December 2009

Charlotte Freeman


'Tis the Season: Christmas Cookbooks for All

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a pile of big and fancy cookbooks just waiting to be wrapped in pretty paper and hidden under the tree. Cookbooks are one of my very favorite gifts -- especially for the way they encourage people to invite one over for dinner.  

This year there are some real beauties, so many that I’ll be forced to do something of a capsule roundup.  

First on my list this year is Ginette Mathiot's I Know How To Cook. The latest in Phaidon’s effort to translate the classic encyclopedic cookbooks of Europe, following The Silver Spoon, and 1080 Recipes, this version of the French classic Je Sais Cuisiner is translated by the charming Clothilde Dusolier of the website Chocolate and Zucchini. First published in 1932, it’s been utterly spiffed up -- recipes have been relieved of excess butter and cream when possible, retested with time and heat adjustments when necessary, and illustrated both with new color photographs and charming illustrations by the French company Blexbolex. This is the standard French cookbook used by all home cooks, the recipes are fairly simple and yet very French. (For example the boeuf bourguignon recipe here takes up half a page, unlike Julia Child’s version.) There’s also an appendix at the end containing menus and recipes from fourteen esteemed French chefs. I’ve been having a marvelous time cooking around in this one -- I made François Payard’s gougères for Thanksgiving, the Tarte Tatin for a party later in the weekend, and I’m planning on testing the Venison Chasseur recipe this weekend with some elk meat I was given. The vegetable section is extensive, and contains many recipes for French favorites like celery root, endive, and leeks, although since my sweetheart prefers what he refers to as “the noble root crops,” I foresee that there’s an extended tour through the thirty recipes for potatoes in my future.

In addition to I Know How To Cook, Phaidon also released Vefa’s Kitchen this year. Like I Know How To Cook, Vefa’s Kitchen is a big fat comprehensive Greek cookbook. I saw Vefa Alexiadou on Martha Stewart’s show last week, and she was charming and quite precise -- apparently she began life as a chemist, which gives one great faith in the precision of the recipes. The book is broken into chapters ranging from “Basic Recipes and Sauces” on through to “Candies (Sweets) and Preserves,” and, like the French book, it also contains an appendix of menus from celebrated chefs, including both Michael Symon and Michael Psilakis (each of whom also have fancy cookbooks out this season). It’s a long dark winter here in Montana, and the soup chapter is already getting a workout -- the Meatball Soup with Egg-Lemon sauce was both hearty and bright, while the Winter Vegetable Soup was everything you could have wanted on a dank cold evening. We bought a whole pig earlier this fall, and since the aforementioned sweetheart dislikes bulghur, I substituted a rice pilaf instead, but the Coriander Pork and the Pork with Sauerkraut were both delicious. I’ve not yet had time to play with the sweets sections of this book, but there is a fascinating array of “spoon sweets” that I’m waiting for next summer’s fruit crop to play around with, as well an entire chapter of “Syrup Sweets” that might just have to show up in some of the Christmas boxes going out in the next few weeks.  

Christmas is also the time for giving what I like to think of as “big fat cheffy cookbooks,” and there are some good ones this year. Although I thought Nate Appleman was very unpleasant on The Next Iron Chef, I have to admit that A16: Food + Wine (co-written with wine director Shelley Lindgren) would be a great gift book. I can think of a number of men around here who love big bold flavors in both food and wine, for whom this would be a great gift. The first sixty pages of the book are a province-by-province guide to the wines of Italy complete with descriptions of the major grapes, their qualities and history, as well as the characteristic wines of each region with suggestions for food pairings and recommended producers. The second two-thirds of the book cover the food of A16, a restaurant that, alas, hadn’t opened when I left the Bay Area for the frozen north. The antipasti are all bright flavors, from a “Roasted Beet Salad with Fennel, Black Olives and Pecorino” to “Tuna Consereva Four Ways” (which includes instructions for preserving your own tuna in oil). There’s an extensive pizza chapter that brings out my ongoing lust for a backyard wood-burning oven, and a selection of bold pastas, including an “Orechhiette with Rapini” spiced up with the addition of Calabrian chiles and pecorino that was delicious, and made for a simple weeknight dinner (although my chiles weren’t Calabrian, but pickled out of my own backyard -- which seemed in the spirit if not the letter of the recipe). There’s a fabulous meatball recipe, “Monday Meatballs” which made enough to freeze, and makes me feel like any cold evening I get behind on dinner prep I’m covered -- pop a couple of frozen meatballs in some homemade marinara and there you go. I like to do paté for Christmas presents, and this year, it’s going to have to be the “Liver Terrina” which looks delicious. Like I said, this is a book full of big bold flavors, cooked using relatively simple techniques. It’s the kind of book I find myself going back to over and over as much for ideas as for recipes. And that’s my personal favorite kind of cookbook.  

But far and away my favorite big, coffee-table, gorgeous cookbook this year was Chanterelle: The Story and Recipes of a Restaurant Classic. Perhaps it’s nostalgia -- when I lived in New York as a very, very poor editorial assistant working in cookbooks, Chanterelle was the restaurant to which one hoped someday to be invited. The woman I worked with, my mentor in so many things, had a wealthy friend who took her once a year, and to me, Chanterelle just sounded like the dream restaurant. Beautiful food, a beautiful room, but without the elitism of the fancy uptown restaurants. I’ve been cooking for years from the marvelous Staff Meals from Chanterelle, which is, frankly, more the sort of food I cook at home. But I loved this cookbook for so much more than just the recipes. Adam Gopnik’s foreword perfectly captures that era in New York, when SoHo was just becoming a real place, and oddball wonderful restaurants and galleries and stores were popping up. And David Waltuck’s chapter on “The Chanterelle Story” is as inspiring a tale of following one’s artistic star as any I’ve ever read. This book is gorgeous, big and heavy, with gorgeous photographs of food that I am too impatient to cook myself, but about which I have delighted in reading over and over again. This is a book I plan to give to the friend I know is most likely to cook these delicious recipes, and one who I plan to shamelessly beg an invitation from when she does. I’d recommend this as a gift for anyone who wants a record of a truly beautiful restaurant, where wonderful food was served with true hospitality.

These are my picks this Christmas season, the books I’d be foisting upon people if I still worked in the bookstore, and which I think could make nearly anyone happy. There are, of course, many, many more wonderful gift cookbooks out there from which to choose, and since I’m the sort of person who likes practical gifts, gifts that inspire creative action (yes, I’m that auntie, the one who gives art supplies), I almost always recommend a good cookbook for anyone who likes to cook, and especially for young people who think they might like to cook. For that crowd, I especially like to follow up the gift with the offer of a shared afternoon cooking out of the gift book.   

Wherever you are this Christmas, here’s wishing you good food, good wine, and good company -- which is really all any of us needs for the holidays.