Very little cooking can happen if you don’t wield a knife well, and that’s one reason why The Zwilling J. A. Henckels Complete Book of Knife Skills by Jeffrey Elliot & James P. DeWan (Robert Rose) leads this list. Another reason is that it’s a terrific book, laying out the construction and design of kitchen knives before teaching different cutting techniques and then going on to show how they apply to a variety of meats and fruits and vegetables. Nicely illustrated and spiral bound for ease of tabletop use, it’s an essential.
We’re going to get awfully healthy as this list goes on, and where better to start than the Mediterranean?
With the success a few years back with The Silver Spoon, Phaidon Press followed up with a similar book about pasta, and this year’s offering is titled Recipes from an Italian Summer. It comes from the Silver Spoon team and further explores what can be done with fresh ingredients from a benevolent climate. Lots of salads. Plenty of grilled items. Unusual fare like ham and kiwi mousse. Even in the dead of winter, it’s filled with inspiration.
There’s plenty of inspiration in the pages of the large, handsome volume Italy’s Great Chefs and Their Secrets by Academia Barilla (White Star Publishers). We know Barilla as a pasta source, but their Parma-based school was created to be a center of the country’s gastronomic culture. The book highlights notable chefs from every region, with signature recipes, most of them a little offbeat. Thus, Milan’s Luca Brasi offers shrimp sausages with white polenta discs and black-eyed peas and Herbert Hinter of San Michele Appiano gives us oxtail tartare with potatoes and thyme vinaigrette—recipes you may savor more as literature than something to whip up tonight.
Tapas is by definition a simpler style, and the bright yellow Book of Tapas by Simone Ortega and Inés Ortega (Phaidon Press) keeps it simple, starting with an overview of tapas history and Spanish ingredients, and going on to categorize recipes as vegetable, egg and cheese, fish and meat, each section further divided into hot and cold. Particularly recommended if you do much at-home entertaining and need ideas.
You’re going to whip out baguettes like nobody’s business after spending time with Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson and Eric Wolfinger (Chronicle Books). Even the most accomplished breadmaker will find ideas in the repertory of this famed San Francisco bakery. Techniques are detailed but easy to follow, and next thing you know, an olive oil brioche is on the table. Lots of good and strange ancillary stuff, too, like a nettle fritatine, and comfort food like baked french toast and leavened waffles.
Want a book for the beginning cook who already has The Joy of Cooking on the shelf? I’m still devouring Tom Hudgens’s The Commonsense Kitchen (Chronicle Books), which grew out of his years as chef at Deep Springs College in eastern California. It’s a two-year men’s school in which the students participate in all aspects of ranch life in addition to their studies, and Hudgens developed an approach captured in this book that lays out all of your basics before going on to recipes both essential and imaginative. It’s long on good prose, interrupted rarely by illustrations.
How to Cook Everything is another of those must-have books, and its author, Mark Bittman, now offers The Food Matters Cookbook (Simon & Shuster). It’s a tribute to coming to your senses (typically on doctor’s orders) and realizing you need to eat less crap. The emphasis is on vegetables and fruit, but enjoyably so, as a recipe for ziti with silky cabbage, oranges, and chickpeas demonstrates. Bake rather than fry, but if you must fry, stir-fry. I may even try the spinach and tofu burgers detailed herein.
Anthony Bourdain’s recent Medium Raw proved that he’s turned into one of the media-hungry figures he used to mock. He still takes time to trash Alice Waters, but she’s a too-easy target. And however you may tire of her seeming sanctimoniousness, she offers an excellent starter book in In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart (Clarkson Potter). It’s a slim, rather precious volume, but every word of it is worth reading as you learn (or re-learn) the techniques behind poaching, steaming, roasting and braising—even washing lettuce and shucking corn.
Waters supplied forewords to two more recommended books, both with a locavore theme: Eating Local: The Cookbook Inspired by America's Farmers by Sur La Table and Janet Fletcher (Andrews McMeel Publishing) and Harvest to Heat: Cooking with America's Best Chefs, Farmers, and Artisans by Darryl Estrine and Kelly Kochendorfer (Taunton Press).
Eating Local looks at the community-supported agriculture (CSA) movement, with recipes, while Harvest to Heat profiles a number of people active in raising and preparing responsible food. With recipes.
You’re not going to find a foreword by Waters in a book about meat. Senator Bernie Sanders will have to do, and he leads off the text of Good Meat by Deborah Krasner (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). It’s a book mainly of good recipes (nicely illustrated with photos by Marcus Nilsson, who is no relation), but Krasner gives butchering lessons along the way and introduces sources for responsibly husbanded meat. You’ll pay more, but these recipes help you prepare what will be more satisfying meals in many respects.
Then it’s on to dessert. The big book this year is Bon Appétit Desserts by Barbara Fairchild (Andrews McMeel Publishing), a companion to the magazine’s previous hefty tomes. You can’t begin to appreciate the wonder of the 600 or so recipes gathered here without risking a wrist-sprain while thumbing through. Most come from the magazine, and replace your clippings; many are new. Good discussions on techniques kick things off, but, if you’re like me, you’ll get stuck in the cheesecake section for way too long. A slice of baklava cheesecake, anyone?