If there has ever been a more exciting year for cookbooks, I can’t remember it. That’s splendid news for anyone looking for holiday gifts, and particularly, this year, for globally-minded cooks.
I’ve culled through hundreds of review copies that came across my desk, seeking the most exciting, approachable, workable cookbooks for culinary adventurers.
None of the seven I’ve chosen as the gotta-have gifts for this holiday season are glitzy chef books, though a few were written by chefs, and none are gorgeous coffee table books, though they’re all quite beautiful. What they have in common is that they’re all books that can transport us deliciously, and they're all geared to real home cooks.
To be honest, not all were published in 2016: Two were published last year – Michael Solomonov’s Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking and Anissa Helou’s Sweet Middle East. With those, I’m playing catch up. And while I’ve cooked from Zahav extensively (I meant to do a full-on review, but kept telling myself I just needed to try one more recipe, then another, then another . . . ), and from Diana Henry’s Simple, I haven’t yet cooked from the other five. I'm suggesting them because they've the books I want to cook from. I have reason to trust each of the authors, whether because I’ve cooked from their books in the past, or I’ve given their recipes a close, critical look.
What’s remarkable is the trip around the world they offer as a group, taking us from Iran and Turkey and Azerbaijan to Italy, France and Britain, from Shanghai to Okinawa to England and Israel and back.
Does the peripatetic cook on your holiday gift list happen to share your own initials? Don’t worry – your secret is safe with us.
Land of Fish and Rice
Ever wonder how best to cook baby bok choy, or wish you knew the secret to Shanghai-style soup dumplings? Maybe you've wandered through an Asian grocery, admired those beautiful bunches of tong hao – chrysanthemum leaves – or giant bunches of flowering chives and wished you knew what to do with them. If that sounds like someone on your gift list Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China is your go-to gift. Author Fuchsia Dunlop has all the answers. With the chrysanthemum leaves, for instance, you’ll want to blanch them, chop them finely, toss them with chopped tofu and sesame oil and top them with toasted pine nuts. Sounds lovely, doesn't it?
Her 368-page book explores China’s Lower Yangtze (Jiangnan) region, of which Shanghai is the gateway. Dunlop explains in the thoughtful introduction that the region is known as “the land of fish and rice,” and she offers plenty in that regard: recipes for stir-fried shrimp with green tea leaves; a gingery Zhoushan fish chowder with tomatoes and potatoes; Shanghai fried rice with salt pork and bok choy. But it's not all fish and rice: There are cabbage-wrapped “lion’s head” meatballs, a gorgeous-looking dish of slivered pork with flowering chives (yay!), drunken chicken and wow – Nanjing New Year’s salad, an enticing vegetarian recipe, and just in time!
Dunlop even offers a recipe for soup dumplings, known outside of the region as “xiao long bao” (and in Jiangnan as “xiao long man tou”). “Be warned that these are a little fiddly,” Dunlop writes – “Chinese people don’t normally make xiao long bao at home.” Duly warned – or duly dared, depending on your point of view. Sounds to me like a delicious project for a wintry day.
Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China by Fuchsia Dunlop, W.W. Norton & Company, $35.
Taste of Persia
“When you assemble all the greens and herbs called for in this recipe, it’s hard to believe that the eggs with hold them.” Sold! The Persian Greens Frittata in Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Kurdistan is definitely something I want to make. Author Naomi Duguid's beautifully photographed book expresses perfectly what I love most about Persian food: so many fresh herbs.
I can’t think of a better guide to the cuisine than Duguid, an IACP Cookbook Award and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author with a passion for culinary travel.
In Taste of Persia's pages, I found many of the dishes I fell in love with in the Iranian restaurants of Los Angeles (a.k.a. “Tehrangeles,” with its huge Iranian population), such as classic Pomegranate-Walnut Chicken Stew. And I yearn to make others that are unfamiliar but that look incredible, like Easter Stew with Tarragon – a gorgeous braise of lamb (or beef) and lots of green herbs and spices. Duguid suggests easy-to-find tomatillos as a substitute for the stew’s sour plums, which sounds smart.
Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan by Naomi Duguid, Artisan, $35
Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavors
I have a bunch of Diana Henry’s beautiful books, including A Bird in the Hand, for which the British author won a James Beard Award. But for some weird reason, I’ve only recently started cooking from them. From her newest book, Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavors, I’ve only made one recipe – Summer Fruit and Almond Cake – and it was not just spectacular, but incredibly easy and gorgeous. (I adapted an autumn version for the blog.)
There are a grillion great ideas in these pages: Toasts with crab and cilantro-chile mayo. Pappardelle with cavolo nero (Tuscan kale), chiles and hazelnuts. Baked sausages with apples, raisins and hard cider. Her tone is easy and warm, her recipes super approachable.
I particularly love her dessert sensibility; I can hardly wait for summer to come around so I can try her hot cherries with grappa and ice cream. Meanwhile, how do lemon-ricotta cake or cardamom-scented Turkish mocha pots sound?
Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavors by Diana Henry, Mitchell Beazley $32.99
Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking
Michael Solomonov's cookbook – inspired from his Philadelphia restaurant Zahav – has been written about so much it seems silly to review it at this point, so I'll keep it short and sweet. His much-touted hummus recipe, as printed in the book, is a little glitchy; that's probably why you find it tweaked when adapted in food magazines and on blogs. But so many of the recipes in the exhilarating 368-page book are superb, and the photos and writing are so compelling one is inspired to cook anything and everything.
Some of the smashing recipes: charred eggplant salad; Moroccan carrots; quinoa, pea and mint tabbouleh; pargiyot (chicken skewers) three ways; twice-cooked eggplant; Malabi custard with mango; and marzipan. Meanwhile, Solomonov's recipe for tehina, the "secret sauce" around which the whole cookbook revolves, is so good I had to resist shooting it into my veins.
Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $35
Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking
If I could have an endless supply of Japanese pickles, I’d be a happy girl. With Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking by Masaharu Morimoto, my dream may soon be a tangy-salty-umami-rich reality. The chef-owner of Philadelphia’s Morimoto (and other restaurants in the U.S., Mexico and India) gives us a whole section called “Tsukeru” – to pickle. (So glad to learn a useful Japanese verb!) The book also supplies the basics of how to make the ever-important stock known as dashi, how to make hand-made udon, and plenty of great-looking homey dishes like takikomi gohan (dashi-simmered rice with vegetables); tonjiru (hearty miso soup with pork and vegetables) and oyako don (chicken and egg rice bowl).
If you’re dubious about how approachable a chef book might be for a humble home cook, this may relieve the anxiety: The book is peppered with boxed nuggets of “Japanese grandmother wisdom.” Things like “When you grate daikon, keep in mind that the fatter top portion of the radish tends to be significantly sweeter and less bitter than the narrower bottom portion.” Who knew? If you’re shopping for someone into food trends, take note: There’s no okonomiyaki in Morimoto’s book, but there is a recipe for uber-trendy Hawaiian-style poke rice bowl.
Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking by Masaharu Morimoto, Ecco, $45.
Mozza at Home
Nancy Silverton, one of my favorite chefs, has always understood what we really, really want to eat right now. Consider this inspiring headnote to her recipe for Bean Salad with Celery Leaf Pasta: “I love celery, and the leaves, combined with parsley leaves, make a refreshing alternative to the more common basil pesto. You might not use all the pesto for this salad. Serve leftover pesto with fresh burrata, or spoon it over grilled chicken or fish.”
Is that inspiring, or what? If there’s a cook on your list who loves Italian food, this is the gift to get. Not convinced? Try this: Saturday Night Chicken Thighs with Italian Sausage and Spicy Pickled Peppers. She had me at “Saturday Night Chicken Thighs.”
Mozza at Home, by Nancy Silverton with Carolynn Carreño, Knopf, $35
SWEET MIDDLE EAST
I was first drawn in by Lebanese-born Annisa Helou’s enchanting Instagram feed, which takes us from London to Sicily to France to Dubai and back. And so when a review copy of her latest book, Sweet Middle East, appeared in my inbox, I cheered: Now I get to try her recipes. Turkish macaroons (acibadem kurabiyesi), Moroccan aniseed biscotti (feqqas), Persian saffron ice cream (bastani sa’labi), Syrian semolina and nut cake (h’risseh) – it all sounds and looks so good!
Sweet Middle East: Classic Recipes from Baklava to Fig Ice Cream by Anissa Helou, Chronicle Books, $24.95.