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.