What makes a good summer cookbook? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for almost a decade. Summer cookbooks are colorful, distracting, diversionary, and above all idiosyncratic – you won’t find any of the books that clone themselves all over the “Best of the Year” lists in December. They’re full of smoke, ice, dirt, and above all, stories – because summer cookbooks are almost always good to read, not just to cook from. They’ve got to be good company by the pool and on the porch. They have to tantalize you with visions of the outdoors, yet be tempting enough to draw you back into the kitchen. It’s that balancing act that makes me love these books, and I hope you will too.
This year brings us a bit of all of summer’s fleeting pleasures: the very best burgers, dressings for a month of salads, homemade fizzy drinks, tart buttermilk, ramekins of cool custard and ice cream sandwiches. For the first time in a while, there’s a terrific showing of books from warm-weather cuisines: Iran, the Philippines, and Kentucky by way of Korea. And for the truly possessed (count me among them), the best book yet on growing summer’s bounty all by yourself and then eating it.
A shortlist of runners-up will follow. But for now, grab a napkin and sink your teeth into 2013′s Top 10 Summer Cookbooks.
The New Persian Kitchen, by Louisa Shafia
$24.99 hardcover (10 Speed, 2013)
I’m not sure why it is that Persian cookbooks till recently have been such intimidating affairs. Is it because some of the most traditional recipes are elaborate or time-consuming? Maybe that’s just a perception, but this second outing by cooking teacher and food writer Louisa Shafia, seeks to change it. Shafia uses powerful traditional ingredients – saffron, pistachios, pomegranates, dried limes – but freely re-invents techniques for fleeter, equally flavorful results. Overall, The New Persian Kitchen‘s is a stunner: a bridge between old and new, fresh and dried, cool and hot, and I can’t get enough of its juxtapositions. [Recipe: pomegranate-walnut lamb kebabs]
Wicked Good Burgers: Fearless Recipes and Uncompromising Techniques for the Ultimate Patty, by Andy Husbands, Chris Hart, and Andrea Pyenson
$22.99 paperback (Fair Winds, 2013)
The mostly Boston-based team that brought us Wicked Good Barbecue is back, now focusing with a laserlike precision on that which comes in buns. We have here not only the beef burger, but the bison, the pork, the salmon, the turkey, even the oyster burger – not to mention the beefy portobello. There’s even a “$100 burger” – that’s Wagyu beef, foie gras, truffle, lobster, and caul fat, in case you’re wondering. If 8 ounces of meaty, grilled perfection doesn’t quite do the job, there’s also recipes for some iconic buns (recipe from Boston’s Flour Bakery), pickles, a rainbow mosaic of fries and frappes, and even homemade mustard – for the very good burger that has died and gone to heaven. [Recipe: Pastrami Burger]
Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, by Edward Lee
$29.95 hardcover (Artisan, 2013)
You might think that Smoke & Pickles is just about smoked things and pickled things, but you’d be wrong. You might see “Southern” and “Lee” and think you were dealing with an old Dixie family, or at least Matt and Ted. Wrong again. In fact, most assumptions you might make about Edward Lee and his cooking are likely to be wrong, and I suspect he’s used to that. Korean-American Lee, transplanted to Kentucky, works across the commonalities between Southern and Korean cooking – the barbecue, the pickles, the pork, the slaws. His food is tirelessly inventive and refreshingly free of attitude and each recipe comes with practical, non-judgmental cooking tips. Even better are Lee’s own stories of living and learning food, told with heart and humility. A great read and an exciting, complicated marriage of several flavor traditions. [Recipe: Yellow Squash Soup]
The Adobo Road Cookbook: A Filipino Food Journey – From Food Blog, to Food Truck, and Beyond, by Marvin Gapultos
$19.95 paperback (Tuttle, 2013)
Is there a more sorely under-served cuisine in the cookbook market than that of the Philippines? Despite a food-obsessed culture, a wide variety of signature dishes served out of urban food trucks, and a large immigrant population, Filipino recipes make it into print all too rarely.
Blogger and food trucker Marvin Gapultos may not be setting out to be his country’s food ambassador to the U.S. But that’s just what this book accomplishes – with a comprehensive, visual ingredient glossary, equipment index, personal and cultural notes, and dozens of drool-worthy iterations of pork, lemongrass, papaya, mango, adobo flavors, crab and so on. The food shines, in spite of the gritty design ethos. [Recipe: Grilled Pork Skewers]
The Four-Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook: From the Garden to the Table in 120 Recipes, by Barbara Damrosch & Eliot Coleman
$22.95 paperback (Workman, 2013)
Not just one, but two lifetimes of wisdom have gone into the making of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook, which is the culminating work of food writer Barbara Damrosch and organic farmer Eliot Coleman. Despite the name, you need be neither a farmer nor a four-season gardener to profit from this book, whose principal attraction is its bone-deep appreciation of how our food is grown and what makes it good to eat. The garden section of the book is all you need to start a vegetable garden of any size. The cookbook section demonstrates a truism: Cooks who garden are masters of the simple recipe with few ingredients – preferring to let their plants speak for themselves. The perfect pick for food lover tending a backyard patch or even a pot of herbs on a windowsill. [Recipe: Custard Stuffed Baked Tomatoes.]
The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook: Recipes and Reflection from a Small Vermont Dairy, by Diane St. Clair
$27.99 hardcover (Andrews McMeel Universal, 2013)
Why is it that buttermilk – cool, tart, refreshing – seems to be in all the foods we like to eat in the summer? It’s in dressings, cool soups, dips, marinades, baked goods. It lends moisture and subtle acidity; it offers a creamy smoothness without the cloying richness of cream itself. In this book we have a comprehensive tour of the buttermilk landscape and its many culinary delights, as captured in a serene New England artisanal dairy farm. One doesn’t often see cookbooks written by the small-scale producers of America’s food treasures -probably because they’re so busy producing the food. It’s a pity, though, because their backstories are often fascinating (and photographable) and their love for what they make is palpable. [Recipe: Fluffy Biscuits]
Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings: 60 Sensational Recipes to Liven Up Greens, Grains, Slaws & Every Kind of Salad, by Michele Anna Jordan
$16.95 hardcover (Harvard Common Press, 2013)
The world seems to have a permanent shortage of salad dressing books, which is part of what makes this minuscule gem from veteran cookbook author Michele Anna Jordan so welcome. Is there a moment when some inventiveness is more called for in the greens department than mid-summer? On the one hand, you’re pleased with yourself for eating so virtuously during swimsuit season. On the other hand, it’s all you can do to mince a shallot. But if you can do that much, then a wide and wonderful world of flavors is just within reach. Vinaigrettes are to salads what scarves are to the fashionable Parisian – colorful, versatile, and infinite in their variety. Yet it’s easy to master a dozen with a minimal effort, as this book so satisfyingly demonstrates. [Recipe: Avocado and Green Peppercorn Cream]
Bakeless Sweets: Pudding, Panna Cotta, Fluff, Icebox Cake & More No-Bake Desserts, by Faith Durand
$29.99 hardcover (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)
It may well be true that the cherry pie or cobbler cooling on the sill is the iconic American summer dessert. But when it comes right down to it, do you really feel like turning on the oven and get covered in flour on a lazy afternoon when you could be lounging poolside? Bakeless Sweets, from Kitchn editor Faith Durand, is a curiously comprehensive look at the custardy, the creamy, the gelled and the chilled. For those who cannot do without a Unified Theory of Rice Pudding, there are thoughtful overviews on the underlying architecture of these sweets. But the book is also perfectly enjoyable taken one cool and convenient recipe at a time, and its fresh-faced design makes for good hammock reading too. [Recipe: S’mores Pudding Cake]
Cookies & Cream: Hundreds of Ways to Make the Perfect Ice Cream Sandwich, by Tessa Arias
$18.00 hardcover (Running Press, 2013)
I couldn’t tell you why, but last year’s popsicles seem to have given way to ice cream sandwiches. And it’s not just that ice cream truck standard we all grew up with, the Good Humor Bar. Tessa Arias’ charming little book is a psychedelic tour both of ice cream (roasted strawberry! mint bourbon! candy corn!) and of cookies (ginger-lime! chocolate balsamic! salted tequila!) Arias’ suggested combinations, like the “Elvis” – peanut butter ice cream, banana cookie – are pretty hard to refuse. But it’s easy enough to mix and match. Or, if you’re feeling particularly torpid on a midsummer morning – just make the ice cream and call it a day. [Recipe: Lemon-Blueberry Ice Cream Sandwich]
Make Your Own Soda: Syrup recipes for all-natural pop, floats, cocktails, and more, by Anton Nocito with Lynn Marie Hulsman
$14.99 paperback (Clarkson Potter, 2013)
Usually summer cookbook season brings a flotilla of rowdy cocktail books, but this year we’re seeing quieter, more thoughtful books – and not necessarily as much alcohol. This one (by the founder of Brooklyn’s P&H Soda Co.) gives a brief, friendly nod to the gin and rum drinks of summer. The rest is just good clean fun, yet also somehow high-falutin’. Its title may be matter-of-fact, but Make Your Own Soda is an elegant little production with great interior design, a surfeit of interesting soda facts, and pictures so evocative you can almost hear the ice clinking on the rim of the glass. If you leave the book lying suggestively around the house, you may just end up getting that soda siphon you’ve always wanted. (That’s what I’m banking on.) [Recipe: Cherry Lime Rickey]
Do you just love cookbooks and cookbook reviews? Download a copy of CookShelf, the cookbook-rating app, for yourself! It’s updated every week with reviews of the latest and greatest in cookbooks.