December 15, 2010

Baker's Dozen: The Best Cookbooks for Holiday Giving

'Tis the season for giving, and I've been reading a lot of "Top Ten" and "Best of" lists lately.  There’s lots of advice about what to give and get this holiday season.  One list that keeps popping up in various permutations is the "Best Cookbooks of 2010" list.  Seems it's been a bumper year for great cookbooks, and everyone wants to weigh in on their personal favourites.  

I love these lists. I read them to see which books I've missed, which ones I'll give and which I hope that Santa tucks under the tree for me.  But even with stellar lists like this year's, in my mind I go back to my favourites; the tried and true workhorses of my kitchen that never fail to instruct, to surprise and to entertain.

For this Christmas, or for whatever else you may celebrate throughout the year, I'm sharing my personal list of cookbooks you should own.  While you won't find a book on baking in this baker's dozen, I'm sure you'll find something to intrigue.  There's still time to buy one or two as gifts - and be sure to tuck a new old favourite on your shelf too. 

The Best Recipe: Grilling and Barbecue, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated
This book has all the hallmarks of the Cook's Illustrated team: lots of explanation behind each technique and method; "master" recipes for dishes, with numerous variations; instructions for both gas and charcoal, plus loads of recipes for things other than meat and fish.  If you are the kind of cook that wants to know why, and you don't know Cook's Illustrated, pick up a magazine and immerse yourself in their unique blend of science and kitchen alchemy.  And then buy any one of their cookbooks.  I bought this one as a gift for Richard years ago, and the dog-eared pages are a testament to its success.

Friday Night Dinners, Bonnie Stern
The wonderful Jewish tradition of breaking bread with family is one that more of us should adopt; as Bonnie says, Friday night is a perfect time to share a meal with family and friends. I am lucky to count Bonnie as a dear friend and have been even more fortunate to eat with her and her family for many a Friday night dinner.  This is that rare instant classic: every recipe easy, relaxed and unfussy, arranged around menus that can be mixed and matched.  We make Anna's House Salad dressing by the quart, the Rack of Lamb with Harissa is divine and the Sticky Toffee Cake is just delicious.  I was thrilled that Bonnie included two of my recipes in this book too! The newest book on this list, FND was just released in paperback.

Olive Oil: From Tree to Table, Peggy Knickerbocker
A few years ago a colleague brought in a box of cookbooks that she had received from a publisher friend. Ours for the taking.  Anything to do with olive oil seemed like a good bet, and I wasn't wrong.  The front half of this book takes you on a journey of olive oil production, and everything from how to buy it to how to store it.  Many of the accompanying recipes feature different olive oil varietals, and it's fun to try and use what type's asked for (Tuscan, Greek, Spanish).  I've cooked my way through the appetisers and most of the mains, with a couple of breads thrown in too.  Simple, flavourful Mediterranean cooking, beautifully presented. 

Pork and Sons, Stéphane Reynaud
You had me at pork.  Everything to do with the glorious pig, and I mean everything. I grew up with a father who would buy a pig with a few other friends, so that they could butcher it together to make everything from sausages to head cheese (not to mention those lovely pork chops), so nose to tail eating is old hat for me.  This book is for the real pig lover.  Gorgeous photos, wonderful character pieces and - best of all - the most hilarious porcine cartoons in every chapter.  Bien sur, Stéphane Reynaud's restaurant in France is so on my list of places to visit before I die.

Soup - A Way of Life, Barbara Kafka
"Sadly, I cannot invite all of you to my house, but I think there is a full array of recipes here for happiness". So says Barbara Kafka in her lovely introduction to this book full of goodness.  Like a warm hug or toasty slippers on a cold winter's night, a beautiful bowl of soup is truly comfort food.  And, no matter what your skill level in the kitchen, soup is that most forgiving of dishes, accommodating equally scraps of leftover bits and purpose-bought ingredients.  Full of personal stories, this book is like being at Barbara's house - and what a welcoming home it is.

Cooking from an Italian Garden, Paolo Scaravelli and Jon Cohen
For a few brief years in my early 20's, I become a vegetarian, much to my parents' horror (see Pork + Sons above).  At that same time, I was slowly realising what amazing cooks my parents were, and that homemade ravioli, featherweight gnocchi and creamy lasagne were not the usual fare on most people's dinner table.  This book didn't cement my vegetarianism, but it did open my eyes to fresh, local, seasonal that is the mantra of Italian cooking, and that somehow hadn't been impressed upon me even though I lived it every day.  The dishes are rich and full of butter and oil (Ina Garten would love this book), and I still use it for great pesto, crespelle and pasta recipes, 25 years later. 

Julia's Kitchen Wisdom, Julia Child
How to choose just one Julia Child book?  I chose to put Kitchen Wisdom on the list because it's the perfect soupçon of Julia: tips. hints and the absolute best full proof recipes that showcase all of her tried and true favourites.  It's less overwhelming than Mastering but just as good at showcasing her unique voice and firm hand in the kitchen.  A wonderful stocking stuffer; or put it by your bed and dip in every now and again for inspiration.

Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics, Ina Garten
How easy is that? is the Ina mantra, and the name of her new book.  Skip that one and get this instead.  Part recipe book, part entertaining primer, this book follows the Ina formula of easy to read format, great photos, and tons of tips and simple shortcuts along with the delicious recipes.  I love the feature at the beginning of each chapter that showcases 10 easy to do things: 10 no cook appetisers; how to arrange flowers like a pro; 10 things not to serve at a dinner party, etc.  If you have someone who loves to entertain on your list, this is a must-add for their cookbook shelf.

Instant Entertaining, Donna Hay
And this is another.  I could easily add every Donna Hay book and make this list strictly Aussie (and all of her books are on my shelf).  I love that there's a photo for every recipe; I love that there are beautiful and simple ideas for imaginative table settings; I love the menu suggestions and stunning photography. I'm an avid reader of the Donna Hay magazine, and her books follow the same format, making everyone believe that entertaining with style is not only possible, it's practical.   

Bills: Breakfast, Lunch + Dinner, Bill Granger
Another favourite Aussie chef.  You can almost smell the bright clean Sydney air emanating from the pages of this cookbook.  This is especially good for family cooking, and offers up simple recipes for any time of the day.  It's worth seeking out the more exotic ingredients that may not be readily available, like passionfruit, to make the yummy desserts.  Reflecting the proximity of the water, there's lots of seafood dishes as well, and dishes with a Asian twist that are full of flavour. Yum! 

The New Basics, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins
Probably the most used book on my shelf.  If I were on a desert island, this would be the one I would take.  There are so many things that make it great: the comprehensive size, covering everything literally from soup to nuts; the copious sources referencing all the great cooks and their books, from Julia to James Beard and Elizabeth David; the engaging voice of the two authors.  It taught us the pleasure of making soup; how to clarify butter and has possibly the world's best apple pie recipe. A delight from cover to cover.

Madhur Jaffrey's Spice Kitchen:, Madjur Jaffrey
I got this little book 20 years ago as part of a gift set that included beautiful little tins of Indian spices, packaged in a wonderfully colourful box. Although I loved Indian food, I had never attempted to make it. Madjur Jaffrey is at once storyteller and teacher, and these recipes, meant to showcase the spices, are both simple and delicious. This book gave me the confidence to try the exotic and unknown, and taught me that spices are truly mysterious, complex and wonderful things.

Contemplation and the Art of Saladmaking, Jeanne Heiberg
This odd and wonderful book rounds out my baker's dozen.  Found in a used bookstore in Chicago, this book is part meditation guide, part story telling and ultimately about salads. Each chapter focuses on one salad recipe, sometimes with variations, with names like Vinegar of Vicussitudes Salad and Eros and Endeavor Salad. Quirky and interesting, this is another one great for bedside reading.

I hope you have a chance to buy and try some of these books. I'd love to know what some of your favourites are too!