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It’s a happy day when the review process turns up a recipe I can’t stop eating. In this case, it was the caramel pecan ice cream (the weather was still warmish when I started testing). I kept going back to the fridge for spoonfuls of ice cream and semi-consciously pushing the container farther back on the freezer shelf so no one else would find it. Fortunately, the kids weren’t crazy about the taste of bourbon (How much bourbon?? you’re asking, and how old are your kids?! It was hardly any bourbon, really!) , so I only had to compete with husby for it. And he was at work most of the day…
I know I say it every year, but every year it’s true. The competition in cookbooks gets fiercer and fiercer, and the books get better and better. So it was with a whopping mix of trepidation, affection, and guilt that I made the NPR holiday cookbook roundup selections this month. (The Weekend Edition Sunday audio link is here.) The ones I chose are, without exception, remarkable cookbooks. But this year I wanted to say a word about the rest of the shortlist, too.
Any one of the additional shortlisted books below, which did not make it into this year’s roundup, might have made it into the top 10 a few years ago, and every one of them captured my heart in one way or another. Many of them were right up there with the finalists in the new rating system.
My hope in including them here is to share the richness and diversity of the cookbook world we live in, to recognize the fantastic contributions of some truly noteworthy authors and cooks, and–of course– to offer you a few more gift ideas. For more great holiday cookbook ideas, stay tuned for the Boston Globe roundup in a few weeks.
The 2011 NPR top 10:
1. Cook This Now, by Melissa Clark
2. The Food of Spain, by Claudia Roden
3. All About Roasting, by Molly Stevens
4. Food52 Cookbook, Amanda Hesser/Merrill Stubbs
5. What Chefs Feed Their Kids, by Fanae Aaron
6. The Country Cooking of Italy by Colman Andrews
Lidia’s Italy in America by Lidia Bastianich
7. The Food of Morocco, by Paula Wolfert
8. Ruhlman’s Twenty, by Michael Ruhlman
9. American Flavor, by Andrew Carmellini
10. The Rosie’s Bakery All-Butter, Cream-Filled, Sugar-Packed Baking Book, by Judy Rosenberg
Outstanding Single-Subject Cookbook
Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, by Jennifer McLagan
Outstanding Savor-and-Read Cookbook
The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Weekends: New Recipes, Stories, and Opinions from Public Radio’s Award-Winning Food Show, by Lynne Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift
Practical Once-a-Week Cookbook
Sunday Roasts: A Year’s Worth of Mouthwatering Roasts, from Old-Fashioned Pot Roasts to Glorious Turkeys, and Legs of Lamb, by Betty Rosbottom
One Sweet Cookie: Celebrated Chefs Share Favorite Recipes, by Tracey Zabar
Ethnic Restaurant Sleeper Hit
Kokkari: Contemporary Greek Flavors, by Erik Cosselmon and Janet Fletcher with photos by Sara Remington
Best Easy French
The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day, by Wini Moranville
Hardcore Bread Book
The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Bread Baking, by the French Culinary Institute
The Intolerant Gourmet: Glorious Food without Gluten and Lactose, by Barbara Kafka
Innovative Drinks Book
Ginger Bliss and the Violet Fizz: A Cocktail Lover’s Guide to Mixing Drinks Using New and Classic Liqueurs, by A. J. Rathbun
Accessible Book from a Modernist Citadel
The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria
Loveliest Ode to a Fruit
The Apple Lover’s Cookbook, by Amy Traverso
Everyday Food from a Celebrity Hotshot
Molto Batali: Simple Family Meals from My Home to Yours, by Mario Batali
Inspiring Trip Down Memory Lane
Cooking My Way Back Home: Recipes from San Francisco’s Town Hall, Anchor & Hope, and Salt House, by Mitchell Rosenthal
Irresistible Book for the Crafty Baker
Julia M Usher’s Ultimate Cookies
Best Chef-at-Home Book
Home Cooking with Jean-Georges: My Favorite Simple Recipes
And no, of course it’s not on the shortlist, but for the very most heartwarming gift you can give readers who love food, don’t forget my own
A Spoonful of Promises: Stories & Recipes from a Well-Tempered Table!
They’ll laugh, they’ll cry, they’ll probably end up hungry…the perfect gift for all the cooks in your family who don’t need another cookbook or kitchen gadget but could definitely use a good story.
My second radio commentary for 88.5FM, aired today on New England Public Radio, written for all you kitchen gardeners who have put your vegetables to bed.
Today’s review has a little bit of a story.
I was intrigued by this book the moment it arrived, because while it looked delicious, my previous run-ins with cooking Moroccan food had been challenging. I think phyllo dough is a pain to work with, and I don’t own a tagine.
Little did I know these were to be the least of my problems. I started cooking ambitiously, making a bastila with homemade warqa pastry which took most of an afternoon. It tasted great, and I learned how to make a time-consuming but wonderfully resilient pastry using nothing more complicated than a paintbrush and a nonstick pan. I couldn’t make head or tail of the diagrams though, and the book earned a household sobriquet: “The Incredibly Complicated Food of Morocco”.
Then came the Halloween snowstorm, and then the power went out. For four days we frantically used up meat, and since all of it was slated for recipe testing, I simply went ahead with that testing. My stove is propane-fueled, so I could keep cooking. But there was no oven, and no running water, and no heat. I improvised a flame tamer out of foil to approximate the gentle heat of a tagine. We melted snow and boiled water for the dishes.
It was rugged, in a word. But then, I thought, this is an ancient cuisine from a developing country. How many authentic Moroccan cooks over the centuries have had power and running water? Probably nowhere near a majority.
On the other hand, how many snowstorms do you get in Marrakech?
You know how you’re standing in front of the cookbook shelves at the store, leafing through cookbooks and trying to figure out which one to take home, and you feel paralyzed and uncertain, and you question yourself, and then when you finally make up your mind you’re sure you made the wrong choice? That’s my life as a cookbook reviewer. The subjective nature of choosing the best cookbooks can be overwhelming. Sometimes I question myself into oblivion. (It doesn’t help knowing that my picks will move the market. They always do. No pressure or anything!)
But this time, I paid very close attention to my questions, and I realized that they basically boiled down to a manageable number. In fact, just seven. I was so happy to realize that these could be named that I printed up little cards to score the books and stuck them to all my shortlisted candidates. Here’s my questions–who knows, maybe they’ll help you the next time you’re having brain freeze in the Cookbooks section.
Question 1: Is it useful? This means, would an enthusiastic home cook (anyone ranging from a fast weeknight cook to a thoughtful gourmand) be able to find recipes in this book that would satisfy them for a week straight of cooking?
Question 2: Is it thoughtful? This means, has the author thought of the reader’s needs? Are there hard-to-find ingredients and if so, is there guidance as to where to find them? Are there multiple sub-recipes you have to hunt around for? Are there clarifying tips in the instructions? Are there side essays, helpful sidebars and charts? Do the headnotes help you cook the recipe?
Question 3: Is it new? Are at least a majority of the recipes really new?–i.e. not just another recipe for roast chicken or meatballs or insalata caprese with the exact ingredients you’ve always made them with in more or less the same proportions.
If I can’t say at least a partial yes to all three of those first questions, I don’t get to choose it for the shortlist. After that we get into the refinements.
Question 4: Does it tell a story? Not everyone likes a story in their cookbooks, but I do. I like colorful headnotes, reminiscences, and anecdotes–they show me that the author has really put their heart and soul into the book.
Question 5: Is it well-designed? Design is so important that a lack of it can ruin a cookbook that is otherwise useful, thoughtful and new. Cookbooks are working books, and they should look like they’re meant to help you, not like a postmodern art installation.
Question 6: Is it focused? A lot of cookbooks are simply collections of everything the author has ever cooked, or cooked in the last year. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and this concern can be overridden by awesome design or thoughtfulness or usefulness. But in such an overcrowded market, focus is important.
Question 7: Is it the best of its kind? Or at least, the best that I’ve seen. What a hard question this is to answer! The answer is almost never Yes. But asking it helps me sort out my thinking. If the answer is, “It just might be…” that’s a huge endorsement right there.
I also have known biases, which I have to be on rigorous watch for: 1) I’m a total sucker for great design, even in a bad cookbook. 2) I get annoyed when there are 2 systems of measurement in a book. 3) I am happiest when I see a wide variety of publishers, including underdogs. These I consider unreasonable biases, and much of my time goes into re-weighting my judgements to counter those biases.
I have this grandiose sort of suspicion that the publishers are paying attention to my preferences, because the cookbooks just keep getting better and better with each year. They may be paying attention, or they may not be, but it’s still a win for everyone.
Profile of yours truly in the Amherst Bulletin today! A nicely composed piece by our own local reporter Nick Grabbe, and some equally nicely composed portraits of me and Zoe by photographer Kevin Gutting.
I especially like the title, which pretty much sums it up…
I love this time of year, and not just because of the cool air and the glowing woodstove. No, what’s special about early November is that it’s Holiday Roundup season, when I get to pick the top 10 cookbooks of the year for NPR. (I also do the Boston Globe’s roundup, which tends to vary a bit more in number and in theme.)
From the moment I send out the deadline for submissions, the circus begins. Within 24 hours, SWAT teams of FedEx and UPS agents are showing up with boxes which thunk heavily, one by one, onto my doorstep. I grab a box cutter and start opening, piling, and sorting on the kitchen floor. I’m always a little choked up when I see these stacks of riches–the hard work of thousands of cooks, authors, teachers, writers, and editors– piled up in tangible form.
But then the hard work begins: testing. I get books all year, and some have been short-listed from the moment of their first, compelling recipe test. But now is the time for me to pull out all the Post-its (I halve them with a paper cutter to double the yield) and start flagging everything in sight.
Although I know I won’t be able to test every book, or even just the most representative recipe from each, I do my best to try a wide selection. Every night, we eat something completely different. A typical week from last year (I keep a database to keep track of these): calamari pasta; gigot à la Provençal, brisket with ginger, orange, and tomato; chard walnut lasagna; noodle kugel; potato-turnip purée, South Indian vegetable curry. I do a lot more baking, so the dessert cookbooks can get their audition, too.
In fact, November roundup testing is almost exclusively responsible for those 10 winter pounds I have to sweat off in the garden 6 months later. (At the peak of testing, the treadmill is usually covered with cookbooks too!) But I’m not complaining. I know I’m lucky to be a cookbook reviewer, and my family’s lucky I am, too.
Although there are many cookbooks and many cookbook authors I admire, not all of them fit equally easily with my family-of-four dinner routine. Melissa Clark’s books are the exception. Reviewing Cook This Now was a boon for the household–a week of exceptional-tasting but easy-to-cook weeknight dinners I’d be making again and again, if I weren’t forever moving on to the next cookbook…