The Cookbook Addict: Favorites for 2012 Holiday Giving

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December 17, 2012 at 6:14 pm

Cookbooks are always welcome holiday gifts. 2012 opened up the culinary lens on local, sustainable food to take in a wider view of authentic food cultures across the globe.

A perfect example is Japanese Farm Food, by Nancy Singleton Hachisu. Twenty years ago, Hachisu, a native Californian, fell in love with a handsome Japanese farmer, married him, and began a new life on an organic farm in Saitama Prefecture, located a few hours outside of Tokyo. Her book is an intimate look at the seasonal rhythms and traditional foodways of rural Japan, quite unlike anything we know, or think we know, about twenty-first century Japanese culture. Beautifully designed and photographed, the book is a lyrical portrait of farm life that is at once familiar and exotic. Hachisu’s accessible recipes bring Japanese home cooking to our kitchens, deftly combining simple whole foods with traditional ingredients and techniques—local, sustainable food the Japanese way.

Armchair travel is a favorite winter pastime and Naomi Duguid has long been my companion on snowy afternoons. She has authored, along with her (now ex-) husband Jeffrey Alford, five award-winning books on Asian food and culture. Through her vivid photography, astute cultural observation, and instinct for a great recipe, I’ve traveled to central Asia (Beyond the Great Wall), the Indian Subcontinent, (Mangoes and Curry Leaves) and Southeast Asia (Hot Sour Salty Sweet). These genre-busting cookbooks have been referred to as “culinary anthropology”. In Burma: Rivers of Flavor, her first solo effort, she introduces us to this long-isolated country’s history, people, and their fresh, vibrant cuisine.

In 2006, Phaidon, a British publisher know for its lavish visual-arts books, released the first in a series of equally lavish and comprehensive tomes on home cooking from around the globe. The Lebanese Kitchen, the newest in this series, is a 500-recipe compilation by Salma Hage, a 70-year-old self-taught Lebanese housewife who grew up on a farm in northern Lebanon near a town called Mazraat et Toufah, or “apple hamlet”. Learning to cook and garden from her family’s matriarchs, she refined her skills over a 30-year career as a catering chef in London. Her recipes are earthy, flavorful and satisfying—Arab soul food that is remarkable in its diversity and firmly rooted in Lebanon’s lush valleys, cool mountains, and warm coastlands.

Like the first three cookbooks, Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken is rooted in a specific place. Unlike those books, it is not one I am likely to cook from (Anyone eager to try “A tiny slice of top blade from a retired dairy cow, dry aged for nine months, crispy reindeer lichen, fermented green gooseberries, fennel salt”?). It will, nevertheless, inspire and inform my cooking. Nilsson, a young Paris-trained chef with a restaurant situated on the grounds of a hunting estate in rural Sweden, has developed a hyper-local cuisine in a climate that could not be less hospitable. Although its short growing season and harsh winters make ours look Mediterranean by comparison, all of the restaurant’s food is sourced from the fields and forests in the immediate vicinity of the restaurant. Nilsson and his staff can, dry, salt, smoke, cellar, and otherwise preserve this food, developing in the process a style of cooking unique to their piece of ground. Many parts of the Chicago food shed were settled by Swedish immigrants, who found similarities to their homeland in the lush forests and farmland of Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. If Nilsson can cook and eat local through all four seasons, so can we.

Back at home, chef Paul Virant’s The Preservation Kitchen raises the bar on pickles and preserves, giving us sophisticated sweet and savory flavors and inventive seasonal menus to make the most of them. Virant also introduces aigre doux and mostarda to our repertoires—preserves with the nuance and complexity to grace a charcuterie plate and play nice with a glass of wine.

For the DIY nerd on my holiday list, I’ll give Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation, the essential reference on fermentation’s concepts and processes, a comprehensive source of detailed information on fermenting foods and beverages in the kitchen, and an inspiring and engaging account of how fermentation influenced human development.

          

Foraging is a trending topic Chicago’s food circles with several new books published in the last year. The nerd in me gravitates to Feast of Weeds, A Literary Guide to Foraging and Cooking Wild Edible Plants, by Luigi Ballerini. This scholarly introduction delves into one of humanity’s most primal activities through historical, scientific, and literary analysis, practical commentary, and simple recipes gleaned from the southern Italian kitchen. The cook in me makes a beeline for Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong and Eddy Leroux. The book is the happy result of the pairing of two unlikely soul mates—Tama is a Wall Street attorney with a passion for foraging and Eddy is the chef de cuisine at Manhattan’s celebrated Restaurant Daniel whose penchant for wild flavors drives his inventive cooking. Together they have curated a collection of delicious and easily identified plants that can be sustainably harvested, and then developed seasonal recipes the make the most of their unique flavors and textures.

Roots, by Diane Morgan, dives underground to explore the mysterious world of tubers, taproots, rhizomes, and corms and shows us that beyond carrots, beets and potatoes lies an exciting world of tastes and textures that promise to transform our winter tables into an exciting culinary adventure.

     

Two fascinating books focused on artisan and so-called “natural” wines will go to the wine lovers on my holiday gift list. Reading Between the Wines is esteemed wine importer Terry Thiese’s love letter to the beauty, mystery, and joy to be found in the glass. He makes an impassioned case that these qualities shine brightest in artisan produced wines. Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally, is wine writer Alice Feiring’s account of her own attempts to make a simple, unadulterated wine while making a compelling case against “the overripe, over-manipulated, and overblown” style of wine-making prevalent on the shelves of grocery shovels and big box stores.

     

Topping my list of most-coveted food books is The Penguin Great Food Series Box Set, a collection of the most incisive, witty, and delectable food writing from the last 400 years. From Alice B. Toklas’ Murder in the Kitchen, Alice Water’s A Delicious Cooking Revolution, MFK Fisher’s Love in a Dish, to Pelegrino Artusi’s Exciting Food for Southern Types, Eliza Acton’s The Elegant Economist and Samuel Pepys The Joys of Excess, the series includes 20 abridged volumes of each author’s collected works that open a fascinating window into the kitchens and cultures of our civilization. I’d covet the set for the beautifully designed covers alone.

And don’t forget about the Local Beet and City Fresh GIVEAWAY—three $25 gift cards for our readers. All you need to do is respond in our comments with the words, “house-made.”  Doing so, will enter you in a random drawing for a card.  But wait! There’s more!  We are also giving away one card to the first person who can identify some of the products made in house at City Fresh, and we want a good, reasonable name (spelling has to be close but your answers have to be written in English letters!)–in the event that no one names all the products, the person who names the most will win, and in the event there is a tie, the winner will be determined via a random draw.  Note, the person who wins the name the European food contest is still entered in the random drawing contest, so you have the chance to win two $25 gift cards. Happy holidays everyone!

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