It’s the holiday time of year again, and if you partake in gift-giving traditions, you might be wondering what to buy the cook in your life. As I posted last year, cookbooks are never wrong. Now, there’s been a lot of talk recently about mobile apps – and it’s true, you can use apps to search for recipes and create shopping lists on your iPad or iPhone while commuting on the bus, or what have you. I’ve been trying to find someone who’ll help me develop an app for my cookbook, matter of fact, so if you know someone, give me a shout. But when you’re actually in the kitchen, there’s nothing like a paper-and-binding cookbook. You can lay it flat on the counter or hold it open on one of those stands; you can run your finger down its pages when trying to recall your place in the recipe; you don’t have to squint at its tiny type, or swipe your poultry-smeared fingers across the screen of your phone. You can write your own notes, when you want to change something in the recipe to make it your own. There’s no real substitute for paper.
So I received a couple of reader requests for my top five cookbook recommendations. That’s tough, because some of them are from last year’s list. On Food and Cooking, for example, and The Flavor Bible, two selections from last year, are books I will recommend year after year. Neither is a cookbook. Both are guides to understanding food that anyone who takes a genuine interest in cooking should read. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee provides the story of the foods we eat in their scientific, historic, and cultural contexts. He’s not Alton Brown, either. Does that make it sound like school? Maybe it is, a little, but in a good way. It’s like going to college, where you get to study what you want, and what you want to study is food. The Flavor Bible is a stunning reference work on building complex flavor. Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, in consultation with hundreds of professional chefs, will tell you how to put together any one ingredient with any other ingredient, and if it shouldn’t be done, you’ll know. If you read this book in conjunction with McGee’s, combinations that might have been inapparent before will seem obvious. It’s genius.
So what does this leave for my top five? It took some time, but I narrowed it down. Leaving aside those top two, here are five other books I strongly recommend. They cover the bases – classic French technique; component-building; quick guides to the basics; dim sum; and local cuisine par excellence. Only the last book is new. The others have provided years of service in my kitchen – what better recommendation do you need?
Happy holidays, everyone! And now, the list.
1. Jacques Pepin, Complete Techniques. When I was first learning to cook, this book only existed in its original two-volume format, and was long out of print. I couldn’t find both volumes, and the second volume (mostly desserts), besides being less valuable for my purposes, was outrageously expensive. When this combined volume was released in the mid-1990s, I bought it immediately.
This is a softcover book. The step-by-step illustrations, in the original black and white, are an immense help to anyone who wants to learn classic French technique. If you want to learn to make a ballotine or Paris-Brest, don’t even think of trying Julia. Consult Jacques.
2. Diane Forley, Anatomy of a Dish. Why do eggplant and tomato taste so good together? Why do we often pair onion and garlic? How do we decide how to pair certain proteins with certain accompaniments? Diane Forley, formerly of NYC’s Verbena Restaurant, took the scientific approach to constructing her plates. If you’ve ever struggled with constructing a harmonious dish out of multiple components – much less a cohesive, progresssive menu – this book provides a thoughtful method for developing sound pairings and progressions. And although this isn’t a vegetarian cookbook – in fact, the vegetables and grains often provide a platform for animal proteins – Forley emphasizes the role of botany in developing vegetable combinations. You’ll learn why quinoa and spinach pair so well together, and be pairing crucifers like a pro.
3. Filip Verheyden, Basics: The Foundations of Modern Cooking. It’s a tiny book – the height and width of one of those Moleskine journals, and not a whole lot thicker. But in it, you’ll find instructions for everything from roast chicken to braised short ribs to ham mousse, “seawater” gelée, the technique to cook vegetables sous vide, and the foams essential to modern cuisine. Who needs an app when you can carry this book in your bag?
4. Huang Su-Huei, Chinese Snacks. Dim sum is a dismal affair in most American Chinese restaurants – greasy, heavy, flat. Why put up with it? Because you could never make it at home. Well, that’s nonsense. You certainly can make dim sum at home. This is the authoritative guide for the home cook. The instructions are in both English and Chinese; the book is part of a series on various Asian cuisines by a Taiwanese processed food company that makes admirable frozen dumplings as well as a wide variety of condiments. With this book, and ingredients available in any Asian grocery (and many supermarkets), you can make everything from fried meat dumplings to glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves to those little egg tarts that finish off every visit to a dim sum restaurant. Once you’ve tried your hand at the obvious, turn your attention to the moon cakes eaten at the autumn harvest festivals.
5. René Redzepi, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. The only new book on the list, this is a must-read if you want to understand the future of local cuisine. René Redzepi, the Danish chef who put Noma on the map with two Michelin stars and the Most Important Restaurant sobriquet, presents the essence of Scandinavia in each dish. Redzepi harnesses modern techniques and technology to make the climate and geography of Denmark – one of the world’s most culinarily forbidding places – his allies rather than his enemies.
This book isn’t for everyone. It’s not for the home cook who’s putting out family meals, and it isn’t for the cook who needs a lot of instruction. This book provides a thoughtful insider view of the limits of local cuisine, and if you’re buying for someone who seeks the ultimate local challenge, or a “locavore” who wants to explore the full implications of that word, this is the book.