The Cookbook Addict: Making a List . . . Checking It Twice . . . Top 10 Cookbooks for Holiday Giving

December 16, 2011 at 1:35 pm

In the final countdown to the holiday season can you guess what’s on the Cookbook Addict’s holiday gift list? We’ve got a cookbook for just about everyone.


For a yoga-mate who’s resolved to take the first tentative steps toward local eating in the new year, I’ll wrap up a copy of The Locavore Way: Discover and Enjoy the Pleasures of Locally Grown Food by Amy Cotler. It’s a gently informative introduction to sourcing local food and cooking and eating seasonally. In simple, direct terms Cotler connects the dots between our choices at the market, in the kitchen, and in our communities and gives a novice the tools and information to make decisions that foster a sustainable food system.


For the twenty-somethings on my list, I’ll tuck a copy of Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen under the tree. Like my young friends, authors Anna Lappé and Bryant Terry are by turns serious and earnest about food policy and environment issues, practical and budget conscious about setting up an organic, sustainable kitchen, and adventursome, joyful eaters who love to cook and entertain friends. Their book is filled with practical advice and includes 24 mostly vegetarian menus complete with shopping lists and, of course, a music playlist to cook by.


Dedicated locavores know that eating local requires time and effort in the kitchen. While many disciples of local, sustainable eating have admirably high food IQs (thanks to food television, travel, and our city’s endlessly delicious and diverse restaurants) often these same hungry folks find their kitchen skills fall short or they get stuck in a rut once they stand facing the stove day after day. I have the perfect gift for them: Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food. Whether a new cook, one who needs to brush up on technique, or one in need of fresh, simple ideas, Waters primer gives us short, easy recipes that deliver deeply satisfying flavors. My sister, a grad student and the busy mom of two teenagers, was was blown out of her rut by Waters’ recipe for “Braised Duck Legs with Leeks and Green Olives.” Someone on your holiday list will be, too.


For the carnivore topping my list I’ll choose Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, by Jennifer McLagan. This smart, engaging, thoroughly-researched, and entirely approachable treatise on snout-to-tail cooking confidently leads the adventursome and the squeamish alike down the delicious path to cooking with offal. Tuck a gift certificate from Butcher & Larder between the covers and your carnivore will have a very happy, meaty holiday.


We all know someone who loves to bake. Surprise them with Good to Grain: Baking with Whole-Grain Flours. Author Kim Boyce, a former pastry chef, began experimenting with whole-grains because she wanted to give her daughters healthy home-baked treats without the refined flour and sugar she once used in professional kitchens. As she worked with unusual grains like teff, kamut, amaranth, and buckwheat Boyce came to appreciate their unique flavors and textures and the surprising depth they lend to quickbreads, cookies, cakes, and tarts. Rather than stop at a simple one-for-one substituion for refined flours in the standard repertoire of home-baked goods, Boyce developed recipes that make the most of each grain’s unique characteristics. Who knew, for example, that teff flour and brown butter are soul mates? (Try Boyce’s “Hazelnut Muffins” and you’ll understand.) Or that rye flour has a “sweet, milky” profile that’s perfect in the crust for a fruit tart? As more local farmers grow and mill grains (Three Sisters polenta and corn meal or Heritage Prairie’s whole wheat and rye flours come to mind) locavore bakers are sure to find more locally grown flours. Our baker friends will be inspired by the new spectrum of flavors and textures in Boyce’s recipes and we, no doubt, will be rewarded with a share of delicious, local, homemade treats.


A thoughtful gift for the young family on your holiday list, Feeding the Whole Family: Cooking with Whole Foods by Cynthia Lair is a classic. First published 15 years ago and now in its third edition, it’s a terrific resource for time-stretched parents who want to cook a local, sustainable, healthy family meal that everyone at the table can enjoy—even babies as young as six-months. Lair, a nutritionist, teacher, chef, and mom, offers solid information on how to source clean, local food, transition infants to solid food, and introduce new foods as babies grow. The book contains strategies for coping with childhood food allergies and finicky eaters, inventive ideas for healthy and delicious lunch boxes, and best of all, terrific recipes and menus that will please picky little ones and the grown-ups who feed them. Generations of healthy happy families will thrive on this book.


I know a beer-lover or three who are giddy about publication of The Oxford Companion to Beer, an encyclopedia of all things related to beer. Curated by Garrett Oliver, a Slow Food Founding Board Member and the highly respected Brewmaster at New York’s Brooklyn Brewery, it contains 960 pages and more than 1,100 entries. This impressive work taps the collective brain trust of 166 beer experts of on topics ranging from beer’s ancient and multicultural history to technical aspects of the brewing process, the development of the styles of beer, and the social and cultural impact of beer drinking. The print version weighs a hefty four pounds so I think I’ll e-mail my friends the Kindle edition—a perfect reference to download to a smart phone. They be able to check stats or prove one of the finer points of beer connoisseurship while sitting on a bar stool.

henrys farm

Strictly speaking, The Seasons on Henry’s Farm is not a cookbook (although it does contain recipes). But if the local eating credo exhorts us to “know your food, know your farmer,” there’s not better window into a farmer’s transcendent joys and grim disappointments than Terra Brockman’s lyrical account of a year on her brother’s downstate Illinois farm. It will fill you with admiration and wonder.

To earn a place on my overcrowded bookshelves a cookbook must have a distinctive point of view, one that amplifies or alters my perceptions. I may, for example, own more than a dozen Italian cookbooks, but each offers something unique. So it is with two books I hope to find wrapped in pretty paper under my tree next week.


Over the last six months, every time I’ve found myself in a bookstore I invariably gravitate to Plenty by London-based food writer, chef, and restaurant owner Yotam Ottolenghi. Now, I have at least a half-dozen vegetarian or vegetable-centric cookbooks at home but here I am, drooling over “Black Pepper Tofu” (this man puts butter on his tofu!), “Quinoa Salad with Dried Persian Lime,” “Cabbage and Kohlrabi Salad” (with dill and dried sour cherries!), and “Celeriac and Lentils with Hazelnut and Mint.” Ottolenghi regards food so familiar to me in a such a completely different light that it seems entirely new. Take celery root—for some reason I can’t seem to get enough of it this year. But I’ve never once thought of it as possessing “an elegant oily smoothness” as Ottolenghi describes it, and this has only heightened my obsession with the gnarly root. Nor has it ever occurred to me to transform a parsnip into a pillowy dumpling afloat in a vegetable broth enriched with prunes. This man has my attention. I hope someone out there takes the hint and drops this under my Christmas tree.


Compare the tables of contents in Chez Panisse Vegetables, a cookbook I own and adore, with that of Nigel Slater’s Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, and we find they’re virtually identical. This hasn’t stopped me from coveting Slater’s book. Why? I feel a deep affinity for the rustic Mediterranean elegance of Chez Panisse’s food and use their vegetable cookbook more often than any other in my collection. But as I leaf through Tender’s pages, I slip into Slater’s companiable prose as easily as a well-worn sweater. Before I know it I’m swathed in his fragrant curries, soothing roast beef with tomato gravy, and luxurious cauliflower cheese. There’s something seductive, intimate and yes, tender, in the micro-universe of Slater’s kitchen and garden. Chicago’s chill is still flushed with holiday excitement and the luster still glows on winter’s sturdy roots and leaves. But come February, when eating local means mustering the resolve to face down the wilted cabbage and surfeit of beets in the root cellar, I want Nigel in the kitchen with me, braising a “Quick Cabbage Supper with Duck Legs,” and baking “An Extremely Moist Chocolate-Beet Cake with Créme Fraîche and Poppy Seeds.” I’ll happily make a place for Tender on my bookshelf.