Welcome to my annual compilation of recommended cookbooks for holiday gifting. I love putting together this post for you every year. As always, I try to craft a thoughtful mix of books published in this calendar year -- books that defy easy categorization, with both splashy titles you're likely to find on other year-end lists as well as quirkier, lesser-known picks worth your attention and cash.
The list is long, so let's get to it.
TOP DOLLAR ($35 and up / list price):
Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts by Aglaia Kremezi (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2014). If I close my eyes, I can still feel the warm breeze on Kea, the Greek island I visited in August 2013. While there, I spent time at Aglaia Kremezi's home, learning not just about yogurt (I'd gone for research), but about Mediterranean hospitality and Greek culinary traditions. At the time of my visit, Aglaia was deep into the recipe development for this book, so I had the good fortune to taste several dishes featured in these pages. With rich, plentiful photos by Saveur contributing photographer Penny de los Santos, the sumptuous hardback is perfect for cooks who aren't intimidated by inventive techniques, unusual flavors, or unique ingredients. This isn't a book for beginners, but neither is it "cheffy" -- it's perfect for enthusiastic home cooks who want to spread their wings and dive deeper into Mediterranean cuisine. $35 list
Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry by Cathy Barrow (Norton, 2014). Here's another book for people who genuinely enjoy spending time in the kitchen -- polishing skills, experimenting with familiar ingredients in unfamiliar ways, and mastering the world of home preservation. Cathy's substantial tome covers the full gamut of putting-things-up: from pickles and cheesemaking to jamming, meat preservation, smoking fish, confit(ing) duck, and more. (I just served her wonderful Whole Cranberry Raspberry Sauce for Thanksgiving.) She leads readers into this exciting world with calm assurance, walking through the recipes methodically and inspiring confidence as she goes. Cathy's bona fides include regular contributions to the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. Her book is classy and generous, and though we've never met, I imagine she's very much the same way herself. $35 list
A Boat, A Whale & A Walrus by Renee Erickson with Jess Thomson (Sasquatch Books, 2014). The quirky, serene blue cover and gauzy matte photos together capture this book's overarching ethos: that good, fresh restaurant food translated well for the home cook can whisper rather than scream. A Seattle-based chef, Erickson partnered with my culinary school friend Jess Thomson (the "with"), which is how this book came on my radar. I've always responded well to Jess's projects, so even though here she's but a conduit for Erickson's stories and food, I can still appreciate her contribution. Casual cooks will find plenty here to grab onto: homey Honeyed Rice Pudding Pots, a simple Raw Asparagus Salad, and a Lacinato Kale Gratin with but four ingredients (kale, white cheddar, heavy cream, and nutmeg). But there's also plenty of seafood -- both simple (Herring Butter Toasts) and slightly more involved (Grilled King Salmon with Walnut Tarator) -- no surprise, given Erickson's thorough command of her Pacific Northwest turf. $40 list
Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House, 2014). A week before a dinner date at the Oakland restaurant Camino, my friend Haven emailed to let me know the restaurant would, in fact, be closed for the evening on the night of our visit. Turns out they were hosting a (pricey) ticketed dinner in honor of Prune, the follow-up to chef Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir Blood, Bones & Butter. (I wrote about that book here in 2011.) Without hesitation, I bought tickets to the dinner. (I so rarely go to events like this, I'd already planned to go up to Oakland and eat at Camino anyway, and I was intrigued by the some of the book's early heated coverage.) Several reviewers have slammed Hamilton for breaking the unwritten rules of cookbook creation: she offers no index, ingredients occasionally appear out of order, recipes lack lyrical head notes. And yet, it's these middle-fingers to the industry I so love that most seduce me. Who does Hamilton think she is? And can she really get away with such brash rebelliousness? After reading through the entire book, the answers are: Gabrielle Hamilton knows exactly who she is. And, yep, she can get away with it. If you're frustrated by cookbooks that draw outside the lines, skip this one; its format will drive you bananas. If, however, you appreciate a strong voice, an iconoclastic style, and recipes that may alternately confuse (Youth Hostel Breakfast), repel (fried oyster omelet with tabasco slurry) and beckon (Farmhouse Chicken Braised in Hard Cider), perhaps in equal measure, you've found your book. Me? I love it, if only because it's so damn different. $45 list
The Forest Feast by Erin Gleeson (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) Another unique offering, Gleeson's first book echos the artistry she displays so charmingly on her eponymous Tumblr blog. Brightly illustrated with watercolors, hand-painted recipe titles, and creative type faces, Erin also took all her own photos. Uplifting, thoroughly accessible, and with recipes that are completely simple without being obvious, The Forest Feast is an easy gift for a cheerful, sunny cook. $35 list
MODERATELY PRICED ($25-$34 / list price)
The Kitchn Cookbook by Sara Kate Gillingham & Faith Durand (Clarkson Potter, 2014). I haven't done a great job promoting my freelance work here, but some of you may know I write the You're Doing It Right column monthly on the wonderful website The Kitchn. Like its online home, The Kitchn Cookbook is approachable, friendly, and high-energy. It's a warmly written guide especially well-suited to new cooks or those setting up their first kitchens. The book's first half focuses on kitchens themselves: how to equip, organize, and make efficient use of them no matter what their size, with plenty of photographic support. The book's second half brims with comforting, can-do recipes to put your newly streamlined kitchen to work. $32.50 list
The Coastal Table by Karen Covey (Union Park Press). Anyone fortunate enough to live within driving distance of the South Coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island will enjoy this collection of smart, seaside-inspired recipes. Effectively deploying a clean palette and breezy design, Covey presents the food of her region with affection and reverence, celebrating local produce and seafood while maintaining the casual aesthetic authentic to her subject. If you've ever visited coastal New England or know someone who lives for summer weekends "Down the Cape," boom. Shopping's done. $30 list
Twelve Recipes by Cal Peternell (William Morrow, 2014). I just bought this cookbook as a further enticement to get my kids to spend more time with me in the kitchen. Peternell, the chef at Chez Panisse, wrote it when his oldest son was preparing to leave for college. With punchy writing, appealingly familiar recipes (Italian standards like pesto and ribollita, beans and dals, braised chicken legs, eggs, and more), and elegant-but-unfussy photos and styling, Peternell just may accomplish what I've been trying, with only modest success, to do for years: convince my teenagers that learning to cook is well worth their limited free time. $27 list
In Search of the Perfect Loaf by Samuel Fromartz (Viking, 2014). Journalist Sam Fromartz took his passion for home-baking and applied his carefully honed skills as a researcher, reporter, and storyteller to uncover which techniques, ingredients, and scientific principles help explain why some breads are truly extraordinary. His journey -- for it was a journey that took him to bakeries both overseas and across the U.S. -- will satisfy those of you not just interested in baking bread, but in understanding it at granular level. Though not a cookbook, this travelogue does contain a handful of recipes. $27 list
Preserving by the Pint by Marisa McClellan (Running Press, 2014). A follow-up to her popular first book Food in Jars (echoing the name of her well-trafficked blog), Preserving by the Pint strikes a similarly easygoing tone. Marisa is a terrific ambassador for canning and pickling, particular for those easily intimidating and looking for clear-eyed instruction without extraneous frills. Her small-batch recipes are focused, tightly presented, and designed to ensure success right out of the gate, especially for beginners. Marisa taught me to can. I can vouch for the effectiveness of her approach. $23 list
Yummy Supper by Erin Scott (Rodale, 2014). Please see my full review in August of this year. Got gluten-free friends or relatives? This book is a no-brainer for them, but its appeal spans far wider. $25 list
Greens + Grains by Molly Watson (Chronicle Books, 2014). Molly's first cookbook is one more step in an already accomplished career in food. This former Sunset food writer currently pens The Glut column for the San Francisco Chronicle, serves as the Local Foods expert at About.com, and straight-talks on her advice website, Ask a (Sensible) Midwesterner. Here, she pairs two healthful complementary foods in creative ways, combining them in salads, pilafs, flatbreads, soups, and more. If you already eat grains (think barley, farro, wild rice, quinoa, and wheat berries, for starters) and greens (everything from spinach and arugula to escarole and watercress) but seek new ways to marry them, this slim, elegant paperback is just the thing. $20 list
Full Belly: Good Eats for a Healthy Pregnancy by Tara Mataraza Desmond (Running Press). (Currently available for pre-order; to be published on December 16, 2014.) Tara is a close friend and a top-notch recipe developer, and I have high hopes for this, her third cookbook (after Almost Meatless and Choosing Sides). I fully expect it to make a great gift for mothers-to-be and encourage you to consider it for any pregnant women on your holiday list. Learn more about Full Belly here. $20 list
BOOKS NOT YET IN MY COLLECTION, BUT WHOSE APPEAL EXERTS A PULL
There are several books I haven't had the pleasure to fully experience personally but that I'd like to bring to your attention so you can vet them for yourself. Some are on my own wish list for the holidays; others were written by talented friends and colleagues. A partial list includes: Baking Chez Moi by Dorie Greenspan; Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi; Vibrant Food by Kimberley Hasselbrink; and Huckleberry by Zoe Nathan.
Finally, while I have a policy of sticking to cookbooks on these year-end lists, I'm going to make an exception just this once. One of my favorite people-I've-never-met, Wayward Spark blogger Camille Storch and her beekeeper husband Henry, have just launched a new venture: Old Blue Raw Honey. Their Oregon-made honey comes in 8-ounce gift-friendly bottles in a number of unique varietals. I've tasted two of them, and I'm smitten. $8-$12 / bottle
Have fun book shopping!