Chef cookbooks often tend to be aspirational, featuring techniques and ingredients unfamiliar to home cooks, says Greg Mowery of stovetopreadings.com. Like Wasabi Mashed Potatoes. “If I want them I’ll pay for the privilege of eating them at a restaurant. But as a recipe in a cookbook? Who wants to make Wasabi Mashed Potatoes at home?”
Writing about food is about much more than what you had for dinner last night, says Amy Sherman of cookingwithamy.com, who has a slightly different view on the subjerect. “I’m not interested in your husband and children and your great little cabin in the woods. I am interested in food and in recipes that aren’t dumbed-down.”
Mowery and Sherman opine about food. They take no prisoners, ask questions later and neither ever lacks an opinion. Mowery spent thirty years publicizing America’s top cookbook authors. Sherman started one of the Internet’s first food blogs and is a talented recipe writer and author. Both review cookbooks by cooking copiously from them and then blogging about it. Herewith, a holiday shopping guide of Mowery’s and Sherman’s top eight cookbooks of the year, respectively.
Pig: King of the Southern Table by James Villas (Wiley). “Jimmy’s a southern boy who knows pig inside and out. It will be a long time before someone can write as authoritatively about ‘the other white meat,’” says Mowery.
In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite by Melissa Clark (Hyperion). “When she gets at her stove it’s like Rachmaninoff meets Sting. You read her and you want to get into the kitchen,” he says.
The Book of Tapas by Simone and Ines Ortega (Phaidon). “You get the weirdest stuff when you order Tapas in the US,” says Mowery of the bite-sized Spanish dishes. “It’s misunderstood here,” he says. This book explains what tapas is and by example, what it isn’t and is the definitive word on subject.
The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century by Amanda Hesser (Norton). “Can’t believe she pulled it off,” he says of Hesser’s compilation of 1400 recipes published by the Times since the1850s, each of which she cooked and updated. “It’s a massive scholarly effort and she’s a very entertaining writer,” he says. He gives her props for originality, like including a savory Cuban Black Bean and Rice recipe from American dessert Grande Dame, Maida Heatter.
Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin). “It’s the best cookbook of the year and I got to work on it. Doesn’t get better than that,” says Mowery who helped with publicity. (He doesn’t blog about books he works on.) Greenspan likes to make people feel good. “There’s not an ounce of censure in the book. I’m full of prejudice about it and I don’t care,” he says.
Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners by Sara Moulton (Simon & Schuster). If there’s a less pretentious, accessible and creative cookbook that gets great food on the table in good time with the least amount of fuss, Mowery hasn’t seen it.
The Italian Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Slow cookers are “awful machines that sink bland, pale food under a batch of fat and goo,” he says. Scicolone shows how easy it is to adapt Italian food to America’s favorite convenience appliance without compromising its authenticity.
Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon by Claudia Roden (Knopf). It’s a physically beautiful book and she’s a wonderful cookbook writer, says Mowery. “If you want Middle Eastern cooking, she’s your girl.”
Amy Sherman calls her list “The Best Cookbooks You’ve Never Heard Of.”
Noma: Time and Space in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi (Phaidon). The most beautiful cookbook she’s ever seen, from the world’s number one restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark. “It’s the closest most of us will ever get to eating there,” says Sherman.
Biscotti: Recipes from the Kitchen of The American Academy in Rome by Mona Talbott (Little Bookroom.) This book has recipes for all those cookies you tasted if you’ve ever been to Italy or lived there and thought you’d never find again, she says.
Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan & Vegetarian Traditions by Elizabeth Andoh. (Ten Speed Press). Andoh is one of the premier writers of Japanese cuisine and she explains the philosophy behind the thoughtful and considered food choices the Japanese make.
Williams-Sonoma Cooking at Home (Weldon Owen). One-thousand recipes culled from Williams-Sonoma’s twenty years of publishing. “If you don’t already have The Joy of Cooking or Fanny Farmer this is the big, basic cookbook that you need,” say Sherman. It’s contemporary, avoids fads and has everything from Chick Peas with Chorizo to Coq au Vin.
D.I.Y. Delicious: Recipes and Ideas for Simple Food from Scratch by Vanessa Barrington (Chronicle). For DIY culinary enthusiasts who’re into canning, preserving, home fermenting, culturing cheeses, even making soda. “She tells you how to make these things and then gives you recipes for them. There a joyfulness about this book,” says Sherman.
Gifts Cooks Love: Recipes for Giving by Sur La Table and Diane Morgan (Andrews McMeel). For people who want to make and give Blackberry-Merlot Jelly, Aleppo Pepper-Peach Chutney or Meyer Lemon Mousse for the holidays, say Sherman. It’s the perfect gift for the task-oriented and even includes packaging ideas.
The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour by Kim O’Donnel. (Da Capo Press). Mouth-watering, savory, satisfying, hearty foods that just happen to be vegetarian. “They’re not backwards-engineered-fake-meat recipes,” says Sherman. “It’s about eating less meat, not being ‘hippy-dippy granola.’”
Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes by Mark Bitterman. (Ten Speed Press). Everyone writes about exotic salts but no one says how to use them beyond saying sprinkling them on steak and tomatoes, says Sherman, “but Bitterman does.”
Writing recipes is both a science and an art. Not every recipe is going to work for you, as cookbook authors can’t account for variables like ovens and stoves which run too hot or ingredient sources. Keep in mind that cookbooks featuring complicated food and luxury ingredients are largely inspirational. They’ll push accomplished cooks and frustrate inexperienced ones. The best cookbooks encourage you to use common sense and to trust your own judgment. The more you cook the more you’ll know instinctively when a recipe is good.