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Cookbooks as gifts: the spice of life, the salt of the earth

December 22, 2009

Bookstores’ cookbook aisles, bright and cheerful as nonpareils, are a good indication of our love for books that aid and inspire us to cook. And the holiday season, with its special pleasures of preparing and sharing food, is a perfect time to give these books as gifts. It’s only a few days ’til Christmas, but here are a few titles I can count on to tickle food lovers’ fancy. Covering a range of subjects, they share what I consider essential food book traits: they give the gift of an innovative approach, artful ingredient pairings, or inspiring practicality—and often a combination of all three.

Innovative approaches:

Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here For More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2004) enrolls readers in a rollicking—but impeccably researched—crash course in the science of baking. The funky, cartoonish diagrams and retro, textbook-like design belie a serious culinary project. Brown’s accessible scientific explanations are top-notch, and his innovative “mixing method” approach will re-structure the way you think about baking, teaching you why Jalapeno Hush Puppies are indeed a close cousin of Old-School Muffins.

In Cheese Essentials: An Insider’s Guide to Buying and Serving Cheese (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2001), Laura Werlin similarly provides enlightenment via categorization. Rather than taking an encyclopedic approach, Werlin cultivates cheese saavy by boiling everything down to the eight basic styles of cheeses: fresh, semi-soft, soft-ripened, surface-ripened, semi-hard, hard, blue, and washed-rind. Readers build a solid, flexible understanding of fundamental differences between kinds of cheeses, and cheese “tasting” assignments at the end of every chapter pleasantly tutor the palate.

The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs (Little, Brown and Co., 2008) is a marvelous resource for creative cooks sensitive to flavor. Karen Page and Andrew Dorneburg offer alphabetical entries that cover a vast range of ingredients, from “achiote seeds” to “zucchini blossoms.” Each ingredient is flanked with others that provide strong flavor alliances. This conceptual approach to flavor pairing is inexhaustible in its potential to spark adventures. Duck meat’s affinity with cherries and vinegar, or the happy marriage of dates and pistachios, for example, opens the door to any number of inspired creations.

Ingredient artists:

In Deborah Madison’s The Greens Cookbook (Broadway, 2001) the recipes’ striking elegance comes not from fussy techniques, but from sophisticated flavor complements: the mint cream in the fresh pea soup, the touch of saffron in the roasted eggplant, or the blood orange sauce that accompanies a semolina pudding. The book’s finesse also shows, for example, in the multiple pages describing the flavor qualities that various ingredients bring to a soup stock.

From Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson, owners of San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery, comes Tartine (Chronicle Books, 2006) a book to savor like the flake of a perfect pâte feuilletée. Tartine is a full sensory experience, with photos that feast the eyes and recipes that promise tastebud delight: classic buttery croissants and brioches, but also the subtle Apple Nougatine Tart, the Shaker Lemon Tart with its lightly caramelized sugar-dusted crust, and the savory Gruyère gougères. Excellent recipe explanations and kitchen notes make this patisserie paradise feel fully within reach.

In Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World (Marlowe and Co., 2006) two hip and spunky flavor artisans bury notions of restrictive veganism in a swirl of fluffy vegan frosting. Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero’s confections, which range from retro to exotic to tongue-in-cheek, are well-composed flavor snapshots. And vegan-ness simply means using soy margarine. In fact, a ubiquitous soymilk-and-vinegar faux-buttermilk base gives all their little gems—from the lemon-macadamia to the hazelnut-mousse-filled—a wonderful airy lightness.

Inspiring practicality:

Martha Stewart’s Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook (Clarkson Potter, 2008) is a beautiful, thorough tome that teaches fundamentals with grace. Arranged by technique and accompanied by useful tips and variations, each lesson includes step-by-step photos that render the process transparent. Appealing recipes inspire readers to poach and coddle, to crimp ravioli and assemble bouquets garnis. My first taste of the book made me want to cook for a week straight.

A different kind of how-to, Russ Parsons’s How To Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table (Mariner Books, 2008), is a collection of delectable essays, each exploring the history, lore, production, or practical considerations surrounding a common fruit or vegetable. Written with the engaging style and clarity that has won Parsons several journalism and writing awards, the essays are each following by useful tips on how to select, store and prepare the produce in order to bring out its flavor. A pleasure to read, the book accompanies you to the farmer’s market or grocery store, where you might weigh in on the long-standing debate over when and why to choose thick-stemmed versus thin-stemmed asparagus.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 30, 2010 6:16 pm

    Alton Brown’s “I’m Just Here for More Food” is one of my very favorite cookbooks. Indeed a Christmas gift, it enchanted me for hours (and still does) as I read through delicious recipes, each served with sides of informative notes, chemical know-how, and affable comic character. His pie crust, I must say, is phenomenal.

    Several of the rest of those look intriguing, as well. I think I have ideas for a few birthdays, both mine and others. Thanks!

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