In fact the book could be a source guide for your entire Christmas list, as well as for holiday-table arguments (the best pastrami isn't from New York but ... LA? The best golden russet apple is from Pennsylvania? No, it's the Roxbury russet in my front yard). The sources include the reigning standards like Nueske's bacon and Benton hams. Besides making tempting reading, this is an encouraging picture of surprisingly healthy American regional industry of the kind Jim and Deb Fallows are turning up in their great American Futures series.
For more than 25 years, Edward Behr has championed simple, artisanal food, much of it discovered during explorations in France and Italy, in his newsletter and now magazine The Art of Eating. He's compiled his always-instructive essays in 50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste (Penguin Press), arranged alphabetically rather than by subject—a bit oddly, given that so many of the entries are on, say, cheese, a longtime passion, or bread, another. Each has something on buying and storing you can learn from, and an observation you might never have thought of but will make you nod in agreement: "Cooked, pears...aren't tart enough to complement meat in the way that an apple or a prune, say, complements pork"; "Compared with wheat bread, the taste of rye comes less from fermentation than from the quality of the grain itself."
Four books put into practice the simple cooking that underlies Behr's philosophy (50 Foods includes no recipes): One Good Dish (Artisan Books), really 100 recipes (to continue the numbered theme) by David Tanis, former chef of Chez Panisse and author of the New York Times' City Kitchen column, each of them showing an exquisitely attuned, but not precious, sensibility that draws from Provence, Spain, Italy, and California and keeps things manageable. Typical: "Nicoise salad on a roll," an Americanized version of the Provencal pan bagnat. If I could eat one cook's food every night, it would be Tanis's.
The Art of Simple Food II (Clarkson Potter) extends Alice Waters's Chez Panisse philosophy into the garden, an extremely natural step given that among her most lasting contributions to the culinary world—to the country, really—will be getting schoolchildren into the garden. There are plenty of recipes, of course, as in the first Art of Simple Food, but what distinguishes this book is understanding the interplay between garden and kitchen. It will have you imagining how to plant your front or back yard or your fire escape.
Joe Yonan really did live in a garden to write Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook (Ten Speed Press)—his sister and brother-in-law's Maine homestead. Yonan, food and travel editor of the Washington Post, found in writing a monthly column called Cooking for One (part of the title of his first book), that he and most people he knew were becoming vegetarian or vegan, so he got his hands dirty for months. There's nothing purist or overtly virtuous about his book, though: he loves Korean and Asian food and the Texas barbecue of his childhood, and draws on those and many other styles. The single portions and meatlessness are almost side aspects of a vibrant short book that will make you cook. And even, yes, massage your kale.
The next step after growing your own food is of course preserving it, and you've likely noted that restaurants everywhere serve pickled everything even in the height of growing season, to show they've gotten with the grow-your-own program. This still seems to be a step farther than even diehard farmers-market shoppers are willing to take. But maybe they'll be convinced by Kevin West's Saving the Season: A Cook's Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving (Knopf)—as much by its stylishness (West is a former writer and editor for W, as well as having earned a certification as a Master Food Preserver by the University of California Cooperative Extension) and storytelling of the author's east Tennessee childhood. He brings in gardening history, 18th-century American painters (Raphaelle Peale), poems, and practical information; it's a rich book. And unlike other books on preserving, West gives recipes that will goad you to make easy preserves, for example an apricot crostata with a lard-butter dough, fresh apricots, and a spread of apricot butter made of just apricots, sugar, and lemon juice. But it's not all height of summer: You can start on the winter chapter, with grapefruit vodka, Seville orange marmalade (my own January activity, always using a different recipe—West's this time), and homemade gummi candy.
Each year also brings a crop of chef's books, almost uniformly useless in the home kitchen but worth looking at if the mind of the chef interests you. One exception is when a particularly talented editor works as interpreter for the home cook. So you know that The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook (Clarkson Potter), by Michael Anthony, will work, because Dorothy Kalins, founding editor of the US edition of Saveur, is listed as producer. Anthony's taste, like the New York City restaurant's, is for fairly homey, if beautifully presented, American food. Kalins also brings us another slice of America in John Besh's Cooking From the Heart (Andrews McMeel), a lavish and handsome picture book that's more or less a biography of where Besh, the charismatic former Marine and now TV personality, trained and traveled before establishing his several restaurants in New Orleans, particularly the German Black Forest and Provence. The new book reads like a long magazine or travel book with particularly appealing recipes.
Here are the three chef’s minds you need to look into this year: Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey: Recipes From My Three Favorite Food Groups (and Then Some) (Andrews McMeel), by John Currence, who reinvents Southern food at his City Grocery, the culinary heart of Oxford, Mississippi, a place with plenty of heart. Currence, a native New Orleanian, knows the ingredients of the South, and so will use, say, Steen's cane syrup (which I wrote about after visiting a Louisiana plant) with pork belly braised in ham stock, or emblematic yellow cornmeal in chicken-skin cornbread.
Andy Ricker has spent nearly 20 years traveling in Thailand, and his Pok Pok, in Portland and now New York City, has become a cult. You'll see why in Pok Pok (written with J.J. Goode; Ten Speed Press), as rich and complex a guide to a rich and complex cuisine as I've seen, destined to join David Thompson's Thai Food as classic explanatory works in English. A few recipes, like stir-fried brussels sprouts with Thai fish sauce and soy sauce and chiles, garlic, are thinkable in home kitchens, but most are flavor-layered curries and soups and noodle dishes so interesting you'll want to re-equip your pantry. And following his instructions you'll be able to: Ricker is careful to specify kitchen implements, mail-order sauces, provide a very clear guide to ingredients, and to admit what's (fairly) easy and what's really hard. He's a natural teacher.
David Kinch is a chef's chef. At Manresa, his restaurant an hour south of San Francisco on the California coast, he serves beautiful and extremely sophisticated food informed by haute cuisine in Scandinavia and Europe (Michelin has for five years given him two stars) and made with produce from Love Apple, a farm the restaurant owns in partnership with a local lawyer-turned-farmer named Cynthia Sandberg (not Sheryl's sister). His recipes are almost exclusively for other chefs, but also fascinating (spot prawns with bone marrow and artichokes, creamy nasturtium rice with passion fruit and crab, and if you've wanted to make the edible soil on so many trendy menus at home, here's your source). In Manresa: An Edible Reflection (Ten Speed Press), written with Christine Muhlke, the executive editor of Bon Appetit, you'll see why his fellow chefs hold Kinch in almost unique regard. I can't help hoping every chef will take this to heart: "When it comes to inspiration beyond Love Apple, I don't turn to the Internet. Absorbing all of that content without actually tasting the food and experiencing the restaurant can pollute a chef's vision."