By Bobbie Leigh
With so many recipes online, who is buying cookbooks? There is no reliable answer, but for all the home cooks who clip recipes from newspapers. print them from the web and file them away somewhere, a cookbook you can pull off a shelf and refer to easily trumps everything else. Here are some of this year’s newest and best. Each has its own personality and is written with an original “voice,” that of a knowledgeable person who is chatty, familiar, and above all reliable.
Ruth Reichl fits that category perfectly. Her new Ruth Reichl: My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life (Random House) spotlights where and with whom she likes to shop, cook, and eat. A great cook, Reichl is also a gifted writer. About peeling apples for an apple crisp, she writes: “Peel a few different kinds of apples, enjoying the way they shrug reluctantly out of their skins…” On a particularly gloomy day, still desolate because of the sudden closing of Gourmet magazine in 2009, Reichl wakes up at four am and decides to bake a chocolate cake. As she says: “In times of stress, only excess will do: this is an enormous cake. But it keeps very well. And there is no such thing as too much chocolate cake.” No wonder Reichl has something like 350,000 followers on Twitter.
Ina Garten’s recipes are foolproof. In her new book, Ina Garten Barefoot Contessa PARTIES! Ideas and Recipes for Easy Parties that Are Really Fun (Clarkson Potter) Garten shares what she has learned as both a caterer and dedicated party giver. Like Reichl, Garten has organized her book by seasons including recipes for a Jewish Holiday in spring; a canoe trip in summer; a football party in fall, and a spectacular New Year’s Day open house. Her stellar starter to a New Year’s buffet is a seafood chowder, hearty enough for a lunch or dinner to serve alone with bread, cheese, and a salad. Garten’s recipe for Spinach Gratin, creamy on the inside and browned and crunchy on top, is inspired.
Like Reichl and Garten, Madhur Jaffrey is a prize-winning cookbook writer. She is also an award winning actress and has rightfully been dubbed “the godmother of Indian cooking.” For her new cookbook, Vegetarian India, A Journey through the Best of Indian Home Cooking, (Alfred A. Knopf) Jaffrey traveled throughout India, cooking and collecting recipes mostly from friends and home cooks. Following her precise instructions is not daunting. In fact, you feel as though she is watching you and providing helpful advice every step of the way. True, you might have to collect some exotic ingredients like fresh curry leaves but the results are worth it. Her recipes for poha, flattened rice that has been parboiled, dried to produce flakes and combined with various vegetables, are terrific time savers. You can prepare a meal combining poha with perhaps cauliflower, peas, tomatoes, or beans in a lot less time than it takes to cook regular rice. (Flattened rice as well as other Indian staples are available online from www.kalustan.com.)
Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine: Everything you need to Know to be a Great Italian Cook, by TV superstar Lidia Bastianich and her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf) is a gift-worthy volume, the Italian equivalent of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French cooking.” In other words, a handy reference for all things Italian.
“I like to keep it simple as Italian food at its best is simple,” says Bastianich. Her recipes can be followed precisely, but there is room for experimentation which she encourages. The beginning chapters on ingredients, cooking methods, and techniques are worth the price of the book alone. Readers learn useful tips such as never add oil or salt to pasta cooking water. Another discovery –at least for the less experienced – is never buy a bottle labeled “cooking wine.” Usually it will have added flavorings and salt. Alas, most of the recipes are for six people so that a great recipe for Zuppa di Pesca, a hearty seafood soup ideal for a crowd, has to be doubled… but skip 20 sprigs of fresh thyme which tends to overpower the dish.
How to Eataly: A Guide to Buying, Cooking, and Eating Italian Food (Rizzoli) by Lidia Bastianich, her son Joe, Mario Batali and Adam and Alex Saper is comprehensive cookbook from the gourmet Eataly emporium. Beautifully illustrated, it is crammed with recipes as well as instructions. When eating pizza, for example, use a knife and fork and cut first the point end of a triangular slice. The chapter on the Italian way with pasta is almost encyclopedic, but the rice chapter and its fool proof recipes and instructions (never rinse rice) are critical, especially for risotto.. The veggie dishes, like acorn squash with black lentils, are among the most original. Totally sinful and unusual for the American cook who would like to go beyond tiramisu is little yeasted cake similar to a baba au rum, but here soaked in limoncello.
Not having grown up in Bangkok and with only a superficial appreciation of Thai food, it can be perplexing to evaluate Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes from the Thai Home Kitchen. (Ten Speed Press) Neela Punyaratabandhu writes that her only goal with this new book “was to document the best, most tried-and-true Thai recipes from my mother’s cookbook collection.” Some recipes are difficult with a bewildering list of ingredients not readily available in your local market while others – pad Thai with shrimp, pork in spicy dressing, and fish with lime-chile-garlic dressing work out well. NP’s website, www.shesimmers.com, is worth consulting.
City Harvest, New York City’s largest private hunger relief organization, feeds more than 1.4 million hungry New Yorkers every year. Some of the proceeds of the new cookbook, City Harvest: 100 Recipes from Great New York Restaurants, (Rizzoli) by NY Times food journalist Florence Fabricant, will benefit this food- rescue organization. Fabricant did a huge amount of research before selecting the 100 recipes from top restaurants. What’s more, she doesn’t exactly replicate dishes from restaurants like Blue Hill and Eleven Madison Park. Instead, she adapts them to the home kitchen. “As I tested the recipes, I did a little fancy footwork with a number of them, omitting extra garnishes.” she writes. It takes courage to simplify some of the city’s best chefs’ recipes, but Fabricant makes them work even if you don’t have a degree from a culinary institution.
Not all the recipes are from star chefs. From Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn Fabricant features a delectable BBQ chicken wings with Korean glaze. Another surefire winner is Marcus Samuelsson’s Ethiopian-style beef stir- fry. From Dominique Ansel Bakery, the source of the now world-famous cronut (a fusion of croissant and doughnut) comes an alluring dessert: a warm pistachio moelleux, a little pale green cake.
Baklava to Tarte Tatin; A World Tour in 110 Dessert Recipes (Rizzoli) is by Bernard Laurance, a part-time Air France flight attendant and one of France’s most popular bloggers. ( www.cookingwithbernard.com) This self-taught cook collects recipes wherever he travels, retreats to his Paris apartment where he deconstructs and then reconstructs each recipe. “Like a mad scientist, I focus on testing and combining ingredients to the exclusion of all else,” he writes in his introduction to his first book in English. Organized by regions including North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Oceania. Laurance’s recipes range from simple to super-complex. Among the former, a best-bet is a flavorful walnut cake made from walnuts ground into a powder and mixed with kirsch.
Justin Smillie is the chef of Upland, a pricy New York City restaurant with a distinct California sensibility. Chef Smillie’s Slow Fires: Mastering New Ways to Braise, Roast, and Grill (Clarkson Potter) is a cookbook for the weekend as you will need ample time, patience, and courage to attempt his recipes. But before you light up the grill, it is advisable to read this sumptuously illustrated book from cover to cover. The chef’s instructions on braising such as matching meats to braising liquids or the technique of roasting hanger steak require a steady focus. His chapter on grilling begins with how to create an even crust all over rather than seared-black marks and after myriad explanations”, you too can be cranked up to PhD level when it comes to the full range of grilling possibilities.
The Homemade Kitchen:Recipes for Cooking with Pleasure (Clarkson Potter) by Alana Chernila has a contemporary spin. Chernila is not one for rules. She is adventurous andconfronts failure in the kitchen with an extra glass of wine. Her beginning chapters are a series of “how to,” ranging from how to cook an egg and ending with how to make pasta. Chernila’s chapters on “use your scraps” and “reusables in the kitchen” are where she really shines. Some of her best recipes are “standards,” with a twist –baked apples with dried currants and toasted almonds, chicken salad with grapes, and sesame noodles so good you will never use Chinese takeout again.
Jacques Pépin:Heart and Soul in the Kitchen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a celebration of this popular chef’s 80th birthday. Family, friends, Pépin’s paintings and heartfelt all reminiscences reveal what the author calls “my culinary heart and soul.” Throughout his career Pépin has always favored straightforward fare, “where you can recognize exactly what you are eating.” He is not parochial about French cuisine although some of his best recipes like chicken in cream sauce are from his mother’s kitchen. “A good dish should taste of what it is,” says Pépin who has problems with inexperienced chefs who use too many ingredients disguising the essence of a dish. That’s why his recipes are so satisfying, especially those for vegetables which open up a whole new way of thinking about how to cook them.
Chocolate Chip Sweets: Favorite Recipes from Celebrated Chefs (Rizzoli) by Tracy Zabar is a beguiling collection of fresh approaches to cookies, fancy cakes, pies and pastries, and desserts you eat with a spoon. Jacques Torres, Mario Batali, and Daniel Boulud are among the rock-star chefs who have contributed recipes which Zabar has converted to home- baker specifications. Chocolate chips have the starring role, but if you are not a chocoholic, consider a delectable banana bread or a Sicilian pistachio torta to name just two. Zabar’s own seductive recipe for chocolate biscotti yields softer cookies than the more traditional ones. In fact, nothing is more delectable than dunking them into this talented pastry chef’s recipe for thick hot chocolate.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.