by Sybil PrattDecember 2010
Gifts that keep on giving
A cookbook is a perennial present, offering pleasures that last from season to season, bound to please novice, expert and everyone in between.
Amanda Hesser, the talented longtime food editor and writer at the New York Times, has spent the last six years cooking her way through the Times’ recipe archive, which begins in the 1850s, when the paper first started to cover food, and goes up to treasures from the more current Dining Out sections. The fascinating, fabulous result is The Essential New York Times Cookbook, though it might well have been titled “All the Food that’s Fit to Eat.” First, Hesser crowd-sourced, asking readers to pick their favorite Times recipes; then she pored through the recipes from the hundred years that predate most of us, testing and sifting out winners that have stood the test of time, like a rustic, golden Bouillabaisse from 1904 and an 1895 version of Raspberry Granita. Not a “thoroughgoing history of American cooking,” this amazing collection of more than 1,000 recipes is, as Hesser describes it, an “eclectic panorama of both high-falutin’ masterpieces and lowbrow grub, a fever chart of culinary passions . . . by turns global and local, simple and baroque, ancient and prescient.” And she’s seasoned every header note with her signature charm and wit, added “Cooking Notes” with extra clarifications and serving suggestions using other recipes in the book. This is a keeper!
No discussion of our country’s culinary treasures is complete without James Beard. Though he may not have signed the Constitution, Beard is our founding food father—first TV chef, first champion of local, seasonal, regional cooking, first in the hearts of his culinary descendants. He wrote 22 cookbooks, but James Beard’s American Cookery, with over 1,500 recipes, remains his ultimate classic. Available in an elegant new addition, with a foreword by Tom Colicchio, this essential kitchen reference deserves a special place right next to Julia, Fannie and Irma.
STIRRING THE MELTING POT
Distressed by reports that Americans had stopped cooking, awardwinning cookbook author and former food columnist for the New York Times Magazine Molly O’Neill set out to take the culinary pulse of America, to see if cooks were truly a dying breed. In a 10-year odyssey that took her to hundreds of towns and cities throughout the country, O’Neill found the intrepid who still think stoves are for cooking. In One Big Table, which is one big, lavishly illustrated book, she introduces us to the “nation’s best home cooks, bakers, farmers, fisherman, pit-masters and chefs”—the folks who make their own dinners with their own hands—and serves up 600 of their recipes. O’Neill’s take on the American cooking scene includes the cuisines of recent immigrants, so “regional” here is closer to global. John Copes’ Corn Chowder vies with Mrs. Nguyen’s Pho, Olga Napolilii’s hot Borscht and Homa Moyafaghi’s Persian Noodle Soup, while Helen Giancakes’ Ouzo Meatballs are the equals of Max Menendez’s Mexican Meatballs and Michelle Comparetti Zeikerts’ Real Italian Meatballs. And so it goes through every category of edibles from Nibbles and Noshes to Cookies, Custards and Cakes. The sum total is a magnificent meltingpot mélange, entertaining, enlightening and consummately useful.
THE EYES HAVE IT
In the “good old days,” that mythical time of ease and plenty, we were supposed to learn cooking basics, and beyond, from our moms and grandmas. Nowadays, we have their surrogates, step-by-step cookbooks, and though these books can’t give you a hug, they do offer the precise, detailed directions you need to make a meal or a particular dish and show you in photos what each step should look like, whether it’s “roughly” chopping nuts, dicing an onion, shaping gnocchi or poaching meringues for Floating Island. The Illustrated Step-by-Step Cook, designed in classic DK style, is among the new bumper crop of stepping books. More than 1,000 photographs accompany more than 300 recipes, from Tapenade to Tuna and Bacon Kebabs, Cod and Mussel Chowder to Chocolate Ricotta Pie, Pork Quesadillas to Prune and Armagnac Ice Cream, each one with a shot of the finished product so you’ll know exactly what you’re aiming for, plus cook time, prep time and variations. And in What to Cook & How to Cook It, British food writer Jane Hornby, a fervent believer in the let-me-show-you school of cooking, illustrates 100 of her favorite “go-to” recipes with over 850 color photos. Every recipe begins with an image of each ingredient included, followed by sequential/ procedural photos that lead to an almost edible full-page picture of the completed dish. Step up to foolproof cooking!