Holidays, Random Thoughts

Holiday gift recommendations from the Kitchen.

So you’ve got about 10 days left to finish your holiday shopping.  If anyone on your list is a food person, how about a book? They’re reasonably priced, utilitarian, and food people love food books.

I’ve made it easy for you.  Below please find a taxonomy of food people, and a selection of books for each.  Then sit back and wait for the dinner invitations to roll in.

For the avant-garde cook:

The Fat Duck Cookbook, Heston Blumenthal.   It takes a master to transgress traditional boundaries of texture and flavor in ways that evoke ancient pathways of taste.  Gummi single malt scotch bottles, anyone? Three Michelin stars are no joke.  ps.  If you’re looking to spend, and your gift recipient has a serious urge to learn avant garde technique, check out The Big Fat Duck Cookbook.

Momofuku, David Chang and Peter Meehan.  This may be THE cookbook of 2009.  If you’ve tried Chang’s revolutionary pork buns, his ingenious foie gras snow, his famously fried brussels sprouts, or his perfectly balanced ramen – or wanted to – then you can take these recipes for a spin at home.

Under Pressure:  Cooking Sous Vide, Thomas Keller.  So you bought a vacuum sealer and a thermal immersion circulator on a whim, and now you’re not sure what to do with them?  You need this cookbook, if you’re serious about sous vide cooking.  Word of warning:  if you actually intend to use the cookbook, know that it is not written for the home cook, even the  conventionally above-average home cook.  This is a book for professionals and serious home cooks with real chops who want to throw down.

For the scientist:

On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee.  The watershed publication that approaches food and cooking from a scientific standpoint.  Why does red cabbage turn blue when cooked, and how can you turn it back to red?  Why do eggplant soak up so much oil?  What is this Maillard reaction, anyway?  McGee will tell you, without scaring you off science or food.  Not a cookbook, but an indispensable guide.

Building a Meal:  From Molecular Gastronomy to Culinary Constructivism, by Herve This, translated by Malcolm DeBevoise.  This debunks some culinary myths and confirms others, through methodical experimentation.  Learn to make chocolate mousse using only chocolate and water, and discover why dropping raw eggs into boiling water leads to superior hard-cooked eggs.

Ratio:  The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, Michael Ruhlman.  Cooks often like to pretend that cooking is entirely improvisational, unlike the precise and scientific craft of baking.   But many elements of cooking require precision, which apparently scares the bejesus out of some people.  Indeed, anyone who has made a hollandaise sauce, a gelee, or a batch of cured pork sausage can confirm the pitfalls of the ad hoc approach.  Ruhlman posits that learning basic ratios frees cooks from the constraints of recipes and encourages greater creativity.  As someone who has been cooking this way for a long time, I can vouch for the approach.

The Flavor Bible:  The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg.  Sure, we all know that rosemary is nice with pork, and cinnamon tastes good with apples.  But how about licorice and beef?  White chocolate and caviar?  If you’re a fan of the “TGRWT” (“they go really well together”) project, or you just want to develop a sense for flavor profiles, this is the book for you.

For the classicist:

Ad Hoc at Home, by Thomas Keller.  The famously precise chef who taught us to microwave vegetables and crush them to powder for an intense and dramatic flourish in French Laundry forsakes haute cuisine for richly flavored comfort dishes, like perfect buttermilk fried chicken, roast leg of lamb, and even grilled cheese sandwiches.  Unlike French Laundry, Bouchon, and Under Pressure – all written for advanced cooks – this collection is accessible to the skilled home cook and actually yields results one might eat at home.

Gourmet Today:  More than 1000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen, Ruth Reichl (ed.).  RIP, Gourmet Magazine.  I’ll never understand why Conde Nast abandoned its best culinary magazine in favor of the pedestrian Bon Appetit, but this collection of recipes from its last few years, with Reichl at the helm, reminds us that good food doesn’t have to be trendy or expensive, and it doesn’t have to be dumb.

My New Orleans, John Besh.  Before the disaster, Restaurant August was in my opinion the best fine dining venue in New Orleans, a city studded with great restaurants.  I’ll never forget stopping in at 11:30 am, telling the bar that I had to be in Baton Rouge at 2pm for a hearing so I needed something really quick, and getting the finest short rib ravioli I’ve ever eaten.  I went home and made it that weekend.  If you can’t make it to NOLA, this is the next best thing

Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, Eileen Yin-fei Lo.  It’s 2009, and people still order beef with broccoli in Chinese restaurants.  What gives?  Luckily, you don’t have to eat that way at home.  This expert on Chinese cooking serves as your guide to Chinese regional cuisine and teaches you fundamental Chinese technique.  Fifteen years ago, I learned how to make Peking duck from Ms. Lo using a bicycle pump and a fan; she’s not joking around.

River Cafe, Italian Easy, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. This isn’t a new cookbook; I bought mine years ago.  The simple recipes from the doyennes of London’s River Cafe are timeless, though; a handful of ingredients, glossed with olive oil or butter in most cases, shine through simple technique.  The book assumes knowledge of cooking technique; each recipe takes but a few lines.  Rogers and Gray don’t hold your hand through the process of removing the fava bean shells, never remind you to heat the pan before adding oil; won’t provide any helpful tips about boning the chicken.  If you don’t know to do those things already, tough.  But if you want a concise guide to minimalist Italian cooking that treats both the ingredients and the cook with respect, this is the one.

For the historian (note – these are not so much cookbooks, although Larousse has numerous recipes):

The Food of a Younger Land, Mark Kurlansky.  In the late 1930s the Works Progress Administration farmed out a writing project : an encyclopedia of American food and food traditions. Sadly, WWII ended the project, and the files were archived in the Library of Congress, unpublished and nearly forgotten. Food historian par excellence Mark Kurlansky has unearthed these writings and presents this edited volume.  Read what writers including Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston and Nelson Algren said about this nation, its foodways, and its culture, at a time when we were emerging from the Great Depression and on the cusp of modern food processing

Larousse Gastronomique, Librairie Larousse.  Do you want to know how to make a soubise?  Are you troubled by the difference between barding and larding?  Are you looking for a primer on Tunisian cuisine?  Search no further than the encyclopedic, classic guide.

A History of Food, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat.  Are you a food geek?  Have you ever sought to attend the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery? If you’re interested in minutiae about food, this volume offers nearly 800 pages of arcane facts that will bore the “eat to live” types at your next party to tears.

For the busy commuter:

Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express:  404 Inspired Seasonal Dishes You Can Make in 20 Minutes or Less, Mark Bittman.  You’ve read his column in the New York Times.  Bittman’s unfussy approach to cooking means short recipes with big flavor, for people with a working knowledge of the kitchen but little time for preparation and uncommon ingredients.   Dishes tend to feature big flavors – curried squash soup, pork tacos with apple and fennel slaw, quick cassoulet.  No more excuses for eating bad food!

The Best 30-Minute Recipe, Cook’s Illustrated Magazine.  Why in a million years would you trust Rachael Ray or Sandra Lee to teach you how to cook a delicious, healthful meal in 30 minutes when an esteemed test kitchen full of skilled chefs has developed recipes to suit this purpose under rigorous conditions?  If you were smart, you wouldn’t.  The test kitchen will not mislead you about the time it takes to prepare a dish, and – as a bonus – will tell you which brands of shortcut ingredients like chicken stock and canned beans are worth buying (and which to avoid).

Need more tips, or a custom recommendation?  Give me a shout!


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