What a great year for cookbooks. Despite the almost daily release of a new culinary app, and despite the thousands of incredible online cooking resources [wink, wink] and the continuing explosion of cooking shows, people are still enamored of good old-fashioned cookbooks. In the end, most of us still want to spread a cookbook out on the kitchen counter, a rolling pin holding the binding open, grease splattering across recipes, and we also still want to curl up in bed, turning the pages and feeling the paperstock of a good cookbook. They line our bookshelves and top our refrigerators like art.
While I can name at least fifty outstanding cookbooks published this year, I don't want to overwhelm you. So here are just fifteen that really stood out to me; books that reminded me of why I love to cook.
LudoBites: Recipes and Stories from the Pop-Up Restaurants of Ludo Lefebvre ($16.49) by Ludovic Lefebvre
Lefebrvre is French chef in LA who runs a "restaurant event" called LudoBites. I have not eaten his food, but with this book on my shelf, I'm catching the Ludo bug. Recipes like Sushi-Rice Ice Cream and Ham Sandwich Soup are odd enough to put Ludo in the "out there" category but not so out there that the book is a museum piece, like The French Laundry Cookbook or Modernist Cuisine. He intends for the reader to actually make these dishes, and it's more than possible. Once you start reading LudoBites it feels almost necessary to enter his world through your own kitchen.
Nick Malgieri's Bread: Over 60 Breads, Rolls and Cakes plus Delicious Recipes Using Them by NIck Malgieri ($19.51)
Malgieri is a master baker. I trust everything he does. Previously he's published books on cookies, cakes, chocolate and other baking topics, but this is his first bread book. I have at least a dozen books about baking bread and no, it's not too much. Bread books are a breed of their own: the good ones aren't just re-inventing classics, they are using the almost spiritual act of baking bread to teach the reader about how to relate to ingredients, to equipment, to the whole experience of cooking. And for that, I am grateful.
Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Singleton Hachisu ($21.19)
Holding Japanese Farm Food, you feel you have something sacred in your hands with its Japanese silk spine. Opening it, you enter a world of Japanese cuisine not dominated by sushi and noodles, rather by attention to the earth and sea's gifts and the provenance of every ingredient mentioned on its pages. With many recipes having only four or five ingredients, this is a wonderful book to begin with if you've never made Japanese food before. It will not overwhelm you. It will be completely authentic, quiet, nourishing, surprisingly simple, and more delicious than you would have imagined.
The Epicurious Cookbook: More Than 250 of Our Best-Loved Four-Fork Recipes for Weeknights, Weekends & Special Occasions by Tanya Steele and the Editors of Epicurious ($16.20)
Of all people, I can attest to the wonders of online recipes - for searchability, comments and rate-ability, not to mention having millions in one place; the little metal box where we keep recipes has gone from something note-card sized to something tablet or notebook-sized. The mothership of them all is the Epicurious recipe archive. So why come out with a book? The editors culled the site's 180,000 recipes to get the very best recipes; those four-forker recipes that had the highest rating, and those that the editors know readers visit again and again. This floppy, glossy cookbook is one to give to anyone who likes the sort of cookbook that has a little of everything, and all of it reliable.
CookFight: 2 Cooks, 12 Challenges, 125 Recipes, an Epic Battle for Kitchen Dominance by Kim Severson and Julia Moskin ($19.79)
I can't say that CookFight wins for only for its humor – that would be denying credit for the work of the two accomplished and thoughtful cooks behind its pages, Kim Severson and Julia Moskin. Sure, it's entertaining, but it has 125 really great recipes for dishes you actually want to make, collected from twelve spirited meal challenges where Moskin and Severson faced off, pitting each others' kitchen strengths and styles against the other. The friendly banter between these two New York Times colleagues is a valuable reminder of the benefits of cooking that go beyond nutrition, budget and family bonding. Forget about all that, you know that by now. This is a book that will solidify your belief in how irreplaceable an experience it is to cook beside someone, to disagree, to flex your muscles, to laugh, and then to break bread.
Edible Selby by Todd Selby ($21.88)
In his latest book, photographer Todd Selby manages to make me want to get into the kitchen without actually giving many recipes. Edible Selby is a collection of profiles of forty characters from the culinary world, from Noma chef René Redzepi in Copenhagen to a Buffalo Cheese making family in New Zealand. We watch them in kitchens that haven't been tidied for the camera, but shown as they truly are in their natural, chaotic, beautiful state. Selby profiles each subject his usual Selby-esque way: with hand-written text, quirky ink and watercolor illustrations, and arrows scrawled across photographs. Save for a handful of recipes sprinkled throughout, most of the cooking instruction is done by caption: "A roasted onion petal is stuffed with concentrated onion soup and floated in a consommé." This is a book to read on the couch and leave there. Next you'll want to go to the kitchen and get crazy and make a mess. You will let your hair down, and the meal will be infused with life.
Southern Living Home Cooking Basics: A Complete Illustrated Guide to Southern Cooking by the Editors of Southern Living Magazine ($19.77)
I'm always on the lookout for basic instructional books. These are great gifts for new cooks and young folks, but they're also a good resource for experienced cooks. Sometimes you forget how to deep-fry a turkey or smoke brisket. Southern Living Home Cooking Basics will help. It's not a hip and trendy presentation, but it will get you in the mood to learn the basics of Southern cooking, lard 'n' all.
Canal House Cooks Every Day by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer ($26.73)
There are very few emails I actually look forward to receiving regularly these days but there's one that I know will get me to stop what I'm doing, click through and quietly sigh, each and every time. It's the Canal House Cooks Lunch series from Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, collaborators on the Canal House magazine and the author/photographer team that brings this latest collection, Canal House Cooks Every Day which offers a year of seasonal recipes for the home cook. Reading through this book empowers you to feel like you can cook a five-star meal in your blue-jeans with just an old wooden spoon and a few fresh ingredients. Classy has never looked so at-ease.
101 Classic Cookbooks: 501 Classic Recipes by The Fales Library ($31.50)
For the cookbook aficionado, here is a brick of a book from the epicenter of food studies, the Fales Library at NYU, where every cookbook known on earth has a home. With this volume you get the best of the best, 501 recipes from the most loved cookbooks of the 20th Century. It's the only cookbook I know of with an Advisory Committee. Here's one for the country house for weekends of reflecting back on the great cooks of our time, or for the studio apartment dweller who has no room for the originals.
Hugo Ortega's Street Food of Mexico by Hugo Ortega ($23.07)
This is the first cookbook from James Beard Foundation Award-Nominated Chef Hugo Ortega. It was in Ortega's native Mexico City where he began to really understand the idea that Mexican street food represents the best of traditional Mexican cooking. Street Food of Mexico is his ode to the street foods not just of Mexico City, but of the outskirts of Mexico's vast array cities and villages. This book is not just a culinary tour of Mexico, but it is a visually rich tour of Mexico's vibrant street life.
Lidia's Favorite Recipes: 100 Foolproof Italian Dishes, from Basic Sauces to Irresistible Entrees by Lidia Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali ($14.97)
Instead of owning seven Lidia Bastianich cookbooks, like I did, you can have this one and know you're getting the recipes she loves and adores most. When you read a Lidia recipe, you can tell how much love there is in it. If you have seen her on television or have had the pleasure of meeting her, you know what I mean. The recipes always work and they always make the people I cook for talk. That's a sign of great food. As for the seven Lidia books I "did" own, well, now I have eight. Join the club.
American Cookery by Amelia Simmons ($14.10)
Years ago, long before I was a food writer, I took a class on the history of food writing and I learned about Amelia Simmons's American Cookery, the first known cookbook published in America (1796). It seemed like something to study, not something to have. But I've changed my mind. These recipes are the first printed attempt to represent the British/Colonial style of cooking using native ingredients like corn, and it's fascinating. It also has what's thought to be the first recipe for turkey, paired of course with cranberry. This year the book was re-released with a pithy introduction by Melissa Clark. Anyone with an interest in food history or who simply wants to learn how "To Dress A Calf's Head. Turtle Fashion." I suggest you pick up a copy.
Small Plates and Sweet Treats: My Family's Journey to Gluten-Free Cooking, from the Creator of Cannelle et Vanille by Aran Goyoaga ($18.99)
Even though most anything Aran Goyoaga touches looks like a woodland angel cooked it, blessed it, and found love beside it, her work isn't just about a pretty picture. Her food is also very grounded and she has a wealth of knowledge about gluten-free cooking. Raised in a food-centric home in Bilbao, Spain with professional cooking experience in the States, it was after 2008 when she started casually posting her recipes and photographs to her blog, Cannelle et Vanille, that she began to adopt a gluten-free lifestyle. Her site took off. Now she is considered one of the top destinations for gluten-free and family-focused food writing and recipes. I'm so glad there is finally a book to immortalize the last several years of her website: this is the kind of book I refer to not just when gluten-free friends are coming to dinner, but also when I want some inspiration, both from pictures and words.
Secrets of the Best Chefs: Recipes, Techniques, and Tricks from America's Greatest Cooks by Adam Roberts ($18.01)
When Adam Roberts had the idea to visit great chefs in their kitchens and pull their recipes, tips and tricks out of them, I kicked myself repeatedly for not thinking of it first. What I love about Adam is how he puts himself out there joyfully and modestly as a true Amateur Gourmet. For this book project he cooks with Alice Waters, Lidia Bastianich, Sara Moulton, and José Andrés among others. I know many professional cooks who probably couldn't get into those kitchens. After his stint with each chef, he adapted and tested each recipe in his home kitchen. "The end result is recipes that retain all the excitement and brilliance of the original chef recipes but with a slightly more down-to-earth approach." For you and me that means no foie gras and no sous vide. Thank you, Adam!
Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi ($19.85)
The term "mouth-watering" is one of those food-writing no-no's but to be perfectly honest, like Pavlov's dog, even sitting here typing these words, looking at the cover of Jerusalem, A Cookbook, my mouth, indeed, is watering. The recipes are simple and yet mysterious combinations that jump off the page (Wheat Berries and Swiss Chard with Pomegranate Molasses... Pistachio Soup... Panfried Sea Bass with Harissa and Rose) and they are paired with vibrant photos of Jerusalem's food culture and recipe shots that feel truly alive. It's the kind of cookbook folks get really excited about. They have, I am, you will.
(This isn't the first time we've talked about it. See Emma Christensen's full review of Jerusalem here.)
I know I missed dozens, so now's your chance to share with each other about what cookbooks blew your mind this year and which you're giving as gifts. I have my good old pencil and paper out, and I'm ready to take notes.
Related: Our Readers' Top 5 Cookbooks of 2011
(Images: Courtesy of publishers)