Sunday, December 21, 2008

Best Books of 2008: Cookbooks

The Complete Robuchon: French Home Cooking for the Way We Live Now by Joël Robuchon (Knopf) 832 pages
In a world full of glossy, high color cookbooks with shiny pages and mindless prose, The Complete Robuchon stands out. Here Joël Robuchon, a three star Michelin chef and arguably one of the most renowned chef/restaurateurs in the world -- passes on what he knows. And he knows a lot. This is not a book for everyone -- the fat content alone would preclude that. However, if you like your cookbooks -- and your food, for that matter -- old school and you love your Larousse Gastronomique (And, incidentally, Robuchon is on the committee for the newest edition) chances are you will appreciate what’s on offer here. If your tastes run to cooking tomes more glossy -- and if you expect photos of the meals you would concoct -- give this one a miss. -- Aaron Blanton

Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food by Gordon Ramsay (Key Porter) 256 pages
It’s possible that Gordon Ramsay is an acquired taste. At least, when I mention him, quite often the response I get is a roll of the eyes or a “oh: is he that very noisy guy?” And he is. At least, his television persona is tres noisy. But the fact is -- and this is even apparent when he’s yelling -- Gordon Ramsay is a wonderful chef. If you’ve not had the opportunity to witness this fact for yourself and especially if you enjoy cooking at home, you will see his simple brilliance in Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food. This is a cookbook for everyone, but especially those who don’t think they have enough time to prepare beautiful food for themselves and their families. Wonderfully designed, perfectly illustrated and literally stuffed with recipes even the greenest kitchen novice can follow, Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food is a book almost anyone can enjoy. Here Ramsay celebrates and shares what most accomplished chefs understand at an instinctive level: the very best food is very simple, very easy and very fast. -- Linda L. Richards

Great Chefs Cook Vegan by Linda Long (Gibbs Smith) 272 pages
Like many of the very best things in life, Great Chefs Cook Vegan grew out of an accident which led to an experiment which led to this fabulous book. Tired of being served plates of “unseasoned and overcooked vegetables,” vegetarian and veteran food writer and photographer Linda Long called ahead to two of New York’s top restaurants to warn there would be a vegan dining there on the evening of their reservation. “Will that be a problem?” she asked when she called ahead and was told by both Jean-Georges and davidburke & donatella that it would not be. The chefs at both restaurants, given fair warning, concocted beautiful meals that far exceeded Long’s expectations. “Not even a mention of a plate of vegetables!” she writes enthusiastically. Instead, four star meals that easily met her dining requirements and fulfilled her desires. This started Long on a journey of reserving and tasting and when she was impressed by the creative offerings of chef after chef, the next natural thought seemed to be to collect their creations in a book. “It was all getting too good to keep as a secret,” writes Long. “I should write a book!” To the potential delight of vegans everywhere, that’s just what she did, collecting offerings from 25 of the very top chefs in the United States including Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, Cat Cora and Gabriel Kreuther. Together they offer up a very complete cookbook of fabulous eats from appetizers straight through to dessert. Unsurprisingly, not a single dish will make you think of overcooked plates of vegetables. Fantastic! -- Sienna Powers

Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life by Jamie Oliver (Hyperion) 407 pages
It seems Jamie Oliver has come a very long way since his Naked Chef days. At least, that’s the feeling you get when you read through Jamie at Home. It is, in a way, a kinder, gentler Jamie. More: this new Jamie is all about the simpler things in life. As long as they taste good. “All I’ve done,” Oliver writes in his introduction, “is fallen in love with my garden, and with my veg patch in particular!” He goes on to write about hugging trees and being at the point in a man’s life where he becomes “one with Mother Nature.” And what do we get out of this? Well, you guessed it: a year’s worth of cooking seasonally, of thinking about where your food comes from and how it is grown and made and how it comes to market. And, of course, how best to prepare your (preferably organically and locally grown) food for optimum taste and absolute simplicity. At its heart, though, whatever we say about organics, this is a Jamie Oliver book and so the food -- and the food styling and the design in general -- are all up to a certain very high standard. But whatever else he brings, Oliver offers a very real and contagious love of food and a high level of skill in sharing his thoughts. From where I’m standing right now -- at the time in my own life when I’m enjoying cooking locally grown, organic ingredients in season -- this is Oliver’s best book thus far. High praise, indeed, as all of those I’ve seen have been just super. -- Linda L. Richards

Leith’s Simple Cookery by Viv Pidgeon and Jenny Stringer (Bloomsbury) 532 pages
Every era seems to inspire at least one timeless classic that helps home chefs build in their own kitchens the food that is popular in the wider world. Leith’s Simple Cookery brings to mind earlier classics: The Joy of Cooking and Larousse Gatronomique for starters. Simple, elegant books that are all about food, boiled as tightly down to its own essentials as the time in which it was published will allow. Leith’s Simple Cookery is a substantial, elegant volume. It has no pictures, but over 700 simple, easy-to-follow recipes for many of the things you are actually likely to want to make. The by-product of Leith’s School of Food and Wine in London, this is one of those desert island cookbooks. If you could only take one with you, you could do worse than Leith’s Simple Cookery. -- Aaron Blanton

Postcards from Portugal by Tessa Kiros (Whitecap Books) 760 pages

This is the whole package: a literary visit to a country via wonderful photos, a talented author’s carefully crafted musings and -- most important in a cookbook -- well considered recipes across the full table spectrum -- from essential basics of the cuisine to appetizers to dessert after a wonderful meal -- brilliantly photographed and shared with us in a way that is clear and easy to follow. Highlights for me: the Coffee Steak is so simple, anyone could prepare it. But the balance of flavors make for a memorable meal, especially with Batatas A Murro (squashed potatoes) on the side. I adored the Gratineed Mussels and think they may well become one of my cocktail party standards. (Elegant, relatively easy and inexpensive, even for a crowd.) And the Tuna or Sardine Pate, which I initially thought fairly bizarre, but now can’t get enough of. In all ways, Tessa Kiros’ Postcards from Portugal meets my criteria for a truly successful cookbook. -- Linda L. Richards

Turquoise: A Chef’s Travels in Turkey by Greg and Lucy Malouf (Chronicle Books) 356 pages
Turquoise is the perfect cookbook. It has everything. Perhaps more. A big, lush presentation, you can leave this one on a coffee table just to delight. Part travel memoir -- with wonderful photos -- part chef’s diary and part classic cookbook, I find it difficult to imagine the foodie that wouldn’t devour this book. In their native Australia, the Maloufs are a well known team when it comes to Middle Eastern food. That might be why they’ve gotten it really, really right here. The authors point out that Turquoise is not meant to be the final word on Turkish cooking. Those books already exist, they say. “In Turquoise we wish to share the story of our journey with you, to inspire you to learn more about this country and about the aromas, flavors and textures of its wonderful cuisine.” And they hit it perfectly. The memoir portions of the book are enchanting, well illustrated and just right. Meanwhile the recipes invite you back time and again. And, as promised, these include not only Turkish classics, but Greg’s modern interpretations for western markets and palates. -- Monica Stark

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