It’s that time of year again, when retailers deck their halls, radio stations relentlessly jingle and cookbooks go forth and multiply.
The dawn of the holiday season also marks an onslaught from the publishing world – a rush of food books that begins in August and refuses to slow down until every family in America has gifted (and perhaps regifted) at least a dozen. Or maybe it just feels that way.
The upshot of all this is that there truly is a food book for everyone on your shopping list. Should you care to go that route, we’ve sussed out some of the best to help streamline at least that leg of your shopping trip.
FOR COOKBOOK GEEKS
Fancy a sunderland pudding? Ever wonder how to dress a calf’s head? Publisher Andrews McMeel has teamed up with The American Antiquarian Society to publish reproductions of 100 cookbooks documenting the early American cooking experience. “American Cookery” (Andrews McMeel, $22.99) by Amelia Simmons was originally published in 1796 and is believed to be the first cookbook to document American culinary techniques. It offers a window into those days with recipes for items such as spruce beer and tongue pie set beside page images from the original cookbook.
Also part of the series is America’s first Jewish cookbook, “Jewish Cookery Book: On Principles of Economy” (Andrews McMeel, $28.99) by Esther Levy. It originally was published in 1871 and includes recipes for fish balls and frimsel (noodle) soup. Its recipes, menu suggestions and household management tips aimed to help European immigrants adapt to their new country while maintaining their religious heritage.
Both volumes are perfect for the armchair anthropologist in your life.
FOR REGULAR GEEKS
Does your loved one stand over a pot of boiling water with a thermometer? Wonder why salt makes steak juicy? Muse out loud about why russets make fluffier mashed potatoes than red bliss? We got it covered.
“The Science of Good Cooking” (America’s Test Kitchen, $40) by the folks behind Cook’s Illustrated magazine doesn’t just offer “400 recipes engineered for perfection,” it also covers 50 basic concepts explaining why the recipes work. Useful sidebars showcase tips and techniques – use a skillet, not a wok to stir-fry – and charts that check your measurements (a cup of all-purpose flour should weigh 5 ounces) make it a handy reference guide.
“Modernist Cuisine at Home” (The Cooking Lab, $140) is even sexier. The laboratory that last year produced “Modernist Cuisine,” a six-volume encyclopedia of molecular gastronomy by Nathan Myhrvold, has turned its blow torches and sous vide machines on home cooking. It’s a monstrously fun and shockingly practical cookbook that truly lets you get your geek on in the kitchen.
Because who knew that a touch of citric acid makes the ultimate grilled cheese? Or that scrambled eggs can be dispensed from a whipping canister and that baking soda helps caramelize vegetables?
FOR NOSTALGIA HOUNDS
Americans have been hungry for nostalgia, and publishers are happy to feed them. “101 Classic Cookbooks: 501 Classic Recipes” (Rizzoli International Publications, $50) boils down the classic, most iconic cookbooks to 501 recipes, drawing from books that span Fannie Farmer’s 1896 “The Boston Cooking School Cook Book” to Thomas Keller’s 1999 “The French Laundry Cookbook.”
Sneaking in between are recipes such as sole meuniere from Jacques Pepin’s “La Technique,” Bengal red lentils from Julie Sahni’s “Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking,” and banana bread from Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything.” Essays about each book and its importance make this an excellent gift for the person who loves cookbooks even more than cooking.
There also is the incredibly charming “Handwritten Recipes” (Perigee, $20), a collection of found recipes by bookseller Michael Popek. Tucked between the pages of books brought into his store, Popek found the jots and scribbles of recipes from unknown cooks. In “Handwritten Recipes,” he collects those notes and recipes, assembling a book that is as much lovely artifact as cookbook.
FOR THE WORLD TRAVELER
Love pho, but want to branch out? Charles Phan, the chef behind San Francisco’s famed restaurant The Slanted Door, offers “Vietnamese Home Cooking” (Ten Speed Press, $35), devoted to bringing tamarind, star anise, fish sauce and lemon grass to a kitchen near you. While many of the recipes are a little too “chefy” – who’s going to fillet their own fish for the “simple fish soup”? – they go a long way to introducing the flavors and techniques of the cuisine. Bite-sized steamed rice cakes promise unusual party snacks, and lemon grass chicken could be a feather in your toque.
“The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from Around the World” (University of California Press, $39.95) by Linda Lau Anusasananan captures the flavors and stories of an often overlooked Chinese diaspora. Fried eggs and bitter melon, tangy-sweet raw fish salad, and chicken stuffed with preserved mustard greens offer new insights to even the savviest fan of Chinese food.
Among the steady supply of books on Latin food, three stand out. “Muy Bueno: Three Generations of Authentic Mexican Flavor” (Hippocrene Books, $22.50) by Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack, Veronica Gonzalez-Smith and Evangelina Soza, preserves recipes spanning old world Mexican dishes like pork tamales to fusion creations like scallop and cucumber cocktail. Charming family stories combined with richly colorful photos to make this a delightful invitation to cooking.
In “The Latin Road Home” (Lake Isle Press, $35), chef Jose Garces traces his culinary journey from his ancestral home of Ecuador through his different influences from Spain to Cuba, Mexico and Peru. Recipes for dishes like red snapper in tomato sauce and his grandmother’s empanadas are woven with thoroughly readable narratives of his life and family, as well as useful information about the regions.
“Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America” (W.W. Norton, $45) by Cuban-born chef Maricel Presilla offers a sweeping, sophisticated history of Latin food that illustrates the diversity of techniques, styles and flavors through 500 recipes. Recipes for foundational adobos and sofritos pave the way for cuitlacoche and jalapeno quesadillas, various pilafs, empanadas and tamales.
FOR THE CELEBRITY CHEF JUNKIE
Who didn’t love Kevin Gillespie, the tattooed “Top Chef” contestant who worshipped pig and always concocted something homey? His book, “Fire in my Belly” (Andrews McMeel, $40), brings home recipes like Brussels sprouts gratin with heavy cream and mustard and the “one-pot hog supper” with fat back and cracklings. Light it’s not, but delicious?
Tickling the other end of the spectrum is “Hero Food” (Andrews McMeel, $35) by New York chef Seamus Mullen. More than 80 recipes such as caramelized cauliflower with anchovies and duck liver toasts with pickled raisins are part of Mullen’s quest to manage his rheumatoid arthritis with 18 “hero” ingredients like sweet peas, parsley, berries and squash. Despite his motivation, Mullen’s food tastes anything but medicinal.
Fans of uber chef Thomas Keller will welcome “Bouchon Bakery” (Artisan Books, $50), featuring 150 recipes from humble shortbread and oatmeal raisin cookies to pistachio madeleines, pain au chocolat, raspberry macarons and other items from his fabled bakery.
FOR THE BAKER
Love dessert but hate to fuss? A stout float from “Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts” (Artisan Books, $25.95) by Alice Medrich is the treat for you. The float is joined by dozens more recipes such as peanut butter pavlova, honey caramelized figs, and food processor chocolate mousse that are just as easy. And easily as tasty.
“Piece of Cake: Home Baking Made Simple” (Rizzoli, $29.95) by David Muniz and David Lesniak offers more than 120 recipes for classic American treats – think brownies, peanut butter cookies and blueberry muffins. Black and white cheesecake, an honest-to-goodness New York crumb cake, and cakes from bundts to babkas join the fun.
Home-baked pies are the aspiration of many a cook. “A Year of Pies” (Lark, $19.95) by Ashley English offers strawberry, rhubarb and ginger hand pies for spring, pumpkin tiramisu pie in fall and pies for all the days in between. Savory pies like curried winter vegetable and galumpkis pie – the pie version of Polish stuffed cabbage – mix things up in the colder months.
FOR THE BROWSER
Stuff somebody’s stocking with an eight-issue subscription to the just-launched U.S. edition of Jamie Oliver’s magazine, “Jamie Magazine.” With the motto “Making You a Better Cook,” each issue is jammed with recipes, as well as travel and food stories and stunning photography. Appropriately enough, the magazine’s first U.S. issue is the holiday edition. Subscriptions for $32.95 at http://www.jamiemag.com .
Are your loved ones more the digital sort? Help them bridge the digital divide into the kitchen with “The Epicurious Cookbook” (Clarkson Potter, $27.99), a collection of more than 250 of the top-ranked recipes from the ubiquitous recipe search site. The recipes are easy, reliable and vetted by the many, many users who have turned the site into an invaluable kitchen reference.