Monday, December 28, 2009

Best Books of 2009: Cookbooks

Araxi by James Walt (Douglas & McIntyre) 256 pages
There has never been a better time for a cookbook from and about Araxi, the well-known restaurant at Whistler, British Columbia, established in 1981 and a local and
even international favorite ever since. Between the upcoming Winter Olympics -- portions of which will be held at Whistler -- and the patronage and smiling eye of famed chef and television personality Gordon Ramsay who has called Araxi the best restaurant in Canada -- Araxi is sure to get more than its share of attention over the next year or so. Locals -- or even those like myself who are local-ish -- have been enjoying Araxi for many years. The Whistler eatery has been a long-time favorite of mine and, in my memory, the menu has always been reflective of the seasons and the locale: beautiful food, beautifully presented and evocative of the season in which the meal was consumed. Stunningly photographed, well-designed, produced and even printed, I think Araxi is also meant to be one of those cookbooks you moon over and, certainly, if you’re the type who does like to do that sort of cookbook dreaming, you could not pick one better. From beginning to end, a terrific job has been done on the Araxi cookbook. -- Linda L. Richards

Atlantic Seafood by Michael Howell (Nimbus) 133 pages

In many ways, Chef Michael Howell’s Atlantic Seafood ha
s all the right ingredients to be a very important seafood cookbook. As things are, Howell certainly has the right stuff to be taking his place among the ranks of notable chefs. And since he was an actor before he ever took over a kitchen, one can only wonder why some production company hasn’t gotten the idea to create some cleverly named seafood show with Howell at the helm. In 1992, the Nova Scotia-born Howell enrolled in cooking school in Chicago. After graduation, he took a job in that city’s noted French restaurant, The Everest Room under Chef Jean Joho. After nearly two years learning to prepare proper French food properly, Howell began a cooking exodus that would take him all along the eastern seaboard, a journey that eventually led to a stint as executive chef at the Green Turtle Club in the Bahamas. I recite a bare bones version of Howell’s resume only to instruct as to why, when Howell returned to his native Nova Scotia as owner/chef of Tempest, he would develop a menu -- and later a book -- that would reflect all that he had learned on his travels, as well as his own martime heritage and the ethical eating principles he had embraced along the way. As a result, of course, Atlantic Seafood doesn’t look like just any seafood cookbook from the Maritimes, though some of those traditional thoughts and flavors are reflected. And so you have, for instance, Yuca-Crusted Salmon with Pirri Pirri Sauce, Salt Cod Croquettes and Finnan Haddie and Chorizo Chowder. Each section is prefaced with a discussion about the type of fish or shellfish that will be under discussion, and the book begins with seafood cooking basics, including the preparation of some of Howell’s kitchen staples like fish stock, lobster stock, mango coulis and dill cream sauce. The writing is clear, the recipes interesting and approachable. I’ve enjoyed my cooking forays into Atlantic Seafood very much and anticipate many more. -- Adrian Marks

The beerbistro Cookbook by Stephen Beaumont and Brian Morin (Key Porter) 264 pages
Much of the time, c
ookbooks attached to a restaurant the author either owns or cooks for end up feeling like a big, glossy ad: a come-on for those who happen to pick the book up to actually go on down to the restaurant and enjoy what’s on offer in person. In short, many of those types of book have a very limited appeal, both regionally and, in a way, spiritually. Despite the title, The beerbistro Cookbook is not that book. If anything, linking the book tightly to the popular Toronto eatery seems like a mistake. Sure: beerbistro patrons are likely to want a copy. But what about the rest of us? What’s in it for us? The fact is, though, The beerbistro Cookbook is without doubt the very best book on the topic of cooking with beer that I’ve seen. And, sure: I’ve haven’t actually seen a lot of them. When it comes to alcohol and cookbooks, wine has beer beaten by an acre of hops. But this is how good The beerbistro Cookbook is: once you’ve immersed yourself in these great recipes and the fantastic food styling and great photography, you’ll wonder why more people don’t cook with the stuff. Some personal highlights: I love mussels but had never baked them before. The beerbistro Cookbook offers several variations and every one I tried produced fantastic results. The Belgian Ale Steak Stew produced one of the simplest and richest stews I’ve ever enjoyed. It’s really nothing like an Irish strew, but neither is it meant to be. This stew seems worth the price of cookbook alone. The beerbistro Cookbook was a delightful find. My favorite new cookbook of the year. -- Adrian Marks

Clean Food: A Seasonal Guide to Eating Close to the Source (Sterling Epicure) 304 pages
Clean Food
explores the beauty and adventure of local eating in a truly wonderful book. Author
Terry Walters is a certified holistic health counselor and it shows. Clean Food is gorgeous, beautifully produced and while it is long on intent and sustainability, the recipes are more serviceable than inspired. In truth, though, and considering the thrust, for this particular book, that may be enough. At one point Walters writes that “a perfect diet alone will not fully nourish us. What we need is connection -- to our bodies, hearts and spirits, to our families, to community, to the environment, the land, the season and to a purpose.” This spirit is echoed throughout the book, which is long on recipes that will help round out the repertoire of someone just begin to play with the idea of a vegan diet or who wants to add a few vegan and veganish dishes to their old standbys. What Clean Food lacks in flights of foodie fancy it makes up for in sheer volume. As the subtitle says: “With More Than 200 Recipes for a Healthy and Sustainable You.” There are many options here and a lot of the bases are covered and covered well. -- Monica Stark

Cooking for Two by Jessica Strand (Chronicle Books) 120 pages
It’s not that the idea behind Cooking for Two: Perfect Meals for Pairs is so unique. In fact, lots of coo
kbooks have been published on this theme. Author Jessica Strand hits her mark perfectly, though, creating a book that will meet the needs of chefs at many levels. And when Strands says Cooking for Two, she means it. She doesn’t just mean dinner for two or recipes for two, but rather food that you can build together, right down to a list of tips to ease the way for couples cooking. Strand’s food choices are perfect, as well. From the complicated and time-consuming (Two Pizzas with Two Toppings would qualify as one -- or two -- of these. And the Chicken Tagine isn’t complicated, but there’s a bit of work involved) to recipes so simple, they practically make themselves (Antipasti Dinner for one. Quesadillas for another.) For the most part, though, the recipes are about medium in the complicated department. Easy for the accomplished home chef, challenging but not impossible for those less experienced in the kitchen. -- Monica Stark

Field Guide to Candy: How to Identify and Make Virtually Every Candy Imaginable by Anita Chu (Quirk) 318 pages
While it would be misleading to suggest that Field Guide to Candy has changed my life, it wouldn’t -- in some ways -- be entirely wrong. Fr
om early childhood, I have always had a sweet tooth and I’ve even allowed myself ample opportunity to indulge it. However, not before Field Guide to Candy did I feel myself in a position to gain some real expertise, both in identifying candy in the wild and in creating it for myself. Like the title says, this is a field guide, which means it’s small enough to fit in a big pocket or a small car so you can take it with you wherever you go to identify any candy you might find when you’re out and about, then source ingredients in the field for your next candy making foray. It’s a fun book on a fun topic. But it’s also a very well done book, with terrific photo illustrations and easy to follow recipes. I’d say more, but there’s a certain batch of fudge that needs my attention. -- David Middleton

The Foodie Handbook by Pim Techamuanvivit (Chronicle Books) 224 pages
For various reasons, 2009 was a fabulous year for cookbooks but, even in a rich and fabulous year, food blogger Pim Techamuanvivit’s The Foodie
Handbook provided a new benchmark for food writing. This is who M.F.K. Fisher would have grown up to be had she survived to encounter the Internet: excited about all she found and anxious to share it. Many foodies have met Techamuanvivit through her food blog, Chez Pim, where the Silicon Valley dropout brings foodie stuff to many thousands of visitors every week. The Foodie Handbook is better than that blog because it is the physical embodiment of Techamuanvivit’s passionate, knowledgeable spirit. Foodie lore, recipes, advice from Techamuanvivit and other, more famous, chefs: it’s all here, just as on Chez Pim. But the book stuffs the blog into the shade. You can hold the book in your hands, flip through it, bury yourself in it and learn. And enjoy. The (Almost) Definitive Guide to Gastronomy is what the book is subtitled. And it’s that -- sure it is. And, oh, so much more. -- Monica Stark

Fresh with Anna Olsen (Whitecap) 199 pages
In a year that was all about fresh, clean food, Anna Olsen, Canada’s beloved lady of the sweets, was a standout. Anna first came to FoodNetwork viewer’s attention as the host of Sugar. Seven years later, Olsen has been restyled and retooled: she is slim, svelte and fresh and all of this is reflected in this wonderful new book that might as well be sub-titled: the way we live now. The warm, sunny style combined with an expert touch that has served Olsen so well on television is also to be found in her books. In a cookbook bursting with new century, locavore goodness, Olsen has us comfortably roasting root vegetables, mixing up muesli and warming camembert to float on frisée. One recipe, though, nearly caused me to fall off my chair when I saw it and has since caused guests to fall of theirs: the Beet & Goat Cheese Terrine is a triumph of both taste and presentation. This recipe alone is worth the cost of admission and, in a book of standouts, it made it impossible for me to pass this one over as one of my selections for best of 2009. -- Linda L. Richards

The Jewish Princess Feast & Festivals by Georgie Tarn and Tracey Fine (Sterling Books) 208 pages
almost spirit and humor enough in The Jewish Princess Feast & Festivals to match anything written by Amy Sedaris (you’ll note I said “almost”: Sedaris is really funny!). The bonus, of course, is that The Jewish Princess Feast & Festivals is also a very real cookbook and, despite the focus, the food is surprisingly non-denominational. Though in this book authors Georgie Tarn and Tracey Fine are working up feasts for Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and others, there are recipes here that almost anyone would find interesting and useful. As well, of the 120 recipes included, a very high percentage are vegetarian in nature. In fact, vegetarians looking for a different approach might find a peek through Tarn and Fine’s book very rewarding. -- Monica Stark

Vegan Lunch Box Around the World by Jennifer McCann (DaCapo) 296 pages
I’m not a vegan, but I love the challenge of vegan cooking. I love being able to create really wonderful food under what a lot of chefs would think were adverse conditions. It charges me, creatively
, to take a little and make a lot. I can only think that Jennifer McCann feels the same way. Despite the title, Vegan Lunch Box Around the World is so much more than what you might make for lunch. It’s a terrific exploration of possibilities but, because it’s lunch, it’s on a sort of micro level: a level a lot of people will find accessible. This book is her second collection of vegan lunches. Though I have yet to see the first one, 2008’s Vegan Lunch Box, I suspect that it’s terrific, because the sequel is no one’s idea of an also-ran: it’s really very good. McCann’s success lies in her approach to cooking without animal products: she treats it like a big, fun challenge. As a result the food she creates -- and would help us create -- could be enjoyed by anyone. Potato salads, sushi rolls, tagine, African-style greens, orange couscous: 125 recipes in all. The fact that all of this great food is vegan makes us want to stop and think: in a world possessed of this much abundance and all of these wonderful possibilities -- without even eating meat products. If you’ve ever wondered how to shake up your noontime meal, have a stroll through Vegan Lunch Box Around the World. It’s possible you’ll come away from it looking at many foods in an entirely new way. -- Linda L. Richards

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