My holiday shopping typically starts in the cookbook section of one of my favorite independent bookstores. It’s so much more pleasant than elbowing through shopping mall crowds, and, with such a broad range to choose from, it’s a safe bet I’ll find something to match the taste, skill level and kitchen habits of every cook on my list.
Drawing mostly from the fall crop, here are some picks that should cover most of the bases for gift-giving — and receiving (hint hint). For more detailed recommendations, check out my weekly reviews.
My cookbook shelf already had three editions of Irma S. Rombauer’s 1931 classic when the latest incarnation of “Joy of Cooking” (Scribner, $40) arrived. No way am I letting go of it. In collaboration with his wife, Megan Scott, John Becker has added 600 new recipes and freshened up thousands of old favorites for a younger generation weaned on global flavors and farmers market fare, while keeping his great-grandmother’s formidable legacy intact.
Two other titles offer perspectives in American cooking you won’t find in “Joy,” or anywhere else. I hardly can put down Toni Tipton-Martin’s “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking” (Potter, $35). I’ve made the rice muffins, lamb curry, and corn and potato chowder with crab — all delicious, and each with fascinating origins that defy soul-food stereotypes. Sean Brock’s latest opus, “South: Recipes and New Explorations” (Artisan, $40), picks up where his first book, “Heritage,” left off in preserving and reinterpreting the hyperseasonal, hyperlocal foodways of the region. He shows us how to render lard for frying chicken, make miso from boiled peanuts, and hickory-smoke ice cream for a burnt-marshmallow taste atop blackberry cobbler.
My tastes never will be so pure that I lose my affection for the fried chicken and slow-cooked greens at one of Atlanta’s most venerable food institutions. “Mary Mac’s Tea Room 75th Anniversary Cookbook: History, Hospitality, and Recipes From Atlanta’s Favorite Dining Room” (Andrews McMeel, $27.99), has been produced by John Ferrell, the restaurant’s owner for the past quarter-century. It captures the flavor of the restaurant (and an earlier era in the city) in current and vintage photos, stories, and 125 simple, well-tested recipes — from pot liquor to peanut butter pie — that never will go out of style.
Phaidon publisher Emilia Terragni has produced a luxury edition of “The Silver Spoon Classic” ($59.95), the definitive cookbook Italians have been passing on from one generation to another since 1950. For this collection, the 2,000-plus recipes, originally collected from chefs and home cooks throughout the country, have been translated and distilled down to 170 of the most iconic, such as Milanese osso buco and Sicilian cassata, each strikingly photographed on tables properly set to reflect Italian tradition.
Bestselling author Michael Ruhlman takes a novel approach to explaining food science in “From Scratch: 10 Meals, 175 Recipes, and Dozens of Techniques You Will Use Over and Over” (Abrams, $45).
Each chapter is based on one classic dish that he breaks down into components, with techniques for mastering each. For a BLT, that includes baking the bread, curing the bacon, whipping the mayo, and even growing the lettuce and tomatoes. You’re free to opt out of any of those steps, and perhaps choose, instead, to take one of them in another direction. He’ll show you how to transform the homemade mayonnaise into Russian dressing for a Reuben sandwich. And, if you want to make your own sauerkraut and corned beef? He’s got plans for those, too.
For creative cooks serious about developing their own recipes, look no further than Niki Segnit’s “Lateral Cooking” (Bloomsbury, $40), a practical handbook that reads like a novel, and gets the creative juices flowing on every page — no photos required. “Cooking sideways” is its premise, with each chapter showing how a fundamental recipe, such as unleavened bread, can lead you to master biscuits, then croissants, and on and on. The British journalist also is the author of “The Flavor Thesaurus,” a bestselling reference revered by the pros.
A sprinkle of spice is a fast way to take a dish in another direction. But, seasoning food well is an art in itself, and Lior Lev Sercarz, owner of La Boite, a destination spice atelier in New York, has built a career helping Michelin-starred chefs and home cooks alike fine-tune their flavoring techniques. He’s the author of “The Spice Companion,” and, now, “Mastering Spice: Recipes and Techniques to Transform Your Everyday Cooking” (Potter, $35), co-authored with Genevieve Ko. Born in Israel, he relies heavily on spices from the Middle East, India and Africa in recipes for multipurpose blends you can use to add a twist to everything from vegetable soup to rack of lamb to brownies.
Moving on to more specialized techniques, Georgia chef and cookbook author Hugh Acheson offers a crash course in the art of using a hot-water bath to achieve restaurant-quality results with “Sous Vide: Better Home Cooking” (Potter, $35). Cheffy as it sounds, he insists it’s easy, and, once you get the hang of it, you’ll be using it as your secret weapon for everything from cooking perfect medium-rare steaks, to processing bread and butter pickles. For a deluxe gift, consider pairing this book with an immersion circulator, the one required tool that will involve a bit of an investment.
No machine is required to cook from “American Sfoglino: A Master Class in Handmade Pasta” by Evan Funke with Katie Parla (Chronicle, $35). The Los Angeles chef is famed for his mastery of sfoglino, the hand-rolled egg pastas of Emilia-Romagna, and the only requirements for learning this artisanal technique are two hands, a rolling pin and patience. The descriptions, methods and step-by-step photographs are as captivating as they are instructive. Also included are simple and pure sauces and fillings to pair with them.
Pastry enthusiasts seeking to push their skills beyond pie will find plenty of inspiration in Cathy Barrow’s delightfully inventive “When Pies Fly: Handmade Pastries From Strudels to Stromboli, Empanadas to Knishes” (Grand Central, $30). The prolific food writer’s sweet and savory offerings come in every size and shape, from Thanksgiving-in-a-bite pie poppers to a rustic chocolate pecan tassie galette.
Bread bakers will be easy to please this year. You can’t go wrong with any of these three titles: Adam Leonti’s “Flour Lab: An At-Home Guide to Baking With Freshly Milled Grains” (Potter, $35); David Norman’s “Bread on the Table: Recipes for Making and Enjoying Europe’s Most Beloved Breads” (Ten Speed, $35); or Daniel Leader’s “Living Bread: Tradition and Innovation in Artisan Bread Making” (Avery, $40).
Encouragement for busy cooks
“Unfussy food, unfussy vibes, and the permission to be imperfect” is the mantra Alison Roman preaches in “Nothing Fancy” (Potter, $42.50), one of the season’s hottest sellers. Every recipe — from the five-ingredient vinegar-marinated butter beans to a pot of pasta with broccoli rabe and chorizo bread crumbs — sounds doable and delicious. An equally big selling point, though, is the witty, conversational tone that’s made Roman a social media sensation.
Long before the age of Instagram, two legends built ardent fan bases on their own big personalities and big-flavored, attainable recipes. In “Nathalie Dupree’s Favorite Stories and Recipes” (Gibbs Smith, $30), the Southern culinary icon and James Beard Award-winning author intersperses beloved recipes for Pat Conroy’s spinach-tortellini salad and Dixie cassoulet with warm and funny essays like “God Bless the Egg Man” and “Meringues Remind Me of Paris.” And, Food Network icon Rachael Ray shot to stardom with her 30-minute dinner creations performed with exclamations of “yum-o!” Not all of the recipes in “Rachael Ray 50: Memories and Meals for a Sweet Life” (Ballantine Books, $32), are quite that quick, but most are, and any fan of her previous 25 books should love perusing the ingredients for Laziest Boeuf Bourguignon as much as her tales of awkward celebrity moments and falling head over heels for a pit bull.
Another reliable choice for any home cook is former Atlanta Journal-Constitution food editor Anne Byrn’s “Skillet Love: From Steak to Cake: More Than 150 Recipes in One Cast-Iron Pan,” which offers terrific, practical recipes for any kitchen or occasion. And, don’t overlook this community fundraiser: “Gatherings at Lake Rabun: A Collection of Favorite Recipes Celebrating Family Ties and Friendships” (Lakemont Publishing, $29.95). The book is an appealing assortment of crowd-pleasers, like ginger beer pulled pork and chocolate almond crunch “kayak candy,” kitchen-tested by scores of cooks with homes along the picturesque lake.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.