December 2011

Charlotte Freeman


A Season of Giving

Here at Cookbookslut, I’ve been struggling with conflicted feelings about Christmas and consumerism and the insanity of our current economic climate. Actually, I struggle with this most of the time, and somehow, the piles of big shiny cookbooks that come through my door only increase my anxiety about it all. There are so many of them. So many. They drift into piles around my house, and although my love of cookbooks goes back to my very first job out of college which involved heady tasks like researching, xeroxing and gluing every dessert recipe Gourmet magazine had published between its inception and 1986, schlepping mechanical boards to the midtown offices of Condé Nast, and even getting to help out with some food and tabletop styling, I cannot help but think that the world might not need quite so many shiny forty-dollar cookbooks.

And yet, it’s Christmas -- and cookbooks make such lovely presents. And I like to give presents. And giving presents that people can use seems to me better than giving presents that just get used, so, after a lot of making piles, and shifting those piles around my office and my living room and my kitchen, I’ve come up with a list of books that I would like to give or receive this year. The list is limited by my usual prejudices -- although it makes me sound old, and old-fashioned, I’m not interested in chefs who are working with foams or gels or the transformation of flavors into textures with which they are not usually associated. I’m also a little tired of what I think of as macho cooking -- cookbooks and restaurants who seem to brag that their flavors are bigger, or fattier, or just more than everyone else’s -- perhaps it’s just that I’m tired of pork belly. Perhaps its just that I’m cranky.

At any rate, I finally wound up with two piles of books that felt interesting enough to highlight as we’re going into the Christmas season -- one pile of what I think of as “cheffy” cookbooks, and one pile of more home-style cookbooks.

First, the cheffy cookbooks. If there’s ever a time for the big, beautiful, cookbook with lots of pictures and the sorts of expensive ingredients that you wouldn’t use on an everyday basis, Christmas would seem to be the time for it. People are entertaining, and wanting to make a special fuss for the folks they love, so here are the books I’ll be giving in this category:

Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London's Ottolenghi, Yotam Ottolenghi and Jonathan Lovekin, Chronicle Books, $35.00

To be honest, I’ve already given this one away. This is one of the most beautiful cookbooks I’ve ever seen, and although it’s vegetable-oriented, it is not, strictly speaking, a vegetarian cookbook. Ottolenghi grew up in Israel with a German mother and Italian father whose mother created a little Italy in her Israeli home. After fleeing academia, he moved to the UK to study at the Cordon Bleu where he now writes a column for the Guardian UK newspaper and runs an eponymous restaurant. His idiosyncratic approach to flavors is evident in the table of contents where he uses his internal shorthand for flavors: “Roots, Funny Onions, The Mighty Eggplant, Green Things, Pulses, Fruit with Cheese” and several other equally-quirky categories. The flavors though, are stupendous. Because I live with someone who is allergic to eggplants and really dislikes most of the Mediterranean flavors that permeate these recipes, I gave the book to two friends, a couple who are fabulous cooks and entertainers. Colin also manages the nearby Chico Hot Springs resort, where they grow much of their own produce in the gardens and geothermally-heated greenhouse. Colin said he’s been been using the book as a springboard with his chefs and that they’ve all been inspired by these recipes for fresh and beautiful vegetable-based dishes. So there, a gift that got put to good use.

Cooking Without Borders, Anita Lo and Charlotte Druckman, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $35.00

I’m a sucker for biography, and Anita Lo has a rich culinary bio. Her Chinese parents immigrated from Malaysia and Shanghai respectively, and after her father died when she was a toddler, her mother remarried an American of German descent and she was raised in part by a nanny who was a Hungarian nun. She went to prep schools and Columbia and then apprenticed in France (her major was the language) and became a chef in New York. Is it any wonder that Lo claims that “all food is fusion food”? Her inspirations run the gamut, from the bluefish she catches off Long Island, to the foods of her multi-cultural family, to the garden produce she grows at her weekend house, to flavors she’s tasting in other restaurants. The recipes here are a little more “cheffy” than those I normally like to cook, but the way Lo mixes flavor profiles is really exciting. This is a book I’ll probably give to my stepmother for Christmas -- she loves following a complicated recipe exactly and to entertain her foodie friends with a plate that looks like it came from a restaurant. Plus, she lives in Seattle, and has access to great seafood and really top-drawer Asian ingredients.

Neue Cuisine: The Elegant Tastes of Vienna: Recipes from Cafe Sabarsky, Wallse, and Blaue Gans, Kurt Gutenbrunner and Jane Sigal, Rizzoli, $45.00

This is an astonishingly beautiful book, and one that anyone interested in the art and design of twentieth-century Vienna would really like. Published by Rizzoli in concert with the Neue Gallerie New York (which houses one of the cafes for which Kurt Gutenbrunner is responsible), this gorgeously-produced book is exactly what I like best in a picture-book cookbook: it’s a book where you can learn a lot about a culture, where there are gorgeous photos, and food that you really want to eat. There are recipes for everything from genuine pretzels to open-faced sandwiches to a section explaining the crucial role white asparagus plays in Viennese cooking. There’s a primer on schnitzel that makes me want to go pound a cutlet right now, as well as a section about sausages that made my beloved want to get on a plane. And of course, there’s an extensive selection of the sweets and pastries for which Vienna is famous. Whether you want to make these recipes yourself or simply make a reservation to go to New York to eat in the café, this book is the best sort of jumping off point from which to imagine yourself in an entirely different time and place. This one is on my gift list for two friends, one of whom is second-generation German, and whose college-age son (also a good cook) has just returned from studying abroad in Vienna.

I’d also highly recommend Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, by Nigel Slater, which I reviewed in May 2011. For the gardener/cook on your list, this would make an excellent gift, as it’s one of the loveliest books of any type that I’ve seen in ages, and both the gardening and cooking information is excellent.

However, as anyone who reads this column knows, my heart belongs to cookbooks that teach a person how to cook at home -- whatever the ethnicity. And although it’s written by a chef, and it’s a big, fat, shiny cookbook -- I’m putting John Besh’s My Family Table, A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking (Andrews McMeel, $35.00) firmly in the home-cooking category. This is a terrific cookbook filled with ideas about cooking with your kids. The first chapter is comprised of master recipes like:  “Creamy Any Vegetable Soup,” “Simple Meat Ragout for Any Pasta,” “Warm Any Fruit Crumble,” “Quick Pickled Vegetables” and “Curried Anything.” Besh’s purpose in this book is not, as he says, to dumb down recipes, but to “smarten up strategies” He wants people to learn to think ahead, and to gain the kinds of skills that let a person improvise. He wants you to cook at home for both ordinary and special occasions, and he provides both the recipes and the strategies to make that possible. Maybe it’s the memory all those handsome Louisiana boys I went to camp with, but this book just makes me want to move to the South and entertain all the time. Besh’s chapters on Sunday Suppers and holidays and backyard barbecues make me believe I could be the matriarch of a big southern clan, eating and drinking and telling tales on the back screen porch, while his chapters on School Nights, Breakfast with My Boys, and making desserts with his kids would be a great template for anyone who actually has a pile of hungry kids to feed on a regular basis. There’s a lot of food I want to both cook and to eat in this book, and if you’ve got a family on your list who want to eat at home more, who want to cook together on a regular basis, this would be a terrific present.

The Homesick Texan Cookbook, Lisa Fain, Hyperion, $29.99

Lisa Fain has been blogging as The Homesick Texan since she moved to New York in 2005, and this book is a distillation of all the things that make that blog so terrific. For one thing, the recipes -- I’ve been cooking out of this book a lot the last couple of months, and the recipes all work, are all reasonably simple, and can all be tweaked in various ways without causing the whole structure to collapse. Now, I’m by no means a Texan, but I do miss the Mexican food of California something fierce -- and this book has been filling up the gap for me (which is not to argue that California Mexican and Tex-Mex are the same, they’re not, but they’re both more similar to one another than they are to the yellow-cheese Midwestern Mexican food which is all we can get here). These are weeknight recipes like “Pork Tacos, Dallas Gas Station Style” or “Seven Chile Texas Chili” and “Poblano Macaroni and Cheese” each of which have been a big hit chez Cookbookslut. She’s got a bunch of handy tips, like toasting and soaking your chiles in the same cast iron pan, and I have to say, we can get her beloved Ro-Tel tomatoes with peppers here when she can’t in NYC, makes me want to ship her off a small care package. If you’ve got a homesick southwesterner on your list, this is a terrific gift idea.

The final cookbook that I think would make a great gift is Feeding the Dragon: A Culinary Travelogue Through China with Recipes by Mary Kate Tate and Nate Tate (Andrews McMeel, $24.99). Part travelogue, part cookbook it’s the story of brother and sister team Mary Kate and Nate Tate who outlined an ambitious itinerary through China where they managed to talk their way into numerous kitchens and collect recipes for the characteristic dishes of each region. I’m sort of a sucker for this book, since I had a really close relationship with my late brother (although Patrick, who hated crowds, would have been a terrible travel companion in China) and I also lived in Taiwan for a few months in my twenties with a college girlfriend and her Chinese husband. I still remember the wonder of real Chinese street noodles, or steamed dumplings, or an authentic scallion pancake to a girl who’d only ever had American Chinese restaurant food.  It was a revelation, and in the ensuing years I’ve snapped up any cookbook that looks like it would help me make those flavors in my American kitchen. The recipes in this book are straightforward and uncomplicated, and most of the ingredients are ones readily available to American cooks and yet, these are authentically Chinese flavors. This would be a great gift for an adventurous young cook, someone like my friend Sophie, who at sixteen is both a good cook, and just starting to dream of travelling overseas.

I’d also like to remind Cookbook Slut readers of some books I’ve reviewed in previous months that I think would make great gifts — in November I touched on Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto by Michael Ruhlman. This would be a great gift for anyone on your list who wants to become a better intuitive cook — someone who is looking to get away from recipes. Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking, which I reviewed last January would be a terrific gift for anyone interested in Irish cooking or old householding skills like how to raise chickens and vegetables. For the DIY type on your list who is interested in a hipper, more contemporary set of skills, I’d recommend Home Made by Yvette van Boven, which I reviewed in August -- it’s chock-full of recipes for delicious pickles, cheeses, jams and light meals. For the outdoors person on your list, or for the gourmet cook with access to great wild game, I can’t say enough good things about Hank Shaw’s Hunt Gather Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, which I reviewed in June. And finally, for anyone who loves a great story of becoming a person, a writer, a chef, a wife and a mother, I still can’t sing Gabrielle Hamilton’s praises highly enough. Blood, Bones and Butter, which I reviewed in March remains one of the three or four best books I’ve read all year.

Here’s to a joyful holiday season for all of you, filled with friends and family, light and love, good food and warm houses. And here’s to another trip around the sun, one where we’ll all manage to somehow take care of one another and our planet, where we’ll plant something, we’ll reap something, and we’ll share what we have with those around us.