed him for a lifetime. (Don't teach him to cook, and guess who's living at home for the next 10 years?)
For the Everyday Cook in Need of Inspiration
2500 Recipes, by Andrew Schloss, paperback, 384 pages, list price: $24.95
Hey, there's no shame in it — it's happened to the best of us. You've cooked the same 12 dishes for four months flat. You're sick of yourself and your dumb kitchen and the boring green beans you make every week. Worse, your ungrateful family is bored too. Enter 2500 Recipes. Could you use 50 new ways to roast a chicken? Of course you could. The same old bird gets dressed up for dinner with a gem-colored, sweetly tart, 5-minute cranberry-orange glaze. Fifty new ways to cook greens? Fifty-three new pasta sauces — why not? These are bare-bones recipes that won't do you much good if you don't know how to cook already ... but that, of course, is not your problem.
For Teflon Taste Buds
Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, by Fuchsia Dunlop, hardcover, 256 pages, list price: $29.95
Of the eight great cuisines of China, that of Hunan is the hottest of all — ablaze with hot red chilies and vibrant salty, sour, bitter tastes. Thanks to Fuchsia Dunlop (her previous cookbook was the Sichuan-focused Land of Plenty), authentic regional Chinese cooking is at last having its day, the way regional Italian cooking did 10 years ago. Peng's Home-Style Bean Curd gets a pungent kick from fermented black beans and chilies; Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs, with their last-minute dose of black vinegar, are guaranteed to leave the most dignified of your guests loudly sucking the gristle. These are intense, addictive recipes for the committed chili-head — and I dare say every one of them can cure a hangover in 20 minutes flat, as long as you don't faint from the heat. Just don't try to eat the chilies whole (ask me how I know). (Listen to an interview with Fuchsia Dunlop.)
For the World-Weary Palate
Where Flavor Was Born, by Andreas Viestad, hardcover, 288 pages, list price: $40
Andreas Viestad takes this year's award for Best Cookbook Travelogue. Where Flavor Was Born is a work of surpassing ambition: Its reach extends in a giant crescent from Australia through the South China Sea, clear past the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, and all the way back down the coast of Africa as far as Cape Town. This roughly traces the origins and original paths of the spice trade. Chapters are organized by spice (cumin, cardamom, vanilla — but where's saffron?) and filled with exuberantly diverse dishes: South African Spinach Soup rubs shoulders with the equally nutmeggy Balinese Stewed Oxtail. Tumeric Squid with Tamarind Sauce takes deep-fried squid — a universal favorite in the modern world — to new heights: The turmeric in the flour gives it a haunting, ancient earthiness set off by thick tamarind dipping sauce. The photographs are dazzling, and the tales of Viestad's culinary adventures — hauling hundred-pound bags of black peppercorns in Kerala, snatching tamarind pods from elephants in Zimbabwe — are striking enough to make you wonder if they really could be true.
For the Rehabilitated Takeout Addict
Modern Indian Cooking, by Hari Nayak and Vikas Khanna, hardcover, 191 pages, list price: $29.95
There has been a great flowering of Indian cookbooks in recent years. Most of them have been devoted to home cooking; many are woven with loving recollections of childhoods spent in Bombay or Delhi. But Modern Indian Cooking is a radical departure — traditional Indian ingredients like tamarind, garam masala or curry leaves applied in contexts we think of as Western (lamb chops, chili, salmon filets). The results are fiery and pristine, yet filled with thrilling surprises, treats such as Crispy Pan Fried Shrimp with Tamarind Glaze. I never would have guessed what happens to potatoes buried in a mountain of dill with a landscape of burst mustard seeds, but it was worth waiting all these years to find out.
For the Unabashed Nose-to-Tailer
The River Cottage Meat Book, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, hardcover, 543 pages, list price: $40
Those who find that calves' livers and pig's trotters are best contemplated at a distance should keep well away from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Those of us with the opposite problem worship him as a god. This is not a case of macho posturing over a barbecue pit: There is more cooking know-how in Fearnley-Whittingstall's little finger than you will find in the graduating class of any cooking school in the country. His book is stuffed with wit, erudition and one slow-cooked, lovingly constructed recipe after another. After two or three hours of patient roasting, the fat on a pork belly turns to pure molten gold with a crisp exterior; the flesh permeated by it yields and seethes with tenderness. You won't be ashamed to lick the plate and gnaw the bones — but then again, have you ever been? (Incidentally, the word "vegan" does appear in this book. You will find it between "veal" and "vegetables".)
For Those Kicking the Beige Diet
The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without, by Mollie Katzen, hardcover, 160 pages, list price: $22.95
Three cheers for the vegetable-cookbook revolution! It's only about 5 years old, and it's been a blessing for those of us whose powers of invention dwindle and die in the produce aisle. Mollie Katzen, of course, achieved her initial fame with the classic Moosewood Cookbook, but she's never been one to rest on her bay laurel leaves. Here is everything from Lemon-Spiked Artichokes to Parmesan-Crusted Zucchini, embellished with the lovely pen and pencil drawings that are Katzen's trademark. They're resolutely unfussy, sometimes whimsical (Chard Decorated With Itself!) recipes that nevertheless deliver explosive flavor, powered and teased to life with nut oils and tart vinegars or citrus or dried mushrooms. (Listen to an interview with Mollie Katzen.)
For the Ambitious Gardener
Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen, by Deborah Madison, paperback, 240 pages, list price: $19.95
Deborah Madison has made a career out of expanding the repertoire of countless vegetarian families. As the years have brought us better farmers' markets and a tidal wave of organics, Madison has really hit her stride. Here are carrot tops and radish greens, broccoli romanesco, huckleberries and fresh tomato sauces. In a welcome blow for practicality, Madison ditches the appetizer-entree-dessert format. Instead, every chapter focuses on a different sort of main dish — hearty cool-weather suppers like golden Polenta Squares with Creamy Gorgonzola, soul-sustaining supper sandwiches like Roasted Portobello Sandwich with Mozzarella and Braised Cooking Greens. There's a whole chapter on pasta with vegetables, like the nutty, wheaten Pasta Shells and Chickpeas, with its diverse medley of textures. Since most of us only ever bother with a cookbook if it's supper anyhow, the result is an unusually high percentage of recipes you'll actually use.
For the Person Who Steals the Last Piece of Focaccia
Savory Baking from the Mediterranean, by Anissa Helou, hardcover, 352 pages, list price: $29.95
Breadsticks, phyllo parcels, rolls and miniature stuffed breads — we love them all. They're like tiny presents, bite-size and full-flavored; the mystery of their creation we generally leave to someone else. What makes many of these breads so irresistible is the flavors tucked inside — the saffron-scented chicken in a Moroccan Triangle, the spinach and cheese that fill Turkish Flatbreads. For others, like Little Milk Breads, it's the fine, sweet texture that comes from a yeasty slow rise. Usually, you have to hunt down these sorts of recipes in some kind of general baking book, where they're hidden amid a hundred recipes for muffins and cookies, or in one of dozens of obscure regional Mediterranean cookbook. But Anissa Helou's book unlocks the mysteries of all these lovely little breads, setting them forth in one volume in all their golden-brown profusion. Now all you have to do is give the book to your favorite baker, and wait.
For the Sweet Tooth That Knows What It Wants
Pure Dessert, by Alice Medrich, hardcover, 272 pages, list price: $35
Alice Medrich became one of the heroes in the chocolate addict's pantheon with her 2003 book, Bittersweet. The genius of her new book is the way she zeroes in on the dessert lover's cravings. Some of us long for milky, custardy sweets. Others hanker after nutty, seedy treats. Some of us swoon for fruit, and most of us nourish a chocolate jones from time to time. For each of these occasions, Medrich has a chapter. Most of the recipes elevate one ingredient above the rest, capturing its divine essence in a few quick strokes. Lavender tuiles, walnut sponge cake, even a plain, old chocolate pudding with a decadent, softly spoonable feel in the mouth — simple pleasures all, and also unforgettable.
For the Accident-Prone Cook
Knife Skills Illustrated, by Peter Hertzmann, hardcover, 384 pages, list price: $29.95
Something you would never buy for yourself, but can't stop using once you have it: I'm not sure there's a better definition of a gift. That's the way I feel about Knife Skills Illustrated, the book that proves that knowledge for its own sake is an affordable luxury. This is not a cookbook, it's a prep book — recipes for disassembling vegetable, fruit and protein safely and professionally. What's more, each chapter comes in right- and left-handed versions, right down to the meticulous pencil drawings (and if you look hard at the illustrations of the wrong hand dicing and slicing away, you experience an eerie frisson of danger and discomfort). Everything you can do to a piece of food (A) before it hits the pan, or (B) after it's sitting on the carving board, is in this book. Getting from A to B is up to you.