Thought for food 

A dozen books on cooking and eating that made 2012 delicious

Saltie: A Cookbook, by Caroline Fidanza (Chronicle Books, 224 pages) My favorite cookbook of the year is a synecdoche of the Williamsburg restaurant from which it emerges: It looks tiny and insignificant (just sandwiches?), but it's a powerhouse. To make each component of a sandwich perfectly from scratch takes years of practice-built skill; to conceive of a sandwich as perfect as the Scuttlebutt, as the four women of Saltie did, evinces a slyly veiled level of genius.

The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink, edited by Kevin Young (Bloomsbury USA, 336 pages) What we talk about when we talk about food: This anthology surveys the poetry of appetite, which of course can cover a lot of ground – emotional, political, self-abnegating – but here the metaphors are all gastronomic. Editor Kevin Young has himself written many beautiful poems with culinary conceits; four of the 158 collected in this volume are his.

Edible Selby, by Todd Selby (Abrams, 296 pages) Interiors and fashion photographer Todd Selby (The Selby Is in Your Place) focuses in on foodies – cooks, restaurateurs, fishermen, gifted throwers of dinner parties – in the latest groovy comp of his trademark photo-shoot/interviews. Selby has a knack for placing the reader right in the subject's world; each interview feels and looks naturally beautiful and utterly unstaged. More lifestyle than cookbook, but irresistible to anyone who loves to eat.

The Mile End Cookbook, by Noah and Rae Bernamoff (Clarkson Potter, 224 pages) The Bernamoffs, Montreal-expat chef-owners of New York's Mile End Deli, have truly redefined Jewish comfort food, fine-tuning Eastern European favorites like pastrami, lox, blintzes and brisket into luxurious classics – the recipes for challah-dough cinnamon rolls and crispy sour pickles are homey knockouts. The heavy emphasis on DIY smoking and curing is educational; the page design and photography are as useful as they are beautiful.

Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen, by Charlotte Druckman (Chronicle Books, 320 pages) Women are supposed to stay in the kitchen, unless it's the kind of kitchen where you get paid; then they're supposed to stay the hell out. Druckman's deeply sourced book tends toward the polemic but never loses its sense of humor, giving equal time to chefs who've made it work within the boys-club system and those who've gone their own way.

The Art of the Restaurateur, by Nicholas Lander (Phaidon, 352 pages) Financial Times restaurant critic Lander's prose is sparkling, fluid and self-assured, but the true strength of this book is Nigel Peake's witty line drawings. Like most Phaidon publications (see Fäviken, top right), its pure physical presence makes it covetable: The pages lie perfectly flat, the cover is silky perfection, and each detail is so well-thought-out that the erudite writing is almost – almost – subordinate.

Consider the Fork, by Bee Wilson (Basic Books, 352 pages) Consider the Fork is a chunky little contender of a nonfiction book, doggedly researched by Wilson, but it's saved from being a grind by the hybridity of its topic. Tracing the origin of the common utensils humans have evolved for eating and cooking, after all, touches not just on food and design, but on sociology, prehistory, even biology, and Wilson has the gift of making dull detail spring vividly to life.

CookFight: 2 Cooks, 12 Challenges, 125 Recipes, an Epic Battle for Kitchen Dominance, by Julia Moskin and Kim Severson (Ecco, 320 pages) Don't let the generic cookbook cover fool you. These women have an anarchic sense of humor, not to mention the most bloodthirstily competitive friendship I've ever seen. (That pun on "cockfight" isn't accidental.) The conceit, which grew out of a New York Times series, is genius: Severson and Moskin separately tackle a dozen common kitchen problems – dinner party, holiday buffet, picky eater – and set down their individual recipe solutions; readers are the true winners.

Fäviken, by Magnus Nilsson (Phaidon, 272 pages) On the other end of the spectrum from Cookfight's practicalities lies this Swedish chef's chronicle of his fiercely idiosyncratic restaurant, full of recipes for dishes like "Grouse, paste of innards, gypsy mushrooms and rowan berries." In other words, you could follow these recipes qua recipes, but they're perhaps most useful as inspiration. (For those who loved last year's rugged-Swedish-forager cookbook, Fäviken is this year's NOMA.)

Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, 320 pages) Super-committed carnivores may have felt left out by the furore over Ottolenghi's last cookbook, Plenty, with its vegetarian focus. Fret no more, meat-eaters; Jerusalem encompasses the entirety of the edible kingdom, with an emphasis on the more esoteric corners of Mediterranean cuisine. These recipes are simple but in no way simplistic.

The Best Illustrated Cocktail Recipes, Created by Artists From Around the World, edited by Nate Padavick and Salli Swindell (Studio SSS, 46 pages) The brother-and-sister team behind the website-turned-cookbook They Draw and Cook is back with this short, sweet cocktail recipe compilation. Charming illustrated recipes, each by a different artist, limn boozy concoctions from 007's Vesper Martini to the Tall Blonde, a Scandinavian stunner.

Oranges, by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 168 pages) Every year I write this roundup of the year's best cookbooks; every year I include this book, first published in 1975. Why? Because McPhee's classic of narrative nonfiction is a miniature universe. Like one of those tiny glasses of OJ served in diners, its narrow covers enclose the geological, historical and meteorological roots of Florida citrus farmers' struggle to exist. So no big deal: just a self-contained cosmology of the Sunshine State, that's all.

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