Are cookbooks obsolete? That’s the current alarmist opinion of some cult-of-the-new types who are so technology-obsessed they’re ready to consign anything made of paper to the scrap heap of history. Well, hang on to your lighter fluid there, chief, because cookbooks aren’t going anywhere. Yes: It has become standard practice to go to the Internet rather than the bookshelf to look up a recipe. But anyone who’s tried to scrub olive oil off an iPhone’s gorilla-glass touchscreen or scrape pureed squash from between the buttons of a Blackberry knows that recipes on paper have their advantages. Not only do sauce-splattered pages serve as a visual reminder of successful (or not) meals, encoding an instant sense memory of that-one-night-we-made-Indonesian-gado-gado in turmeric fingerprints and peanut-butter smudges, but you don’t have to take a book to a repair counter if you drop it in the sink.
But even I, Kindle-averse and iPad-lacking as I am, will admit that cookbooks have to reach beyond the instructional guides they once were. Trophies for some readers, bedtime reading for others (a practice I’m convinced exacerbates Ambien-induced “sleep-eating”), culinary manuals now must offer something extra to earn their spots on your shelf. Spectacular photography, a philosophical underpinning, evocations of far-off lands, the sheen of celebrity endorsement – any of these can help a paper-and-glue book justify its physical existence and its price, usually quite a bit more than an App Store download.
Gift-giving is another huge justification for the continued existence of books, and as this annual selection of books on food and eating arrives in Orlando Weekly’s Last-Minute Gift Guide issue, I’ll remind you that today (Dec. 22) is the last day to order from Amazon with guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve. Check what’s still in stock as soon as you put down the paper (or if you’re reading online, open another tab right now!).
The Family Meal: Home Cooking With Ferran Adrià, Ferran Adrià (Phaidon Press, 384 pages) Here’s where I go all “If you buy only one cookbook this year, make it this one” – because, seriously, this book has it all. It’s impressively weighty, the photography and design are impeccable, and it combines the risky allure of molecular-gastronomy god Ferran Adrià with down-home comfort food that anyone (anyone) can execute. “Family meal” is the staff feeding before service in good restaurants; Adrià and crew may have been serving sphericalized chicken foam at El Bulli (until it closed last July), but they were eating roast chicken with fried potatoes beforehand. Adrià applies his scientific mind to 31 three-course menus, evincing precise directions and timing and calling only for everyday ingredients and kitchen equipment. Essential.
Momofuku Milk Bar, Christina Tosi (Clarkson Potter, 256 pages) Tosi pulls off the difficult trick of out-stoner-fooding her boss (David Chang, chef-owner of stoner-food temple Momofuku) with this gourmet assortment of haute-hippie chow: fruity pebbles marshmallow cookies, cereal-milk panna cotta, Ovaltine fudge sauce, a version of McDonald’s deep-fried apple pie and her famous and aptly named crack pie.
Home Made: The Ultimate DIY Cookbook, Yvette van Boven (Stewart Tabori & Chang, 432 pages) Dutch illustrator and caterer van Boven combines her talents in Home Made, and the payoff is exponential: a hand-illustrated compendium of how-tos for everything from baking cookies to making dog biscuits to building your own smoker that’s warm and delightful, never preachy or technical. The thread running through all of it is van Boven’s fierce devotion to the self-empowerment of making it from scratch.
Alice’s Cookbook, Alice Hart (New Voices in Food/Lyons Press, 192 pages) Hart gives Nigella Lawson a run for her money – like Lawson, she’s British, well-educated in non-culinary fields, well-connected and beautiful – with this slim volume of relaxed, easygoing weekend-in-the-country food.
Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes From London’s Ottolenghi, Yotam Ottolenghi (Chronicle Books, 288 pages) A vegetarian cookbook written by a non-vegetarian, Plenty is every vegetable’s best friend. It’s stuffed with inspired, vivid flavor combinations that will open the eyes and palates of anyone bored by the Moosewood-Madison-Mark Bittman grind.
The Hot Knives Vegetarian Cookbook: Salad Daze, Alex Brown and Evan George (Mark Batty Publisher, 128 pages) Brown and George, aka the Hot Knives, are hipster heartthrobs who know their way around the farmers market and the kitchen as well as the bong. Recipes (all vegetarian, some vegan) are accompanied by beer recommendations and (really great) playlists; they may be veg, but they’re not party-liners. Delicious and creative.
Super Natural Every Day: Well-Loved Recipes From My Natural Foods Kitchen, Heidi Swanson (Ten Speed Press, 256 pages) Swanson’s ethos is a deeply pleasurable, ultra-nourishing one. Her simple-to-make recipes, comprising whole grains, heirloom vegetables and local dairy products, are quietly stunning crowd-pleasers.
My Kitchen: Real Food From Near and Far, Stevie Parle (Lyons Press, 192 pages) Get this for your barefoot-backpacker friend, the one who’s full of stories about snapper grilled on the beach at Koh Samui or the best vada pav stand in Mumbai. Parle cooks in London but has eaten in Tokyo, New York, Sri Lanka, India, Morocco, Italy and points farther afield, all of which show up in his easy-but-glam recipes.
Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas From an Improbable Res-taurant, Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz (McSweeney’s, 224 pages) More a history-with-recipes than a traditional cookbook, MSF memorializes a quirky San Francisco pop-up restaurant, since closed. Published by the McSweeney’s publishing empire, this book is a just-do-it kick in the pants for anyone who’s dreamed of opening their own oddball establishment.
An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace, Tamar Adler (Scribner, 250 pages) M.F.K. Fisher, America’s best and best-known food writer, was inspired by the strictures of the Depression and WWII food rationing to write How to Cook a Wolf. Adler, a writer and former Chez Panisse chef, was inspired by both the subject matter and Fisher’s lyrical yet no-nonsense style. This is perhaps the best book about food – not cookbook, though there are plenty of recipes – that I read in 2011.
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, Michael Pollan and Maira Kalman (The Penguin Press, 240 pages) An expanded version of Pollan’s now-classic Food Rules, enriched by Kalman’s ineffably charming paintings and hand-lettering. This edition reminds you to “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much” but also includes 19 new rules culled from readers of the first edition.
Wreck the Halls: Cake Wrecks Gets “Festive”, Jen Yates (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 232 pages) Yes, this is what the Internet is for. But every person who’s come into my office to gawk at the tower-of-cookbook that starts to form in late October picked this one up, and every one laughed out loud. (Sorry, I mean LOL’ed.) A perfect present for baking aficionados or other people for whom you have no idea what to buy.
The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook: Inside the Kitchens, Bars, and Restaurants of Mad Men, Judy Gelman and Peter Zheutlin (Smart Pop Books, 248 pages) Not at all goofy, really, but still pop-culture enough to fall in the “gag gift” category. Gelman and Zheutlin have painstakingly recreated menus and recipes from establishments that appear on the television show, some of which hold up a half-century later and some of which are noteworthily hideous.