My desire to share with you my personal list of notable cookbooks has brought me temporarily out of the depths of yogurtville and into the light for a quick hello. These are the cookbooks that have lingered in my hands and made an impression on me this season because, conceptually, they offer something new, fresh, fun, or important. I'm intentionally avoiding books I've already written about this year, books you'll probably see on every other year-end list, and books not in my physical possession.
Let's jump in.
Choosing Sides: From Holidays to Every Day, 130 Delicious Recipes to Make the Meal by Tara Mataraza Desmond. For some people, Tara included, and me included, life without side dishes is like an old-fashioned clock without hands, impossible to tolerate and basically useless. Side dishes are where creatives play. Where we as cooks can maximize color, flavor, texture, whimsy, and fun. I helped Tara test a handful of recipes and offered her a back-cover blurb for this book for a very good reason: she's an incredible cook (she used to work at Food Network and co-authored Almost Meatless: Recipes that are Better for Your Health and the Planet, still one of my all-time favorite cookbooks) and when I saw the finished manuscript I wanted to eat it. How's that for an endorsement?
Best Lunch Box Ever: Ideas and Recipes for School Lunches Kids Will Love by Katie Sullivan Morford. Look: parents, or those who are buying gifts for lunch-making parents (I could say I'm talking to moms but that would be sexist and I won't be sexist, but I won't not be sexist either, you feel me?), making school lunches every day for kids has got to be one of the most under-discussed stressors in a parent's (cough: mom's) life. If you've never had to make school lunches on 300 consecutive days, please don't weigh in here because basically you have no idea what you're talking about. It is NOT easy to come up with an appealing rotation of healthful, colorful, portable midday meals for small humans, but Katie does it, and in her slim cookbook, she offers smart recipes, accessible strategies, and eye-opening tips for how to fill a paper bag, lunchbox, or thermos in brand new ways.
The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home by Nick Zukin (co-owner of the famed Kenny & Zuke's Deli in Portland) and Michael C. Zusman. With recipes for chopped liver, challah, cheese blintzes, latkes, matzoh ball soup, and dozens of other Jewish comfort foods and deli classics, this book would make an ideal gift for any Jew, especially one with low cholesterol. (These are not low-cal dishes.) In fact, if I'd kept a diary of my favorite foods as a kid, it might read something like this, though my diary would also sport tear-stains and I ♥ Howard Jones marginalia. I'm going to be using this book for years, because as much as I love my non-Jewish husband, let's face it: he really has no idea how to make a knish.
Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese by Stephanie Stiavetti & Garrett McCord. Toss Stephanie and Garrett a wheel of cheese and they'll catch it one-fingered, eyes closed, up on stilts. These two steeped themselves in all things curdish (not Kurdish, that's a different book) and produced a love letter to cheese that blows the boxed-in notion of mac and cheese clear out of the water. If you know someone who lives for cheese -- whose idea of a good time is to hang out at the cheese counter asking for samples until the cheesemonger begs them to leave -- this book would be a perfect gift. Do note that acquiring many of the cheeses called for in these recipes will require access to more than just your standard grocery store. I recommend it for those who know their dolcelatte from their brigante, their fourme d'Ambert from their kefalotyri, or at least those who live near a cheese shop and are eager to experiment and learn.
Duck, Duck, Goose: Recipes and Techniques for Cooking Ducks and Geese, both Wild and Domesticated by Hank Shaw. I'll be the first to admit that as someone who has never hunted and never plans to, I am surprised to be recommending this book here, and yet, pay attention. Hunting is a huge past-time in our country, and if I were ever to pick up a (deer gun? rifle? I have no idea what I'm talking about) to shoot my dinner, I'd want Hank Shaw to be my guide. The author of the James Beard award-winning blog Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook and his 2011 cookbook Hunt, Gather, Cook, Shaw is a smart, knowledgeable expert, a line-cook turned wordsmith who educates readers responsibly about how best to prepare their kill, their catch, their foraged feasts, or how to choose these products from the market when someone else does the dirty work. If you know a hunter with a sophisticated command of the kitchen, or simply a cook interested in learning more about how to prepare these two underrated waterfowl, Hank's new book would make a perfect gift. Me? I'm excited to march into Whole Foods wielding my wallet, land myself a duck the wimpy way, and start cooking.
Nom, Nom, Paleo: Food for Humans by Michelle Tam and Henry Fong. (This book will release on December 17, 2013.) At this point, many if not most of us know someone who follows the paleo lifestyle. With a strong emphasis on animal proteins and fats, and a de-emphasis on grains and sugars, paleo fans have swooped into the national conversation and set a place for themselves at the table. If you know someone who eats paleo, particularly a young person (as the book's design and plentiful cartoons skew cute), consider gifting them this riotous, color-forward book. Author Michelle Tam is a highly educated cook and pharmacist who has built an enormously popular platform by creating simple recipes that use few ingredients to maximum benefit, all following the paleo credo. Kudos to her publisher, Andrews McMeel, for giving Michelle and her husband Henry Fong reign over the design. (For a taste, see her blog by the same name.) Part cookbook, part comic book, you're not going to find another book like this on shelves this season.
The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family & How We Learn to Eat, edited by Caroline M. Grant & Lisa Catherine Harper. Here's a lovely collection of nonfiction essays and reflections on the role of food in our lives, families, hearts, and memories. It's not a cookbook, though you will find a recipe bookending each entry. This is the book I keep on my bedside table and grab when I travel. Because blogs have proliferated so universally, it's easy to forget the pure and simple joy of holding a food-related book in two hands, flipping the pages and losing yourself in the prose of a variety of writers and their unique voices. (Contributor Phyllis Grant is a special favorite.) In this book, words take primacy over visuals, ideas and substance over style. Gift this collection to a food lover who's also a book-lover, to a reader as much as a cook.
Other books worth your consideration: Nigel Slater's Notes from the Larder for its sheer magnitude, simple aesthetic, and effortless writing; Domenica Marchetti's The Glorious Vegetables of Italy because, quite frankly, all of Domenica's books are worth owning; Put an Egg on It by Lara Ferroni because it's charming, and everything is better with eggs; Eat Your Vegetables by Joe Yonan, because even single cooks deserve flavor-forward, plant-based recipes; Feast by Sarah Copeland, because it's beautiful and I'd like someone to cook me endless meals from it... I could go on, but I'm hungry.
Happy holidays to you all, and thanks for your patience during my absence.