I spent a long time on the radio this week talking food books with Emily Rooney (audio here), and a good bit of time counseling a friend today on last-minute food book suggestions. He ticked down the list of various problem family members and friends -- meaning, of course, beloved people for whom he was most eager to buy gifts -- and suggested providing readers a similar service. So here are a few underlined suggestions from the list of books I happily spent a few weeks going through for a long (long) piece in the New York Times Book Review -- all of them worth having! -- and just a few of the books I was frustrated not to have the space to include there.
First, many people in your life have recently revealed, or learned, that they are gluten- or lactose-intolerant. Or whimsically decided they are, to annoy you when you're planning to entertain. Just kidding! Though I did look into the rise in gluten intolerance for a column earlier this year, a phenomenon not explained solely by improved diagnostic techniques. In any case, if you need to prepare food for people unable to eat flour or dairy products -- and if you want a superbly adventurous and innovative general cookbook -- you should buy Barbara Kafka's The Intolerant Gourmet: Glorious Food Without Gluten and Lactose. It barely includes anything baked, or surrogates for bread and cupcakes, though there is a waffle recipe with coconut milk that's dangerously good. But it gives rules for cooking that not just avoid problem-causing ingredients but will increase your repertoire and widen the scope of your pantry.
I write this with cash reserves in my refrigerator and freezer. Sorry, I mean leftovers. But that's pretty much the way I've always thought of them. And they're the equivalent of free money, because my spouse made them after unexpectedly revealing a pent-up desire to learn to cook, or cook better than when he was raising two small children. First on the list was brisket, which we only have at holiday meals made by my stepmother, who heartwarmingly uses my mother's recipe, one she served at company meals when raising her own family (she and my late mother were best friends in high school). For buying and cooking techniques to improve that recipe, which I gave in a column on grass-fed beef (brisket is a foolproof cut for trying out grass-fed beef), he naturally turned to our own Stephanie Pierson's The Brisket Book. As loyal readers of the Health Channel know, Pierson is very funny and thorough, too, so the book is a pleasure to read, look at, and to use. It's my all-purpose gift this year, including for vegans converted by Nicolette Hahn Niman and her two reformed former vegan friends (though not for James McWilliams).
Of course, you do need to know how to cook for vegans and vegetarians, even if you don't happen to be one yourself. Along with Deborah Madison, Didi Emmons has been a longtime guide for vegetarian cooks, and in her new Wild Flavors: One Chef's Transformative Year Cooking from Eva's Farm she goes farther into the currently must-practice foraging movement, which Hank Shaw -- whose book earlier this year, Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast is an excellent gift for anyone who loves the outdoors and food -- has chronicled on our site, including with a reading list for apprentice foragers. Every ambitious cook, home or professional, wants to go foraging these days, ideally with Rene Redzepi, whose kitchen at Noma, in Copenhagen, has replaced Ferran Adria's El Bulli as the must-stage-at international destination now that El Bulli has closed. (For a look at what that seeming dream job was really like, read Lisa Abend's entertaining Sorcerer's Apprentice, an inside look at Adria's kitchen and totalitarian managerial style; For a look at what the dream Redzepi forage is like, read the wonderful New Yorker writer Jane Kramer, who got to do it).
Emmons spent weeks over several seasons with a local hero who should become a national hero: Eva Sommaripa, whose Eva's Garden supplies southern New England's best chefs with herbs all year and produce for much of the year. For Northeasterners or city folk, Wild Flavors is the most useful guide I've seen to plants and weeds literally in your backyard (or your park, though New York City recently began to clamp down on urban foragers, who were stripping the parks a bit too bare). You don't have to live in northern California, Umbria (like Kramer), or visit the craggy coast of Denmark to find foods you can use. For instance, the bamboo-like shoots of the dreaded Japanese knotweed, which takes over our alleys and many of our local green spaces every year, is what Sommaripa calls a "spring blink": good to eat when the shoots, which soon turn to eight-foot stalks, are young -- sour and refreshing like rhubarb. Sommaripa, whose knockabout style and zany wit Emmons richly appreciates, uses knotweed in what she calls an "Invasive Sorbet," along with autumn olive and beach rose. But the recipes aren't all for weeds. Emmons follows Sommaripa through the seasons, and gives many recipes for things you can buy in the store (and though most are vegetarian and many vegan, some include wild meat too). Wild Flavors will make you look with new curiosity not just at the alleyway and paths you walk but the exotic reaches of the produce aisle.
Amy Traverso celebrates another kind of local bounty, particularly for New Englanders: apples, heirloom varieties of which are becoming increasingly available (our local local-foods market, City Feed, has so many that I go several times a week to try a different kind for a snack). In The Apple Lover's Cookbook, she gives a quick and well-illustrated guide to different varieties, visits apple growers across the country, and comes up with recipes I found really impressive for their simplicity, ingenuity, and inventiveness -- it seems particularly appropriate that she's the food editor of Yankee magazine (and once edited my restaurant reviews at Boston Magazine). The section on savories includes recipes for meats and vegetables (apple squash gratin) that show you how to incorporate apples naturally into every part of a meal, and show none of the strain that so many single-subject books do. And, of course, there are plenty of desserts, and recipes that use that Yankee staple, maple syrup -- grade B, please, as Yoni Appelbaum pointed out in a piece that warmed my heart. (Grade B or, better, the snow-leopard-rare grade C maple syrup are highest on my own wish list.) I'm still waiting for the apple tree I wrote about planting in our front yard -- a variety, Roxbury Russet, that originated a few miles from our house -- to bear fruit, maybe next fall. Traverso's book will console me in the meantime.
For foodies who prowl not forests and orchards but up- and down-market food trucks and dives, particularly in New York City, Ed Levine has long been the go-to guy. He glorified the food America eats in his longtime Serious Eats columns for various magazines and newspapers, and now has a fleet of fellow foodies doing the same on his successful website, in a voice as distinctive and hearty as R.W. Apple's. In Serious Eats: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Eating Delicious Food Wherever You Are, he and the site editors offer an enthusiastic guide (some of it crowdsourced, all of it checked out by them) on where to find, say, five breakfast tacos in Austin. There are actual recipes, like "smashed burgers" pressed with a spatula once on the griddle, corned beef hash, and "triple-chocolate adult brownies." But the reason to have this is for Levine's notes on American regionalism right now, and to have a national guide to the pizzas, burgers (look for a bun toaster, which inspires the editors to "do a greasy little dance of burger joy"), hot dogs, and barbecue you haven't tried yet. (Yes, you can search for much of the same information on the site, but most of the book is new. And it's awfully nice to read on the page -- there, as someone whose work life is almost entirely creating work for the Web, I said it).
Finally, gift books. Sometimes they're necessary, and this year's beautiful book worth buying and keeping is The Country Cooking of Italy, by Colman Andrews, the fantastically prolific and proficient author whose previous Country Cooking of Ireland was justly given awards by both the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Cooking Professionals. Andrews works with an all-star team that includes Christopher Hirsheimer, whose books with her business partner Melissa Hamilton at their Canal House Books are the style leaders for the food world, and the publisher Chronicle Books, always makes handsome books (log-rolling alert: I recognize many of the same flourishes I liked in my own Pleasures of Slow Food, which Chronicle published). Andrews is the modern-day Waverley Root, which is to say someone with a rich appreciation of history and character and a graceful, for-the-ages writing style, but with the advantage of far more reliable and comprehensive sources. I learned something on nearly every page, and just enjoyed looking at and reading the book.
Off to the locally-owned bookstore! And if you can only order online, and want to give an extremely extravagant present to the most hardcore cook you know, no contest: it's the five-volume encyclopedia Modernist Cuisine, not just the food-book publishing event of the year but a book every cook and anyone seriously interested in food should own. I didn't think I'd say this until Technology Review asked me to read the whole thing and sent me to the famous lab-kitchen in Bellevue, outside Seattle (article here; paywall alert). I went in with an armful of prejudices and skepticism, and came back a convert -- not to the unpronounceable gels and thickeners that fill the one volume I didn't read all of but to the fantastic thoroughness and information-presenting skills of the entire team that Nathan Myhrvold assembled. The first two volumes, in particular, are simply essential reading, on cooking techniques, the science of food contamination and how to safeguard against it (rightly put in the very first volume), and cooking equipment of all kinds. The book's co-author, Chris Young (along with the head chef, Maxime Bilet), main editor, Wayt Gibbs, and Myhrvold himself were inspired by the Time-Life picture-book series of the 1960s and '70s, which remain models of print-book presentation of large amounts of information that are as absorbing as any "trade" book but with the rigor of a textbook. And the photographs are spectacular. Modernist Cuisine is as persuasive an argument for the future of printed books as any of the digital age -- and the brainchild of one of its architects (Myhrvold was chief technology officer for Microsoft). Amazon says it can deliver the book by ... tomorrow! But this is a book to value forever.