The year in cookbooks

Ever wondered how we go about picking the cookbooks we cover in this newspaper? And, of the dozens of new cookbooks that arrive in the mail, day in and day out, how we choose the year’s best?

I’d love to tell you that it’s an orderly, systematic process: that we scrutinize every word and test every recipe; attach score sheets to every cover; grade every volume as if it were a math quiz. (Ronni Lundy, 98. Anthony Bourdain, 81. Nikki Dinki … well, never mind.)

Except that’s not how it works. (Thank goodness, since such a schoolmarmish process doesn’t sound very fun.)

The truth of the matter is that our cookbook-screening committee — essentially two people: Ligaya Figueras, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s senior editor for food and dining, and me, a former AJC staff writer turned freelancer — sets filters based on our personal interests and tastes.

And, yet, we have an abiding mission to serve the readers.

We look for great storytelling: books we want to keep on our bedside table and read from cover to cover. We value real and authentic recipes: the kind of everyday food we like to make at home and hope you will, too. And we seek out surprises: books that wow us by virtue of their inventiveness and chutzpah, clever graphics and gorgeous photography, the way they document what people are eating right now.

Sure, we appreciate healthy eating, rigorous technique, history and geography, the local and the seasonal. But we yearn for adventure and discovery, too. What’s fashionable at this very moment in time? How does it sit in the vast continuum of food literature, and speak to the culture at large?

With those criteria in mind, and just in time for holiday gift-giving, here’s a look at the year in cookbooks, organized by topics we find meaningful:

Celebrity scribes

Alton Brown, the Atlanta homeboy, TV star and science geek, says his "EveryDayCook" (Ballantine Books, $35) deviates from his previous efforts in that the recipes reflect what he likes to eat when he's hungry. They weren't created "to illustrate scientific principles or flesh out story points for a show." The book is loaded with scads of useful information and some of the best-written recipes I've encountered. Brown sets you up to succeed. … "Barefoot Contessa" host Ina Garten's "Cooking for Jeffrey" (Clarkson Potter, $35) is a lovingly wrought Valentine to a marriage. After all the years of cooking for her husband, these are the recipes that abide: roast chicken with radishes, chipotle smashed sweet potatoes, apple pie bars and so on. Lucky Jeffrey. … In Anthony Bourdain's "Appetites: A Cookbook" (Ecco, $37.50), he professes to have softened into the proud papa of an 8-year-old, then proceeds to misbehave like his old self. Give 'em what they want.

Cookies, cakes and pies

I've sifted through piles of baking cookbooks this year, and, while many of them are awfully tantalizing and pretty, these three feel like instant classics: "Dorie's Cookies" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35), a veritable cookie bible by one of America's best bakers; Anne Byrn's "American Cake" (Rodale, $29.99), an annotated history of everything from gingerbread to contemporary red-velvet cake dyed with beets; and Kate McDermott's "The Art of the Pie" (Countryman Press, $35), which essays not just on crusts and fillings, but life itself. Keepers, all.

Lady chefs from North Carolina 

Though there's never any shortage of new Southern material, it so happened that three of the best regional cookbooks of 2016 were by women chefs from the Tar Heel State. PBS star Vivian Howard's "Deep Run Roots" (Little Brown, $40) is a deeply personal, ingredient-driven look at the eastern wedge of North Carolina that the chef calls home. "Poole's" (Ten Speed Press, $35) is named for the Raleigh diner made famous by chef Ashley Christensen, who won a James Beard Award for best chef Southeast in 2014. And "Curate" (Flatiron Books, $35) is the tale of Asheville chef Katie Button and her love affair with Spanish cuisine. (Curate is the restaurant she runs with her Spanish-born husband, Felix Meana.)

A sense of place

Ronni Lundy lives in Asheville, but, unlike the aforementioned North Carolina writers, she's not a restaurant chef. Don't hold that against her. Lundy's "Victuals" (Clarkson Potter, $32.50) is a bone-deep look at the foodways of her native Appalachia. Though the food of the region long has been shunted aside as "hillbilly," the Kentucky-born Lundy brings it in from the cold. I cannot overestimate the eloquence and beauty, nor the importance, of "Victuals." … Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, but he's found his heart and soul in Harlem. "Harlem is a slow seduction," he writes in "The Red Rooster Cookbook" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $37.50). "What's ugly keeps bumping into the beautiful." Dude might as well be talking about his braised beef neck and scrappy fish chowder. … In "My Two Souths" (Running Press, $35), Atlanta chef Asha Gomez describes how the aromatic cooking of her native state of Kerala, India, sits with her new home in Georgia. The results are magical.

Asia every day of the week

I adore Asian food, yet rarely make it at home. A book that could change that is Robin Ha's zany, comic book-style "Cook Korean!" (Ten Speed Press, $19.99), which walks you through the basics of all things kimchi and bibimbap. … "The Adventures of Fat Rice" (Ten Speed Press, $35) is the story of Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo's Macau-influenced Chicago restaurant. It also uses comics and hyper-realistic photography to capture the pair's take on a cuisine that is a melting pot of Chinese, Portuguese, Malaysian and Indian flavors. My kind of eating. … Carolyn Phillips' "All Under Heaven" (Ten Speed Press, $40) is at once as heavy as a doorstop and as ethereal as a proper Chinese dumpling. A Mandarin scholar who married into a Chinese family, Phillips spent years mastering her adopted cuisine, and it shows in every recipe and line drawing, which she renders in her own hand with considerable elegance.

More food from far away places

From Dan Goldberg, Andrea Kuhn and Jody Eddy's "Cuba!" (Ten Speed Press, $30) to Monisha Bharadwaj's "The Indian Cooking Course" (Kyle Books, $39.95), the year has brought a cornucopia of gorgeous, evocative cookbooks celebrating cuisines from around the globe. I continue to find inspiration in Sabrina Ghayour's "Sirocco" (Clarkson Potter, $30), a riot of vibrant flavors of the Middle East. Alexandra Stratou's "Cooking With Loula" (Artisan, $29.95) is a heartfelt account of the author's family cook, an Athenian woman whose recipes were as closely held as the oracles of Delphi. The year's best epicurean travelogue is Shane Mitchell's "Far Afield" (Ten Speed Press, $40), in which the writer documents rare and exotic food experiences from Uruguay to India. James Fisher's photographs are stunning, too.

Simple and unadorned

The world is awash with books on vegetable butchery, raw food, meat as a side dish. Too often, the work seems ripped from a blog — amateurish. But, if you are interested in eating fresh food, simply prepared, take a look at Diana Henry's earthy-glamorous "Simple" (Mitchell Beazley, $32.99). The British journalist and recipe developer has a protean touch. And then there's Jessica Koslow's "Everything I Want to Eat" (Abrams, $45), by a chef who studied under Anne Quatrano at Atlanta's Bacchanalia, then went on to create the Los Angeles breakfast and lunch spot Sqirl. This book is as simple as eggs and toast, as fashionable as Todd Selby. And, talk about food styling: Desserts are stacked like Stonehenge boulders, drinks perched on teapots, stools and whatnot — like Memphis Group whimsy. People who can't boil water will snatch this one up for the design alone. Finally, "Power Vegetables!" by Peter Meehan and the editors of Lucky Peach magazine is a raucous pileup of umami-stoked veggies photographed with kitschy action figures. The recipes are easy and accessible and most likely quite good for you — up to and including the tomato pie in puff pastry with mayo and cheddar, which Meehan describes as "the Paula Deeniest recipe I've ever published." Snort.