December 2010

Charlotte Freeman


Baby, It's Cold Outside: Holiday Cookbooks 2010

Cookbooks are piling up around chez CookBookSlut like the snowdrifts outside my door, so I thought I’d do a quick roundup of some gift ideas for that big winter holiday looming in the near distance. (Caveat: if you are a member of my extended family-of-friends, stop reading now.)

For that person on your list who loves tracking down exotic ingredients, and who wants to recreate exactly the tastes from that Thai holiday, there’s David Thompson’s Thai Street Food. First of all, it’s a gigantic, gorgeous book with amazing photographs -- even if you never cook out of it, this book is so beautiful that a person could sit, say on a snowy Christmas morning, looking at pictures and pretending to be in lovely warm Thailand where there are tropical fruits and monks and people cooking delicious food in the streets. This is definitely a coffee-table cookbook. Thompson’s essays are interesting and informative -- disquisitions on breakfast, lunch and night foods, as well as on kanom jin noodles, curry shops, Chinatown and desserts. This is not a book for the casual cook (although the green papaya salad is a cinch), but rather one for the completist cook who likes scouring the Asian markets for proper ingredients, and who wants to replicate the exact taste of that last Thai vacation.

I’m a big fan of Rick Bayless, especially for his work with small farmers in the Chicago area, and Fiesta at Rick’s: Fabulous Food For Great Times with Friends is filled with the kind of  authentic and delicious Mexican recipes for which he’s famous, this time sized for a crowd. If you have someone on your list who would like to entertain more often, but is anxious about it, this would be a good gift choice. Bayless gives instructions for both summer and winter parties for 12 and 24 people, with step-by-step instructions outlining which dishes to do in what order, so you can learn to throw a big party without losing your mind. And he includes drinks! There are many festive beverage selections in this book, which might be worth the price alone. As always, the recipes work, they’re delicious, and everything is presented with Bayless’s trademark good cheer.

My love of mushroom hunting is well-documented, both here and on my blog, so I was thrilled when Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares by Greg A. Marley arrived. Marley’s stated purpose is to teach people that foraging can be fun, and that mushrooms are not the terrifying toxic things many of us were taught as children. Although his “foolproof four” are different from mine, the concept is a good one. Mushrooms can be daunting, but learning a few varieties isn’t that hard, and it means that not only will your meals be more interesting, but it gives you a great excuse to go skulk around in the woods. While the book doesn’t have recipes (for those, see my May 2010 Cookbookslut column) it’s a great gift idea for the outdoorsy gourmet on your list.

I have a little tiny crush on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and there are two new cookbooks from his River Cottage empire: the Bread Handbook and the Preserves Handbook. These are both attractive, small-ish hardcover books with great illustrations and terrific recipes. The bread book is largely devoted to sourdoughs, but there are also some terrific variations, including an English Muffin recipe that will change your life. The preserves book is a real gem -- the English excel at jams and chutneys as well as cordials, ketchups and other more esoteric preserves. I went a little crazy for chutneys this year, and the Roasted Beet relish has been a staple in my fall rotation. For the Anglophile on your list, or for that person who took up canning this summer, either of these books would be a terrific gift.

There are two new cookbooks by French chefs who cook in New York, Avec Eric by Eric Ripert and Fresh From the Market by Laurent Tourondel. Avec Eric is, frankly, not my favorite sort of cookbook. It seems to be a book version of Ripert’s television show of the same name, and so the chapters follow the episodes. It jumps all over the place, from Tuscany to California back to Italy with a couple of stops in the Cayman Islands. As a cookbook, it lacks coherence, but as a reference for what seems to be a pretty interesting television show (not offered on my basic cable selection) the book brings into print some interesting stories about people who are working with food in the kind of soulful manner that Ripert shares, as well as a number of relatively simple yet delicious recipes. Since the chapters follow the shows, the recipes also appear in a sort of dinner party format that would be quite useful for someone who likes to entertain. All in all, the book has the same kind of laid-back charm that Ripert displays on television, someone who is intensely focused on his craft, and yet understands that people outside the business want recipes they can achieve in the middle of a busy life. Laurent Tourondel is the LT in the BLT empire of restaurants (although they parted ways earlier this year).

Fresh from the Market, like Ripert’s book, is filled with nostalgia for the grandmother who taught him how to cook, as well as a reverence for specific, usually pricey, ingredients that I sometimes find tedious. It’s organized by season, which is nice if you’re the kind of cook who tends to find herself with an ingredient and then goes looking for a recipe. We have a month to six weeks of morels here, and as much as I adore morels with garlic, parsley and cream, I do find myself going off to look for something new to do with them. I also like Tourondel’s many recipes for drinks, some of which are refreshingly new (although I’ll probably skip the top shelf booze, what can I say? I’m cheap). The Basil-Cucumber Mojito in particular looks like one that might go into regular rotation next summer. There’s also a nice smattering of dishes with Asian spicing -- his crispy roast chicken has ginger and lemongrass powder in the spice rub, there’s a Pho with Pork Dumplings that also uses lemongrass-ginger, and a Steamed Lobster in Gingered Lime-Scallion Broth that makes me wish I lived much much closer to the sea. This book also has many fabulous dessert recipes, including any number of fruit-based desserts. I’d heartily recommend this one for that person on your list who likes cheffy cookbooks, and is in love with his or her local farmer’s market (or someone who has just signed up for a CSA). It’s the kind of book that can really help you navigate the transition to eating more seasonally, and will give you a good sense about how to play seasonal flavors off one another.

Finally, for the holiday season, a couple of dessert cookbooks, David Lebovitz’s Ready for Dessert, and a cookbook which came out a couple of years ago, Dolce Italiano by Gina DePalma, the pastry chef at Mario Batali’s Babbo. I cooked the living daylights out of Liebovitz’s ice cream book, The Perfect Scoop, and I’m a big fan of his blog, so I was thrilled when his new dessert book arrived. I don’t have the kind of sweet tooth that drives some people to distraction, but I was single for so long that I became a pretty good dessert cook simply because it was the one thing you could always take along when you’d been asked to dinner. What I like about both of these books is the variety of recipes, many of which are not too sweet, and a number of which involve that sweet-salty combination that I really love. Leibovitz’s “Fresh Ginger Cake” is precisely the sort of thing I like to take to someone’s house -- it’s rich and spicy and moist, but not overly sweet, and it gets better over a couple of days, so if it’s not scarfed up immediately, your hosts will have something delicious to nosh on the next day. There are many terrific tarts, including a Peanut, Butter and Jelly Linzertorte that re-imagines the Austrian classic with peanuts instead of almonds, and grape jelly instead of raspberry. It’s more sophisticated and delicious than you might think. Lebovitz is an inventive cook with a great sense of humor, and this would be a terrific gift for anyone on your list with a sweet tooth and an adventurous streak.

Dolce Italiano came out in 2007, but I haven’t had a chance to review it yet and it’s become one of my go-to books when looking for something interesting to take to a party. What I love about so many of these recipes is that they’re kind of plain, and not overly sweet. Her cookie chapter alone has several I’ve made to great acclaim instead of more traditional Christmas cookies. I mean, does anyone need another boring butter spritz with green sprinkles? Instead why not make her Chocolate Kisses, or Lemony Semolina Cookies, or Honey Clouds? So much more interesting. DePalma’s Citrus-Glazed Polenta Cake is gorgeous and easy and what’s more welcome as winter sets in than the clear bright flavors of citrus on a sunny yellow cake? Her creamy spoon desserts will soothe even grumpiest holiday grinch, while if you live someplace warm enough to consider gelato this holiday season, there are wonderful flavor combinations like Ginger Honey and Espresso Cinnamon to add the right note of cheer to the holiday. This is a great gift for anyone interested in adding a sweet component to their Italian repertoire, or who’d just like to shake up the “traditional” holiday sweets with something new and different.

And so, from the Cookbookslut, here’s wishing you a holiday filled with people gathered in kitchens and around tables, cooking and eating real food with one another. Because whether it’s fancy project cooking, or just making dinner for a couple of friends in the middle of all the madness, the point is to remember that we’re all here on the planet together. The stuff in the boxes with the ribbons and the fancy paper matters so much less than being present with one another, than feeding one another and remembering that sometimes when things are a little rough around the edges, we need to let ourselves be fed by those who love us. So, see you all on the far side of the winter solstice, on the journey back from the darkness and into the light.