Friday, December 16, 2011

Best Books of 2011: Cookbooks

This is the cookbook segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2011 feature. You can see other sections as follows: Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Biography, Best Books for Children and Young Adults, Best Science Fiction/Fantasy, Best Crime Fiction (part I) and Best Crime Fiction (part II).

Back to Baking: 200 Timeless Recipes to Bake, Share, and Enjoy
by Anna Olson (Whitecap Books)
Canadian readers know Anna Olson for her cooking shows. She is currently the host of Fresh With Anna Olson, but she gained her well-deserved reputation as an affable and helpful television chef with a show called Sugar that specialized in desserts. It was fantastic. Sometimes almost magic. With a flick of a wrist, it seemed, Olson could transform a simple cookie into an elegant desert. Nothing was ever what it seemed. With Olson in the kitchen, it could only get better. I had reason to think of her Sugar days often as I read Back to Baking. Even complicated desserts are demystified and presented accessibly. This is a baked dessert book for those who love to eat and make baked desserts. Clear instructions take us through even complicated things and, when the road is too complicated for written explanation, step-by-step photos coach us through. All of your favorites are here: and more. A 21st century bonus: Olson has included comprehensive sections on Dairy-Free Desserts, Egg-Free Desserts, Gluten-Free Desserts and Low-Fat and/or Low-Sugar Desserts. Something for everyone. This is a must have dessert cookbook for those who are serious about the topic. -- Sienna Powers

Bal’s Quick & Healthy Indian by Bal Arneson (Whitecap Books)
Bal’s Quick & Healthy Indian is not just another Indian cookbook. And though author Bal Arneson’s first cookbook, Everyday Indian, was given international attention, Arneson lives in Vancouver, where some really terrific Indian cookbooks have already been published. Arneson’s book, though, isn’t just that. Or maybe it’s more. Which, in a way, is only to be expected. Arneson hails from a tiny village in India. She came to North America when she was 20 -- 18 years ago -- leaving her family behind, but with her love of food and cooking intact. The food she creates -- both in this new book and on her Food Network television show, Spice Goddess -- reflects all of these things. Absolutely traditional Indian reimaginings of foods you would be unlikely to find in India. Coriander Tuna with Broccolini. Spiced Sweet Potatoes Cooked with Split Red Lentils. Sweet and Sour Chickpeas. BBQ Chicken on Steamed Bok Choy served with Strawberry and Kiwi Salad. And the absolutely fantastic, super Indian and perfectly un-Indian Stir-Fried Sirloin with Figs and Spinach. Like many of Arneson’s recipes, this last is incredibly simple and uncomplicated. A masala is created and cooked. Sirloin is added and seared. Figs are introduced to the mix. Spinach and rice are steamed (though not together) and then the whole thing is plated and served. And you’ve created a beautiful and nutritious meal that could be proudly served to guests in very little time. It’s a very good book. -- Linda L. Richards

Carrots ’n’ Cake by Tina Haupert (Sterling Epicure)
Though not strictly speaking a cookbook, for me Carrots ’N’ Cake was the most important food book of the year. Not only does author/blogger Tina Haupert talk about weight and fitness, she talks about eating sensibly: both how to do it and how to incorporate her techniques into your life. Saying “her techniques” implies a secret, and that isn’t it. Rather, she shows us how to apply common sense and helps us to create good habits that we can take with us through our lives. As the author says in her introduction, “Carrots ’N’ Cake is all about eating your carrots and having your cake, too. The reason I have been so successful in losing weight and keeping it off is that I’ve adopted healthy eating habits that have stayed with me for years.” She shares that wisdom in Carrots ’N’ Cake… with recipes, too. It’s a great book. -- Monica Stark

Chicken and Egg by Janice Cole (Chronicle)
The title of former chef and restaurant owner Janice Cole’s Chicken and Egg gives only a hint of what might be inside. With a look at the title and the elegant but homespun cover, one imagines something altogether more ordinary than the book Cole actually delivers. I mean, ordinary is here, as well. Breakfast hashes and baked eggs. But what one doesn’t -- can’t -- expect -- are the other components. Cole’s warmth and wit and charm, for one. And the very complete look at cooking with both chicken and eggs that this turns out to be. As a result, Chicken and Egg is both surprise and delight. The book includes 125 recipes and is, also, a “memoir of suburban homesteading.” Add in some really great photos by Alex Farnum and you’ve got the whole package: and it really is a very good book, indeed. Cole shares her journey in a warm and witty style but, because of her strong food background, she adds another layer and, as a cookbook, Chicken and Egg is very strong. This is cookbook that anyone who likes cooking with both chicken and eggs (though not necessarily at the same time) will enjoy. The recipes are highly varied and imaginative and everything I tried yielded very good results. Highlights for me included Cucumber-Basil Egg Salad, Lemon-Spike Chicken with Sage, Tagliatelle with Saffron Chicken and Blueberry Sour Cream Tart. I could go on, but that gives you a taste. Chicken and Egg is a very good book, and there is likely much more to it than you’re imagining. -- Sienna Powers

Esquire: Eat Like A Man edited by Ryan D’Agostino (Chronicle )

As anyone who has spent serious time around a large number of cookbooks can tell you, the whole home chefing thing is a pretty sexist place. Not the world of professional chefs, obviously, where a large number of the big honchos in well known kitchens are male, for whatever reason. Even so, by and large, the idea remains that home kitchens are for girls and, since boys are stupid, they’d best stay out of there anyway. I’m just sayin’. Naturally, and of course, all of this is a lot of hooey. There is simply no reason on Earth that men can’t be competent in the kitchen. As proof, if proof were needed, I could go back to the whole professional chef example. But I won’t. I became a fair hand in the kitchen back in my single days, and I remain calm and competent to this day. At the same time, I remember workplace lunch times when I was single. The people I worked with would marvel aloud at the concoctions I’d cook up for myself, sometimes even professing that they didn’t believe I could be doing it myself. And since my job was in the art department and I got paid to make stuff, I never really understood this. How did they figure I could manage to execute a complicated design to the specifications of their clients and salespeople, yet not manage a simple -- albeit beautiful -- sandwich? All of this came back to me when I sat down with Esquire: Eat Like A Man a book which, despite its sexist premise and blow-hard execution is filled with the kind of food most men I know would certainly eat and enjoy. Created by the Esquire editorial team, the recipes come from chefs said team respects. “And each of the recipes was also tested by Esquire’s male editors,” writes editor in chief, David Granger, “at home in their modest kitchens for their friends and families.” And I gotta say that, of all the books skewed in this way that I’ve ever seen, this one is the most manly. This is big, robust food. And there’s lots of meat so manly vegetarians will likely want to find their own book. Each recipe includes a difficulty scale, which makes it easy to see at a glance if the recipe you’re looking at is appropriate for your skill level. The book would also seem to be geared at the guy who cooks occasionally and so is not thinking a whole lot about health or fitness while working with the book. At least that’s the idea I got from recipes like Duck-Fat Potatoes (a quarter cup of duck fat to cook a pound of potatoes), Bourbon and Brown Sugar Salmon, Coca-Cola-Brined Fried Chicken, and a whole bunch of sandwiches so decadent, it’s hard to choose just one or two but certainly the French Toast BLT with Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette is close to the top of the heap. Stuffed Meat Bread (pretty much as it sounds) comes an easy second. As time goes by, I don’t know how much I actually use Eat Like A Man, but I’m going to keep it around. It’s actually a very good all around cookbook, with strong versions of American classics and the kind of food a lot of us wish we could eat every day… if we weren’t keen on watching our girlish figures! -- David Middleton

Kokkari: Contemporary Greek Flavors by Erik Cosselmon and Janet Fletcher (Chronicle)
Though Kokkari has the look of a book that may well spend more time on the coffeetable than it will in the kitchen, don’t be fooled: beyond this elegant exterior is a book that can really cook. The subject here is Greek food, and though the promise is contemporary, if you’ve eaten and enjoyed Greek food before, you’ll recognize these flavors and preparations. The book is based on the cuisine of successful San Francisco restaurant Kokkari, and the recipes and photos are from there, as well. But, quite beyond those enjoyable aspects, if you’ve ever sat down to a gorgeous moussaka or a wonderful bowl of avgolemono soup and thought, “I wish I could make this at home,” then Kokkari is for you: both of those recipes are here, as are many others. The contemporary aspects are well represented, too. The Ouzo-Cured Salmon with Aleppo Pepper & Olive Oil is a terrific example. Dead easy to make, the dish is beautifully photographed and well-described. And it simply could not be easier. Some of the simplest and most basic recipes were, for me, the most welcome. I love skordalia, but have never been able to pull off an acceptable version. Now I can. If you would like to make Greek food, Kokkari is a wonderful door. If you don’t want to make the food, enjoy Sara Remington’s great pictures. They’re good enough to lose yourself in for a while. -- Aaron Blanton

My Last Supper: The Next Course by Melanie Dunea (Rodale)
It’s rare that a really good book be followed by an even better sequel, but that just what’s happened here. Melanie Dunea (Precious, My Country) follows up her wonderful 2007 book My Last Supper with My Last Supper: The Next Course. And the next course really is terrific. Here’s the premise: photographer Dunea asks famous chefs to talk about their own last meal. What would it look like? What would it be? Easy enough, right? But the answers: they’re often surprising. And since Dunea is a photographer first, the book is anchored by intensely good photos of the chefs in question. These are featured with the answers of each chef. And the final section of the book features the recipes the chefs talked about in their musing about final meals. Terrific idea, right? And beautifully executed. So how is this second volume better? Well, that might be an overstatement, because in many ways it’s the same: same format, same questions, same Vanity Fair-style photography (which is to say: fantastic). But where the first book featured 50 great chefs talking about their final meal, the new volume includes a bunch of great chefs as well as some well known food personalities. It makes the whole thing just a little more accessible to a few more people. So Todd English, Bobbie Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Traci Des Jardins (whose truffle-stuffed roasted chicken I can’t stop thinking about), Martha Ortiz, Wolfgang Puck, Rachel Ray and many others. The result is a book that should have a wider appeal than did the first, but with no less panache and style. -- Linda L. Richards

Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi (Chronicle Books)
More than a decade ago Donna Hay introduced food so minimalist it seemed almost to prepare itself. By comparison, Ottolenghi seems the anti-Hay. It’s not that his food is complicated, exactly, as much as it is involved. Many recipes include multiple processes and long lists of ingredients. The food is healthful, flavorful and beautiful, but even just reading the book, you don’t get the idea that any of this will make itself. That said, don’t think you need to be an expert level chef in order to take a run at Plenty. It would be helpful to know your way around a kitchen and to not be intimidated by semi-exotic ingredients. And if you are a vegetarian, so much the better because Plenty is a vegetarian cookbook, even if the chef himself is not. The book comes partly from “The New Vegetarian” column Ottolenghi has been writing for the Guardian since 2006. Ottolenghi says the newspaper asked him because his London restaurant, Ottolenghi, had “become famous for what we did with vegetables and grains, for the freshness and originality of our salads, and it only made sense to ask me to share this with vegetarian readers.” Plenty is just as good as everyone has been saying it is. This is vegetarian food as you always dreamed you’d find it. But do prepare to roll up your sleeves. -- Linda L. Richards

Ruhlman’s Twenty by Michael Ruhlman (Chronicle)
If I were forced to pick a single cookbook published in 2011 as the best book in 2011, I could so without hesitation. For me it was Ruhlman’s Twenty. It seemed to me sometimes just leafing through the book was inspiring. Spending any amount of time at all with it saw me rethinking methods or just becoming enchanted with the poetry that food prep can be. That sounds hyperbolic. I can’t help it. For once, the press material is not overstated: “Want to learn how to cook? This book will teach you. Already adept in the kitchen? This book will make you even better.” Food journalist and author Michael Ruhlman has distilled everything he knows about cooking (which turns out to be rather a lot) into 20 basic fundamentals. Ruhlman maintains that, with his 20, you can do everything you need to in the kitchen. The first fundamental technique he describes is to think. “It’s underrated. If you have a recipe, do you have to think?” Then he goes on to explain why you actually do. The second fundamental is Salt. First he tells us all (all!) about salt. Then he takes us through recipes that make interesting use of salting techniques. (Ready to make bacon from scratch?) Even if you think you know everything you need to about technique and fundamentals, Ruhlman’s writing is beautiful and his recipes inspired. I nearly fell over at the perfect simplicity of his Sautéed Scallops with Asparagus, a dish so beautiful, simple and sophisticated it makes you first wonder how you didn’t think of it, then marvel that anyone ever could. And his opening words on braising are so beautiful, they moved me near both hunger and tears. This is a fantastic book. A perfect kitchen companion. I wouldn’t change a thing. -- Linda L. Richards

Wildly Affordable Organic by Linda Watson (DaCapo Lifelong)
If you’ve been put off by the price of organic foods for a more wholesome lifestyle, Wildly Affordable Organic is for you. Although Watson includes recipes and meal plans, the book is so much more than a cookbook, it’s a whole lifestyle plan. Watson’s approach is rigorous and unbending. It begins with going through your kitchen and your fridge and freezer and rethinking every aspect of the way you buy and cook and eat and even store your food. I can’t imagine that too many people will adopt Watson’s total plan. However the book is so jammed full of great ideas and advice, I would say it would be impossible not to let it color some aspect of the way you and your family think about food. Following Watson’s advice -- or even just part of it -- it is possible to eat organic affordably. In great detail, she tells us how. This is simply fascinating stuff. -- Jones Atwater

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2 Comments:

Blogger Mamun said...

Very nice post. I not only discovered your blog, I feel like I 'got to know you'. Good luck in the challenge.
more

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 at 3:26:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous William said...

Thanks for sharing these books, I think I will buy some of them

Wednesday, April 9, 2014 at 6:07:00 AM PDT  

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