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When one of my favorite NPR producers emailed me last month to say that, due to budget constraints, NPR would not be running the cookbook roundup this summer, I was terribly sad. The summer cookbook roundup has been a happy tradition here – a parade of festive, partying, grilling, beach-loving books that are publishers’ last hurrah before the slow months of July and August. Now, it seemed, there would be no cocktails and grilled clams and corn fritters and lobster rolls. (And NPR wouldn’t be the only one facing budget constraints.)
But then I thought, what’s to stop summer cookbook roundup from happening anyway? I’ve got the cookbooks. I’ve got a blog. I’ve got a cookbook-rating app. And am I, or am I not, a full-time cookbook reviewer? So I decided I’d run it right here, on the Wednesday before Memorial Day – that’s May 22nd. Save the date! And for those who have the CookShelf app, you’ll be able to see my picks first of all, when the app refreshes late Tuesday night.
So stay tuned, folks. Cookbook roundup may be nothing but a jumble of Alpha-Bits right now. But in five short days, you’ll have the summer’s best cookbook picks on your screen and at your fingertips.
The Boston Globe 2012 cookbook roundup is now live! just in time for last-minute, down-to-the-wire holiday shopping. This year’s picks, many of which were favorites on other lists as well:
- Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
- Keys to the Kitchen, by Aida Mollenkamp
- Herbivoracious, by Michael Natkin
- The Food52 Cookbook vol. 2 by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs
- Science of Good Cooking by the Editors of Cooks Illustrated
- The Farm by Ian Knauer
- Canal House Cooks Every Day by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer
- Ripe by Nigel Slater
- The Great Meat Cookbook, by Bruce Aidells
- United States of Pie by Adrienne Kane
If some of these titles seem familiar, it’s no coincidence! Of the maybe 400 books submitted for consideration in 2012, I found myself returning over and over to a group of perhaps two dozen really important contributions, and I felt compelled to draw attention to them on a number of occasions over the course of the year. If you’re wondering what distinguishes the NPR list from the Globe list (I write both lists), it’s mostly a matter of audience; so there is a little bit of overlap. Also recommended but previously reviewed in the Globe: The Fresh and Green Table, The Fresh Egg, Susan Feniger’s Street Food, Asian Tofu, Modern Sauces.
Poivrade artichokes. Veal kidneys. Gilt-head bream. Mastic crystals.
These are a few of the ingredients I’ve seen as I page my way through hundreds of cookbooks on my long, slow path to holiday roundup. And, though I try to be level-headed when judging cookbooks, each of these made me see red.
What is it about unannotated obscure ingredients that’s so very annoying? you may ask.
Well, it’s not their obscurity. As cooks, our lives are enriched and our horizons expanded when we embrace diverse ingredients and unfamiliar cuisines. When a Caribbean or Cambodian grocer opens in the neighborhood, it’s a reason to celebrate. When you can count on finding guajillo chiles as easily as you can find bananas, that’s cause for joy.
So that leaves the other half of the equation: annotation. A cookbook is fundamentally a teaching tool–you wouldn’t need it if you knew how to cook everything in it already. So when a cookbook author uses an ingredient that’s a little tricky to source, I think they have a responsibility to reach out to the reader and help. There are so many ways to do this–here’s the ones I can think of, in order of preference:
- Headnote: In that critical part of the recipe at the beginning, authors have a chance to share important tips and insights with their readers–and it’s a perfect place to explain where you can buy pig cheeks and what to substitute if you can’t.
- Sidebar: See above. A great place to put the information if there’s no room in the headnote.
- Glossary: Some ethnic and regional cookbooks make an extra effort to define their less well-known ingredients. This is always welcome, and often the glossary is an education in itself. But it still pays to also have the information next to the recipe.
- “See Sources/Resources”. ”Resources” seems to be the preferred term for bakers; “Sources” for restaurant chefs (I don’t know why). I don’t particularly like this workaround, because you have to go look in the back matter to find the Sources/Resources section, and then more often than not order something online, paying shipping and waiting a week before you can try the recipe. But it’s better than nothing.
- “(optional)”. With that one little word, a cookbook author demonstrates thoughtfulness, compassion, a sense of shared humanity! with his or her reader. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able to try a great recipe I’d otherwise have skipped just because the one ingredient I couldn’t get was “(optional)”.
When an author doesn’t use one of these easy tools, it sends a message: “if you can’t get this ingredient where you live, don’t make this recipe.” So why am I buying this cookbook? Or it might be saying, “If you can’t get this ingredient where you live, you’ll just have to come and eat it here, where it’s available.” If I could go and eat it there, you again have to wonder, why am I buying this cookbook?
The Boston Globe 2011 cookbook roundup is now live and posted! just in time for your last-minute holiday shopping.
This year’s picks, many of which were favorites on other lists as well:
Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi
Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, by Nigel Slater
The Food52 Cookbook by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs
Molto Batali: Simple Family Meals from My Home to Yours by Mario Batali
American Flavor by Andrew Carmellini
Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal by Jennifer McLagan
Lidia’s Italy in America by Lidia Bastianich
All About Roasting by Molly Stevens
My editor and I had also talked about featuring books previously reviewed and worth revisiting, but the Globe must have run out of room in the section for that portion of the review. These were:
The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden
My Japanese Table: A Lifetime of Cooking with Friends and Family, by Debra Samuels
The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert
Cook This Now, by Melissa Clark
The Fearless Baker: Scrumptious Cakes, Pies, Cobblers, Cookies, and Quick Breads that You Can Make to Impress Your Friends and Yourself, by Emily Luchetti
Super Natural Every Day: Well-loved Recipes from My Natural Foods Kitchen, by Heidi Swanson.
I know many of you have been waiting anxiously and wondering where this list could be! As of today, the books have been chosen and the story sent. I don’t know exactly when my editor will run it, but my best guess is that it’s likely to be either 12/21 or 12/28. I could be completely wrong.
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.