Cookbook recommendations, 2016.

This year’s cookbook post is pretty much last year’s cookbook post with a couple of little changes up top – one new rec, one book I want because the author is great, and then the same standbys I always recommend. I’ve grouped my suggestions into categories: The essentials, which any home cook regardless of experience level should own; the advanced books for expert home cooks; a few cookbooks from Top Chef-affiliated folks that I recommend; and bread-baking books, all by one author because I’ve never needed any others. My gift guide for cooks is in a separate post, detailing essential and frivolous toys for the chef in your life.

New for 2016

I added just one new cookbook of note to my collection since last year’s post – I’ve acquired others, but there’s only one I can really recommend. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s mammoth The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, named for Kenji’s acclaimed and indispensable column over at Serious Eats, is a must for any advanced or aspiring home cook. Unlike many of the books here, The Food Lab is a better resource for its text than its recipes – I’ve made a bunch of dishes from the book, with a few that just didn’t work out (e.g., the pork shoulder ragout), but every page seems to have something to teach you. The one caution I’ll offer is that it doesn’t include any sous-vide recipes, which is something Kenji does a lot on Serious Eats’ site, although he does have a section on replicating the sous-vide technique using cheaper materials like a portable cooler.

The book I don’t have yet but am hoping to get in the next, say, 27 days, is Alton Brown’s latest, Everyday Cook, which I think is his first cookbook that isn’t somehow branded with the Good Eats title. I’m a longtime fan of that show and of Brown in general – many of his recipes remain staples in my kitchen – but I haven’t used his books much because they’ve often repeated what was on TV. This book looks like a departure for him, and he’s said he was able to do some stuff here he couldn’t do on television (because lawyers). Plus I just enjoy his humor and writing style.

Essentials

There are two cookbooks that I insist any home cook have. One is the venerable Joy of Cooking, revised and altered through many editions (I own the 1997, now out of print), but still the go-to book for almost any common dish you’re likely to want to make. The recipes take a very easy-to-follow format, and the book assumes little to no experience or advanced technique. I still use it all the time, including their basic bread stuffing (dressing) recipe every Thanksgiving, altered just with the addition of a diced red bell pepper.

The other indisputable must-have cookbook is, of course, Ruhlman’s Twenty, by the best food writer going today, Michael Ruhlman. The book comprises twenty chapters, each on a technique or core ingredient, with a hundred recipes, lots of essays to explain key concepts or methods, and photographs to help you understand what you’re cooking. It’s my most-used cookbook, the first cookbook gift I give to anyone looking to start a collection, and an absolute pleasure to read and re-read. Favorite recipes include the seared pork tenderloin with butter and more butter; the cured salmon; the homemade mayonnaise (forget the stuff in the jar, it’s a pale imitation); the pulled pork; all three duck recipes; the scrambled eggs with goat cheese (using a modified double-boiler method, so you get something more like custard than rubber); and the homemade bacon. I’m trying his weekday coq au vin recipe tonight, too. Many of these recipes appear again in his more recent book, Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient, along with more egg basics and a lot of great dessert recipes; and Twenty itself builds on Ruhlman’s Ratio, which shows you master formulas for things like doughs and sauces so you can understand the fundamentals of each recipe and extend as you see fit.

I’ve long recommended Baking Illustrated as the perfect one-book kitchen reference for all things baked – cookies, cakes, pies, breads, and more. It’s full of standards, tested to ensure that they will work the first time. You’ll need a scale to get maximum use from the book. I use their pie crust recipe, their peach pie recipe, their snickerdoodles recipe (kids love it, but moms seem to love it even more…), and I really want to try their sticky toffee pudding recipe. The prose can be a little cloying, but I skip most of that and go right to the recipes because I know they’ll succeed the first time. That link will get you the original book from the secondary market; it has been rewritten from scratch and titled The Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book, but I can’t vouch for it as I haven’t seen the new text.

If I know someone already has Ruhlman’s Twenty, my next gift choice for them is Nigel Slater’s Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, a book about vegetables but not strictly vegetarian. (There’s a lot of bacon here.) Each vegetable gets its own section, with explanations on how to grow it, how to choose it at the market, a half-dozen or more basic ways to cook it, and then a bunch of specific recipes, some of which are just a paragraph and some of which are a full page with glorious pictures accompanying them. The stuffed peppers with ground pork is a near-weekly occurrence in this house, and the warm pumpkin scone is the only good reason to buy and cook an actual pumpkin. I own but have barely cooked from his sequel on fruit, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard, because it’s more focused on desserts than savory applications.

Another essential if you want to cook more vegetables is Hugh Acheson’s 2015 book The Broad Fork, which has become the first book I consult when I have a vegetable and am not sure what I want to do with it. Acheson conceived the book in response to a neighbor’s question about what the hell to do with the kohlrabi he got in a CSA box, and the whole book works like that: You have acquired some Vegetable and need to know where to start. Organized by season and then by plant, with plenty of fruits and a few nuts mixed in for good measure, the book gives you recipes and ideas by showing off each subject in various preparations – raw, in salads, in soups, roasted, grilled, pureed, whatever. There are main course ideas in here as well, some with meat or fish, others vegetarian or vegan, and many of the multi-part dishes are easy to deconstruct, like the charred-onion vinaigrette in the cantaloupe/prosciutto recipe that made a fantastic steak sauce. Most of us need to eat more plants anyway; Acheson’s book helps make that a tastier goal. It’s also witty, as you’d expect from the slightly sardonic Canadian if you’ve seen him on TV.

You know, a lot of people will tell you go get Julia Child’s classic books on French cuisine, but I find the one I have (Mastering the Art) to be dated and maddeningly unspecific. Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom is a slimmer, much more useful book that focuses on the basics – her explanation of vinaigrettes is still the gold standard, and her gift for distilling recipes and techniques into simple little explanations shines here without the fuss of three-day recipes for coq au vin. Oh, that’s in here too, but she does it in two and a half hours.

Experts

The The Flavor Bible isn’t actually a cookbook, but a giant cross-referencing guide where each ingredient comes with a list of complementary ingredients or flavors, as selected by a wide range of chefs the authors interviewed to assemble the book. It’s the book you want to pull out when your neighbor gives you a few handfuls of kale or your local grocery store puts zucchini on sale and you don’t know what to do with them. Or maybe you’re just tired of making salmon the same way and need some fresh ideas. The book doesn’t tell you how to cook anything, just what else to put on the plate. Spoiler: Bacon and butter go with just about everything.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty is an outstanding vegetable-focused cookbook that uses no meat ingredients (but does use dairy and eggs), although Ottolenghi’s restaurant uses meats and he offers a few suggestions on pairing his recipes with meat dishes. The recipes here are longer and require a higher skill level than those in Tender, but they’re restaurant-quality in flavor and presentation, including a mushroom ragout that I love as a main course over pappardelle with a poached egg (or two) on top and my favorite recipe for preparing Belgian endives (a pinch of sugar goes a long way).

Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery cookbook ($10 for Kindle right now) is is easily the best baking book I’ve ever seen, but unlike Baking Illustrated, the recipes are written for people who are more skilled and incredibly serious about baking. Ingredients are measured to the gram, and the recipes assume a full range of techniques. It has the best macaron recipe I’ve ever found – close second is I Love Macarons, suggested to me by Richard Blais’ pastry chef at the Spence, Andrea Litvin – and the Bouchon book also the homemade Oreo recipe I made for Halloween (but you need black cocoa to do it right, and I use buttercream as the filling instead of their unstable white-chocolate ganache).

Bobby Flay has an absurd number of cookbooks out there, but the one I like is from his flagship restaurant Mesa Grill, which includes the signature items (including the blue and yellow cornbread) and a broad cross-section of dishes. There’s no instruction here at all, however, just a lot of recipes, many of which have an absurdly long list of ingredients.

For the really hardcore, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is an essential kitchen reference, full of explanations of the chemistry of cooking that will make you a smarter cook and help you troubleshoot many problems at the stove. I haven’t read it straight through – it’s 700-plus pages – but I’ll go to the index and pull out some wisdom as needed. It also explains why some people (coughmecough) never acquired the taste for strongly-flavored cheeses.

April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig has the duck fat-fried potato recipe that got my daughter hooked on the dish, as well as a good selection of staple sauces, dressings, and starches to go along with the numerous meat dishes, including some offal recipes, one of which (made from minced pig’s heart and liver, with bacon, onion, and breadcrumbs) can’t be named here.

Top Chef Division

Richard Blais’ Try This at Home has become a staple in my kitchen both for about a half-dozen specific recipes in here that we love (sweet potato gnocchi, lemon curd chicken, arroz con pollo, sous-vide chicken breast) and for the creativity it inspires. Blais has lots of asides on techniques and ingredients, and if you actually read the text instead of just blindly following the recipes, you’ll get a sense of the extensibility of the basic formulas within the book, even though he isn’t as explicit about it as Ruhlman is. His second book, So Good, comes out in May 2017.

Hugh Acheson’s first book, A New Turn in the South, and Top Chef season one winner Harold Dieterle’s Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook are also regulars in my cookbook rotation. Acheson’s book reads the way he speaks, so that it comes off more like you’re hanging out with the guy, talking food, rather than taking instruction. His bacon-wrapped whole fish recipe is unbelievable, more for the powerful aromatics (winner, best use of fennel) than for the bacon itself. Dieterle’s book requires some harder-to-find items, but his side essays on specific ingredients run from the mundane to the esoteric and drop a ton of knowledge on how to choose and how to use. My particular struggle with both books is that they use a lot of seafood, with Dieterle’s including a ton of shellfish; my wife is allergic to shellfish, so I don’t even bring that into the house any more, which requires some substitutions and means there are some recipes I just have to set aside.

Bread

I’ve owned and given away or sold a lot of bread-baking books, because nothing has been able to beat the two masterworks by baker/instructor Peter Reinhart, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and Whole Grain Breads. Reinhart’s books teach you how to make artisan or old-world breads using various starters, from overnight bigas to wild-yeast starters you can grow and culture on your countertop. If that seems like a little much, his Artisan Breads Every Day takes it down a notch for the novice baker, with a lot of the same recipes presented in a simpler manner, without so much emphasis on baker’s formulas, and is a steal at $20.00.

Cookbook recommendations, 2015.

I rewrote this post from scratch last year, but since this year I only have a few titles to add, I’m retaining most of last year’s text underneath a top section outlining a few new books I like (and one I’m going to recommend sight-unseen because of who wrote it). So as with last year, I’ve grouped them into categories: The essentials, which any home cook regardless of experience level should own; the advanced books for expert home cooks; a few cookbooks from Top Chef-affiliated folks that I recommend; and bread-baking books, all by one author because I’ve never needed any others.

New for 2015

I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of Hugh Acheson’s second cookbook, The Broad Fork: Recipes for the Wide World of Vegetables and Fruits, this spring, and it’s become a staple in my kitchen – one of the books I go to first when I am looking for a new idea for a vegetable dish, or when I bought something at the local farmstand despite lacking an actual plan for it. Acheson conceived the book in response to a neighbor’s question about what the hell to do with the kohlrabi he got in a CSA box, and the whole book works like that: You have acquired some Vegetable and need to know where to start. Organized by season and then by plant, with plenty of fruits and a few nuts mixed in for good measure, the book gives you recipes and ideas by showing off each subject in various preparations – raw, in salads, in soups, roasted, grilled, pureed, whatever. There are main course ideas in here as well, some with meat or fish, others vegetarian or vegan, and many of the multi-part dishes are easy to deconstruct, like the charred-onion vinaigrette in the cantaloupe/prosciutto recipe that made a fantastic steak sauce. Most of us need to eat more plants anyway; Acheson’s book helps make that a tastier goal.

The book I recommend but haven’t bought yet – I think Santa will be bringing me this one – is J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s mammoth The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, named for Kenji’s acclaimed and indispensable column over at Serious Eats. (Speaking of which, I’ll be spatchcocking my turkey this year, per Kenji’s column, with a salt rub the night before.) He’s shared a bunch of the recipes and essays from the book on various sites already and did a great too-short interview with the Sporkful’s podcast as well. His science-based thinking is kind of like a Mythbusters approach to cooking: People say you should do X, but does X actually work? And what’s the science behind it? Alton Brown has always argued that cooking is the science of applying heat to food; Kenji takes that to a new extreme in his writing, and assuming I can lift the 960-page tome (there’s a Kindle edition too) I expect I’ll use it heavily.

Also new to my shelves this year: Top Chef contestant Korean-American chef Edward Lee’s Smoke and Pickles, which offers his fusion of Asian (mostly Korean but occasionally other cuisines like Filipino) flavors with classic Southern dishes, like his fried chicken, which he partially poaches first in a Filipino adobo vinegar mixture, or his seasonal kimchi recipes to replace the boring cole slaw on your table … Kevin Gillespie, the runner-up to the Bros Voltaggio on Top Chef’s epic season 6, put out a new book this spring called Pure Pork Awesomeness, which a reader was kind enough to send along; it’s all about the pig, with a lot of big, heavy dishes that are probably best suited to feeding a crowd … April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig has the duck fat-fried potato recipe that got my daughter hooked on the dish, as well as a good selection of staple sauces, dressings, and starches to go along with the numerous meat dishes, including some offal recipes, one of which (made from minced pig’s heart and liver, with bacon, onion, and breadcrumbs) can’t be named here.

Essentials

There are now two cookbooks that I insist any home cook have. One is the venerable Joy of Cooking, revised and altered through many editions (I own the 1997, now out of print), but still the go-to book for almost any common dish you’re likely to want to make. The recipes take a very easy-to-follow format, and the book assumes little to no experience or advanced technique. I still use it all the time, including their basic bread stuffing (dressing) recipe every Thanksgiving, altered just with the addition of a diced red bell pepper.

The other indisputable must-have cookbook is, of course, Ruhlman’s Twenty, by the best food writer going today, Michael Ruhlman. The book comprises twenty chapters, each on a technique or core ingredient, with a hundred recipes, lots of essays to explain key concepts or methods, and photographs to help you understand what you’re cooking. It’s my most-used cookbook, the first cookbook gift I give to anyone looking to start a collection, and an absolute pleasure to read and re-read. Favorite recipes include the seared pork tenderloin with butter and more butter; the cured salmon; the homemade mayonnaise (forget the stuff in the jar, it’s a pale imitation); the pulled pork; all three duck recipes; the scrambled eggs with goat cheese (using a modified double-boiler method, so you get something more like custard than rubber); and the homemade bacon. I’m trying his weekday coq au vin recipe tonight, too. Many of these recipes appear again in his more recent book, Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient, along with more egg basics and a lot of great dessert recipes; and Twenty itself builds on Ruhlman’s Ratio, which shows you master formulas for things like doughs and sauces so you can understand the fundamentals of each recipe and extend as you see fit.

I’ve long recommended Baking Illustrated as the perfect one-book kitchen reference for all things baked – cookies, cakes, pies, breads, and more. It’s full of standards, tested to ensure that they will work the first time. You’ll need a scale to get maximum use from the book. I use their pie crust recipe, their peach pie recipe, their snickerdoodles recipe (kids love it, but moms seem to love it even more…), and I really want to try their sticky toffee pudding recipe. The prose can be a little cloying, but I skip most of that and go right to the recipes because I know they’ll succeed the first time. That link will get you the original book from the secondary market; it has been rewritten from scratch and titled The Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book, but I can’t vouch for it as I haven’t seen the new text.

If I know someone already has Ruhlman’s Twenty, my next gift choice for them is Nigel Slater’s Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, a book about vegetables but not strictly vegetarian. (There’s a lot of bacon here.) Each vegetable gets its own section, with explanations on how to grow it, how to choose it at the market, a half-dozen or more basic ways to cook it, and then a bunch of specific recipes, some of which are just a paragraph and some of which are a full page with glorious pictures accompanying them. The stuffed peppers with ground pork is a near-weekly occurrence in this house, and the warm pumpkin scone is the only good reason to buy and cook an actual pumpkin. I own but have barely cooked from his sequel on fruit, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard.

You know, a lot of people will tell you go get Julia Child’s classic books on French cuisine, but I find the one I have (Mastering the Art) to be dated and maddeningly unspecific. Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom is a slimmer, much more useful book that focuses on the basics – her explanation of vinaigrettes is still the gold standard, and her gift for distilling recipes and techniques into simple little explanations shines here without the fuss of three-day recipes for coq au vin. Oh, that’s in here too, but she does it in two and a half hours.

Experts

The The Flavor Bible isn’t actually a cookbook, but a giant cross-referencing guide where each ingredient comes with a list of complementary ingredients or flavors, as selected by a wide range of chefs the authors interviewed to assemble the book. It’s the book you want to pull out when your neighbor gives you a few handfuls of kale or your local grocery store puts zucchini on sale and you don’t know what to do with them. Or maybe you’re just tired of making salmon the same way and need some fresh ideas. The book doesn’t tell you how to cook anything, just what else to put on the plate. Spoiler: Bacon and butter go with just about everything.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty is an outstanding vegetable-focused cookbook that uses no meat ingredients (but does use dairy and eggs), although Ottolenghi’s restaurant uses meats and he offers a few suggestions on pairing his recipes with meat dishes. The recipes here are longer and require a higher skill level than those in Tender, but they’re restaurant-quality in flavor and presentation, including a mushroom ragout that I love as a main course over pappardelle with a poached egg (or two) on top and my favorite recipe for preparing Belgian endives (a pinch of sugar goes a long way). As of this writing, the kindle edition is only $7.28, over 60% off the hardcover price.

Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery is is easily the best baking book I’ve ever seen, but unlike Baking Illustrated, the recipes are written for people who are more skilled and incredibly serious about baking. Ingredients are measured to the gram, and the recipes assume a full range of techniques. It has the best macaron recipe I’ve ever found – close second is I Love Macarons, suggested to me by Richard Blais’ pastry chef at the Spence, Andrea Litvin – and the Bouchon book also the homemade Oreo recipe I made for Halloween (but you need black cocoa and real white chocolate to do it right).

Bobby Flay has an absurd number of cookbooks out there, but the one I like is from his flagship restaurant Mesa Grill, which includes the signature items (including the blue and yellow cornbread) and a broad cross-section of dishes. There’s no instruction here at all, however, just a lot of recipes, many of which have an absurdly long list of ingredients.

For the really hardcore, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is an essential kitchen reference, full of explanations of the chemistry of cooking that will make you a smarter cook and help you troubleshoot many problems at the stove. I haven’t read it straight through – it’s 700-plus pages – but I’ll go to the index and pull out some wisdom as needed. It also explains why some people (coughmecough) never acquired the taste for strongly-flavored cheeses.

Top Chef Division

Richard Blais’ Try This at Home has become a staple in my kitchen both for about a half-dozen specific recipes in here that we love (his sweet potato gnocchi are now a Thanksgiving tradition for us; the lemon curd chicken is at least a twice-a-month dish around here and perfect for guests) and for the creativity it inspires. Blais has lots of asides on techniques and ingredients, and if you actually read the text instead of just blindly following the recipes, you’ll get a sense of the extensibility of the basic formulas within the book, even though he isn’t as explicit about it as Ruhlman is.

Hugh Acheson’s first book, A New Turn in the South, and Top Chef season one winner Harold Dieterle’s Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook have both recently entered my cookbook rotation as well. Acheson’s book reads the way he speaks – there’s a lightly sardonic aspect to much of his writing so that it comes off more like you’re hanging out with the guy, talking food, rather than taking instruction. His bacon-wrapped whole fish recipe is unbelievable, more for the powerful aromatics (winner, best use of fennel) than for the bacon itself. Dieterle’s book requires a lot of harder-to-find ingredients, but his side essays on specific ingredients run from the mundane to the esoteric and drop a ton of knowledge on how to choose and how to use. My particular struggle with both books is that they use a lot of seafood, with Dieterle’s including a ton of shellfish; my wife is allergic to shellfish, so I don’t even bring that into the house any more, which requires some substitutions and means there are some recipes I just have to set aside.

Bread

I’ve owned and given away or sold a lot of bread-baking books, because nothing has been able to beat the two masterworks by baker/instructor Peter Reinhart, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and Whole Grain Breads. Reinhart’s books teach you how to make artisan or old-world breads using various starters, from overnight bigas to wild-yeast starters you can grow and culture on your countertop. If that seems like a little much, his Artisan Breads Every Day takes it down a notch for the novice baker, with a lot of the same recipes presented in a simpler manner, without so much emphasis on baker’s formulas.

And finally, while it’s not a cookbook, Anthony Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, is just $3.99 right now for Kindle, and it’s a riot regardless of whether you like to cook.

Saturday five, 10/24/15.

I had one Insider post this past week, covering Arizona Fall League prospects, and will have another one up this weekend now that my trip to the Valley is done. I also held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

I’m taking vacation this upcoming week, so I’ll be off social media for a bit and won’t have any Insider posts after the second AFL dispatch goes up. I may still chat Thursday, however, now that those are mine and a bit more loose and fun.

And now, the links…

The Broad Fork.

My updated ranking of the top 25 prospects in the minors is up for Insiders.

Hugh Acheson’s newest cookbook, The Broad Fork: Recipes for the Wide World of Vegetables and Fruits, is the book that’s been missing from my shelf for years: a book devoted to all manner of fruits and vegetables, ranging from simple recipes to involved ones, that’s largely but not exclusively vegetarian. I’ve tried seven recipes so far, and they all worked on the first try and produced results that made me want to make them all again. (Disclaimer: I’ve met Hugh and he sent me a copy of the book with a signed card that said he hoped this would be “the knuckleball” of cookbooks – weird, but it works. I’d say that’s accurate.)

Acheson writes that his inspiration for the book was a friend who received some kohlrabi (a member of the Brassica family, like broccoli and cabbage, but with a larger stem and sweeter flesh) in his CSA allotment and asked Hugh what the hell he could do with such an odd and uncommon vegetable. Acheson has organized The Broad Fork by season, to align with those of you in CSAs or folks like me who prowl local farmstands for whatever’s in season, although some of these recipes will work just fine with out-of-season items because of the preparations or seasoning involved. He also includes numerous preservation recipes, including pickling and fermenting, so that you can taste the bounty of one season well into the next one.

The two biggest hits so far have been recipes that star one fruit or vegetable but build it up with a sauce or other accompaniment that works in many other dishes as well. Acheson’s take on the classic Italian dish prosciutto e melone (cured Parma ham, which is very salty, along with half-moons of cantaloupe) adds a blended charred-onion vinaigrette that bridged the gap between the salty-fatty meat and the sweet fruit … and also turned out to be an ideal accompaniment for a grilled New York strip steak the following night. The griddled asparagus with pipérade and creamy grits and poached eggs would make a complete meal at brunch, and I used the remaining pipérade – a spanish preparation of onion, garlic, tomato, red pepper, and sherry vinegar – on my fried eggs the next day at lunch. (The grits in the main recipe came out too thin, but I found stirring a little flour and baking powder into the watery leftovers made an excellent savory pancake batter to have with those eggs.)

His pickled hot pepper recipe is simple and extensible to pickling other vegetables (although he has numerous pickling recipes throughout the book), and it leads into the next recipe, a salad with sliced pickled peppers, chickpeas, olives, oranges, mint, and feta cheese, which had a fantastic panoply of flavors but was too difficult to eat with a fork. (A tablespoon did the job just fine, though.) His carrots Vichy are simple and quick and complement the fresh spring carrots we’re getting around here right now without overwhelming them with butter or cream, including just a small amount of each in a recipe that cooks a pound of the roots. Even the honeydew agua fresca, which balances the sweetness of the melon with a cup of lime juice, was an immediate hit around here, one I’ll save for when east coast melons start to show up at our markets later this summer. He does call for the occasional hard-to-find ingredient – bonito flakes, Espelette pepper – although their availability is increasing thanks to Whole Foods and amazon.

Acheson includes a lot of kohlrabis – vegetables you might barely recognize, much less know how to prepare – in the book, including sunchokes, salsify, fiddlehead ferns, yacon (the tuberous root of a type of daisy; I’d never heard of it), endives, okra, and more. He doesn’t limit himself to fruits and vegetables either, with sections on pecans and various mushrooms (by season!), and the book includes numerous asides on subjects like poaching eggs, curing yolks, making vin cotto and citrus ponzu sauce, preparing a roux, preserving lemons, and making dashi and chicken stock (two ways – pressure cooker and slow cooker). He gives us a photo of his cookbook collection and a note on how he uses old books to develop new ideas, and lots of the dry wit that has made him popular as a judge on Top Chef. I’m always looking for new ideas for cooking vegetables, and the fact that Acheson has covered so many plants with easy to understand and easy to modify recipes (because the underlying ratios or concepts are so clear) make this cookbook a new essential.

Cookbook recommendations, 2014.

I can never decide whether to copy and update last year’s post or to rewrite it from scratch, but this year chose the latter course of action to try to reflect how I’m cooking and using cookbooks right now in my (brand-new!) kitchen. I’ve grouped them into categories: The essentials, which any home cook regardless of experience level should own; the advanced books for expert home cooks; a few cookbooks from Top Chef-affiliated folks that I recommend; and bread-baking books, all by one author because I’ve never needed any others.

Essentials

There are now two cookbooks that I insist any home cook have. One is the venerable Joy of Cooking, revised and altered through many editions (I own the 1997, now out of print), but still the go-to book for almost any common dish you’re likely to want to make. The recipes take a very easy-to-follow format, and the book assumes little to no experience or advanced technique. I still use it all the time, including their basic bread stuffing (dressing) recipe every Thanksgiving, altered just with the addition of a diced red bell pepper.

The other indisputable must-have cookbook is, of course, Ruhlman’s Twenty, by the best food writer going today, Michael Ruhlman. The book comprises twenty chapters, each on a technique or core ingredient, with a hundred recipes, lots of essays to explain key concepts or methods, and photographs to help you understand what you’re cooking. It’s my most-used cookbook, the first cookbook gift I give to anyone looking to start a collection, and an absolute pleasure to read and re-read. Favorite recipes include the seared pork tenderloin with butter and more butter; the cured salmon; the homemade mayonnaise (forget the stuff in the jar, it’s a pale imitation); the pulled pork; all three duck recipes; the scrambled eggs with goat cheese (using a modified double-boiler method, so you get something more like custard than rubber); and the homemade bacon. I’m trying his weekday coq au vin recipe tonight, too. Many of these recipes appear again in his more recent book, Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient, along with more egg basics and a lot of great dessert recipes; and Twenty itself builds on Ruhlman’s Ratio, which shows you master formulas for things like doughs and sauces so you can understand the fundamentals of each recipe and extend as you see fit.

Baking Illustrated is the perfect one-book kitchen reference for all things baked – cookies, cakes, pies, breads, and more. It’s full of standards, tested to ensure that they will work the first time. You’ll need a scale to get maximum use from the book. I use their pie crust recipe, their peach pie recipe, their snickerdoodles recipe (kids love it, but moms seem to love it even more…), and I really want to try their sticky toffee pudding recipe. The prose can be a little cloying, but I skip most of that and go right to the recipes because I know they’ll succeed the first time.

If I know someone already has Ruhlman’s Twenty, my next gift choice for them is Nigel Slater’s Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, a book about vegetables but not strictly vegetarian. (There’s a lot of bacon here.) Each vegetable gets its own section, with explanations on how to grow it, how to choose it at the market, a half-dozen or more basic ways to cook it, and then a bunch of specific recipes, some of which are just a paragraph and some of which are a full page with glorious pictures accompanying them. The stuffed peppers with ground pork is a near-weekly occurrence in this house, and the warm pumpkin scone is the only good reason to buy and cook an actual pumpkin. I own but have yet to cook from his sequel on fruit, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard.

You know, a lot of people will tell you go get Julia Child’s classic books on French cuisine, but I find the one I have (Mastering the Art) to be dated and maddeningly unspecific in its directions. Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom is a slimmer, much more useful book that focuses on the basics – her explanation of vinaigrettes is still the gold standard, and her gift for distilling recipes and techniques into simple little explanations shines here without the fuss of three-day recipes for coq au vin. Oh, that’s in here too, but she does it in two and a half hours.

Experts

The Flavor Bible isn’t actually a cookbook, but a giant cross-referencing guide where each ingredient comes with a list of complementary ingredients or flavors, as selected by a wide range of chefs the authors interviewed to assemble the book. It’s the book you want to pull out when your neighbor gives you a few handfuls of kale or your local grocery store puts zucchini on sale and you don’t know what to do with them. Or maybe you’re just tired of making salmon the same way and need some fresh ideas. The book doesn’t tell you how to cook anything, just what else to put on the plate. Spoiler: Bacon and butter go with just about everything. I gave a lot more detail on this book in last year’s guide.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty is an outstanding vegetable-focused cookbook that uses no meat ingredients (but does use dairy and eggs), although Ottolenghi’s restaurant uses meats and he offers a few suggestions on pairing his recipes with meat dishes. The recipes here are longer and require a higher skill level than those in Tender, but they’re restaurant-quality in flavor and presentation, including a mushroom ragout that I love as a main course over pappardelle with a poached egg (or two) on top and my favorite recipe for preparing Belgian endives (a pinch of sugar goes a long way). As of this writing, the kindle edition is only $2.99, over 90% off the hardcover price.

Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery is is easily the best baking book I’ve ever seen, but unlike Baking Illustrated, the recipes are written for people who are more skilled and incredibly serious about baking. Ingredients are measured to the gram, and the recipes assume a full range of techniques. It has the best macaron recipe I’ve ever found – close second is I Love Macarons, suggested to me by Richard Blais’ pastry chef at the Spence, Andrea Litvin – and has the homemade Oreo recipe I made for Halloween (but you need black cocoa and real white chocolate to do it right).

Bobby Flay has an absurd number of cookbooks out there, but the one I like is from his flagship restaurant Mesa Grill, which includes the signature items (including the blue and yellow cornbread) and a broad cross-section of dishes. There’s no instruction here at all, however, just a lot of recipes, many of which have an absurdly long list of ingredients.

For the really hardcore, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is an essential kitchen reference, full of explanations of the chemistry of cooking that will make you a smarter cook and help you troubleshoot many problems at the stove. I haven’t read it straight through – it’s 700-plus pages – but I’ll go to the index and pull out some wisdom as needed. It also explains why some people (coughmecough) never acquired the taste for strongly-flavored cheeses.

Top Chef Division

Richard Blais’ Try This at Home has become a staple in my kitchen both for about a half-dozen specific recipes in here that we love (his sweet potato gnocchi are now a Thanksgiving tradition for us; the lemon curd chicken is at least a twice-a-month dish around here and perfect for guests) and for the creativity it inspires. Blais has lots of asides on techniques and ingredients, and if you actually read the text instead of just blindly following the recipes, you’ll get a sense of the extensibility of the basic formulas within the book, even though he isn’t as explicit about it as Ruhlman is.

Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson’s A New Turn in the South and season one winner Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook have both recently entered my cookbook rotation as well. Acheson’s book reads the way he speaks – there’s a lightly sardonic aspect to much of his writing so that it comes off more like you’re hanging out with the guy, talking food, rather than taking instruction. His bacon-wrapped whole fish recipe is unbelievable, more for the powerful aromatics (winner, best use of fennel) than for the bacon itself. Dieterle’s book requires a lot of harder-to-find ingredients, but his side essays on specific ingredients run from the mundane to the esoteric and drop a ton of knowledge on how to choose and how to use. My particular struggle with both books is that they use a lot of seafood, with Dieterle’s including a ton of shellfish; my wife is allergic to shellfish, so I don’t even bring that into the house any more, which requires some substitutions and means there are some recipes I just have to set aside.

I’ll mention here that several readers have suggested Edward Lee’s Smoke and Pickles to me as one of the best of the many Top Chef contestant books out there, but I do not currently own it.

Bread

I’ve owned and given away or sold a lot of bread-baking books, because nothing has been able to beat the two masterworks by baker/instructor Peter Reinhart, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and Whole Grain Breads. Reinhart’s books teach you how to make artisan or old-world breads using various starters, from overnight bigas to wild-yeast starters you can grow and culture on your countertop. If that seems like a little much, his Artisan Breads Every Day takes it down a notch for the novice baker, with a lot of the same recipes presented in a simpler manner, without so much emphasis on baker’s formulas. His pizza dough recipes are fantastic, and unlike a lot of the crap I’ve found online or in other books, you don’t need any sugar to make them.

And finally, while it’s not a cookbook, Anthony Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, is just $2.99 right now for Kindle, and it’s a riot regardless of whether you like to cook.

Ruhlman’s Egg.

Chris Crawford and I posted a (too-early) ranking of the top 30 prospects for the 2015 MLB draft, plus some honorable mentions. This isn’t a mock draft or projection, which I won’t do until May of next year. It’s just a ranking. And it’s too early to get all twitchy about it. But please read it anyway.

When Michael Ruhlman publishes a cookbook of any sort, I pay attention. My favorite food writer not only writes beautifully but approaches cooking methodically, thinking in ratios and master formulas, approaching food from standpoint of science. If, like me, you were reared in the kitchen on the shows of Alton Brown, you need to read the works of Michael Ruhlman as the next step in your culinary education.

Ruhlman’s Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient came out earlier this year, and it is devoted to that one indispensable ingredient, the one item in your fridge that really ties the whole room together. He approaches the egg from every angle, all the different ways you can prepare it on its own or use it as a building block in other recipes. That means you get instructions for all of the basic egg dishes – fried, poached, scrambled, hard- and soft-boiled, shirred, baked, and more. Ruhlman’s poaching technique is one I haven’t seen before, and it is easier to anything I’ve tried before, with better results.

The real value in the book, though, is the long list of techniques and recipes that use the egg as a building block. You’ve got the ones you’d expect – the hollaindaise (traditional and blender), the mayonnaise, the meringue, the custards – but also a huge series of dishes, especially cakes and desserts, that all rely on the egg for structure, emulsification, leavening, or cohesion. So while the book is about the egg, both how it works and how to use it, you’re getting a slew of useful recipes to put them to immediate use.

I’ve tried a handful of recipes already, with the typical high rate of success I’ve had from every Ruhlman cookbook I own. I posted a photo the other day of the corn-red pepper fritters I made from this book, a recipe that depends on the proteins in the egg to hold the batter together. Ruhlman’s a big fan of frying – responsibly, of course, working fast at a high temperature and getting the goods out before all the moisture is gone and they become sponges for oil. These fritters use a small amount of flour…

The dipping sauce is a chipotle-lime mayonnaise that you can make with store-bought mayo or with Ruhlman’s very simple homemade mayo recipe, which takes two minutes of whisking and will change everything you ever thought about mayonnaise. (I hate the stuff in the jar, but homemade is a sauce.) It’s also a great base for a long list of spreads or dips, many of which Ruhlman suggests.

The biggest hit in the house was the rum-soaked cherry and almond bread, even though I had a few small issues with the execution. You soak dried sour cherries in rum (!), then mix the dry ingredients except the baking powder with the wet and let it sit overnight. Then you add the baking powder and the cherries, drained and dusted with flour, and top the loaf with a streusel of sugar, butter, and a mix of flour and almond meal. The flavors are great, with cherry and almond a natural combination, but despite the flouring the cherries sank to the bottom of the loaf, and the streusel didn’t brown properly – in fact, some of the batter puffed up through it and pushed it out of the pan. We still loved the taste and the quick-bread texture with the crisp crust; next time I’ll try it without the overnight rest.

A close second: the potato-onion frittata, easily the best frittata I’ve ever made and probably the best I’ve ever eaten. The technique is simple, but Ruhlman’s instructions are precise, and the contrasting textures between the potato and egg made it something between a frittata and a Spanish tortilla. It’s a highly extensible recipe – swap out the vegetables, the cheese (his recipe called for cheddar, but I used gruyère), the herbs, whatever. If you have six eggs and a good skillet, you can figure the rest out.

Ruhlman also includes a duck hash recipe that calls for a poached duck egg, a delicacy I have not yet spotted at any farmer’s market here or at Whole Foods. The hash itself is glorious – chopped duck confit (or braised duck legs if you prefer) with potatoes and onions and some herbs to finish it. It’s also extensible; hashes are, by nature, a way to use what’s left over in the fridge.

What I have not yet gotten to try from Egg is the lengthy list of desserts, some rather decadent. You’ve got your profiteroles and your brownies, of course, but you’ve also got chocolate/mocha cake, coconut cream cake, mango-lime semifreddo, bourbon brioche bread pudding, île flottante, and chocolate espresso Kahlua souffle. There’s also yet another recipe for homemade marshmallows, this one using honey rather than liquid glucose, which I assume is to keep the sugar syrup from crystallizing while you cook it to the soft-crack stage. So, needless to say, I still have some work to do.

If you don’t have Ruhlman’s Twenty, I’d suggest you get that before you pick up Egg, but really you should own both and Ruhlman’s Ratio too.

As a side note, amazon (to whom I always link, as their affiliate program provides nearly all the income I earn from this site, because I don’t and won’t belong to any ad services) is in a lengthy dispute with Ruhlman’s publisher, Little Brown/Hachette, over ebook pricing. You can buy the Kindle edition for $15, but if you want an indie bookstore option, you can buy Egg through that link, which uses a pretty new independent bookstore affiliate program I’m trying out. I’m still pretty pro-amazon in general, but if you who want to go a different route for ethical reasons, here’s an option.

Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook.

My weekly Klawchat transcript is up. I have filed a 2015 draft top 30 ranking, but it’s not up yet.

Harold Dieterle is probably familiar to most of you as the winner of the first season of Top Chef back in 2005, when he was just 28 years old. (I suddenly feel lazy and underachieving.) He’s also a rabid baseball fan, and a fellow Long Islander, so we have followed each other on Twitter for some time and talked both sports and food. He was kind enough to send me a copy of his first cookbook, Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook, which just came out earlier this month.

The volume is really two books in one: a standard cookbook of recipes, most of which are on the intermediate to expert level, due to techniques or harder-to-obtain ingredients (I’d love to try goat neck, but I’m not even sure where to start to ask for it); and a reference work that really does look like a chef’s “notebook,” which thoughts on how to pick out or use various ingredients from the common to the exotic (I don’t think I’ve ever seen another cookbook discuss huckleberries), and brief sketches of dishes involving each one. Given the size of my collection and the number of recipes here that involve shellfish – to which my wife is allergic – I’ve found the notebook part much more valuable and interesting than the recipes.

I did try a few recipes as I do for any cookbook I review, with mixed results. The pancetta-wrapped pork tenderloin was a hit – how could it not be? – as was the side salad of shaved Asian pear and endive with a simple lemon juice/EVOO vinaigrette. My daughter, no fan of salads in general or bitter vegetables in particular, loved it, and has since consumed an Asian pear a day (not a cheap habit, but at least it’s a healthful snack). Getting the pancetta thin enough to wrap the pork was difficult, and I needed more than the 2 ounces of pancetta per tenderloin to get good coverage. The recipe’s rutabaga puree didn’t work out well for me; I had no problem cooking the root vegetable, but needed half to three-quarters of the dairy called for to get the right texture. Some of that is on me for not thinking about adding a little liquid at a time, and some is on the book for measuring everything in volume but not weight. (I’m an absolute stickler on this subject now; I have two scales in my kitchen and I am damn sure going to use them.)

His asparagus gnudi (a hand-shaped pasta made with ricotta in the dough) were outstanding, although anything that dairy-heavy is tricky for my lactose-hating metabolic system … but he also includes a recipe for making your own ricotta, which might allow me to make a form less antagonistic to my stomach, or even to make something fun like goat’s milk ricotta. The recipe called for rolling out the gnudi to 1 1/2 inches thick, but I believe that’s a typo and should be 3/4” instead. The best part of the gnudi recipe was the Parmiggiano-Reggiano broth, made with rinds you can save from the cheese you use or you can buy (for too much money, really) at any decent supermarket or cheese chop); I strained out what was left and had it the next day as a starter soup with some grilled bread. His lemon gnocchi, a side recipe to be served with swordfish confit, worked well as long as I cooked the potato a lot longer than the time the recipe called for – it has you roasting it in the skin, but I might cube and steam it instead to get there faster, even though that preserves more moisture.

I have yet to tackle the dessert section – I need company for that kind of undertaking – but there’s a warm flourless chocolate and peanut butter soufflé cake with coffee crème Anglaise in here, and five varieties of scratch doughnuts, including vanilla, nutella, and foie gras mousse-filled versions.

The notebook pages live throughout the book, next to a recipe that calls for a particular ingredient or technique, at which point Dieterle goes on what reads like a length digression about, say, huckleberries, farro, saffron, goat cheese, sausage (with recipes for five different kinds), or duck fat. It’s like downloading from a chef’s brain – as if you sent in a query that said “tell me what I can do with watermelon” and you get back five recipes, some obvious, some less so (watermelon and jícama chimichurri). He tells you how to make that Parmiggiano broth and four things to do with it. He tells you how to candy, brandy, or pickle cherries. Sunchokes, a vegetable I love and yet never think of cooking, get an entry that describes them and gives four suggestions. He even follows the S’mores recipe with instructions for making your own marshmallows (although it calls for “liquid glucose,” so I’m on the prowl for that too).

The recipes do require a higher skill level than most other cookbooks aimed at the mass market, and you’ve got to be near a major city or a great set of farmers to find all of the ingredients. If you have some experience in the kitchen, however, there’s nothing in here that I found out of reach, and coming up with substitutions or just doing part of one recipe and part of another isn’t hard. It’s an invaluable resource as a reference and idea generator, the way I feel about The Flavor Bible (a book without recipes, listing what ingredients pair well with what other ingredients), another book I turn to repeatedly when I want inspiration more than I want instruction. So if you need me, I’ll be at Whole Foods looking for sunchokes.

The Supper of the Lamb.

Robert Farrar Capon was an Episocopal priest who, like me, had an abiding if entirely amateur interest in food and cooking, and he combined both of those passions with his love of writing in the seminal “culinary reflection” The Supper of the Lamb, a peculiar tome that isn’t quite a cookbook, isn’t exactly a book on faith, but weaves them together with some truly superb High-English prose. Capon passed away in September at 88, but this book is now back in print thanks to Modern Library.

While The Supper of the Lamb is more about food than religion, at least superficially, you’re going to get a heavy dose of one if you want to get to the other. Capon’s faith is traditional and unapologetic, and he’ll jump from comments on biodiversity and evolution to marveling over the depth and breadth of God’s creation. In that sense, it’s a narrowly themed book – Capon expounds upon God’s infinite grace, and he’s not going to stop to ask if you’re completely along for the ride.

It’s a ride worth taking even if you’re only interested in the other half, however. Looking at our world and the bounty of edible items within it with a greater sense of wonder will, or should, improve our appreciation of the plate before us, and help us reorient our thinking away from processed and packaged foods and more toward cooking with the foods available in nature. Capon’s approach is no-nonsense – while conceding a few guilty pleasures from the supermarket, he rails against the trend, already evident in the 1960s when he wrote the book, toward outsourcing home-cooking to big corporations and toward a disconnection between us and the things we eat.

The book revolves around the lamb supper of the title, an allusion to the marriage supper of the Lamb found in Revelations 19, and to the central dish of the work, “Lamb for eight persons four times,” a dish that pays homage to the meat (a whole leg of lamb) by using every last bit of flavor it has to offer, including soup made from the bones and trimmings. Capon uses this series of recipes as a departure point for his meditations on faith, grace, and useless kitchen tools.

It’s not, for me at least, a book from which to learn about cooking; if you learn anything from Capon about food, it will be about the philosophy of the kitchen and less about practical tips or techniques. I enjoyed his writing more than any other aspect of the work, though, as Capon was erudite and witty, such as in his praise of the cleaver (even now a scarcely-seen knife in home kitchens_:

A woman with cleaver in mid-swing is no mere woman. She breaks upon the eye of the beholder as an epiphany of power, as mistress of a house in which only trifles may be trifled with – and in which she defines the trifles. A man who has seen women only as gentle arrangers of flowers has not seen all that women have to offer. Unsuspected majesties await him.

Capon despises the double boiler, as does Alton Brown today, and he praises wooden utensils, as does Michael Ruhlman, although the two disagree on the utility of the wooden spoon. (Ruhlman prefers wooden spatulas for scraping, and I concur, using silicone spatulas – unavailable at the time of Supper‘s publications – in applications where a spoon might be more functional, such as scraping the bottom of a saucier.) He talks about white and brown stock, how to make them and why you need to do so if you want to cook real food and to not throw away all that flavor in the bones. (One shudders to think at what he’d say about the modern proliferation of boneless, skinless, flavorless chicken breasts.) He speaks in praise of wine and discusses the ideal corkscrew. He goes on – and on – about the making of puff pastry and its highest form of expression, the strudel dough, which seems like an inordinate amount of work even to me, who thinks nothing of curing my own bacon or making my own preserves.

Capon’s techniques were quite modern for his era, with a sound understanding of the science of the kitchen underpinning most of his suggestions, but his dishes read as very dated today. So does the chapter on hosting a proper dinner party, where Capon even argues for asking guests to come in black tie. It was a different era, I suppose, and for that I give thanks.

Next up: I just finished Jasper Fforde’s wonderful young adult novel The Last Dragonslayer, which is pretty much a regular Fforde book without all the swearing, and have moved on to George Eliot’s Adam Bede.

Cookbook recommendations, 2013.

I’ve only made small edits and additions to this post, which first appeared in November of 2012. The most significant change is the inclusion of two new books, including Richard Blais’ first cookbook, which I review towards the end of the post.

If you want the quick-and-dirty shopping list version, here are three cookbooks I am always buying as gifts, especially for newlyweds who tell me they don’t really know how to cook:

  • Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto
  • Joy of Cooking (1997 edition)
  • Baking Illustrated
  • I’m often asked to recommend a cookbook for readers – maybe for a novice, maybe as a wedding gift for someone, maybe for someone changing his/her diet – but I haven’t done an omnibus cookbook post in two years. With a few really strong new ones entering my collection this year, it seemed like a good time to revisit the subject.

    Just for background, I’m mostly a self-taught home cook. I’ve never taken a cooking class. When I was in grad school, I was free every day around 2 or 3 pm, while my wife, a preschool teacher at the time, would get home at 5:30 and be exhausted, assuming she hadn’t caught one virus or another from the kids, so I took over the cooking. At first, I was pretty awful at it, both in terms of the end product and in my capacity to injure myself through fire or blade. I must have really enjoyed the process, though, because as opposed to my usual habit of giving up on anything I wasn’t good at the first time, I decided to figure out how not to suck at cooking.

    My two main sources of early cooking instruction were Alton Brown’s Good Eats TV series and the 1997 edition of the classic American cookbook Joy of Cooking. With Good Eats airing in repeats on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel, you can just set up your DVR to record them rather than buying the overpriced DVD sets, but the companion books, starting with Good Eats: The Early Years, are worth owning for the revised (usually re-tested) recipes and the commentary on each episode. Brown’s techniques always revolve around sound science and increased efficiency, whether it’s a faster way of doing something or a way to reuse an existing kitchen tool for a new purpose. He’s goofy – belching yeast sock-puppets are just never not funny – but always educational. And of all of his recipes that I’ve tried (more than I can count), only one, the squash dumplings, didn’t work for me, and that was fixed in the companion book.

    Joy of Cooking is always my first recommendation for people who are either just learning to cook or who are looking for one cookbook to rule them all. There are many editions available and there are some wide variations from one to the next, but the ’97 version has served me extremely well for its tremendous breadth of recipes – that’s still my go-to book even for Italian classics like pesto Genovese or shrimp scampi – and for the clear, logical recipes. For this edition, the publisher hired food writers to rewrite most of the recipes in the book, losing the folksy prose that charmed readers of earlier editions, but ensuring that the recipes were easy to follow and worked properly. Each recipe in Joy lists the ingredients in bold face at the point in the recipe where they’re used, rather than listing them all at the top. If you don’t succumb to the temptation to skip your mise en place – prepping and measuring ingredients before you start any cooking – this makes it much easier to follow the recipes and reduces the odds that you’ll skip an ingredient.

    If you’re interested in preserving fruits or vegetables, I have used Joy of Cooking: All About Canning & Preserving for nearly a decade. It’s out of print but amazon has used copies for $4 and up at that link.

    The new essential cookbook that I recommend to readers of any experience level is Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto, a book I own myself and have given away as a gift. Its recipes require a slightly higher skill level than Joy, but Ruhlman’s twenty section essays – on basic techniques like poaching, braising, and frying, or core ingredients like onions, eggs, and salt – build up your knowledge on each subejct from the ground up. It’s the kind of book that might intimidate a rookie but, if you try some of the recipes, will leave you impressed with your own capabilities. I reviewed Ruhlman’s Twenty in full last November.

    (I should say I’m a firm believer in the adage that if you can read, you can cook. Cooking is not an innate skill that some of us have and some of us lack. It takes attention, it takes patience, it helps if you understand some basic math and science, but at its heart, cooking is about following instructions. Follow those, and you’ll produce something worth eating.)

    Ruhlman’s earlier book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, is another must-have but is for intermediate home cooks and above because it makes assumptions about the reader’s experience and comfort level with certain techniques or foods. The book’s recipes are largely presented as ratios that can be scaled up to produce the desired quantity. If you want to make biscuits, you need 3 parts flour to 1 part fat to 2 parts liquid. The specifics are largely up to you, and there are brief discussions of your options, but again, Ruhlman is largely assuming you know how a biscuit or a Hollandaise or pâte à choux and is describing each recipe in terms of its foundation.

    For anyone looking to eat more vegetables, whether or not you’re a vegetarian, I now have two strong recommendations. One is Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, which I reviewed in September. Ottolenghi isn’t a vegetarian but every recipe in this book is, with vegetables always the star ingredients, often augmented by butter and/or cheese, but mostly prepared in ways that evoke the essential flavors of the central vegetable. Cutting and browning endives in butter and a little sugar before coating them with cheese and bread crumbs and baking them helps bring out some of this chicory relative’s sugars while taming its strong bitter flavors to a point where the cheese (gruyere or talleggio) can at least compete for your attention. I’ve also found his mixed sauteed mushroom recipe, with soft goat cheese used in lieu of sour cream, to be a great hearty sauce over fresh whole-wheat papparedelle for a warm winter main course.

    The other vegetable-centric cookbook is Nigel Slater’s Tender, easily the most beautifully shot cookbook in my collection. Slater is a very famous food writer in England who has just a small cult following here, but Tender deserves a much wider audience for its focus on vegetables from seed to table. His gardening advice hasn’t helped me much because you can’t get a much wider gap between soil types than England and Arizona, but his dishes, many of which do contain meat but still accentuate the vegetables, are subtle showstoppers, turning some very ordinary veg – the more mundane and kid-unfriendly the plant, the more Slater seems to adore it – into warm, glowing, gorgeous dishes. Tender is the book that got me to buy and cook an actual pumpkin (not from a can), a process that, with about a tablespoon of added brown sugar led to this:

    For the advanced home cook – or even the professional – in your life, go for The Flavor Bible, which isn’t a cookbook at all. The authors, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, interviewed dozens of professional chefs about what ingredients went well together, and tabulated the results in this book. Look up an ingredient in The Flavor Bible and you’ll find a long list of good partners, with ingredients that were mentioned more often earning bolded entries. For example, parsnips are in season right now in much of the country, and the parsnip entry first says they should always be cooked, and work well when baked, boiled, braised, fried, grilled, mashed, pureed, roasted, or steamed. When the authors asked chefs about parsnips, the most-mentioned ingredients were butter (including browned butter) and nutmeg, both appearing in bold, capital letters. Bolded entries, mentioned less often than those two ingredients, include apples, chives, cream, curry, garlic, ginger, maple syrup, olive oil, parsley (a relative of parsnip and carrots), pepper, potatoes, sage, salt (duh), brown sugar, thyme, and root vegetables. The entry also includes about fifty other ingredients that work well with parsnip and were mentioned at least once by the interviewed chefs, and then concludes with five “flavor affinities,” combinations like parsnips + honey + mustard or parsnips + butter + cream + potatoes. Some entries have “Holy Grail” pairings, marked with an asterisk and mentioned by a large portion of the chefs they interviewed, like plums and Armagnac or lamb and rosemary, and some entries have “avoid” sections, like parsley and dessert. There are even sections for national cuisines – if you want to know what flavors work well in Afghan or Eastern European cuisines, for example, they’ve got you covered. What The Flavor Bible doesn’t do, however, is tell you what to do with these pairings. There are assorted quotes from celebrity chefs describing specific dishes, but the book contains no recipes. They assume you have the recipes and techniques and are looking for inspiration.

    The best book I’ve found for desserts, and one of only two America’s Test Kitchen books I own, is Baking Illustrated, which has most of the basic desserts you’d want to make, including a pie crust (for lattice tops, like the one in my Twitter avatar, but functional in any pie) that works as reliably as any I’ve ever tried. The writing can be cloying, especially when they go into more detail on failed kitchen experiments than I ever needed (if you’re going to describe something that didn’t work, at least make it funny), but the recipes work and their pumpkin pie is bar none the best I have ever tasted, one I make at least once every year.

    For bread baking, I am an unabashed acolyte of Peter Reinhart and own several of his books, including The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Whole Grain Breads (most of the same breads as the first book, but in whole-wheat, multi-grain, and 50/50 variations), and the more accessible Artisan Breads Every Day. His pizza doughs are pretty foolproof; I add a tablespoon of vital wheat gluten to his 100% whole wheat pizza dough and it’s strong enough to stretch it to translucency without tearing. (Sometimes I tear it anyway because I’m clumsy like that.) His pain a l’ancienne white-flour baguettes from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice are absurdly easy if you have a stand mixer or food processor (this $100 Cuisinart model is the current version of the one I’ve used for fifteen years) and never fail to get raves when I bring them to friends. I’ve made his focaccia, his cinnamon rolls, his struan, his challah, his pitas, and his wild yeast starter, which I kept going for about a year and a half until we packed up the house in Massachusetts. His books even have recipes for international breads like pumpernickel, panettone, hutzelbrot, and stollen, as well as Ethiopian injera and crackers like lavash and graham. Go with Artisan if you’re a bread-baking rookie, or the others if you have more experience or want books that will focus on baker’s ratios and allow for more ingredient substitutions. I reviewed the first two books at length back in 2009.

    Three more quick recommendations:

    * If you’re adventurous in the kitchen, or if like me you’re a Top Chef fan, I highly recommend Richard Blais’ Try This at Home: Recipes from My Head to Your Plate, which I reviewed earlier this year. Blais’ style in his two runs on the show was highly inventive and sometimes just plain strange, but in a good way, and the cookbook mirrors a lot of that style. Our two favorites by far are his lemon-curd roast chicken (which later becomes a pressed chicken terrine, also found in the book) and his sweet potato gnocchi, the latter of which is the only way my daughter will eat sweet potatoes – and which she loves to mix and roll out with me. There’s also an extensive seafood section that I haven’t explored due to my wife’s allergy to shellfish, and Blais also starts with a number of condiments and side items like various pickled vegetables, sauces, vinaigrettes, and smoked items that you wouldn’t normally smoke, including aioli (mayonnaise). It’s a lot of fun but does assume at least a moderate skill level in the kitchen.

    * If you have a slow cooker, go with ATK’s Slow Cooker Revolution. I don’t own the full book, but have a magazine version they sold when the book first came out, including about a third of the main book’s recipes, and they’ve all worked on the first try, including a surprisingly flavorful bolognese sauce that makes enough to freeze for one or two future meals (you lose a little texture, but the flavors remain strong), a beef burgundy stew that gave us about three dinners’ worth, and a white chicken chili that is surprisingly low in fat.

    * I’ve recommended Julia Child’s slim $11 book Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, which does, indeed, include wisdom from the woman who introduced America to French cooking, in the past because Child was so influential and important that she belongs on this list, but her most famous cookbooks are already dated. This book focuses on the bare essentials in the kitchen, including the basic vinaigrette formula I’ve been using for years, mother sauce formulas, simple instructions for roasting or braising major cuts of meat, souffles, breads, custard, and even baking-powder biscuits so you can make strawberry shortcakes.

    * A cookbook I’ve owned for a few months but haven’t been able to use much yet: Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life, by the Persian writer Louisa Shafia. Focused on seasonal, plant-based recipes, it’s more useful for side dishes than mains, and the flavor profiles tend toward the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Persian ends of the scale, although she does include a number of east Asian ingredients including tofu, yuba, and agar-agar. Shafia also includes side notes on gardening, avoiding processed foods, and sustainable eating. If you’re concerned about matters like your carbon footprint or reducing your meat intake, it looks like an ideal book – but with the caveat that I have yet to begin my attack, starting with the Winter section.

    * Finally, two non-cooking books that are about food, written by very highly-regarded chefs: Yes, Chef by the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef (and Top Chef Masters winner) Marcus Samuelsson; and Blood, Bones, and Butter, by self-taught chef/entrepreneur Gabrielle Hamilton, one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read.

Try This At Home.

Richard Blais’ Try This at Home: Recipes from My Head to Your Plate is the first cookbook from the Top Chef: All-Stars winner and general man-about-TV, bringing his odd and slightly twisted take on cooking to the masses with appealing and mostly easy-to-execute recipes. It’s well-written for a cookbook, with clear steps and plenty of side explanations of ingredients or techniques, as well as some appealing photography that also helped me envision some of the dishes as I cooked.

Blais succeeds most with dishes where he takes something familiar and adds an unexpected element or step, something best seen in his recipe for roast chicken, a standby dish for any home cook (especially if you value meals that produce leftovers or ingredients for the next meal) but one Blais takes in a new direction by adding spiced lemon curd. After brining the chicken, Blais rubs the curd on the chicken skin and between the skin and the meat, which adds flavor and fat to keep the breast meat moist and infuse the chicken with a slightly sweet lemon twist. Lemon curd is actually pretty easy to make, a simple custard boosted with butter rather than cream, and it’s an important technique to learn if you haven’t done it before. There’s nothing in this recipe a home cook can’t do, but the results are stellar – and the dish just keeps on giving, providing meat and juices for Blais’ Chicken Terrine (pressed into a mason jar, served cold or lukewarm with grainy mustard, pickles, crusty bread, and a little aioli), while also giving you the bones to make a simple stock that I used for a quick tortellini in brodo.

Another huge hit in our house is Blais’ Arroz con Pollo, which he says was inspired by his wife’s Honduran family’s cooking. It’s one of the few recipes in the book that’s “normal” – there’s no huge twist or unusual technique, just chicken thighs, vegetables, rice, and seasonings. Blais uses packaged seasonings that include MSG, because glutamates are the compounds responsible for the savory flavor called umami, although he explains how to make the seasoning mixture at home if you want to avoid MSG or just don’t like buying prefab seasoning mixes.

My daughter and I both loved Blais’ Sweet Potato Gnocchi, which he serves with kale, sage, and balsamic brown butter, although I steamed the sweet potatoes rather than baking them because it’s faster (about 20-25 minutes, versus 60 to 75 in the oven). The dough was easy to work with, and the basic formula and concept apply to just about any vegetable you can puree – I made a version with fava beans – and that offers a little sugar to caramelize when you finish them in the skillet. The gnocchi also freeze well.

The book includes a number of whimsical recipes, as you’d expect given Blais two turns on Top Chef, such as a potato chip omelet (which looks a lot like a Spanish tortilla), English muffin pizzas with a variety of toppings, and the French toast lollipops he made on “The Sunnyside Up Show” on PBS Sprout. I particularly appreciate the way he builds recipes with a core formula, such as the basic pickling brine; followed by a number of direct applications, like pickling peaches, radishes, and strawberries; and then several recipes that include the basic items you just made. He does the same with mustards, aiolis, vinaigrettes, and so on. He includes a recipe for the goulash he made for Wolfgang Puck on Top Chef: All-Stars, as well as a lengthy section of seafood dishes I haven’t tried because of my wife’s shellfish allergy (and just general distaste for items from the sea).

One reader asked if the book was appropriate for inexperienced home chefs, because it seemed like many recipes required advanced techniques or specialized equipment. There are a handful of recipes that call for a sous vide machine, but not enough to bother me (I don’t own one, and have no plans to get one), and a number that require something like this iSi whipped cream dispenser, which I do own and love. I think the bigger leap for the novice cook is Blais’ adventurous taste level – this book will challenge your palate, as he combines ingredients you wouldn’t always put together, or presents familiar flavors with new textures. I need books like that, because I enjoy novelty in cooking and in eating, but your mileage may vary.

Full disclosure: I’ve eaten at Blais’ restaurants, once at his invitation, and received a free, signed copy of this book after I’d already bought one (I gave the unsigned copy to one of my editors). I’d recommend the book even if I didn’t know Richard at all.