Adventure: it’s what the writers of this year’s food books want you to have, mostly in your own kitchen. And it’s mostly guys in kitchens—guys who aren’t afraid of moving beyond the chef-bro attitude and revealing feelings beneath the tattoos, along with a more familiar competitive streak they generously aim toward broadening your own geographic and technical range.
If not the book of our generation, as Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking was and is, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab: Better Cooking Through Science is essential for anyone who wants to understand the whys of cooking, and who has a little bit of showoff science-nerd—as pretty much every serious cook does. Lopez-Alt, an MIT graduate, developed a following as the obsessively experimenting resident researcher at SeriousEats.com, and this nearly thousand-page book collects his findings on most every dish you’re likely to try (except desserts, because he doesn’t like them). He’s the kid who’ll never take your word for it: asparagus spears will break off just at the point they get woody (they break off pretty much anyplace you apply pressure, as his picture of a harmonica-like arrangement of broken spears shows), you should salt steak a half hour before you sear it (nope—salt either right before or the night before), never ever press down on a burger (it will toughen the meat). And he’ll make many, many versions of a recipe and show you the pictures to prove it.
None of it feels show-offy, though: Lopez-Alt brims with enthusiasm, and can’t wait to tell you just how to avoid those floating trails of egg white in poached eggs (if I tell you the answer, an incredibly simple trick he learned from the English science-minded chef Heston Blumenthal, I’ll spoil a major reason to buy the book). Or how to reverse-engineer mac and cheese and make yes, great burgers—two questions that seem to burn for every scientist-chef (they took up important real estate for the Modernist Cuisine team led by Nathan Myhrvold). Even know-it-all readers will learn something every couple of pages, like why green vegetables lose their color when boiled (the water becomes acidic and bleaches them out), and the fact that a Maillard reaction isn’t synonymous with caramelization (it comes from browning not just sugars but sugars and protein).
The equipment he uses is blessedly standard, as in the poached-egg trick; his sous-vide section is short and breezy, thank goodness. He’s as opinionated as he is engaging, and you’re likely to agree with him or take his word for it: In a comprehensive section on steak cuts, “skirt is probably the greatest dollar-to-flavor value there is.” This is the ideal gift for a high-school student who’s interested in cooking. But it will make anyone a better and more informed cook—and someone likelier to have more confidence, and more fun, in the kitchen.
You can tell just how nice Michael Anthony, the executive chef of Gramercy Tavern and the new New York City restaurant Untitled, is on every friendly page of V is for Vegetables: Inspired Recipes & Techniques for Home Cooks from Artichokes to Zucchini. (He can’t help it, he’s from Ohio.) What makes his new book (written with Dorothy Kalins, the founding editor of the U.S. edition of Saveur) so appealing are his simple and right instincts that will make you want to try vegetables you might not ordinarily be tempted by, like salsify and rutabaga. He’s not above iceberg lettuce, which he grills with marinated tomatoes, and he finds small twists you want to try right off: toasted walnuts and walnut oil with mashed potatoes; honey and black pepper with braised radishes; simple syrup and dijon mustard to a warm salad of snow peas, cherries, and baby chard.
When he takes on a classic, like onion soup, you know it will work: His recipes have the easy confidence and trustworthiness that make Ina Garten perennially reliable. Though by no means strictly vegetarian (beef in the onion soup, or Korean hot pots, bacon in an onion tart) the majority of recipes casually are. The quotations on opening pages (the oversized picture book is alphabetical) are an honor roll of food writers everyone should read. They’re an indication of the editing and taste that are apparent on every page.
“I always learn from Jacques,” the great writer and cooking teacher Paula Wolfert once told me about the great cook and teacher Jacques Pépin. I was reminded of her remark reading every page of Jacques Pépin: Heart & Soul in the Kitchen, billed as “the companion book to his final PBS series,” although it’s hard to imagine him even slowing down. This book has memoir-ish vignettes of his house on the Connecticut shoreline, his wife Gloria’s tastes and how they shape his cooking and writing recipes, and his time cooking on and off camera with James Beard and Julia Child. These are charming and cheerful, as Pépin unfailingly is in classes, on TV, in life. His observations on wanting to be able to tell, blindfolded, what he’s eating and to flee endless tasting-menu dinners to “grab a taco and beer” will strike loud sympathetic chords in many (in me); he loves wine, but after a friend gave him two bottles of wine worth $7,000 apiece he realized the special occasion he was waiting for would never come and gave them away.
But the value for any cook is in Pépin’s ability to reduce any recipe to its essentials, explain them with dispatch, then build flavorings and presentation into them—the very ability that he says suited him to teaching after a bad car accident in 1974 threatened his ability to continue the punishing shifts of a professional chef. I’ve long given serious apprentice cooks the two volumes of his La Technique, which he points out with rightful pride are still in print 40 years after they were published (compiled as Complete Techniques). That mastery is what gives his recipes their clarity and simplicity: Anyone teaching him or herself to write recipes could use these perfectly concise ones as a model.
Like any constantly thinking cook, Pépin is alive to trends and the markets around him—here, particularly, the Mexican beachside town where he and his wife long spent a month a year. This book has a chapter on offal, and easy recipes for the New England fish I can get too (fluke, flounder, the supreme bluefish), if not from neighboring fisherwomen who appear at my door. It’s what he does on the way to recipes, though, that makes Pépin an inexhaustible source of instruction and that compels you to file away hints: Use tostadas as a base for smoked-salmon starters with plain yogurt spiked with horseradish, and flour tortillas as a base for quick lunchtime pizzas; microwave potatoes for 10 minutes, the time it takes to heat an oven to 450, then bake them, stuffed or not, to crisp the skins; do the same for sweet potatoes, but halve them, drizzle with maple syrup, and run them under the broiler. His recipes are of the moment, his techniques timeless.
Danny Bowien seems about as far as it’s possible to be from Jacques Pépin: profane, often drunk, raised in Oklahoma as the Korean-born adopted son to white parents. His discipline, curiosity, and insistence on always getting better are similar, though, and qualities most successful chefs share. What makes The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook—which Bowien wrote with Chris Ying, the editor of the must-read magazine Lucky Peach—compulsively readable is Bowien’s voice: fiercely honest, self-critical, incredibly sympathetic.
Although ostensibly a recipe book, this is as engaging and readable a memoir as Kitchen Confidential; Anthony Bourdain wrote the foreword, and the book is part of a series of books under his imprimatur published by Ecco. David Chang, the chef of Momofuku and founder of Lucky Peach, wrote a second foreword; much of the book is structured as conversations with Ying, who also worked on the line at Mission Street Chinese, the San Francisco restaurant where Bowien first won a national reputation; with Anthony Myint, a chef who worked with him opening all his restaurants; and occasionally with Rene Redzepi, of Noma.
What saves it from being a cool-kid boy’s club—as much of the scene around Bowien’s New York restaurant Mission Chinese Food and Chang’s restaurants is—is Bowien’s spill-it accounting of how it feels to be naive and taken advantage of (a flawed structure at his first New York City location that resulted in two closings by health inspectors, the second one fatal—the chef and his team looked for a new location for more than a year). There are more than enough triumphs: The reopened New York restaurant had the same acclaim and lines of fans as the original San Francisco and New York locations. But Bowien has often faltered, his passion and lack of experience, and tendency to drink too much and order in too much food, getting the better of him.
The freewheeling recipes, many of them with the same Szechuan-influenced heat at his first restaurants which diners and critics called satisfyingly head-pounding, and some with the Mexican influence of his second New York restaurant, Mission Cantina, will appeal to experimenters and chefs. Though even I, who am neither, wanted to buy a deep-fryer to try the Buffalo-style wings, which are parbaked the day before, frozen, then slowly defrosted and fried batterless. The recipes, though, aren’t the reason to buy the book for any young cook or high-school fan dazzled by reality-TV cooking shows who dreams of being a chef. It’s to show what it’s like to earn, lose, and re-earn success, and make a lot of mistakes. Also to discover a voice and a writer you’ll remember: It just takes his account of losing his mother (which Vanity Fair excerpted) to know why.
What we know about Israeli cuisine we know from the books of Yotam Ottolenghi, whose Jerusalem, Plenty, and other books are immensely popular for a reason—the recipes are beautiful look at, work exactly the way they’re written and look, and are an exotic and alluring amalgam of many Mediterranean cuisines, including Italy. Zahav starts with a somewhat stricter Israeli base, from the early childhood and then teenage years of Michael Solomonov, the chef of the restaurant by the same name in Philadelphia (the name is the Hebrew for “gold”). The oversized picture book, again edited and produced by Dorothy Kalins, is part-memoir of a strongly engaged chef who was galvanized by his brother’s death from Hezbollah snipers just days after his service in the Israeli military had ended (he volunteered on Yom Kippur in place of more-observant soldiers).
My reading was slowed by constant emails to friends offering Solomonov’s firm, clear advice on questions they’d asked over just the past few months: how to make hummus from scratch (essential, he says, and his rhapsodies over its creamy smoothness make me want to try it), latkes without extra starch to bind them (the only way to go, he insists—a feeling not universally shared), marzipan in a food processor (easy if you have corn syrup; he mixes a few pistachios in with the almonds). If the pages weren’t so thick, I would dog-ear half the book for recipes and techniques I want to try: at least two of the Persian rice pilafs Solomonov likes to make; leg of lamb roasted medium-rare in a heavy salt crust, a treatment I’ve seen only for fish, flavored with the Persian ingredients sumac, dried lime, Urfa pepper, and dried rose petals; rugelach with date filling.
The influences here are Bulgarian, for his father’s home country (“I was taught that a key difference between the food of Bulgaria and its Balkan neighbor, Romania, is a ton of garlic”), Yemenite, Persian, general “Arabic,” and American. Naturally, there are vegetables and salads everywhere, and pickled persimmons, as well as gluten-free Persian chickpea-flour matzo balls. Solomonov writes with warmth and wit. (“Schnitzel gets a bad rap. If you’ve ever been on a bus tour of Israel or spent time in an Israeli prison, you know what I am talking about.” “To remove the seeds from a pomegranate, place a deep bowl in your kitchen sink and roll up the sleeves of a shirt you dislike.”) By the time you finish a first read of Zahav, you want to visit Israel, cook a lot from the book, and visit Philadelphia to eat at one of Solomonov and his partner Steve Cook’s four (by my count on the website) restaurants. This is a homey book, but there’s nothing ordinary about it.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins and Sara Jenkins are among the breed of Americans who learn Italy better than the Italians (a group I long prided myself as being a member of). In Nancy’s case, this resulted from years of living in Rome as part of a foreign-correspondent couple in the 1970s and buying a house in Tuscany. Sara, her daughter, lived for part of her childhood in Rome and summer stints in Tuscany. Nancy turned her bent for scholarship and love of the Mediterranean into several books on the Mediterranean diet, and earlier this year a handsome color-photograph book on olive oil, Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil, in which she provides history, tasting notes, recommendations (she’s not above Costco and Trader Joe), and of course recipes. Sara became a professional cook and in 2010 opened Porsena, a restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village that specializes in pasta. Like her mother, she’s a fine writer, as her posts on the former Atlantic Food Channel demonstrate.
Now mother and daughter have written The Four Seasons of Pasta, which stands to be a definitive book on how Italians make pasta every night and how you should, too. It’s the most complete and imaginative guide since Fred Plotkin’s Authentic Pasta Book and Anna del Conte’s two books on pasta. There’s nothing dumbed-down or compromised about the recipes, which are far easier to achieve with real authenticity than when Plotkin and del Conte were writing, 20 or so years ago, given that Italian-produced pastas are as available, as the women say, as if they were made next door, and so many more ingredients essential to the Italian pantry are too.
Cooking through the book is a course in how Italians cook, and regional differences: classics like bucatini all’Amatriciana (with guanciale or pancetta, chili, and tomatoes) and carbonara (maybe the most fun introduction to cooking pasta, in which hot pasta cooks beaten egg that binds with pecorino and more guanciale or pancetta into a coating sauce), and a few exotic wanderings like Turkish pasta with garlic-yogurt sauce and brown butter, Moroccan couscous with seven vegetables, and Sicilian couscous with a rich shellfish sauce. There are techniques for handmade pasta and potato gnocchi that Sara calls the seminal dish of her childhood, but the backbone of the book, as it is with pasta up and down Italy, is store-bought dried pasta. Most dishes are uncompromising, meaning full-on Italian ingredients and methods; but some are pretty quick (all are quick to assemble, of course, as all pasta dishes are once the pasta is cooked) and ones I immediately want to try, like maccheroncini with pumpkin, sage, and toasted pumpkin seeds.
“I’ve discovered as much rigor and range cooking Mexican food as I ever found thumbing through Le Guide Culinaire,” Alex Stupak writes in Tacos: Recipes and Provocations. “I’ve tasted sauces that number their ingredients in double digits, count their cook time in days, and possess a flavor so vast and mystifying it borders on psychotropic.” This comes fairly late in the book, which he wrote with Jordana Rothman (of whom I’m both friend and fan), in a defense of paying decent money for “street food” that is, as Stupak and Rothman admit in a section called “jolie laide,” usually pretty ugly to look at. The book isn’t just an impassioned defense of a food thought to be humble, though it is. It’s a guide to a cuisine Stupak fell so in love with that he threw over his work at the modernist-cuisine shrines of WD-50 and Alinea to open Empellon Cocina in Manhattan’s East Village, where he serves, yes, mostly moderately priced Mexican cuisine. But his emphasis is on the cuisine part, and on understanding the complexity of a country whose regional variety other writers and chefs, principally Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy, have plumbed.
By narrowing the book to tacos, many of them traditional (the pork taco al pastor is “my favorite taco on the planet,” a judgement easy to echo) and many of them not (crab cakes, cheeseburgers—a variation Rothman and Stupak’s wife discovered and reluctantly loved on a research trip to Mexico, joined by Stupak), the authors provide an education for fellow students of the whole country’s cuisine. Adventurous ones willing to “be in constant pursuit of those opiate moments” in habanero peppers “just before the capsaicin rolls in” and “heat locks its jaw around your tongue,” to find food-grade lime and white cornmeal to create the base for masa-harina tortillas, since “the difference between a great taco and a crappy taco is in the tortilla,” and to dig a pib, or fire pit, for roasting a whole pig and follow suggestions for what to do during the long wait for it to cook: “watch Boogie Nights a couple times.” (My favorite recipe instruction this year might be “Unearth the pig.”)
Me, I’ll probably head first to the East Village for an Empellon Cocina taco. But you should head to this book for writing like this: “Reach for a chipotle salsa, and its smoky purr will tease depth from a filling of long-simmered meat; choose a fresh green chile salsa, and the same taco can transform into a bright and brisk thing, dazzling with vegetal flavor.” It’ll have you looking for chiles right after you finish your Christmas shopping.