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Gift Guide: Cookbooks

by B.A. Nilsson on December 6, 2012

Staff meal tells all you need to know about a restaurant. When the employees are fed with care and respect, when a family spirit is celebrated, a sense of well-being embraces everything about the place, and you feel it as a customer. This is why a chain restaurant feels like a Dickensian orphanage. Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy had the excellent idea of taking us behind the scenes to visit a couple of dozen staff dinners—with recipes—in Come In, We’re Closed (Running Press), although the first one, at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, is a once-a-week staff banquet with a ritual requirement of paying compliments to one another, reminding me why I’ll never live in northern California. All of the chosen eateries are somewhat rarefied; thus, from Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochcon, for instance, comes “creamy smoked sturgeon pappardelle,” but that’s redeemed by McCrady’s, in South Carolina, and its offerings of a double-stack cheeseburger and beef-fat fries. Excellent narrative content, with insightful chef interviews as well.

I like a narrative that puts recipes in a cultural perspective, and I like the stories chefs tell—provided they haven’t had the life sucked out of them by the Food Network. Straight-ahead recipe books can be boring, but not when they come out of Larousse Gastronomique, the formidable French cooking reference. Larousse on Cooking (Wiley) is a fat, heavy compendium of 300 recipes with a far more international cast than the original (1938) Larousse author ever could have imagined. So for every classic French recipe like cassoulet there’s someone else’s classic, like osso buco Milanese. Selected recipes are slugged as make-ahead, low-fat, or quick and easy, and each faces a full-page color photo.

You get no photos in The Essential James Beard (St. Martins Press), but that’s never what Beard was about. He codified an American approach to food during the 1950s and ’60s, with a slew of still-relevant cookbooks to his credit. He persuaded nervous housewives to try from-scratch cooking, preaching the need for simplicity and fresh ingredients in a welcoming style of writing. All of which remains on display in this new collection of 450 of his classic recipes, updated just enough to accommodate changes in tools and ingredients during the past few decades.

Has anything changed more dramatically since then than meat? Bruce Aidells’ Great Meat Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) not only takes you around the world for Jamaican beef patties, a stew from Madrid called cocido, Irish beef-cheek pie with stout and Spanish carcamusas (pork stew with chorizo), among the 250 recipes, but also gives an anatomical background on meat and looks at the cooking techniques required for grass-fed varieties. And it’s not just beef and pork: bison, lamb and goat are included, along with sausage-making and other offal recipes.

I’m ready to raise a pig. Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn got me primed for it with their book Charcuterie; with Salumi (Norton), I champing at the bit. Everything you need to know is here, with a high-spirited narrative and illustrations not for the faint of heart. I have friends making their own prosciutto and lardo and the like, so I already know it’s about the waiting, the slow, slow cure. But the results are like nothing else on earth.

Roots, by Diane Morgan (Chronicle Books), is a handsome volume that burrows alphabetically from veg to veg, exotically starting with Andean tubers and arrowhead before lingering in the more familiar territory of beet and carrot. The section on Wasabi includes recipes I wouldn’t have thought to associate with the fiery (like wasabi mashed potatoes), while Turmeric’s chapter was all news to me. It’s an invaluable browsing companion.

Every year there’s a baking book. This year, there’s the baking book, because Thomas Keller has gotten around to it. Yes, he of the let’s-trade-compliments staff meal, but Bouchon Bakery (Artisan) is a reminder of why his work is so important. Written with Sebastien Rouxel, the large-format book eases you into the narrative-filled journey with cookie recipes (shrewd) before moving through muffins and cakes. If you move through this well-illustrated book in order, by the time you’re turned out onto a floured board with bread recipes, you’ll be well on to journeyman status.

I hadn’t thought to prepare a one-pot hog supper before reading Kevin Gillespie’s Fire in My Belly (Andrews McMeel), but Gillespie’s tale of the origins of the dish (essentially a bunch of vegetables cooked with fatback) is too charming to resist. Yes, the author has a Top Chef connection, but I forgive him because Coca-Cola braised pot roast is too good of an idea, because he knows his way around chickens and because the book is a really a training camp in disguise, teaching you the techniques you need for cooking anything.

Which is especially helpful when traveling to foreign cuisines, like that of Burma (Artisan). Naomi Duguid, who has written a string of excellent, exotic cookbooks, refuses to use the country’s current name because she’s preserving a less-oppressive tradition. Drawing from neighboring India, China and Thailand, the cuisine takes a more restrained hand to much of the seasoning, but the results still can be intense—such as Chinese kale (or broccoli rabe) with pork cracklings, eggplant curry or a simple puree she calls eggplant delight and panir (an easy-to-make Indian cheese) in tomato sauce. Chicken in garlic sauce gets a tartness from lime, and Kachin pounded beef with herbs is a celebration of coriander and peppercorns.

Although The Country Cooking of Greece (Chronicle Books) is packed with well-photographed recipes, Diane Kochilas’s text does what I like best in such a book, and takes us all over the country to explore the many regional variations. Essays on places (like the Ionian Islands) and ingredients (saffron and olive oil, for example) flesh out the arranged-by-courses recipes. The section on artichokes alone is a marvel.

Hawksmoor is a London restaurant that specializes in steak. Hawksmoor at Home (Preface) is a narrative guide, with 70 recipes, not only to beef and other meatstuffs but to an approach to dining that’s fun and intelligent. Roast goose with stollen stuffing? Grilled squid with capers and parsley? A sandwich of toasted Montgomery cheddar and Ogleshield? A thick chapter on puddings? Figure it this way: With this book, you’re saving the price of airfare. For now.