Need a last-minute gift for a home cook in your life? A new cookbook is never unwelcome. Whether it ends up in a kitchen shelf, on a den coffee table or in the bedside nightstand stack, an intriguing cookbook always finds a place in the home of someone who thinks about good food.
Here are three of the year’s best new cookbooks, tailored to different kinds of cooks:
For the classicist: “The Essential James Beard: 450 Recipes that Shaped the Tradition of American Cooking” by James Beard, edited by Rick Rodgers with John Ferrone (St. Martin’s Press, $35).
Compiled from 12 of the big guy’s classic volumes, this book pretty well taps into the collective unconscious of midcentury America in the way “Mad Men” never will. Flip through the pages, and you see those recipes your mother cursed her way through for one of those dinner parties when you had to eat early and go upstairs to watch TV while daddy’s boss came over to the house. We’re talking chicken with 40 cloves of garlic as well as sole poached in vermouth with cream and butter. We’re talking soufflé: cheese or crab soufflé to start the meal, frozen lemon soufflé to end it. We’re talking fancy in that vaguely but not quite totally European way that dinner party food never is anymore.
But James Beard was also a champion of real, everyday American food as well. He has recipes for potatoes Anna as well as fully loaded baked potatoes, done just right. And twice-baked potato skins, which were apparently a Beard favorite long before fern bars got a hold of them. This book makes you hungry for a kind of food you rarely see exalted anymore.
For the Southerner: “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart (Gibbs Smith, $45).
Here’s the season’s one must-have for anyone with a Southern cooking library. These two longtime friends and collaborators show more than a little nerve evoking the name of Julia Child’s masterwork, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” But they deliver the goods with this comprehensive and deeply researched 7-700720-page volume. The text does a terrific job of explaining the historical underpinnings of Southern cooking methods and the development of the Southern palate. (It offers a great rejoinder to those annoying Yankees who mock the Southern sweet tooth but ignore the uniquely Southern use of vinegar and tingly spice, or fail to notice the brilliant textures of Southern fare.)
Like Child, the authors make the decision to divide the sections by food group rather than region, so the chapter on vegetables and sides is followed by one on eggs, and then we’re on to fish and shellfish. This organization has some obvious advantages for the cook planning dinner, but that means you don’t get an upfront discussion of regional differences between, say, the Appalachians and the Louisiana coast. It’s there, along with sidebars on the different kinds of seasoning pork, from fatback to streak o’ lean. You just have to look for the information as you page through. There’s much pleasure in the reading here.
For the Health-minded Cook: “The New Way to Cook Light: Fresh Food & Bold Flavors for Today’s Home Cook” by Scott Mowbray and Ann Pittman (Oxmoor House: $34.95).
Of all the books that have stacked up on my desk, this is the one that has gotten the most attention from coworkers who’ve asked to take it for a spin. Written by the editors of “Cooking Light” magazine, this colorful, easy-reading book bursts with ideas. From quick weeknight meals like spiced, honey-brushed chicken thighs to dinner-party ideas like chilled fresh corn soup with king crab and chives, it dishes up a lot of vivid food for your consideration. Small sidebars on technique (such as instructions for cubing a butternut squash) accompany recipes when warranted. Kudos go the editors for paying attention to the international pantry widely available in any good supermarket these days. Soba noodle salad, spicy Thai chicken and coconut soup, and bok choy with soy-ginger drizzle are all good recipes that any home cook can shop for and prepare with ease. Folks who need a concise, well-written recipe and like to see a calorie and nutrition count will love this book.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More Blog