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There is almost nothing I love better than radish butter on toast, on a cool spring morning when the radishes are new.
First you toast the bread, on just one side. How do you toast it on just one side? You use a toaster oven, laying the slice on a piece of foil or a tray, so the down side is protected. The nubbly, nutty, toothy crumb of multi-grain bread suits the purpose better than anything else I can imagine.
While the bread is toasting, you slice very cold unsalted butter as finely as you can, 1/32nd of an inch thick. It’s going to melt, but just barely. If your knife’s not sharp, you can use a peeler. Or grate it on a box cutter.
When the toast is just stiff and barely gilded on its up side, you take it out and wave it around a bit till it’s only just warm to the touch. The butter goes on the untoasted side, where it clings and subsides a little, but doesn’t melt.
Next you salt the butter just enough. (With Maldon salt if you’ve got it and like it, or any other salt if you don’t.)
Then you shingle on the radishes, sliced just as fine as you can so you can see the watery morning light through them. These are two French breakfast radishes I just rooted from their beds. One was imperfect – dented, stained, and crooked – before it met the knife. But when you take that first bite, your eyes closing with your teeth, you see that what seemed broken was actually whole all along.
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.
My good friend Monica Bhide put up a feature about CookShelf this morning which reminded me of how CookShelf got started, and so I wrote a little story about it for her site – you can read it there, following her post (and enter for a CookShelf giveaway!).
The short version is that it all began at the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference in the middle of February, when a snowstorm almost brought the city to a halt and we all were scrambling around in the slush and kind of wishing we were on a beach somewhere. I had gone with no particular plan other than to see friends, speak on a panel, meet a few new faces. But talking with those friends forced an idea to take form, and before long I was forming what-ifs in my mind…as in what if I developed a cookbook-rating system? What if I wrote an app? What if I worked really really hard and got it out by Mother’s Day?
I’ve learned that those what-ifs tend to lead to unforeseen consequences. Previous what-ifs have included: What if I agreed to run down Central Park South in an evening gown and heels after a horse-drawn carriage while playing a saxophone? What if I tried to make the apple cake my mom made when I was little? What if I tried to write my own personal ad just for fun? The first got me $100 and a really amazing pastrami sandwich. The second led eventually, with many twists and turns, to A Spoonful of Promises. The third led to my husband, two kids, and this whole crazy make-it-up-as-you-go life in New England.
Not all my what-ifs have turned out so great. What if I do a backflip off of the edge of this swimming pool? What if we tried to make our own funnel cake (this at age 6, with my sister)? What if I take this scenic detour to Vermont, the one with all the “Moose Crossing” signs? What if I balance this 4-pound strawberry-rhubarb pie on a spatula while transferring it to the cooling rack?
So far, what have the what-if’s I asked 12 weeks ago in a midtown hotel while the snow fell all around us led to? Well, firstly, 12 weeks of the hardest work I’ve done in my life – early mornings and late nights, with much leaning on the husband that other what-if brought me 15 years ago. Secondly, much greater mental clarity in the evaluation of cookbooks. Thirdly, increased speed and fluency in writing (what happens when you make yourself produce 200 words at a time in 10-minute intervals). And lastly, the CookShelf app itself – this curious, shiny hybrid of authorship and convenience, produced by a person who 12 weeks ago barely knew what an app was - and still doesn’t have a smartphone.
I never really can say, even afterward, whether any particular what-if was a game changer or a goose chase. And there are probably better ways to live your life than chasing down one thing you don’t know after another. There are probably lots of people – and maybe they’re right – who believe Why bother! is a much more sensible reply to life’s conundrums than What if?
But I’m still going to keep asking.
When I previously boasted of having the worst kitchen in professional food writing, I posted a picture of my new kitchen space under construction. Many thought this was the “Before” picture, and in a sense, I suppose it was. I couldn’t quite bring myself to post the true “Before” picture, of my old kitchen. I wasn’t sure people could stomach it.
But now I’m just going to go ahead and do it, because I don’t think it’s possible to appreciate just how happy I am not to be cooking in this place unless you see it.
Over the February break, Husby built face frames, cut and polished soapstone, mounted drawers, primed and painted. Our friend Mark helped us move the stove into place and install the close-to-300-lb. first slab of soapstone countertop. I plastered around the windowframes and electric/plumbing holes and oiled the countertop. By the end of the week, we had an operational range hood, working stove, hooked-up dishwasher and faucet, and the biggest expanse of counter space I have ever had the pleasure of cooking on. Sometimes I just stand next to that lustrous, smooth plane of soapstone and run my hands over it for a while.
There’s still a long way to go. We haven’t even reached the halfway point as far as the physical space goes. But the point is, the new kitchen is now functional. And as for myself, I can’t imagine how I could possibly be happier.
Can I just say? The word “golden” takes the prize for Laziest Word in Recipe Writing. And I say that as someone who has written “golden” into her own recipes, any number of iniquitous times.
I know, I know, what else are you going to call it? Without “golden” and its even more indispensable cousin, “golden-brown,” how can we describe the seared skin of the chicken, the crust of the biscuit, the luminous hue of the caramelized onion? Without Mr. Maillard and his golden footprint, where would we be? We might as well pack it in and convert to an all-raw diet.
No question, we need our golden food. But we need a new word – or better, lots of new words. There is almost nothing I like less in a recipe than seeing these three words: “fry until golden”. Sweet Jesus, what is that supposed to mean?! Never mind that “fry” means all sorts of different things in all sorts of different contexts. But “golden”! It could mean anything from a straw-colored roux to a daisy-yellow legal pad to a burnt-amber cork. To sum up, “golden” means “Cook it till it looks appetizing and you want to eat it. You know what I mean, don’t you? Good! now I don’t have to explain.”
Almost as bad is, “Fry until golden, about X minutes”. Firepower is different on every combination of range, burner, and cooking vessel. Without knowing what kind of golden you’re aiming for, a time estimate is pretty meaningless too. You might as well just go ahead and scale the Everest of vagueness: ”Cook till done.”
OK, realistically, we’re not going to do away with “golden”. But let’s face it, the word is inadequate. How about we just use it as a starting point? Tell me what kind of gold – burnished gold? dull gold? brand-new-Sacagawea-dollar-gold? bronze? mottled? pale? Better yet, give me other sensory cues – should I wait till the protein releases from the pan? till the tofu squeaks? till the onions begin to stick? till the edges of the loaf pull away from the mold? Give me something to work with – I’m dyin’ here!
Of course, a good cook is a good cook, and even the worst-written recipe is not going to make a good cook produce a bad meal. Still, why not aim high? Why not use our gloriously rich language, so diverse in origin, so blessed in synonyms, so accommodating of nuance and simile? Remember, every time you coin a metaphor, an English teacher earns his wings!
Next time: my thoughts on coarse meal. As in “pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. ” Duck and cover!