December 26, 2008 | Favorites
Never Too Many Cookbooks
Sorry I’m tardy with my annual list of cookbooks for Incurable Collectors. But since you might be returning the violet hoodie your aunt sent or that striped apron with kitchen tools in the pocket or the two extra copies of the cookbook you told everyone you wanted, you’re likely to have some loose change and credit slips. Possibly having been in consumer lockdown for months, you’re ready for a splurge. This is about books I want to keep even though my shelves are sagging and countless biggies are stacked up as end tables. That is to say, don’t look to me for the perfect primer, a gift for the bride or for something to get a child interested in broccoli.
I should confess my list is skewed by the fact that many publishers cut me off their “reviewer copy” list when I abdicated the weekly critic’s job at New York. Now that I’ve been tossed off the staff completely, even as publishing houses are shrinking and favorite editors vanishing, I cannot imagine what next year will bring. Books by PDF, perhaps? Nothing worth piling the pillows high to nibble chocolate over in bed at night. Impossible to stash in the bathroom for occasional peeks. It’s not fatal to drop a book but what about dropping a Kindle?
As has been widely noted, this is the year of My Book is Bigger than Your Book. Some are heavier. Some are larger. Some are thicker. In a few cases size is a distraction from lack of content. Possibly those who worship the laboratory hijacks of Ferran Adria will want A Day at El Bulli (Phaidon). With its unembarrassedly sycophantic 528 pages it’s a bargain at $49.95. Twenty-four hours in the life of the restaurant that turned away two million hopefuls last year are recorded second by second with sixteen photos alone devoted to the chef emerging from the restaurant’s car park. Does this thought make you breathe heavily? Click here to buy this on amazon.com.
I needed to possess Thomas Keller’s big and beautiful French Laundry not just as a reminder of why I don’t even try to cook anymore, but rather as a peek into Keller’s brain and a scrapbook of my own memorable dinner. But Keller’s Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide (Artisan $75), with rhubarb looking like radioactive whitebait on the cover is like string theory to me.. It’s a how-to for chefs and fanatics like the man I sat near at Per Se’s $1500 dinner who does sous vide with an electric rice cooker and his wife’s vacuum-packing gizmo from Costco. Click here to buy this on amazon.com.
Craving Eric Ripert’s poetry in fish does not mean I am falling for his latest. I treasure the first Le Bernardin Cookbook with the photo album of Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze growing up in Brittany and later on the Quai de la Tournelle in Paris with pain at Gilbert’s loss still raw. If I stand up at the computer I can reach it right now. Ripert’s On the Line (Artisan $35) is not insulting to one’s serious foodism as is Mario Batali on the road in Spain with Gwyneth Paltrow. But with its focus on the kitchen, cooks, stations, costs, markets, and stocking fish, it strikes me as the product of a publisher’s sales meeting: Ripert sells books so what should he do next? I’d say it’s good for a gaga fan, Eric-Ripert-stalkers, the would-be restaurateur, or your prepubescent Food Network addict who plans to be a four-star chef when he or she grows up. Click here to buy this on amazon.com.
Turquoise: A Chef’s Travels in Turkey (Chronicle $50 ) is a weighty keeper. Thank heaven. I was beginning to worry I’d been in this business too long and was getting tougher to win over. But now we’re talking Turkey. The Road Food Warrior and I spent a week in Istanbul this spring, shocked and pleased to see the magical city now in the money and amazing new sophistication since our five weeks there in the year of the earthquake. It was too hot to travel that August but we want to see more: the nearby Islands, a blue water tour, the odd twisted plains of Cappadocia. We nurse fantasies of visiting small villages and ancient ruins and spending a few days with friends who summer on the Black Sea. That’s almost exactly what Australian chef Greg Malouf and his wife Lucy do in this outsize book, lush with evocative photographs. It feels like the outline of our next excursion. I’ll be hungry for crumbed lamb tongues, clay pot chicken with dates and bulgur, and feta and dill-stuffed sardines fried in chili flour. Click here to buy this on amazon.com.
Much to my surprise, perhaps to make up for not loving much of his weird and twisted food at the Per Se $1500 dueling whisks dinner, I am keeping Grant Achatz’s heavyweight contender Alinea (Ten Speed Press $50). Partly because it’s so beautifully put together (mine came boxed) and also because it’s historic and even hysteric. Oh, those gorgeous photographs. I especially love the candied bacon hanging on the high wire. An assortment of big names write essays of introduction to the Chicago chef’s outrageous pairings, textural manipulation and the surreal presentations that make some people squirm. Were I burying a time capsule this week, Alinea the book would be a candidate for inclusion…if the capsule was big enough. Click here to buy this book on amazon.com.
I’m not sure if it’s fatigue or a fatal urge to be generous, but I kind of sort of think I would keep Jean Françoise Piège’s outsize At the Crillon and At Home (Flammarion $65). I’ve never been to the Crillon or tasted the cooking of this young Ducasse disciple and quite frankly, I don’t like the look of his fussy hotel food. But I love reading Piège’s recipes for comfort food at home. “Forty-one recipes for good food every day,” he calls them. Chicken liver terrine, home-canned white tuna. Asparagus with pan-fried country bacon. Penne with black truffle, roasted tomato, basil and parmesan. Is that too meager a treasure for $65? Click here to buy this book on amazon.com.
I’ll probably keep The Food Life: Inside the World of Food with the Grocer Extraordinaire at Fairway (Ecco $29.95), Steven Jenkins’ inside tell-all - or rather tell-not-much - with its mostly amateurish black and white photographs. Fairway is my market not only because it’s got everything I need (except Zabar’s own rye bread and housewares) but also because fate planted it a block from where I live. Still, once you’ve read about Jenkins coming of age and how the brilliant and driven Harold, Howie and David turned a fruit and vegetable stand into an exceptional grocery, artisanal food gallery and shopping chaos, the plot pales. Fans of the talented but curmudgeonly Mitch London - who runs the upstairs Fairway Café and Steakhouse - might want the book for his cheesecake and rustic apple tart recipes alone. Click here to buy this book on amazon.com.
Riotous banners of varying type fonts will certainly keep you from dozing off riffling the pages of The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper (Potter $40) before bedtime. Lynne Rossetto Kasoer and Sally Swift have scattered all sorts of nuggets worth reading, like how eating different cheese before bedtime can affect your sleep. British cheddar eaters dreamed of celebrities and footballers. Stilton eaters had vivid, though not disturbing, dreams: vegetarian crocodiles, cuddly toys. And from Diana Vreeland: "People who eat white bread have no dreams." This could be the book that gets me back into the kitchen to do pan-crisped devilled eggs on French lettuces (a borrow from Jacques Pepin) or the quintessential pesto with risotto. It’s on the shelf above the sink already with my staples – vintage Julia and Marcella, earliest Claiborne, Jenny Grossinger…Jane Freiman on the Cuisinart…just in case I get that urge. Click here to buy this book on amazon.com.
Even with half a dozen luxuriantly sensuous chocolate books on my shelves, I find myself responding to Donna Hay’s Simple Essentials Chocolate (Ecco $19.95). It’s refreshingly humble, almost innocent, conveying how easy it is to turn out individual chocolate and hazelnut coffee cakes or flourless chocolate cupcakes with chocolate glaze. A tonic if you’ve overdosed on chocolate porn. And its lithe dimensions make it cuddly for browsing at bedtime. Click here to buy this book on amazon.com.
Cute little books are another weakness. I plan to carry Clotilde’s Edible Adventures in Paris (Broadway Books $17) with me next time I go. I missed Clothilde Dusoulier’s first, “Chocolates and Zucchini,” but I feel she might be trusted since I see we share certain favorite restaurants: L’Avant Gout in the 13th arrondisement, Chez Michel in the 10th, l’Ami Jean in the 7th. That’s reason enough for me to trail her to pastry shops, street markets and boulangeries. Click here to buy this book on amazon.com.
For some time now, I have trusted The Pudlo, which updates new restaurant finds every year. I buy it in French the day we get off the plane at Charles deGaulles. His more bon vivant confrères make fun of Gilles Pudlowski’s workaholic ways. Last time he did an eating marathon in New York, I watched him taking notes on his computer at Megu, then posting a review to his editor at Le Point between courses. The 2008-2009 Pudlo France (The Little Bookroom $29.95), rating hotels and restaurants, is out now in English. Paris 2009 is due soon in translation too. Click here to buy this book on amazon.com.
In Savoir Fair London (The Little Bookroom $14.95), Times staffer Elaine Louie singles out 50 spots for “Stylish Dining under $25.00.” When you see how humble some of these feederies are in the revealing photographs – pastry shops, burger joints, chocolate shops, department stores - you’ll be reminded how expensive London is and be impressed she found anything. Some travelers need to eat cheap but for others, dedicated to splurge at dinner, Louie’s finds will seem perfect for lunch or a snack. Click here to buy this book on amazon.com
Earlier this year I wrote an ode to Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited (Ten Speed Press $35), mostly about my affection for Arthur and his mythic knowledge of New York food culture. But now I’ve read into his latest, learned why kreplach is always plural, contemplated the controversial evolution of the knish and discovered “Why Jews Like Chinese Food.” This book will probably not ignite a matzo ball renaissance. But you’d want it for the lox, eggs and onions scramble recipe anyway, or if you’re me, for leads to who does it well - Fairway Café, Barney Greengrass and Sarge’s Delicatessen on Third Avenue, according to Schwartz. As Rozanne Gold says: “It takes a scholar and a mensch to reclaim a vanquished culture.” Click here to buy this book on amazon.com.
Since I first recommended The Flavor Bible (Little Brown $35) by my prolific award-winning food writer friends Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, this encyclopedia of flavor pairings has captured rave reviews and climbed the charts. Both pros and home cooks like the idea of using these provocative flavor pairings to cook without recipes. Chestnuts? Chestnut spice cake and marscapone. Chestnut semifreddo with candied chestnuts and pear. Chestnuts and Brussels sprouts. Chestnuts and figs. That’s how it goes, often in the voice of some celebrated chef’s musing. It comes with the same curiosity and passionate tasting the two writers put into their IACP award-winning Britannica of food and wine pairing What to Drink With What You Eat, recently reissued by Bulfinch Press $35. Click here to buy this book on amazon.com.