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npr best cookbooks 2012, susan changHold on to your hats!  The NPR holiday cookbook roundup, my go-to guide for the overlooked gems, rightfully-hyped showstoppers, and perfect steals of the cookbook world is now out!

In addition to the top 10 I chose for NPR, you’ll find here all the ones that I loved for one reason or another but couldn’t fit in the top ten.  It’s a glorious jumble, and there’s something for every cook on your list. (If you want to learn more about how these books are chosen, you can check out the  7-point rating system.)

The 2012 NPR top 10 (in no particular order):
1.  The Sprouted Kitchen: A Tastier Take on Whole Foods by Sara Forte and Hugh Forte
2.  Modern Sauces: More than 150 Recipes for Every Cook, Every Day, by Martha Holmberg
3.  The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perelman
4.  The Science of Good Cooking (Cook’s Illustrated Cookbooks) by The Editors of America’s Test Kitchen
5.  Susan Feniger’s Street Food: Irresistibly Crispy, Creamy, Crunchy, Spicy, Sticky, Sweet Recipes by Susan Feniger, Kajsa Alger and Liz Lachman
6.  Hiroko’s American Kitchen: Cooking with Japanese Flavors by Hiroko Shimbo
7.  Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
8.  Canal House Cooks Every Day by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton
9.  The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook: Sweetness in Seattle by Tom Douglas and Shelley Lance
10.  Simply Sensational Cookies by Nancy Baggett

…and now, it’s on to THE SHORTLIST.

Best Cookbook for After the End of Civilization
The America’s Test Kitchen D.I.Y. Do It Yourself Cookbook: Can It, Cure It, Churn It, Brew It by America’s Test Kitchen Editors

Best Travelogue Cookbook
Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid

Best Ambitious Kitchen Primer
Keys to the Kitchen: The Essential Reference for Becoming a More Accomplished, Adventurous Cook by Aida Mollenkamp

Best Gift for Your Most Intrepid Food Friends
Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

Best Cookbook to End Up Using One Recipe Over and Over From
Crêpes: 50 Savory and Sweet Recipes by Martha Holmberg (I’m thinking of the basic crêpes recipe.)

Best Reason to buy a Proportional-Integral-Derivative Controller (or Other Control Loop Feedback Mechanism)
Modernist Cuisine at Home, by Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet

Best Round-the-World Sweets Book
Sugar & Spice: Sweets and Treats from Around the World by Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra

Best Round-the-World Bread Book
All You Knead is Bread by Jane Mason

Love-Your-Veggies Expansion Kit
Wild About Greens: 125 Delectable Vegan Recipes for Kale, Collards, Arugula, Bok Choy, and Other Leafy Veggies Everyone Loves by Nava Atlas

Carnivore’s Bible
The Great Meat Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Buy and Cook Today’s Meat by Bruce Aidells

Regional Magnum Opus
Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Stevens Graubart

Most Satisfying Way to Blow 400 Calories a Pop
Baked Elements: The Importance of Being Baked in 10 Favorite Ingredients by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito

Retro Indulgence for the Nostalgic and the Hip
Vintage Cakes: Timeless Recipes for Cupcakes, Flips, Rolls, Layer, Angel, Bundt, Chiffon, and Icebox Cakes for Today’s Sweet Tooth by Julie Richardson

Anglophile’s  Delight
The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast: Authentic Pub Food, Restaurant Fare, and Home Cooking from Small Towns, Big Cities, and Country Villages Across the British Isles by Brian Yarvin

Most Thoughtful Contribution to a Fast-Growing Category
Gluten-Free Baking for the Holidays: 60 Recipes for Traditional Festive Treats by Jeanne Sauvage

Mighty Reckoning with an Important Overlooked Cuisine
Gran Cocina Latina:  The Food of Latin America, by Maricel E. Presilla

Surprisingly Gifty Single-Subject Paperback
Garlic: The Mighty Bulb by Natasha Edwards

Pleasure-oriented Gluten-Free Book
Small Plates & Sweet Treats: My Family’s Journey to Gluten-Free Cooking, by Aran Goyoaga

Refreshing Discovery in What I Thought Was a Played-Out Category
Mike Isabella’s Crazy Good Italian by Mike Isabella

Pain-Free Introduction to Whole Grains
Grain Mains: 101 Surprising and Satisfying Whole Grain Recipes for Every Meal of the Day by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough

Also, Three Terrific Series Worth Exploring More Deeply.

  • The Food and Cooking Of… series from Anness Publishing. Beautifully photographed, slightly hard-to-find introductions to far-flung cuisines. This year’s The Food and Cooking of Scandinavia is particularly lovely.
  • The New Voices in Food series from Globe Pequot. Understated paperbacks featuring up-and-coming young chefs. You might walk right past them if you weren’t particularly looking for them, but some of the recipes are gems.
  • The Savor the South series from UNC Press. Terrific idea, ingredient-focused, attractively and affordably produced. The first two are Pecans and Buttermilk.

And don’t forget some of the wonderful cookbooks we loved this past summer, especially: Asian Tofu, The Fresh and Green Table, Herbivoracious, The Fresh Egg, and The United States of Pie.

Finally, as always, for cooks who love a good food story, there’s my own A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes & Stories from a Well-Tempered Table.

shrimp rice paper peanuts

No, it’s not summer any more.  But one summer souvenir that will be coming right along with me into the fall and winter is the summer roll.  Or, more specifically, the re-invented sandwich wrapped in rice paper.

After being unaccountably bashful about rice paper for years, I finally took the plunge and discovered what a boon it is for those of us who fall somewhere in between wanting to take the bread off the sandwich and just giving up and having a salad.

Plus, they’re way easy to pack in a lunchbox.

Read A Roll for All Seasons at NPR’s Kitchen Window here.

hunger game, katniss favorite stew, lamb and dried plums

Too good to wait!

Well, I said I’d do it, and I have.

A couple of days ago, I made the famous Capitol stew which made such an impression on Katniss Everdeen (Chapter 9 of The Hunger Games).   Lamb and prunes! a winning combination any day, so it wasn’t much of a risk.

Here are the ingredients, as given: lamb, flour, olive oil, garlic, onion, beef stock, white sugar, brown sugar, carrots, zucchini, celery, onions, potatoes, prunes (dried plums), thyme, rosemary, basil, parsley, bay leaves, ginger ale.

Because I wasn’t doing a formal cookbook review, and stews are forgiving, I played it pretty casual with this recipe.  I fiddled with the proportions (more vegetables, fewer prunes, less sugar).  I used my own favorite technique: brown the lamb on one side in a cast iron skillet, brown the other side by sliding the whole thing  under the broiler.

After that, I moved the operation to the slow cooker, so I used about a quarter the suggested liquid.  And I totally just skipped the ginger ale.    It was sweet enough already, from the prunes and sugar.  The finished stew was thick, bubbly, and aromatic, with golden bits of lamb draped in plummy sauce, coyly peeking through the vegetables

I rushed it to a hungry family, and we all dove upon it.  I meant to take a picture before grabbing a fork, but by the time I remembered, all the plates looked like this one.

I first remember coming across Crescent Dragonwagon when I read her Alligator Arrived With Apples: A Potluck Alphabet Feast to my children.  Great message!  I thought, turning the colorful pages with their healthy array of fresh foods and whimsical animals.  Great name!  I thought, looking at the author’s byline.

It was a surprise when I realized she wrote cookbooks, too, and this month I finally had a chance to to try one.  Bean by Bean: A Cookbook is full of vibrant ideas for the often boring bean.  At least I thought so.  After a week of beans, my kids, predictably enough, thought she should stick with the children’s  books.

Click here to read my review of Crescent Dragonwagon’s Bean by Bean.

Well, here we go.  I’m officially jumping on the “Hunger Games ” train.  This review, however,  is completely unofficial, and here are 3 reasons why:

  • I’ve read the books, but haven’t seen the movie.  Husby and son have, but I was too much of a wimp to go along;
  • I haven’t tested the recipes (for cookbooks I’ve fully vetted, see my reviews page), so any judgements of culinary merit given herein are speculative;
  • in fact, I may never have a chance to review this book officially, as mega-author Suzanne Collins is an old friend of my husband’s…conflict of interest alert!

With all those caveats out of the way,  I have to say that the Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook is a pleasant surprise.  The headnotes and intro are sharp and clearly written by an avid fan.  There’s a sprinkling of insightful literary analysis regarding the role of food in totalitarian culture, and a dash of food-symbolism commentary.  Each recipe notes which chapter and book it references, which gives you an excuse to go get your copy and get sucked back in.

And the recipes?  Well, they’re a mix of indulgent Capitol food and subsistence District food, as you’d expect.

Some recipes merely fill out a sketchy reference in the book with a conventional recipe; these tend to be fairly pedestrian: Hot and Crispy Hash Browns, French Bread from the Mellark Family Bakery, Parcel Day Applesauce.  If the headnotes didn’t explain their origin in the books, these recipes would offer nothing you couldn’t find on the Internet or in mainstream cookbooks.  Their association with the Hunger Games is purely conceptual.

On the other hand, some recipes clearly wouldn’t exist without the trilogy’s explicit mention:   Grilled Tree Rat with Peanut Butter Dipping Sauce, Rue and Katniss’s Stir-Fried Milkweed Buds, Flowers, and Pods, and the Apple-Smoked Groosling, which is actually turkey.

How seriously are we to take the Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook?  Good question. Well, don’t look for any tips on skinning tree rat.  And any ingredient list that starts with “1 (6 pound) beaver, cut into pieces” seems to me to be assuming a lot.

But I am willing to guess that over half of the recipes can be taken just as they come; the author is an East Coast caterer and writer, and her technique looks solid enough.  The baking recipes in particular look like perfectly doable, normally edited recipes which ought to work in any home kitchen.  I have firm plans to try Katniss’ favorite lamb stew with dried plums, which is the only specific food my son specifically requested while reading the books.  (Remember, folks, dried plums are simply prunes! Don’t believe the hype!)

A final question: How faithful does a tie-in cookbook have to be, anyway?  The Hunger Games trilogy is the act of a bold imagination, and I don’t see why this unofficial companion shouldn’t be as well.  Indeed, the most jarring thing about the cookbook is the same as what’s jarring about the books and the film:  the sense that true human misery (hunger, warfare, brutality) can at some level always become a source of entertainment.  As consumers of The Hunger Games and its merchandise, we may be uncomfortably aware of that fact.  But it doesn’t diminish our appetite.

 

Something odd is going on in cookbook merchandising, and I’m trying to understand it.

We’re all familiar with the explosion of food websites and food blogs in the last 10 years and their inevitable transition into print. From Heidi Swanson and the Tipsy Baker to Food52 and Serious Eats, there’s an abundance of popular online hosts or communities who’ve turned author, and there are more every day.

Many, like Ree Drummond (the “Pioneer Woman Cooks”) and Fifi O’Neill (the “Romantic Prairie” magazine) sell a DIY kind of lifestyle that their readers don’t necessarily have the time or life circumstances to undertake themselves.  It’s not the first time that  cooks who are also talented photographers and stylists have taken off in print. It’s certainly not the first time a domestic-shelter editor has successfully sold a lifestyle (see “Stewart, Martha”.)  So that’s not what’s odd.

What I don’t quite get is that if you look at these recipes closely, something doesn’t add up.  Consider the Romantic Prairie Cookbook (by an expatriated Parisian living in Florida). Grilled chicken with mandarin oranges?  No mandarin oranges on the prairie, unless I’m mistaken. There are sausages and breads in the recipes, but they’re mostly storebought. Recipes for salmon, mussels, fish in a salt crust?  Exactly where is this prairie?  And is it near Balducci’s?

The new Pioneer Woman Cookbook: Food from My Frontier makes me wonder, in the same sort of way, which frontier we’re dealing with: Italian meatball soup? Thai chicken pizza?  Chicken Parmesan? Mango margaritas?  It’s true that there is a recipe for pickles and a recipe for jam in the back.  But the language of sustainability, self-reliance, and rugged wholesomeness conveyed by the photographs is not spoken equally by the food.

I’m not wearing my reviewer hat, and I don’t mean to denigrate the food itself, which I haven’t tested and which looks perfectly fine.  No matter where it hails from (and I think it’s safe to say it’s not from Kansas), it’s straight-ahead comfort food, like what you might find in hundreds of midrange urban brunch places.

Some may find themselves asking,  “Why make it when I can buy it in Brooklyn?”  I’m not sure I can answer that.  But my guess is that it’s not the cookbook’s content but its aura that you’re buying–that glimpse of a life not lived by most of us–a life of pale sunrises, endless horizons, quiet insights silhouetted on horseback.  Question is: is that life even being lived by those who sell it?

I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of the online UK lifestyle magazine and website, The Monocle, till last week when they contacted me asking to do an interview on their weekly hourlong food show, “The Menu”.  Check it out–it’s a nicely produced series of segments from around the world.  And I so enjoyed speaking with the charming Markus Hippi about “A Spoonful of Promises” on my UK radio debut!

Hear the interview here, minutes 28:00-35:20.

Today, a review of a fascinating oddity billing itself as “the re-envisioning of the modern cookbook.” By turns brilliant, offputting, and just plain different, the two-volume set seems designed to turn heads and invite commentary.

All that said, testing the book’s one recipe–the “Julian” cocktail-was one of the stranger, better dates Randy and I have had in some weeks.

Read the review here.

A little rumination about my absolute favorite bitter green.  The best part about writing the story was discovering this outrageously good shrimp, escarole, and potato salad from Jacques Pépin.  I could have eaten it for a week.

But the recipes for escarole & bean soup and escarole & butternut pasta are great too.

Click here to read the story.

We tested this cookbook about a month and a half ago.  As is the case whenever I test a slow cooker book, this led to a very weird morning routine starting at 5 am:  Pack husband’s lunch for school, pack kids’ lunch for school, make dinner, make kids’ breakfast, make my breakfast.  But I loved the convenience of having dinner all set when the evening rush arrived.

I had the chance to hear Michele Scicolone at a panel at the cookbook conference in NY shortly after; she spoke compellingly about the need for greater authenticity in the understanding of Italian food.  It was an entertaining presentation, which I bought hook, line, and sinker.  It did, however, make me wonder about her French book, which I’d just tested.  Because while it may be decent cooking, and it may be well put together, I wouldn’t say it’s exactly authentique…

Click here to read the review.

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