Editor's Note: Find all of The Atlantic’s “Best of 2017” coverage here.
The year’s instructional book—the one that increases basic understanding of cooking and comfort and confidence in the kitchen—is Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which won over my skeptical colleague Joe Pinsker, who had long searched, dissatisfied and Goldilocks-like, for such a manual. What won me over was Nosrat’s ability to transmit her unshakably sunny cooking personality to the page, and to make readers feel that they, too, had spent many contented hours cooking in the most appealing restaurant kitchen in Florence, Zibibbo, and at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley. I go along with everything about her sensibility except the fistfuls of salt.
And the year’s must-cook-from book, at least for me, is Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables, by Joshua McFadden, who has put in time at all the outposts the right-minded, farm-worshipping food person bows to: the Bay Area, of course, and Rome at the American Academy, whose kitchen Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, overhauled; New York, at four of the city’s best and most enlightened restaurants; and northern Maine, where he farmed with the gardening gods Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, at whose feet Dan Barber, the chef of Blue Hill and author of The Third Plate, learned. (McFadden cooked with Barber at Blue Hill, too.)
Six Seasons starts with a compact guide to cooking: how to season (sprinkle on salt and pepper before you add the olive oil, and you should always add olive oil, and it should always be from Albert Katz, maker of great vinegar and the best artisan preserves in the country, even if the apricot sells out in the space of an end-of-summer sigh); recipes for pantry staples any self-respecting Italophile must have, like whole grain carta di musica, tissue-thin “sheets of music,” that keeps an improbably long time and is excellent with whipped ricotta, a “spreadable flavor machine”; and almonds quickly boiled and cooled in a simple saltwater brine before being roasted to a salty dark crisp.
Just as he believes in the farm cook’s maxim “What grows together goes together,” McFadden makes combinations that you know will be right as soon as you see them: grilled asparagus with walnuts and fava beans; pasta carbonara, fragrant with diced pancetta and creamy from the runny yolk in the sauce, with fresh peas or asparagus (only after you’ve had your fill of raw asparagus—“When you’re ready to cook with it … don’t”); celery salad with dates, almonds, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, which I plan to memorize for winter suppers; burnt carrots with honey, black pepper, butter, and almonds. He reveals with becoming modesty that it was he who began the craze over what a Boston menu called UBK, for the caesar-like “ubiquitous kale salad,” when he became exasperated with tasteless mesclun mixes as the chef de cuisine at Franny’s, a then-white-hot Brooklyn restaurant, in 2007. Nor does he shun meat: Just one example of the numerous meat-lovers’ recipes is his version of surf ‘n’ turf, sautéed mushrooms in cream on sliced steak. I treasure Marian Morash’s Victory Garden Cookbook and always assign students Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, still the model of kaleidoscopic, warm erudition. McFadden’s book will go on the shelf right next to both.
Barton Seaver has been a fisherman, a professional cook, a National Geographic Explorer, and is now director of the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He knows fish, that is—as someone who has caught and cooked it, and who worked to define and preserve what sustainability means when it comes to seafood. In American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery From Sea to Shining Sea, Seaver has produced a history of fishing in America, with excursions on fish in literature and industry and popular culture. The heart of the handsomely illustrated book is an encyclopedia of fish varieties found in the waters, salt and fresh, around the continental United States—a reference work that anyone who fishes or cooks or occasionally goes to the fish counter, perplexed, will want and use. The archival photographs and advertisements alone attest to the central role fish has played since colonial days, when it made, for example, New Bedford, a now faded industrial port in Massachusetts, the richest city per capita in the world. This is the rare picture book that is as informative as it is delightful to browse.
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Go-to destinations change for cookbooks: Morocco one year, Turkey the next, Israel/the West Bank/Syria the next. This year’s is Georgia, in the Caucasus region, whose cuisine our own Robert D. Kaplan has been telling me to explore for decades. Kaukasis: A Culinary Journey Through Georgia, Azerbaijan & Beyond, by Olia Hercules, a British-style picture book, is a standard travelogue with beautiful color photographs and recipes that, typically for these books, are more like wishful suggestions than specific instructions you’ll want to get grease-stained on the kitchen counter.
Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus is something else again—a labor of love by a deeply engaged food writer and historian who has lived in and traveled every part of the region she writes about. Carla Capalbo, who I’ve long known as an opinionated and expert Italophile (her website lists at least seven books about the food and wine of Italy), has gone to what seems like every corner of Georgia. She shows us all of it in a full-color guidebook that provides servings of history and politics along with food, and also nuts-and-bolts hotel and restaurant recommendations. The staple ingredients will be familiar to readers who have been on recent picture-book culinary tours around the Mediterranean: walnuts, yogurt, cornmeal, potato, cheese, indigenous wines, and endless amounts of garlic. (Georgians feel about garlic the way Samin Nosrat feels about salt.) Nearly every page reflects the passion of the people Capalbo meets, with a typical new friend telling her: “We Georgians feel our history so deeply, we’ll never stop fighting for our independence.”
If many of the ingredients in the Georgia excursions are familiar, it’s because of the trailblazing travels the extraordinary writer and teacher Paula Wolfert took in the 1960s through 1990s. Wolfert, who started with Morocco and tore through France, Turkey, and the rest of the Levant and Maghreb, was the original culinary adventurer. Couscous, cassoulet, duck breast, and Aleppo pepper, to name just four, would barely exist in this country were it not for her exhaustive, brimmingly enthusiastic researches. As a teacher and raconteur she was and is spellbinding, though her life has been slowed by dementia that impairs her short- but not long-term memory—a condition she has been extremely open about, becoming something of a poster child in articles and documentaries on adaptive behavior and, of course, diets. Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life is another labor of love, led by Wolfert’s longtime editor at Food & Wine, Emily Kaiser Thelin, who rightly thought that her career as a writer and recipe interpreter, which influenced generations of chefs, deserved a full-dress biography. The team Thelin assembled mounted a Kickstarter campaign when publishers demurred, and triumphed after the fact when an actual publisher printed a subsequent edition. The real triumph, though, is an ultra-professional project full of tempting pictures and recipes that are both achievable, usually with no little concentration, and boundary-pushing even now.
No one has been as impassioned and assiduous. Wolfert has had a kind of X-ray vision into flavor and how to build it, with an eye always on the tricks the women whose kitchens she learned in used, both wittingly and un-. She knows how to dissect those and deduce how and why they worked, and show home cooks how to reproduce flavors through layering techniques that would influence them—and many, many professional chefs—for all of their cooking lives. (Just one example of writers who were influenced by Wolfert’s bold cooking explorations is Joan Nathan, whose King Solomon’s Table covers much of the same territory with similar gusto, this in search of Jewish food.) A dinner-party recipe of scallops in tangerine sauce, inspired by the much-mourned chef Jean-Louis Palladin, is an easy way to accomplish layering, with tangerine juice and cream separately and quickly reduced by quick evaporation before being blended. “Sprinkle pie,” a Greek pita variant with a filling of leeks, greens, and feta and a crust of just cornmeal thrown onto the bottom of the pan is a typical Wolfert technique that, Thelin writes, should not work and does. Recipes for staples at the back include homemade pomegranate concentrate (she popularized it) and a Turkish yogurt sauce with garlic, lemon, sweet-hot Aleppo pepper, and mint leaves that will be an all-purpose accompaniment.
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Bread is back. So, if you haven’t heard, is butter. Both very good pieces of news for the few remaining people who don’t avoid gluten (a trend I reported when the wave was gathering force). Even those who do will want a copy, however tantalizing, of Modernist Bread, the most recent diamonds-are-forever production of the vast team assembled near Seattle by Nathan Myhrvold, the first chief technology officer of Microsoft and irrepressible enthusiast for everything to do with physics, dinosaurs, microphotography, and food. Six years ago he published a five-volume behemoth, Modernist Cuisine, which I actually read. Now, with the baker Francisco Migoya, Myhrvold has returned to his first love, as in when he was 9 years old: baking. The first set, which retailed for $478 and now sells for $437, went on to sell 220,000 copies after a tentative first printing of 6,000 copies because food people ridiculed him for publishing the vast oversized production himself. Modernist Bread, which costs $523, could go on to something like the same success.
As with Modernist Cuisine, Modernist Bread is almost ridiculously extravagant and information-dense: more than a million words, the introduction says, and, Myhrvold told me when I visited the Bellevue kitchen and studio several months ago, half a million pictures to produce the 5,879 in the five volumes (there’s also an all-text, spiral-bound recipe “manual” included). Given his nonstop tinkering with very high-tech cameras, he doubtless took thousands of that half million himself. And, as with Modernist Cuisine, the set will be a long-lasting delight for its encyclopedic range, layout that is a cross between a very long magazine article and a young-adult textbook (the authors and extremely professional editing team were heavily influenced by the Time-Life books of the 1970s; the chief editor is Wayt Gibbs, a longtime Scientific American contributing editor), and the plain grown-up-little-boy gee-whiz cool stuff. In Modernist Cuisine, that was mostly endless photographs of stoves and pots and ovens sawed in half; here, as part of a section on historic bread recipes, there’s a goofy photographic re-creation of a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman fresco of a bread vendor in Pompeii, the re-created bread topped with a real Roman-era metal bread stamp Myhrvold was so pleased to find that he put a picture of it on the cover of the first volume. You can tell they all had fun over the years it took to test the hundreds of recipes and techniques in the books (an index entry is “hacksaws, for slicing bread”).
Here, too, is authoritative information on grains, the latest research on the microbiome, gluten intolerance, and celiac disease (there are dozens of gluten-free recipes too), and food-borne pathogens (the Myhrvold team has made a specialty of food safety; one index-page header is “gangrene”). There are the team’s by now trademark contrarian findings: Bread baked in a wood-fired oven doesn’t make a bit of difference to flavor; New York water does not explain anything about why New York bagels are better; and all-rye flour condemns loaves to bricks (the Washington, D.C., bakery of the moment, Seylou, is using the book’s same discovery—it’s the fineness of the milling that matters—to produce improbably airy whole-wheat croissants). And, as with Modernist Cuisine, whether or not you ever cook from Modernist Bread will make no difference to the pleasure and learning it provides.
Other, single volumes offer quicker, and far lighter—the shipping weight of the Modernist Bread set is 51.6 pounds—hits of bread. Bianco: Pizza, Pasta, and Other Food I Like is an Italian family cookbook that happens to be written by a renegade former New Yorker who somewhat randomly settled in Phoenix and eventually made what food writers almost universally call the best pizza in America (and some say, the world). I doubt that the relatively abbreviated pizza-dough recipe, the opposite of obsessive, will turn anyone into a professional pizzaiolo, but I don’t doubt it will make something that will please you. All the recipes are friendly—tomato sauce is shockingly easy, just canned tomatoes you crush with your hands and leave to sit with olive oil, basil leaves, and salt for a half hour. The pizza toppings are original and simple (“rosa,” his invention, has just coarsely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, paper-thin slices of red onion, fresh rosemary, and a handful of crushed roasted pistachios) and so are the salads (watermelon and fennel, dressed with just lemon juice and parsley, has me wishing for summer), sandwiches (pulled lamb with cider vinegar dressing), and pastas. There’s even chicken cacciatore from his grandmother’s kitchen—an easy, home-style recipe that, like many of the recipes here, will become weekly standbys.
The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, by Jim Lahey with Maya Joseph, is more about baking, and given the fact that the author revolutionized home baking in this country with his no-knead, very wet, long-fermented bread, most but not all of the breads start with biga, a quick sourdough starter. I’m on the record as thinking that Lahey’s startlingly airy, impossibly crusty (and crumb-strewing), full-of-flavor breads are my favorite in the country. I suspect that even if it isn’t the New York water, Lahey’s experience and technique will mean you’ll need to visit the bakery to have a sense of how the originals taste. But I also think bread bakers will want to experiment immediately with the recipes here, and nonbakers will find plenty to keep them happily engaged, for instance making chickpea fritter and tahini sandwiches seasoned with Aleppo pepper and ground sumac.
Real cooks, and bread bakers, are likely to run from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, a kind of confessional picture book by a baker named Stella Parks who enjoys reverse-engineering Twinkies, which she makes better by modeling them on tres leches; Hostess-style cupcakes; fig newtons; and Girl Scouts thin mints. Why bother with such stunts? And, as real cooks would say, why bother with finicky, home-style-chemistry-set dessert baking at all? Because some of us have no desire or, fortunately, need to give up gluten or sugar (pace the friends like Gary Taubes and Robert Lustig who think no level of sugar is safe) and are iron filings to a magnet when seeing lushly illustrated recipes for vanilla cake with fudge icing or Baltimore fudge with butter, condensed milk, and brown sugar. Plus, Parks is a serious cook, interested in the history of how those desserts became iconic, and one who applies her serious culinary education to what others might consider frivolous ends. It’s telling that J. Kenji López-Alt, the author of The Food Lab, who spent months perfecting a homemade version of Kraft mac and cheese, wrote the foreword.
I’m taking his recommendation of her skills, and her promise to change our view of white cake, to the kitchen once holiday shopping and wrapping are over. That requires cake flour, “virgin coconut oil,” and lots of confidence-inspiring buttermilk (everything tastes better with buttermilk). But just when the last, last-minute gift is stuffed into an overstuffed bag, it’s a bowlful of her really simple Silky Chocolate Pudding I’ll be heading for with an oversized spoon.