Friday, December 21, 2012

Best Books of 2012: Cookbooks

This is the first installment in January Magazine’s Best Books of 2012 feature. Look for additional picks to be posted over the coming days.

Cornelia Guest’s Simple Pleasures by Cornelia Guest (Weinstein)
Like original celebutante Cornelia Guest herself, Simple Pleasures is a surprise. The one-time frequenter of Studio 54 who later fled to Hollywood to be a star is 48 now. The daughter of the incomparable CZ Guest, the former socialite is now an animal rights activist, philanthropist and caterer. “Nobody likes pretension,” Guest writes in her introduction and few have reason to know that better than she. And in a sentiment that may well have come straight from her mom’s lips at some point, Guest tells us that, “I never forget that charm is the most important part of elegance.” And so here we have a book steeped in charm, filled with elegance and focused on entertaining that is also… vegan? Bring on the Tempeh Pot Pies and mountains of Quinoa, though as flip as that sounds, the recipes are terrific as are the presentation and photographs. This is entertaining in style with a vegan focus and, as appropriate considering the author and the direction, it’s all very like Martha-Goes-Vegan, which is not a bad thing, all things considered. Even those not interested in vegan cookery will find much here to inspire them. In addition to vegan recipes, Guest shares tips for entertaining -- and in fact living -- in style. An interesting book from an unexpected source. -- Monica Stark

Food and the City by Jennifer Cockrall-King (Prometheus)
Whether or not you’re aware of it, a revolution is happening. Possibly right under your feet or above your head. In abandoned lots. In schoolyards. Even on top of apartment buildings, gardens are sprouting and food is growing and the answers that are coming up with the sprouts and tomatoes might be even better than the questions ever were. “The momentum behind urban agriculture as it stands in 2012 leaves me hopeful that this is a major turning point for how we design and use our urban spaces,” writes  Jennifer Cockrall-King, author of Food and the City, “how we feed ourselves, and how we treat our food producers and our planet.” Cockrall-King’s message is hopeful. Even optimistic. “I am more convinced now than ever before that this is more than just a flash-in-the-pan green trend, and that the movement is showing no signs of slowing.” Cockrall-King examines the industrialization of our food system and, little by little, people of need or vision (and in some cases both) are beginning to take it back. The stories are real, abundant and powerful. Food and the City is not glossy or even beautiful, but it is well-researched, well documented and absolutely inspirational. A food writer, this is journalist Cockrall-King’s beat and it shows. She brings passion, knowledge and even inspiration to her topic. You may never look at a concrete schoolyard or a bunch of supermarket grapes 3000 miles from their home in the same way again. -- Sienna Powers

Food Lover’s Guide to the World (Lonely Planet)
For many people, food and travel share sharp links. As Mark Bittman writes in his introduction to Food Lover’s Guide to the World, food is as “powerful a vehicle for experiencing culture as any other, and that it creates experiences and memories that you can’t otherwise get -- to me, a cook.” I would add that, in book form, an armchair journey such as offered here adds a layer of inspiration. Nothing like reading about the fantastic tagines of Morocco to get one thinking about how those flavors can be duplicated in our own kitchens. Or mention the Middle Eastern soul food that is Molokheya to evoke strong memories in those who have experienced it. Weirdly, in a book that includes mentions aspects of the cuisines of places as diverse as Wales, Tibet and Oaxaca. there is not a single mention of anything from Canada. In fact, judging from this book, Canada does not even exist. Otherwise, though, the book is all it should be: an armchair guide to the (non-Canadian) foods and peoples of the world. -- Sienna Powers

Pure Vegan: 70 Recipes for Beautiful Meals and Clean Living by Joseph Shuldiner (Chronicle)
In a year that was awash in vegan cookbooks, two really stood out for me. One was Vegan Eats World by the author of Veganomicon. The other was Pure Vegan. While both books are excellent, for me it’s not an either or proposition. Both add great value to their region of gastronomy. That is, both do wonderful things with a style of cooking that (arguably), for many years, didn’t produce much that was worth eating. Debut author Joseph Shuldiner is a graphic designer so it probably goes without saying that Pure Vegan is gorgeous. The photos, the layout, the colors… the French flaps! It’s a beautiful production. What makes it sublime, though, are the recipes. They are not gimmicky, as some vegan recipes can be. Here food is not masquerading as other food: it’s mostly just being what it is: beautiful, healthful, simply prepared and wonderfully plated. My personal highlights: I loved the Potato Torte. When finished, it looks like something that might be coated in cheese or cream or other non-vegan products, but of coarse neither is the case. Another oh-so-simple idea, here beautifully presented is the (No) Cheese Plate, intended to be served as finger food with wine. All of the ideas are good, but the recipe for a Fig Paste that looks and serves like a cheese or pate is very good and very simple. For me, however, the star is Nutty Mushroom Risotto, making it the first time I’ve ever had a truly “creamy” vegan risotto… without missing the cheese! The secret is hazelnuts: skinned, toasted and coarsely chopped. -- Linda L. Richards

Roots: The Definitive Compendium with More Than 225 Recipes by Diane Morgan (Chronicle)
In a world increasingly concerned with local organic, it’s very good to make friends with root vegetables. In most climates, some type of root is available in abundance year round. In western Canada where I live, at times of the year when every bite of asparagus comes from Peru and every grape from Mexico and every bite of salad from various other places, it’s always possible to lay your hands on a locally grown beet or potato. And as Diane Morgan points out in Roots, there are so many more edible roots available that we don’t generally think about. It pays to know where they are, what they are and what can be done with them. Morgan says she wrote Roots for the very best reasons: selfish ones. It was a book she wanted for herself. “I wanted a go-to volume that was both a comprehensive reference book and a cookbook of simple yet creative ways to prepare dozens of different root vegetables.” Beyond that, she wanted a guide to various roots and what to do with them, as well as answers regarding seasonal availability and the best way to buy and store all of the interesting varieties she was increasingly becoming aware of. Roots accomplishes all of those things, in a handsome, comprehensive volume that also includes fantastic recipes and gorgeous, tantalizing photos. -- Linda L. Richards

Seasonings: Flavours of the Gulf Islands by Andrea and David Spalding (Harbour)
The Gulf Islands are located just a few miles west of Canada’s mainland, part of the same chain of islands that in American waters are known as the San Juans. Since island living can depend tightly on community, food is a big part of culture and the 50 Mile Diet was part of island culture long before it became part of the vernacular. People talk about organic farming and wild harvesting as a matter of course and most islands have at least one festival that celebrates the bounties of a particular season. With this sort of culture in hand, it’s only a surprise that a book that looks closely and colorfully at the people of the Gulf Islands through their foods has been so long coming. This one is quite wonderful, though, and so it was worth the wait. Husband and wife Andrea and David Spalding are both well established authors in their own right, having written over 40 books between them. They have lived on Pender Island for many years and their intimate knowledge of the area and its people informs Seasonings. “This cookbook is filled with passion,” they tell us right off the top. “Passion about all islands, passion about island food and the passion Gulf Islanders apply to growing, cooking and sharing it no matter the season.” -- Linda L. Richards

The Little Paris Kitchen by Rachel Khoo (Chronicle Books)
About a dozen years ago, Donna Hay (arguably) revolutionized the way cookbooks were written. She took things that had been detailed and complicated and made them simple. In 2012, Rachel Khoo has done the same for (gasp!) Cordon Bleu, taking what has traditionally been complicated recipes best attempted by men of a certain age with French accents and funny hats and simplified them. “French flavors and techniques needn’t be out of reach for the everyday home cook,” Khoo writes, then goes on to explain exactly what she means. Some of it is revolutionary. Just a few steps to a classic cheese souffle. Scallops in a savory Sabayon Sauce that has impossibly few steps and ingredients for such an elegant dish. Chicken and mushrooms in a wine sauce so simple and delicious you’ll be thinking of other ways to use it. (And it won’t be difficult!) Included are simplified classics, but also classics that have been completely reimagined. Coq au Vin as a barbecue and on a skewer with a red wine dipping sauce. A cassoulet that is light and simple and, in some ways, absolutely uncassoulet-like: yet perfectly delicious. Purists will appreciate a section at the back of the book called French Basics that brings them up to speed on how to make a roux or a beurre blanc or one of over 20 or so basics of French cooking. Fresh ingredients and simple techniques revolutionize what we think of as classic French cooking. -- Aaron Blanton

Modern Sauces by Martha Homberg (Chronicle)
Modern Sauces is dense, well illustrated and supremely useful. In some ways, it’s more than a cookbook. It’s like the seed for every recipe you will ever make. Forever. Before I cracked the book, I imagined the final word on the classic sauces of French cooking: Bechamel, sabayon, beurre blanc, et al. And all of these are included here, but there is so, so much more. Not only that: though we are given the recipes for very many sauces, we also get to see them in action. What better to do with a cheese sauce than create an amazing and classic mac and cheese? And then there are the variations: a classic pesto, then a very French pesto, then a spicy cilantro-marcona almond pesto and then parsley-mint pesto with walnuts and feta. There are sweet sauces, too. Tomato-based sauces. Then a whole section on salad-approriate sauces, not to mention a lot of very interesting salad recipes. In all, over 150 recipes for sauces and things to do with them. All of that, and it’s a stunning book. The kind that could prompt drooling from unwitting guests if the book were to be left on a coffeetable. This one’s a keeper. -- Aaron Blanton

Turkey: More Than 100 Recipes with Tales From the Road by Leanne Kitchen (Chronicle Books)
Turkey: More Than 100 Recipes with Tales From the Road represents the very best of a new generation of cookbooks. Brilliant and in-depth travel chronicles that include well thought out and shared recipes. Author Kitchen is a trained chef who has grabbed a camera and taken to the road over the last decade or so, writing about food and travel for some of Australia’s top publications. Her first book feels like a career zenith as well as a new starting point. Turkey is absolutely everything it should be. The travel observations and photographs are sharp and winning. The food descriptions of meals consumed and enjoyed are second to none and the recipes are inviting and easy to follow and include a pleasing mix of at home specialities, street meats and fancy restaurant fare. Turkey is a rich stew of a book: dense and luxurious and impossible to appreciate properly at a single taste. I anticipate going back to this one again and again over the years. -- Aaron Blanton

Vegan Eats World by Terry Hope Romero (DaCapo Lifelong)
Vegan Eats World offers 300 recipes to Pure Vegan’s 70, but many of these are fast and sweet: lots of sauces and spreads and other things that will go into making other dishes. For much of really good vegan cooking, that seems to be key. If you had to stop and make Toasted Rice Powder every time you want to have a Southeast Asian salad, it would be time consuming. But if you already have some prepared, you’re a little more ready to go. Being properly vegan has to include that kind of thinking. Most of the time you can’t just blithely run to the market and buy what’s available. You have to be able to make vegan alternatives for everything in your pantry if need be. In that regard, Vegan Eats World is superior as it hand holds you through all of those steps. Vegan tzatziki and raita and even a parmigiana topping for lasagnas and other pasta dishes made of chickpea flour. The recipes here are terrific, as well. Though it was both complicated and time-consuming, I loved Sesame Panko Tempeh Cutlets: kind of katsu made with tempeh. A Pad Thai made with avocado and spicy greens kept me from missing any shrimp or eggs that might have been in the original. Lots of great curries and stews featuring saitan or tempeh. As the title promises, Vegan Eats World is a culinary trip around the world: vegan-style. -- Linda L. Richards

Waffles by Dawn Yanagihara (Chronicle)
Who needs a whole book about waffles? After all, on the surface of things, how much can be done with the waffle-y form? But in chef and cookbook editor Dawn Yanagihara’s first book, Waffles: Sweet, Savory, Simple, you see the waffle in what would seem to be all possible forms. And it’s wonderful! The waffles of my own childhood were delicious but super simple affairs. They came from a box in the freezer. You dropped them into the toaster. After the pop you added syrup and -- voila! -- an instant breakfast I didn’t imagine could be topped. Dawn Yanagihara’s waffles are nothing like any of that. First of all, though, we’re treated to Yanagihara’s humor: “In one of my oversimplified views of human beings,” she writes in the introduction, “there are two types of people: those who like pancakes and those who like waffles.” She posits that the pancake people are “stable, grounded, in control” and so on, while the wafflers are “off-kilter, willy-nilly, moody” and more. She goes on to say this is nonsense, but you can’t help but loving her for saying it: there are differences, and here they are. However much you like (or don’t) Yanagihara’s waffle-based philosophy, none of the recipes in this excellent book involve toasters. Her classic waffle recipe is very good: basic and seemingly infallible. But from there, it just gets better. How can you not admire the inventiveness that brings us Huevos Y Waffles Rancheros? Here cornmeal waffles replace the corn tortillas on which the fried eggs in this classic Mexican breakfast rest. And I’m looking forward to trying Smoked Salmon and Crème Fraiche on Buckwheat-Sour Cream Waffles as an appetizer over the holidays. But the star for me (and it certainly won’t be for everyone!) has to be the Fried Chicken and Waffles with Bacon Gravy. This perplexing Southern favorite is here broken down in a way that even moderately accomplished home chefs should be able to attempt with confidence. -- Aaron Blanton

White Jacket Required by Jenna Weber (Sterling Epicure)
Those who have ever considered training to become a professional chef might think twice after reading 27-year-old Jenna Weber’s memoir, White Jacket Required. Having graduated college and finding no place in the workforce that wasn’t entry level, Weber decided to go to culinary school, thereby mapping a career path on her own terms. Weber had previously wanted to drop out of college in favor of chef training, but her parents discouraged her. But faced with no job prospects and a future that looked bleak, she opted to take matters into her own hands with a career path that fueled her passion: cooking and food. White Jacket Required documents her post-college journey, in a world that was less the creative fun cooking and more like boot camp. Though it’s certainly the story of one woman’s culinary journey it’s more than that, as well. Faced with disappointment, Weber dared herself to dream big… and won. Following her through her trials and tribulations (and recipes) on the way to becoming a chef makes us think about our own dreams and how we might make them real. -- Monica Stark

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