DC eats.

Rose’s Luxury is consistently ranked among the best restaurants in the country, so well-regarded that it has spawned a cottage industry of people who will wait in line for you (RL does not take reservations) for a fee. We were very fortunate to have Kent Bonham (of collegesplits.com) local and willing to wait for us to get a table, and his efforts were not in vain as I think we all agreed it was a meal for the ages. Even with all we ordered – probably a little more food than was reasonable, but we wanted to try everything – and some booze, I think we only paid about $80-90 a person, which is very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food we got.

Rose’s menu varies often and comprises mostly small plates, with one or two larger ‘mains’ on it at any one time; with a table of six, we ordered one of everything (except the caviar offering) and got to work. I posted the menu on my Instagram feed (which reposts automatically to my public Facebook page), so I’ll hit the highlights. Their signature dish is the pork sausage salad with lychee, habanero, and peanuts, and it’s one of the most memorable things I’ve ever eaten because there is just so much going on in the dish yet it still manages to work . You’re supposed to just mix it all together, so each bite ends up this little explosion of sweet, spicy, savory, and tart all thrown together; I get the sense that this is supposed to feel like Thai street food, because it’s so bright and messy and satisfying but nothing special to look at. Several people, including Jack (@unsilent) Kogod, specifically said beforehand to get this dish, and they were spot on.

We ordered a second helping of the fried Brussels sprouts with tahini, eel sauce, and bonito; I’m a sucker for fried Brussels sprouts anyway, but this was also bursting with umami from the bonito and benefited from the dairy-like texture of the tahini (made from sesame or benne seeds). I also could have eaten the stuffed dates with walnuts and cultured butter pretty much all night, but again, dates stuffed with walnuts or almonds are one of my favorite things to eat. Raw oysters aren’t for everyone – I’ve long had to fight my Long Island-infused aversion to the things, since growing up there we only heard about pollution and contamination – but Rose’s are marinated in sake and wasabi and served with a little apple granita on top, so the oyster is more the vessel than the star, and that’s absolutely how I like it. I’d compare these favorably to Richard Blais’ “oysters and pearls,” where he serves the oysters with little frozen pearls of horseradish and a yuzu or other citrus vinaigrette on top.

Of the four pasta dishes we ended up with, the simplest one was the best – the hand-cut trenette con cacio e pepe, just a simple, freshly-made ribbon pasta with pecorino Romano, black pepper, and the starchy pasta water to thicken the sauce. It’s peasant food done up Roman style, with an expensive cheese instead of whatever’s on hand, but showcases the pasta beautifully. I thought the pasta in the rigatoni with tomato, eggplant, anchovy, and mint was a shade undercooked – too al dente for me, at least – although the sauce was really bright. We had one member of our party who has celiac disease, and the chefs were incredibly accommodating, making her a faux-risotto with Carolina gold rice and no end of butter to substitute for the pasta courses. There was also a straciatella special that came with long slices of focaccia that had been grilled and smeared with a rich garlic puree, and if you call those “breadsticks” I will come to your house and punch you in the face.

The main course the night we were there was a smoked brisket, served in thick slices, with Texas toast, a fresh horseradish-cream sauce, and a slaw of pickled vegetables, so everyone at the table could just make his/her own mini sandwich from it. I was just about out of gas by this point, so I went sparingly just to say I tasted it, and while the meat itself had a good texture, it was the horseradish sauce that stood out the most, making up for the fact that the beef didn’t have a lot of bark or a ton of smoke flavor to it.

Rose’s alcohol options are also very impressive for a restaurant that’s primarily a restaurant and not a bar that serves food – I know my friends were pleased with whatever wine they got, and I was impressed to see several aged rums, including Ron Zacapa’s Centenario 23, available. I also went back for coffee the next day to Rose’s sibling restaurant, Pineapple & Pearls, located next door. The back of P&P is a $250 a head tasting menu place, but during the morning and early afternoon, they serve third-wave coffee (Lofted for espresso, Parlor for drip) and a few small breakfast and lunch items, including the great breakfast wrap and these great little lemon-thyme shortbread cookies. If we’d been closer I would have gone there every morning. Both halves of P&P are closed on Mondays.

On Tuesday night I headed out with longtime partner in crime Alex Speier to All-Purpose, a pizza, pasta, and small plates place from the folks behind DC’s Red Hen and a recommendation from a reader, Jim H., who gave me tons of recs for my trip. All-Purpose’s menu has a lot of pork on it, but several small plates that focus on vegetables, as well as a couple of mainstay pasta options, six standard pizza configurations, and a chance to make your own pizza as well. We started with … wait for it … the fried Brussels sprouts (hey, they’re really good for you, at least until you fry them), which here come with horseradish cream, togarashi spice, and Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and I could have licked the plate clean if my parents hadn’t raised me correctly. The strange mixture of a Japanese spice mix with some real heat and the umami-rich Italian cheese worked well together, and I couldn’t get over how thoroughly cooked the sprouts were – I’ve had a lot of fried Brussels sprouts that were still a little underdone in the center and retained some bitterness, but these did not.

Kogod tipped me off beforehand that the eggplant parm dish was “the veteran move,” and Alex was game, so we got that as well as the Cosimo pizza, which has roasted mushrooms, taleggio cheese, truffle sauce, but no tomatoes, which I think was a sharp choice because the eggplant parm dish is like a smack in the face of huge tomato flavor. Eggplant is one of those items I would generally just pass over on a menu – I don’t hate it, but it’s always going to be near the bottom of my list of choices. A-P’s version makes the eggplant the structure but not the center of the dish – this is about the tomatoes and cheese, and if you’d given me some crusty bread to make it like an open-faced sandwich I could have just laid down on the floor afterwards and slept like a baby.

The pizza was solid, but a sort of in-between style that had the crispiness of Italian-style pizzas but was probably cooked at a lower temp, so the outside browned evenly rather than getting the puffy crust around the outside with bits of char around it. I prefer thinner crusts, but A-P’s held up well under the heavier toppings of this pizza, and I’m glad we went with a white pizza and went meatless for the whole meal given how much meat I consumed the night before at Rose’s and the next day at lunch (see below).

I probably should have skipped dessert, but A-P does a ‘rainbow cake,’ a larger version of the Italian flag cookies I grew up eating from New York bakeries and have made a number of times around the holidays. The cake was six layers of a sponge cake made with almond paste, dyed to form a pastel version of the Italian flag, with raspberry and apricot jams between the layers and a thin coating of dark chocolate on top. The hardest thing about making the cookies is getting the layers to cook evenly – the outer edge wants to try out before the center is truly cooked – but this was perfect despite the fact that the layers were thicker than you’d find in a cookie.

Across the street from All-Purpose, Smoked & Stacked is the new breakfast and lunch place from Marjorie Meek-Bradley, who appeared on Top Chef Season 13 and made it to the final four, with the menu focused on their house-made pastrami. I don’t particularly care for pastrami; I loathe corned beef, but pastrami is smoked after the same kind of curing process, giving it a different taste and much better texture. S&S’s most basic sandwich is the Messy, which has pastrami, Comte cheese, sauerkraut, and slaw on very good rye bread, and it is indeed messy, as the bread can barely handle all the liquid coming from the fillings. It’s also more than I typically eat for lunch, but I ate the whole thing anyway because the bread was so damn good.

I ate one significant meal at National Harbor, at Edward Lee’s southern restaurant Succotash, which was certainly fine for a meal served to a captive audience but nothing I’d go out of my way to eat. The skillet cornbread was the best thing we ate, a traditional southern (that is, it had no sugar) cornbread served in the cast-iron skillet with sorghum butter. The fried catfish I had was good if a little pedestrian – I’ve had this same dish lots of times before and there was nothing special about this one. They make a good Old-Fashioned, though. These fake shopping villages kind of give me the creeps – it’s like they’re trying to create what’s great about a city and build it from the top down in a remote area, in this case a good 20 minutes outside of DC, rather than stay in the actual city and build it up organically. And the traffic situation down there has apparently just gotten worse now that the MGM Casino opened the day after we all left; the roads in/out of National Harbor are not built to handle volume, and driving within the complex just to get to the hotel where I stayed (the AC) was a complete pain in the ass.

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.

Thanksgiving cooking tips.

I’ll chat today at 1 pm ET, and I’ve got two Insider posts up now, one on the Astros’ moves last week and one on moves by the Cardinals, Twins, and Rangers, plus a small Rays-Mariners trade.

With Thanksgiving approaching and cooking questions picking up on Twitter, I figured I’d throw some random thoughts and tips I’ve got for making Thursday’s meal successful and less stressful. (None involve drinking, although I am not averse to that as a solution.) I’m happy to answer questions in the comments or in the chat today too.

  • Dry-brine and spatchcock your turkey. This is by far the easiest method I’ve ever employed of cooking a turkey, and it cooks more quickly and evenly than the typical Normal Rockwell-picture method. Plus the skin comes out salty and crisp. Serious Eats has the recipe with pictures. You will only need some kosher salt, a sheet pan with a rack that fits in it, and a decent thermometer for measuring the temperature of the meat. Don’t cook it by time, or by that stupid minutes-per-pound measure (that’s like looking at pitcher wins and saves). Cook by temperature.
  • Season your gravy with soy sauce. I’ve started putting soy sauce in every sauce I make for any meat other than fish and for any strongly-flavored vegetables. It’s one of the most umami-dense ingredients in your kitchen, along with Parmiggiano-Reggiano and fish sauce or anchovies, and soy sauce adds all that umami without becoming a dominant flavor like those other ingredients do. A dash of fish sauce in a quart of gravy wouldn’t hurt either, and I have also started using white miso in many sauces too for the same purpose.
  • While I’m talking gravy, yes, a flour-based roux is traditional and probably gives better texture, but if you use a cornstarch slurry you’ll get gravy without lumps and a faster, more stable thickening. Plus it’s gluten-free, which matters at my table this year.
  • You’re probably used to having salt out in a bowl or ingredient cup so you can grab a pinch as needed. For large meal mise en place, I do the same with pepper: I throw a tablespoon or two of peppercorns in my spice grinder and then put the results in a second cup near the cooking area. That way I can grab a pinch as needed and don’t have to mess with a hand grinder.
  • Choose side dishes that cook around the same temperature. Most of the sides I make cook at 350 or 375, enough that they can all go in at 350 and maybe cook a few extra minutes if the recipes called for the higher temp. Anything that requires a higher temperature can go in with the turkey near the end of its cooking time to take advantage of the already-warm oven; when the bird comes out, drop the temp, put in the sides that cook at 350, with the plan to serve everything when those dishes come out.
  • I’ve said this before, but try to do as much prep or outright cooking as you can the day or evening before, and save Thursday for the turkey and for just the final cooking stages. The last few years I’ve started with a soup, which I made and chilled ahead, then reheated served while I was finishing the sides; and have assembled entire dishes the night before and just baked them after the turkey came out.

Any questions?

Salted caramel rum ice cream.

So I posted a video and a picture on my Instagram feed of this salted caramel rum ice cream, the video showing the sugar caramelizing and the picture showing the final product. That generated a few recipe requests, so here’s my best rendering of what I did, because I winged it at a few points.

If you’ve never made caramel, it is chemistry in motion and the movement of the sugar through various stages never ceases to fascinate me … but it’s also a bit dangerous, as the sugar will reach temperatures well above boiling, and if it splashes at all, it will stick to your skin. Don’t skip the corn syrup in the recipe; the addition of an additional sugar beyond sucrose prevents sugar crystals from forming, which would prevent caramelization.

You’ll need an ice-cream maker of some sort for this, as well as a metallic whisk, and I recommend a heatproof silicone spatula for stirring the custard once the eggs are integrated.

Salted rum caramel ice cream

1 vanilla bean
1 cup white sugar
1 Tbsp light corn syrup
¼ cup water
1.5 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk (2% or higher)
6 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp rum
large pinch of salt

1. Whisk egg yolks to an even blend in a large bowl and set aside.

2. Split the vanilla bean and scrape out the interior seeds into a sauce pan with the sugar, corn syrup, and water. Warm over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, then boil rapidly, occasionally brushing down the sides of the pan to remove any sugar crystals, until the mixture starts to turn brown, around 320 F/160 C. Swirl pan occasionally to ensure even heating and to prevent burning once the browning begins. When the entire mixture is a deep amber color (around 340 F), turn off the heat.

3. Add cream to the pan carefully (it may splatter), then return to low heat and whisk or stir to dissolve all solids. Add milk and heat to a simmer.

4. Slowly pour the hot mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, to temper the eggs. (If you pour too fast, you’ll just scramble the yolks.) Return the entire mixture to the saucepan and heat over medium-low, stirring constantly until the custard reaches 170 F/76 C. (The heatproof rubber spatula will let you scrape the bottom of the pan to prevent any of the mixture from overcooking.)

5. Remove the pan from the heat and add the rum and salt. Store in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, process in an ice cream maker; mine took about 25 minutes to reach the right texture. Freeze until firm.

If you enjoyed this, check out my annual list of cookbook recommendations or my gift guide for cooks too!

The Third Plate.

Chef Dan Barber first came to my attention with his 2010 TED talk “How I Fell in Love With a Fish,” where he describes his visits to the Spanish fish farm Veta la Palma in Spain, which defies almost everything we think we know about aquaculture. Veta la Palma is an open, integrated operation that connects its waterways to the Mediterranean and thrives because the fish – primarily bass but also grey mullet, which plays a large role in Barber’s new book – are part of the larger ecosystem of the farm, attracting fish from the outside environment with clean waters rich in food for each of those species. It’s a new paradigm in raising fish for human consumption, one that doesn’t keep the fish in unnatural conditions that would require dosing them with antibiotics or feeding them with artificial products that might keep yields high but are unsustainable (if not damaging) and don’t produce flavorful fish.

Barber’s 2014 book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, expands on the concept he explored in that TED Talk, reconsidering how to feed the world in a way that’s environmentally sustainable, sufficiently nutritious, and – let’s not forget – produces tasty food. While some of what Barber prescribes, such as reducing the prominence of meat in the American diet, is obvious, much of it is not unless you’ve spent a lot of time on a working farm. (I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Barber himself.)

The basic premise of Barber’s book isn’t new – our food system is broken, disconnecting diner from food source – but his approach to the question is novel. He points out the role that chefs play in determining food trends and consumer awareness, and that merely going “farm to table” is a superficial and ultimately insufficient way to try to fix the broken chain between the grower and the diner. He rightly decries the monoculture approach of modern agriculture – grow a lot of one specific plant or strain over and over, using synthetic nitrogen sources, antibiotics, herbicides and fungicides, and so on to maximize yields and reduce costs. But he points out that simply going organic doesn’t always address the real problems with Big Ag, as organic farms can be monocultures too and may use organic chemicals that aren’t actually any safer or more sustainable than their synthetic analogues.

Indeed, if there’s one common thread through all of Barber’s anecdotes – and he meanders extensively, both on the map and within the book – it’s soil. Traditional agricultural practices centered on soil health: crop rotation, composting, cover crops, plowing under, encouraging anything, even “weeds,” that might benefit the soil. Modern practices, whether “conventional” or organic, ignore soil quality or health, instead using chemistry to provide an artificial supplement to soil that’s been depleted through malpractice. Healthy soil is teeming with microbes that make the soil more fertile and ultimately help produce healthier plants that contain more nutrients for us and can be more flavorful as well, but soil itself is part of a cycle that even what Barber calls “big organic” agriculture tries to circumvent. Whether your nitrogen source is synthetic or organic doesn’t really matter to soil health (although synthetic N is typically derived from petroleum and thus contributes to climate change and ocean acidification), because if you’re not feeding the soil, you’re just going to have to dump more N into it next year and every year after that.

Barber doesn’t limit himself to plants, although that’s understandably the main focus of the book. Barber talks extensively about the practices at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit research center that works with chefs and farmers to develop sustainable agricultural practices, including a working farm that supplies Barber’s Blue Hill restaurants, including one on site and one in New York City. Much of what he and his colleagues there discover around the world, such as the rare strain of ancient wheat they found in Aragon, Spain, or the long-forgotten eight-row corn strain that arrived at the farms one day, unsolicited, in a FedEx envelope, become experiments on the farm’s eight-plus acres. They’re raising some livestock now as well, using all parts of the animal on Blue Hill’s menus and using animal waste to supplement the biomass they till into the soil. Everything revolves around soil health and its connection to long-term sustainable agriculture. The farm isn’t just “organic,” because that’s as much a marketing term as anything else (and indeed isn’t clearly better for the environment than conventional ag); it’s searching for the best possible agricultural practices that will satisfy three goals simultaneously: feed the world now, feed it tomorrow, and make the food flavorful and nutritious too.

The Third Plate is a book of anecdotes, not one of research. Barber travels the world – he’s in Spain a lot in this book, poor guy – in search of these best practices. He goes to Veta la Palma, eats fish served with a phytoplankton sauce, visits the site of the annual almadraba bluefin catch, and hangs out in a Spanish dehesa that produces the world’s best cured ham, jamón iberico, as well as a form of natural foie gras that requires no force-feeding. He visits the Bread Lab at Washington State and plays around with cross-breeding wheat strains. He goes to the Carolinas to the farms that supply Anson Mills, the country’s main purveyor of artisanal strains of corn, rice, and other grains, including the story of how its founder managed to obtain some of his seeds from a family of moonshiners on the South Carolina coast. He talks at length about the grain farmers in upstate New York who supply much of the flour used at Blue Hill. But there isn’t a lot of data here. It’s easy to follow Barber’s logic and understand why these practices might be better for the soil, and thus for the planet and the future of our food supply, but the research isn’t cited here, and what I’ve found over the years, while tilted in favor of these practices, is scattershot. Soil health matters, but if there’s a comprehensive study that proves this, or even provides substantial evidence for it, it’s not here and I haven’t found it either.

However, The Third Plate is a compelling enough argument on its own that it should simultaneously change the way we eat and the policies we support. Going to a farmers’ market is great, but far from enough. Chefs who cook “farm to table” menus are helping, but it’s not enough. We need to think about eating the whole animal and, as Barber puts it, the whole farm too, emphasizing less-consumed cuts of meat, less-common fish in the food chain, less-common plants that might be part of a successful crop rotation scheme. Our diet has become highly specific, and only a fraction of what farmers might grow ends up food for people. Barber says that is going to have to change, something he lays out in an epilogue with a potential menu of the future. But it might be a change we embrace if it means we recapture lost strains of foods we consider ordinary now: a variety of wheat that carries notes of chocolate, a carrot with twice the sweetness of even good local carrots, a pork shank from an heirloom pig grilled over carbonized pig bones. Barber manages to make an environmental alarm reminiscent of Silent Spring that promises a food future that’s still appealing to our palates.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Richard Price’s 1992 novel Clockers.

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.

Top 40 pizzerias, ranked.

This won’t start any arguments.

I adore all kinds of pizza – New York-style, Neapolitan-style (thin crust, wet center), Roman-style (also thin-crust but with a cracker-like crust), Sicilian, coal-fired, wood-fired, whatever. Except “deep dish,” which is just a bread casserole and should be avoided at all costs. I try to find good artisan pizzerias everywhere I travel, and I’ve hit just about all of the most highly-regarded places in Manhattan and Brooklyn too. I grew up on Long Island, eating by the slice and folding as I did so, but a couple of trips to Italy convinced me of the merits of those very thin crusts and superior toppings. We’re the beneficiaries of a huge boom in high-end pizza joints in this country, and while I haven’t tried all of the good ones, I’ve been to enough to put together a ranking of the 40 best that I’ve tried. There is, I admit, a bias to this list – I’ve tried more places in greater Phoenix than any other metro area other than New York – and I’m sure I’ll get some yelling over where I put di Fara or Co. or Paulie Gee’s, but with all of that out of the way, here’s how I rank ’em. Links go to my reviews here on the dish.

1. Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix
2. Kesté, New York
3. Motorino, New York
4. Roberta’s, Brooklyn
5. Pizzeria Vetri/Osteria, Philadelphia
6. Frank Pepe’s, New Haven
7. Pizzeria Mozza, Los Angeles
8. Pizzeria Lola, Minneapolis
9. cibo, Phoenix
10. Lucali, Brooklyn
11. Forcella, New York
12. Pizzeria Stella, Philadelphia
13. Paulie Gee’s, Brooklyn
14. Don Antonio by Starita, New York
15. ‘Pomo, Phoenix
16. Marta, New York
17. Ribalta, New York
18. Totonno’s, Brooklyn
19. Via Tribunali, New York/Seatte
20. Federal Pizza, Phoenix
21. Il Cane Rosso, Dallas
22. Antico, Atlanta
23. City House, Nashville
24. Tarry Lodge, Port Chester, NY
25. Desano, Nashville
26. Franny’s, Brooklyn
27. Grimaldi’s, Phoenix
28. Il Bosco, Phoenix
29. Di Fara, Brooklyn
30. 800 Degrees, Los Angeles
31. Co., New York
32. Rubirosa, New York
33. Bar Toma, Chicago
34. Punch Pizza, St. Paul
35. Toro, Durham
36. Dolce Vita, Houston
37. Stella Rosa, Santa Monica
38. Grimaldi’s, Brooklyn
39. Basic, San Diego
40. Nicoletta, New York

There’s a long list of pizzerias I still need (okay, want, but where I’m concerned pizza is a need) to try, so they’re not on the list: Flour + Water & del Popolo in San Francisco, Apizza Scholls in Portland, A4 in Somerville (near Boston), 2 Amy’s in DC, Sottocasa in Brooklyn, al Forno in Providence, Pizzaiolo in Oakland, Mani Osteria in Ann Arbor, Vero in Cleveland, Iggie’s in Baltimore, Garage Bar in Louisville, Vinny & Jon’s in Los Angeles, and more. It’s a good time to be a pizza lover, and unless you have to be gluten-free, how could you not love pizza?

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

Andrew Lawler’s brand-new book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization doesn’t quite measure up to the bravado of its subtitle – it’s neither epic nor is it a saga – but it is full of fascinating anecdotes on the history and near-future of the bird that is the most important source of animal protein in the world.

Lawler’s story repeatedly takes us back to the modern domesticated chicken’s (Gallus gallus domesticus) ancestral roots in south and southeast Asia, where its distant relative, the red jungle fowl, still lives in remote areas but is under threat from deforestation and human predation. The story of its evolution – yep, I said it – into the tame, flavorless, fast-growing and productive egg-laying creatures we consume today is the strongest narrative thread in the book, as Lawler traces the bird’s move across land and sea, through several crazes of breeding and development, into an industrial revolution that have made chicken popular and cheap. Along the way, however, it’s lost most of its taste and been bred into a bird that suffers greatly during its short life, often unable to stand under the weight of its enormous breasts (stop snickering), as its musculoskeletal system doesn’t grow fast enough to support it by the time it’s shipped off for slaughter.

While the history of the bird was interesting, it’s Lawler’s notes on the present state of the chicken and the issues in the near future of poultry farming that formed the book’s most compelling passages. In a chapter that reminded me of Vice’s tremendous mini-documentary on foie gras, Lawler visits a traditional French chicken farm where the birds are raised as they were a century and a half ago, resulting in meat that’s much more flavorful and tender, but at a much higher cost. That ties into interwoven discussions (little in the book is linear) about animal rights and what might constitute cruelty to birds that appear to be much more intelligent than we typically assume; Lawler writes, “Chickens are excluded from US laws regulating humane treatment of animals raised as food, and there are no international regulations,” although he mentions that the EU bans battery cages and refuses to import US-grown poultry for health and safety reasons.

These digressions lead to the most horrifying aspect of the book – Lawler’s descriptions of the conditions of factory-farmed chicken, and how recent changes may not even be as positive as they seem on the surface. Dr. Janice Siegford at the Michigan State University’s Department of Animal Science says that her preliminary research indicates that “cage-free” may not be that much better for the birds than the old-style battery cages that (rightly) earned the ire of animal-rights activists. Cage-free birds are typically reared indoors, in giant aviaries that still keep the birds out of direct sunlight and away from their natural diet, all in the name of encouraging them to lay as many eggs as possible before they wear out after a year or so. Research into hen behavior in various settings seems to point to enhanced cages that grant more room to each bird while still giving them some of the privacy they seem to want while avoiding the violent behavior often exhibited by chickens in close quarters, even in the open environment of the aviary. (Irony alert: Michigan banned homeowners from raising chickens or any livestock in their yards. Gotta protect Big Egg, I guess.)

Lawler’s focus on telling the story leads to some unfortunate choices and mistakes along the way. He gives physical descriptions of the various experts, farmers, and executives he meets – I can’t think of anything less relevant to this story than a description of a professor’s haircut – but then refers to an unnamed paper by “two academics.” He botches an amusing tangent on the myth of the basilisk, which was supposedly born from an egg laid by a rooster (not a biological impossibility, as he later explains), by placing the creature’s appearance in the wrong Harry Potter book, and later misplaces Mali in sub-Saharan Africa when more than half the country is within that desert. The details themselves are unimportant to the whole narrative, but it’s a distraction that, when I’m reading any non-fiction book, makes me worry there are other mistakes I won’t catch.

In all fairness to Lawler, I wonder to what extent a narrative was pushed on him by his editors, as these food-history books don’t typically lend themselves well to that kind of structure; Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and Salt were both very well-received by critics and food-industry folk, but neither has anything resembling a narrative. Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World has an actual narrative – the fight between man and fungus – but he had the benefit of working with one of the few foodstuffs that has no genetic diversity whatsoever. Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi is one of the best food books I’ve ever read, but he wove a separate narrative of a session at a sushi-chef school around his story, allowing him to tie together chapters on different fish or sushi-making traditions that otherwise would have been separate essays connected only by theme. Lawler’s book stands up much better in that light, as a series of diverse commentaries and histories connected by a common subject without a unifying thread. It probably doesn’t need one, given how important the chicken and its eggs are to feeding the world, and if anything Lawler could probably write a Pollan-esque sequel expanding on the last few chapters on the future of poultry farming, explaining where that part of the industry needs to go to remain productive while improving the welfare of the birds themselves.

Next up: Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live.

My 2014 gift guide for cooks.

My analysis of the Mariners’ deal with Nelson Cruz is up for Insiders.

I’ve seen a few “Christmas gift guides for the cooks in your life!” go by already this fall, but most of them are like this one from Grub Street, with recommendations for things that no one could possibly need – a “rosemary stripper” (I have two of those; I call them “hands”); a “banana slicer” (use your paring knife, genius); a $140 toaster (makes toast); and a $1600 set of Thomas Keller-branded pans, which, unless he forged them personally out of pure adamantium, are a colossal fucking waste of money. These are not gifts to by the cook in your life; these are gifts to buy the person in your life who pretends to cook but really just likes playing with toys. Toys don’t make you a better chef; they just make you a less socially responsible one.

I do have a few pricier toys in my kitchen, but aside from one, they’re all highly functional, at the middle to low end of the price range for their jobs, and built to last a long time. I’ve had my chef’s knife for over a decade, my food processor for 17 years (new bowl but original motor), my Dutch oven for about eight years, and just replaced my 18-year-old stand mixer when we moved last June. You are free to call me cheap, but I think I’m just prudent. I’ll spend money in the kitchen if it gets me something I need. I will not spend money to get a famous name, a fancy design, or a paperweight to live at the back of a gadget drawer until we move again. If I can make do with something I already have in the house – binder clips, a (clean) putty knife, a (clean) paintbrush – I’ll gladly do that instead. I’d rather be cheap when it doesn’t matter and spend the money when half price means a quarter of the value.

Therefore, what I recommend here – for your cheffy friends or for yourself – is largely what I own and use. If what I own isn’t available, or isn’t good value for the price, I recommend something else. I am also willing to answer any and all questions about these or other suggestions; if I include it here, that’s an endorsement that it’ll be money well spent. I’ve already posted my cookbook recommendations in a separate entry.

The most important tool for any cook is a good chef’s knife, and I love my Henckels 8″ chef’s knife, the “four-star” model (which just refers to the handle style). It’s a workhorse, has only needed professional sharpening once, and is a comfortable grip and weight for my rather small hands. However, it’s $100, and I doubt it’s worth the premium over the $30 Victorinox 8″ chef’s knife, which America’s Test Kitchen has long recommended and, therefore, so have I.

The basic knives any home cook must have are a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a bread (serrated) knife. The bread knife is good for more than just slicing bread – serrated blades are safer for slicing tomatoes, and they’re excellent for chopping chocolate and other hard foods. I have another Henckels four-star model, also eight inches, but the same blade is available with a different handle for just $9. You might look at a 10” blade if you get a lot of large, artisanal loaves. Any strong paring knife will do, such as this OXO 3.5″ paring knife for $7. With a modicum of knife skills, you can tweak and hull strawberries with one of these without any risk to your fingers or waste of fruit. It’s also good for cutting citrus supremes, slicing apples and pears, pitting olives and cherries, and other fine-motor-skills work.

I do have two other knives I use frequently, but they’re not essential for most cooks. One is the santoku, a very sharp knife with a thin edge but wide body that’s ideal for slicing vegetables and hard fruits; I recommend a 7” blade, which you can get in this two-santoku Henckels set for $21 and just … I don’t know, regift the 5” version or something, because I can’t see any use for it. I also own this exact Henckels boning knife, which is ideal for breaking down a whole chicken – it’s substantially cheaper to buy a whole chicken (sometimes called a broiler-fryer, usually 3-5 pounds total weight) and cut it into parts, and you get the bones to make stock – or for deboning other cuts of meat like short ribs. Some folks recommend a flexible blade instead, but I have never used that kind so I can’t give an opinion. I do not own a home sharpener.

My pots and pans aren’t a single set any more; I have some remnants from an All-Clad anodized aluminum set I got with rewards points in 2001, but have swapped out certain pieces to get better nonstick (coated) skillets. What you really should get for your loved one (you may include yourself in that category) is a a 12″ Lodge cast-iron skillet, an absolute workhorse that can handle about 90% of what I need from a skillet or a saute pan. I still use a nonstick skillet for egg dishes, and a saucier (sadly one that’s no longer made) for sauces or custards, but the Lodge skillet is past a decade old and just keeps getting better. The work of seasoning them is nowhere near as arduous as you’ve heard.

If you want to splurge on something, get an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, great for soups, stews, braises, deep-frying, jam-making, and caramelizing huge batches of onions. Cast-iron doesn’t distribute heat well, but it holds heat for a long time. These pots are heavy, but I use mine for every saucepan duty that doesn’t involve boiling water or cooking grains on their own. They go stove to oven (as do the skillets) and can take the hours of low heating required for a proper braise. I own a Le Creuset that I got on sale at an outlet store because the color was discontinued; if you’re not quite that fortunate, try the 7.8 quart Lodge model for $85.


                           Isn’t she lovely?

I don’t own a proper mandolin slicer, but I do pretty well with a handheld mandolin for about $20 that works great for things like root-vegetable chips or thinly slicing onions. I love this digital instant-read thermometer, which at $10 is cheap enough that I don’t feel bad when inevitably I drop it into something and ruin it. (I’ve only done that once.) Amazon tells me that I bought my Microplane classic grater in November of 2003, and I’ve had their coarse grater for almost that long. The former is great for zesting citrus fruits or grating nutmeg; the latter is ideal for creating a snowfall of hard cheese over a pasta dish. In that same 2003 order, I bought my first Silpat silicone baking mat; I now own two and won’t bake cookies without them.

I own two scales – a chef I’m friends with on Twitter made fun of me for this – one, this American Weigh pocket scale for weights up to about 2 kg, which is ideal for precise measurements like grams of coffee (more on that in a moment), and a larger scale that’s long discontinued. This $13 Ozeri scale looks like a more than adequate replacement, measuring up to 12 kg; I rarely need to measure more than about two pounds of anything, maybe a little more for some large-batch baking but that’s about it. You need at least one good scale if you’re serious about baking, though; the best bread and pastry recipes all use grams, not cups or liters. I’ve also done horrible things to this digital oil and candy thermometer over the ten years or so that I’ve had it, including making forty or more batches of jam, dozens of batches of macarons, and engaging in numerous deep-frying experiments, and it still rocks. You absolutely must have one of these to make caramel, any kind of jam or preserves, or true buttercream frosting.

Other things I always appreciate getting or often end up buying for myself: Wooden spatulas (not spoons), silicone spatulas, good (not decorative) metal measuring spoons, Pyrex or similar measuring cups for liquids (never measure liquids in a plastic cup designed for measuring solids).

Now, for the expensive stuff:
* I believe this Cuisinart classic 7-Cup food processor is what I own; we got ours in 1996, and in all that time I’ve just had to replace the plastic bowl, which cracked during a move. At $100, it is an essential, at least in my mind; it makes so many things easier, from pie doughs and biscuits to pesto and hummus and nut butters and mayonnaise (although I do that by hand because I’m a wacko) … and the pumpkin pie I make every Thanksgiving.

* I have this Vitamix 1782 TurboBlend “food preparing machine” (it’s a blender, stupid), and it’s amazing. I can make smooth vegetable soups with it, no cream required; don’t toss those broccoli stalks, just peel, quarter, and roast them, then blend them with some vegetable stock and season to taste, maybe with some basil oil and toasted pumpkin seeds on top. It’s nearly $400, however, too much if you’re just making milkshakes and smoothies (and there is nothing wrong with just making milkshakes and smoothies). You’ll probably be fine with just a basic blender and the food processor.

* I have the 5-quart KitchenAid stand mixer, which is down to $229 right now after a $50 rebate. I kind of wish I had the next model up, mostly for bread-baking, which is still a bit of a chore for this model, but it’s great for everything else – mixing up cookie dough, brownie batter, quick breads, whipped cream, and Italian meringues (for macarons). The pasta-maker attachment is overpriced, but it does the job, and the grinder attachment has been good for me in a handful of uses, especially for turning stale bread into bread crumbs.

* Coffee is my big kitchen weakness, at least when it comes to spending money; I’m fortunate to have a few friends in the industry (whom I met through social media) who work for direct-trade roasters and have tipped me off to good sources of coffee and helped me pay for the gear I own, which is wonderful but expensive. The Baratza Virtuoso burr grinder is the least expensive grinder of its kind and caliber; when my first one had an issue with the motor, I sent a quick video of it jamming to Baratza and had a new machine within two weeks. I do make pour-over coffee at home using this 8 ceramic dripper, but my preference is espresso, for which I use a Rancilio Silvia machine that is a wonder. The boiler is huge, so it bounces back quickly between shots and you can heat up the steam wand before your shots go cold. If you get your ratios right (for me it’s 17.5 to 19 grams per double shot, depending on the bean and roast), you’ll get great crema, 32-35 grams of output in 25-30 seconds, with almost no bad pulls. I use it every morning and I miss it when I travel.

I’m also a big fan and customer of Penzey’s, a chain of spice stores that also does a brisk mail-order business. They offer gift boxes and a la carte purchases; I buy nearly all my bulk spices from them as well as vanilla beans and Dutch-processed cocoa powder. Buy a box of bay leaves and a jar of whole nutmeg seeds and the recipient will have reason to remember your gift for years to come.

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.