From Brooklyn to Kentucky to Iran: Cookbooks for Every Taste

From Brooklyn to Kentucky to Iran: Cookbooks for Every Taste ... 01/12/2016 Cuisine

Keywords:#American, #Armenia, #Asia, #Azerbaijan, #Bloomsbury, #Brooklyn, #Diana_Henry, #French, #Georgia, #Hollywood, #India, #Iran, #Italy, #Kentucky, #Khan, #Kitchen, #Kurdistan, #Life, #Manhattan, #Mario, #Mediterranean, #Mexico, #Middle_East, #Moroccan, #Naomi_Duguid, #New_Mexico,, #Palestine, #Persia, #Persian, #Persian_Kitchen, #Saturday, #Sports, #Thanksgiving, #USA, #Yasmin_Khan

In the age of internet recipes, why on earth would anyone open a cookbook? And yet we do. Printed cookbooks have been defying their own death notices for years now, probably because they don’t just offer recipes, they offer relationships. There’s a person inside those covers — someone whose voice is appealing, whose guidance is reliable and whose food evokes the world you wish you lived in. Today’s culinary celebrities may be photographed far more sumptuously than their predecessors, and their recipes may be more overtly dazzling, but their books make the same promise that once lured homemakers to Mrs. Beeton, Fannie Farmer, Betty Crocker and Julia Child. Cook like me, they’re all saying. Try this recipe, try that one. Life will be much, much better. “If you follow every step in this book, you, too, will have two children, run a start-up and live in Brooklyn,” declare Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs in A NEW WAY TO DINNER: A Playbook of Recipes and Strategies for the Week Ahead (Ten Speed, $35). They’re being jovial, but they’re also evoking the dream at the heart of the cookbook business.
That’s why choosing the perfect cookbooks for the food-lovers on your list is tricky. You’re not just looking for the sort of recipes Cousin Sue might like to make, you’re looking for the sort of person she’ll want to invite home and entrust with her culinary future. This is matchmaking: It’s best to think of yourself as Luckily you can be sure of one thing: When it comes to passions that center on the stove, everyone is willing to be fixed up. Cousin Sue may seem content with her current kitchen partners, but trust me, she’s got a roving eye.
And she might find her heart’s delight in “A New Way to Dinner,” especially if she’s one of those hard-pressed souls determined to put a decent meal in front of her family even after a long workday. Hesser and Stubbs, founders of the hugely popular website, have dreamed up an elaborate approach to home cooking that would be overwhelming to attempt in full — I’m imagining an episode of “I Love Lucy” based on this book — but works remarkably well in small doses.
The authors set out 16 weeks’ worth of seasonal menus, each designed so the heavy lifting can take place on Saturday or Sunday. By Monday, a few mains and sides are ready, and after that it’s largely a matter of rearranging the leftovers. (This plan presupposes a refrigerator the size of a two-car garage.) What makes the idea at all viable is that Hesser and Stubbs are steeped in practical home cooking, both professionally and personally, and they know what they’re talking about. It turns out you really can half-roast the arctic char on Sunday, put it away, and finish it under the broiler for Thursday’s dinner. Their barley salad got better and better as the days passed; and the last remnants of a chocolate-orange olive-oil cake, toasted and served in a parfait glass with whipped cream and ice cream, made a charming if inadvertent homage to the late 19th century, when pretty desserts featuring leftover cake were a cookbook staple.
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I doubt you’ll find anyone on your list capable of resisting Diana Henry’s new book, SIMPLE: Effortless Food, Big Flavors (Mitchell Beazley, $32.99), which lives up to its title in the most inviting way possible. Of course, there are the requisite rustic photographs — do all cookbook writers live in the woods these days, eating off bare planks or wrinkled homespun? — but otherwise this is a warm, unpretentious collection of thoughtful recipes. Henry is enthusiastic about sausages and cooked-fruit desserts; she fills baked potatoes with bacon lardons and Gruyère; and she’s an expert at delivering all sorts of little flavor hits with a few chopped herbs, some grated citrus zest or a dash of honey. A number of the recipes are what she calls “a doddle,” her term for dishes that come together without fuss. The coffee-brined pork chops are a cinch, with only four ingredients; and so are the cumin-coriander roast carrots with 18 ingredients. Her flourless chocolate cake takes a little fiddling, but in a world full of flourless chocolate cakes, this one stands out for perfect texture and intense flavor. Most appealing of all is her calm, friendly voice: She could be handing these recipes to a neighbor over the back fence.
Thanks to the restaurants, the books, the markets and the TV shows, hungry fans of Mario Batali are pretty much everywhere, and you can bet they’ll follow him right out of Italy and into his BIG AMERICAN COOKBOOK: 250 Favorite Recipes From Across the USA (Grand Central Life & Style, $40). Batali and his co-author, Jim Webster, have chosen recipes with strong regional identities — crawfish pie, tortilla soup, Kentucky hot browns — and presented them in plain-spoken versions capable of honoring each tradition. “These are not my interpretations of classic regional dishes, but instead represent the most common take, the dish most likely found in a local diner,” he writes. He’s being diplomatic: The truth is, nothing needs the help of a savvy cook more than the “common take” on an American dish. As a nation, we’ve never bothered to protect our edible heritage, and that “local diner” Batali evokes so graciously is likely to be serving canned chili, frozen French fries and cake-mix cakes. Try these recipes the way Batali sets them forth, and I suspect you’ll come up with dishes that are way better than the ones he tasted on his travels.

The Manhattan clam chowder, for instance, speaks well for the honest appeal of clams cooked up with a little bacon, tomatoes and a few aromatics. His spoon bread with corn could appear without apologies at any dinner, especially with the dash of nutmeg, brown sugar and cayenne he suggests. And the buckeyes do proper justice to the immortal combination of chocolate and peanut butter. Watch out, however, for the tater tot hotdish, which Batali somehow manages to introduce without delivering a value judgment on the ingredients. It’s a canned-soup casserole decked out with frozen potatoes, and it’s disgusting. My companion at the table, who grew up in this tradition, thought the tater tot hotdish was just fine, which I believe constitutes scientific evidence that we have a sixth taste, namely nostalgia, more powerful by far than sweet, salty, bitter, sour or umami.
The other standout books of the season won’t be quite so easy as these to match with the right recipient, and you’ll have to be extra-sensitive to nuances of personality on both sides. Daphne Oz, for instance, has saddled her book with a truly unforgiving title — THE HAPPY COOK: 125 Recipes for Eating Every Day Like It’s the Weekend (Morrow/HarperCollins, $32.50) — and has augmented the damage by dedicating the prose and pictures to a concept best described as “my heartwarming lifestyle.” Anyone with a short fuse for self-celebration among radiant blondes with picturesque families will have to be given a different present. Which is a shame, because the recipes are terrific — well designed and stress-free. She roasts fish fillets over slices of grapefruit, orange and lime; she piles capers and pecorino into thin-sliced raw brussels sprouts; she puts whole-wheat flour and shredded coconut into her chocolate-chip cookies; and everything comes out as beautifully as she promises. There’s even a brilliant version of that frozen-banana “soft serve” that’s been swarming across the internet for years: She adds almond butter and invites a little Frangelico, amaretto or vodka.
Donna Hay’s LIFE IN BALANCE: A Fresher Approach to Eating (Fourth Estate, $34.99) should also be given selectively, perhaps even with a trigger warning. This book is so heavily overproduced that using it will drive a certain kind of cook crazy — the kind who’s hoping to cook. Page after page of huge, glossy photographs keep interrupting the recipes, many of which are printed on black or artistically smudged backgrounds that obscure the instructions; and there are so many unnumbered pages that it takes forever to locate a recipe you’ve just looked up in the index. But for anyone who can come to terms with the irritation factor and get to work on the food, the rewards will be abundant. Hay has a fine touch with all the nuts, grains, seeds and herbs that define fashionably healthful eating, and she knows how to pack a dish with vibrant but compatible flavors. Three whole cups of coriander leaves in the Moroccan chicken and carrot salad? Yes, that’s exactly the right amount. Currants and ricotta in a cauliflower “tabbouleh”? Absolutely, and the pistachios are perfect too. Maybe “Life in Balance” is going to be the new “Silver Palate,” which also seemed ridiculously overproduced when it appeared in 1982 (home-style drawings, cute quotations, chatty sidebars) and went on to become one of the most influential cookbooks of its time.
Now take heed: This next one is strictly for the fans. Anthony Bourdain’s latest, written with Laurie Woolever, is called APPETITES (Ecco/HarperCollins, $37.50), and he’s slathered it with the grandstanding machismo that is his trademark. Gaping jaws stuffed with food, splotches all over the pages, frequent use of a typeface that looks like a scream from a locked cell — that’s the design. Expletives and humblebragging — that’s the writing style. But Bourdain has gazillions of followers, and if you’re certain you have one on your list, go ahead and wrap up a copy. Under all the bluster, this is a decent cookbook.

The food, which he describes as the family-friendly dishes he likes to make at home, swerves a little wildly from tuna salad to duck rillettes to handmade salt-cod ravioli with lobster sauce. There’s a “tactical primer” for Thanksgiving dinner, and a dessert chapter with nothing in it. (His opinion of dessert is two words long, one of them unprintable.) As soon as he focuses on the actual cooking, however, the air clears. Bourdain writes clear, logical recipes that would do justice to a home economist. His New Mexico-style beef chili is rich with spices and beer, and there’s a salad of apples, radishes and carrots that would be downright dainty without the optional dash of fish sauce in the yogurt dressing. He also offers a first-rate ratatouille, and here he announces that he has defied convention by creating a recipe that allows each vegetable to retain its individual character. Well, yes, he’s done that, and so have many others, including Julia Child and Alice Waters, but thanks for the culinary mansplaining.
I’m not sure why 2016 has emerged as the Year of the Persian Cookbook, but of all the mini-trends out there — sous-vide, edible moss, making faux sour cream from raw cashews — this is the one worth pursuing. Every adventurous cook on your list will thank you for an introduction to some of the most entrancing culinary traditions in the world. I’m using the theme “Persia” loosely here, as do several of the authors, since these books embrace the food of a huge swath of the Middle East and western Asia, occasionally reaching North India and the Mediterranean. Spices and fresh herbs are used lavishly; fruit turns up alongside meat or fish; nuts are crucial ingredients rather than add-ons; and pomegranate seeds become as ubiquitous as parsley. It’s a gloriously addictive new way to think about dinner.
Yasmin Khan has lived and traveled widely in Iran, and THE SAFFRON TALES: Recipes From the Persian Kitchen (Bloomsbury, $35) reflects traditions she knows intimately. But she has the rare gift of being able to translate her personal heritage into recipes even newcomers will be able to pull off. Start with her lime and saffron chicken kebabs, which are a breeze — marinated, then roasted, then showered with sumac. She brightens up cucumbers with sekanjibeen, a quickly made mixture of cider vinegar, honey, mint and olive oil; and she always has an eye for the right place to insert a few dates or pistachios. A plate of fresh herbs accompanies many meals here and in the other books — a lovely idea that would enhance just about anything, including a tuna casserole.
Joudie Kalla also looks homeward for inspiration in PALESTINE ON A PLATE: Memories From My Mother’s Kitchen (Interlink, $35). These easygoing recipes revel in freekeh and fava beans, almonds and orange blossom water, and of course tahini, which Kalla loves so much it turns up in her brownies. She gives monkfish an excellent makeover by roasting it in a thick coat of sumac, za’atar and cilantro, and dresses a lively cauliflower salad with yogurt and, yes, tahini. There’s a showpiece array of stuffed vine leaves and lamb chops, flipped out of the pot and served upside down with yogurt, or you could entertain more simply with her generous platter of well-spiced chicken wings. “I want to pay homage,” she writes, “to the Palestine that my family knew and remembers.” And that’s exactly what this book does so gracefully.
Sallie Butcher’s PERSEPOLIS: Vegetarian Recipes From Persia and Beyond (Interlink, $35) is written in the engaging voice of a knowledgeable enthusiast who feels free to play with her food. She offers traditional techniques and flavors where she believes they’ll do the most good — sour orange in a bulgur pilaf, saffron and kefir in an Azerbaijani soup — but she’s also willing to put Marmite in the hummus and sweet potatoes in the falafel. Her recipe for moutabal — “baba ghanoush’s first cousin” — outshines by a mile the more familiar eggplant dip, thanks to mint, walnuts and pomegranate molasses.
Naomi Duguid set out with a camera and an appetite and came back with TASTE OF PERSIA: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan (Artisan, $35). In Iran, she learned to bake flatbread on a pan heaped with gravel and fell for liver kebabs; in Armenia, she discovered a cheese pie made from every scrap of leftover bread and cheese in the house. Some of this is labor-intensive, but not all: Her version of the ubiquitous Persian stew called fesanjun is simply hunks of chicken cooked in a slow, delicious bath of walnuts and pomegranate molasses.
Finally, because everybody on your list deserves to be surrounded at all times by cookies, muffins, tarts, cobblers and cakes, there’s Genevieve Ko’s BETTER BAKING: Wholesome Ingredients, Delicious Desserts (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30). Don’t be put off by the word “wholesome.” It’s true she cuts back on butter and refined sugar; it’s true you’ll find whole-grain flours and a plentiful use of nuts and seeds, but she handles these alterations with the wisdom and integrity of a great baker; and the results are scrumptious by any standards. Her pistachio-orange ricotta cake is a gem, and the batter took about three minutes to put together. Your friends who bake from scratch will be happy, and the ones who have always insisted on using mixes will never look back.
Laura Shapiro’s latest book, “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories,” will be published next summer.
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