We’ve tiptoed into December, which means the crush to find that perfect present is on. Amuse-Bouche reviewers Patricia West-Barker and Laurel Gladden have got you covered with this handful of new cookbooks that just about every cook — or wannabe — will put among their go-to volumes.
“Homesickness is an ailment of the stomach as well as of the mind,” Anthony Doerr, author of the 2015 Pulitzer-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See, writes in Eat Joy: Stories and Comfort Foods from 31 Celebrated Writers (Black Balloon Publishing, 194 pages, $22).
For the 15-year-old Doerr, that happiness came in the form of a watery bowl of uncooked brownie mix, eaten with his fingers, as he was nearing the end of an arduous leadership training program on the Alaskan coast. Later, as the parent of teen boys of his own, he sits on a staircase and swipes a finger through a bowl of raw brownie batter. “As soon as it touches my tongue, time and space collapse,” he writes. “Trees drip, waves crash. I taste the adolescent longing to be elsewhere, pinioned against a craving for the comforts of home.”
Memoirs, novels, and personal essays that include recipes are not a new genre; authors producing cookbooks range from Alice B. Toklas to Nora Ephron and Laura Esquivel, from M.F.K. Fisher to Amanda Hesser and Ruth Reichl. But Eat Joy editor Natalie Eve Garrett was looking for more than a literary cookbook. “When I embarked on this collection,” she writes, “I hoped to create a feast of stories about making mistakes, summoning strength, getting lost and trying to find a way back … stories that used food as a conduit for unearthing memories.”
Some of the memories shared are humorous; most have some sort of darkness at their core. All are deeply personal. Some of the recipes are very simple — like Edwidge Danticat’s “Grains of Comfort,” the boiled white rice she shared with her dying father. Others are more complex, like the “Santa Fe Seder Brisket” that marked Rosie Schaap’s first seder as a widow. All bring a beautifully captured event in the writers’ pasts to the table — a fine gift for foodies and literati alike. — Patricia West-Barker
“Cook. Cook something. Cook something for yourself. Cook something for others. It will satisfy you more than you know. We promise.”
That promise, on the back cover of Canal House: Cook Something: Recipes to Rely On (Voracious Books, 424 pages, $35) comes from Christopher Hirsheimer, an award-winning food photographer and founding editor of Saveur magazine, and Melissa Hamilton, a former chef and director of Saveur’s test kitchen. The pair founded Canal House (thecanalhouse.com) in 2006 as a photography and design studio, and have since expanded their empire to include a James Beard Award-winning publishing arm, a daily blog, and a weekly radio broadcast.
You needn’t ask, “Which came first?” when you thumb through Cook Something. In this book, the egg comes first — with recipes ranging from its simplest form (boiled) to its most complex (a soufflé). The chicken shows up a few chapters later, where it is roasted, poached, braised, and fried. Organized by ingredients (salads, fish) and techniques (braising, grilling) rather than the more usual starters, mains, and side dishes, the book is easy to scan through in search of a new way to prepare that broccoli languishing in your crisper.
The numerous variations on fundamental recipes are intended to inspire cooks to tailor a dish to their own preferences — and that’s exactly what my houseguests did when we decided to test a traditional recipe for meatballs. We exchanged the ground chuck, pork, and veal for ground turkey and replaced the fresh breadcrumbs with dried, gluten-free crumbs. Then we mixed, rolled, and baked the meatballs as instructed. A well-written recipe should be able to withstand some tinkering — and this one did.
The publisher has positioned Cook Something as the “Joy of Cooking for the Instagram generation” — a claim the insane number of beautifully styled, full-color photos makes easy to defend. The target audience for this book is younger people with less experience in the kitchen, but more skilled cooks may also find inspiration here. — P.W.B.
Diana Henry studied English literature at Oxford and produced programs for the BBC for 10 years before she started to write award-winning cookbooks — more than a dozen to date. The most recent, From the Oven to the Table: Simple Dishes That Look After Themselves (Mitchell Beazley Publishers, 240 pages, $29.99), is a collection of more than 100 recipes for uncomplicated weeknight dinners, as well as for entertaining. What all have in common is time spent, generally unattended, in the oven.
When the method is so simple, Henry says, the interest comes from the ingredients you add to the pan, and she offers a list of oils, vinegars, condiments, pastes, sauces, spices, sweeteners, and alcohols that add depth and complexity to a basic recipe. For example, many recipes combine roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon. Henry ups the ante by adding slices of onion, tart apple, a bit of sugar, and balsamic and cider vinegars to the pan. The result is a more complex sweet/tart side dish that pairs well with roast chicken or turkey.
Chicken thighs — on the bone, please — are Henry’s favorite ingredient, and she dedicates a full chapter to the versatile, inexpensive cut. We tried the chicken thighs with lemon, capers and thyme, a riff on a classic chicken piccata. Henry adds garlic and potatoes to the mix to make it more of a one-dish meal, and ups the acidity by using the lemon in three forms: slices, juice, and zest.
“It’s simplicity in itself,” she writes. But a high-altitude cook must be prepared to make adjustments in the timing of this and other recipes developed at sea level. The aforementioned Brussels sprouts took 15 minutes longer than specified to cook through; the chicken thighs required an additional 20 minutes. Northern New Mexicans will have to use their senses — rather than a timer — to determine when a dish is ready, making this a book more suited to an experienced cook. — P.W.B.
Just in time for peak baking and sweet-treat-eating season comes this pretty little compendium, Martha Stewart’s Cookie Perfection (Clarkson Potter, 255 pages, $26). Yes, it promises “perfection” (the book’s from Martha Stewart — what did you think it would be called?), but don’t let that aspirational language scare you off. Most of the recipes are approachable; M. Diddy’s team explains everything in a straightforward, user-friendly manner; and the perfectly styled full-page color photos will have you dog-earing or Post-it-flagging pages from the get-go.
Recipes are collected in seven categories, and among them, “All Dressed Up” and “Celebration Cookies” will surely rise to the top of your holiday season list, offering festive goodies like chocolate mint wafers, sparkly lemon gems, glazed spiced snowflakes, and snowball truffles. In “Classics with a Twist,” I’ve found two new favorites — a dramatic brown-butter-based crinkle cookie and a spicy chocolate one that, with its touches of cinnamon and cayenne, is perfect for wintertime in New Mexico. Alas, the potato chip cookie needed some tweaking (namely a reduction in sugar, an advantage at this altitude anyway) to meet my salty-sweet expectations. Sandwich-style cookies find a home under “Some Assembly Required,” while “Giant Cookies” features a caramel-stuffed chocolate chipper that’s already gained fans among friends and colleagues. “Tools of the Trade” are more artful jobbers that require molds, textured rolling pins, and piping bags, while bars, brownies, whoopie pies, and the like make up the “Cookies by Any Other Name” section.
As with most books of this sort, Cookie Perfection provides tips on ingredients, tools, and methods along with in-depth sections addressing specific cookie types, like meringues, biscotti, macarons, and spritzes. The “Golden Rules” section offers some sage advice for rookies and sound reminders for regulars. — Laurel Gladden
At roughly 5 by 8 inches — just the right size to hold in your hand while you measure gin with the other — The NoMad Cocktail Book (Ten Speed Press, 272 pages, $30) by Leo Robitschek seems like an unassuming volume to come from a bar of such stature. The saloon at the NoMad Hotel, which opened in 2012 in New York City and quickly became a white-hot destination, has twice been named the best bar in North America and rose to the number-three position on the World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2017. Here, Robitschek organizes drinks as they are on his menu — aperitifs, light spirited, dark spirited, classics, and soft cocktails — and Antoine Ricardou’s illustrations bring them to life. Particularly apropos for the holiday season is the decidedly not-your-father’s eggnog, which invites Frangelico, Scotch whisky, cognac, bourbon, and rum to the party. This may not be the ideal book for noobs, given the recipes’ inclusion of rare spirits and hard-to-find ingredients. Still, the tone remains impressively humble: Robitschek encourages readers to “get in touch should you need any help or have questions.” — L.G.
Those hankering for a more human, behind-the-scenes look at the cocktail kingdom should seek out Last Call: Bartenders on Their Final Drink and the Wisdom and Rituals of Closing Time (Ten Speed Press, 272 pages, $35). In it, James Beard Award-winner Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters and Amaro, visits with bartenders at more than 80 locations in 23 cities across 13 states, asking them to ponder, among other things, “What is the last thing you’d want to drink before you die?” In addition to these personal profiles, Last Call includes Ed Anderson’s moody photography, which captures the subjects in their preferred milieus, and roughly 40 recipes for libations worthy of being someone’s last drink on Earth. In case you want to replicate his journey, Parsons provides a directory in the back. — L.G.
The American South has its faults, but food — widely underestimated and misunderstood — is not among them. That’s something chef Sean Brock has been doing his darnedest to make clear. “I hope that someday I will be remembered for helping people everywhere understand that Southern food should be considered among the most revered cuisines of the world,” he writes in South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations (Artisan Books, 374 pages, $40), his follow-up to 2014’s New York Times bestseller, Heritage, which won a James Beard Award.
Brock first came to the food world’s attention at McCrady’s and Husk restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina, and in 2010, he earned the James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southeast Award. In recent years, he has been called “the Duane Allman of vegetables, the Alan Lomax of heirloom grains” for his dedication to maintaining Southern foodways. This new book broadens the scope (while Brock earned his stripes in South Carolina’s Lowcountry and has launched restaurants in Tennessee and Georgia, he grew up in Virginia).
His assertion here is that “the American South has as many cuisines … as Continental Europe.” So sure, you’ll find instructions for the universals, like fried chicken, grits, cornbread, and collard greens, but Brock also provides recipes for lesser-known foods from across the region. Sour corn, which his grandmother used to make, is “essentially a sauerkraut of corn, which came into Southern cuisine by way of German immigrants to the Appalachian Mountains.” There’s Alabama white barbecue sauce, “Charleston ice cream” (a luxurious, buttery treatment of white rice), and West African peanut sauce. And there are modern spins, like a hummus-resembling spread made with Sea Island red peas and benne seeds and a variation on dirty rice made with farro. Some of the specified ingredients are more familiar and more easily accessible across the South, so Brock provides an extensive resources section should you wish to bring a little Dixie to your New Mexico kitchen. — L.G.