holiday books

Among the books that caught my eye this season, two of the most lovely are The New Midwestern Table by Amy Thielen and The Heart of the Plate by Mollie Katzen. I’m biased on the Midwestern book, as it’s my home turf, but the Minnesotan Thielen, who logged serious years as a cook and chef at some of the best restaurants in Manhattan until she began a family, brings new life to recipes that are so at home in this part of America, dishes featuring our lake fish and our abundant venison, and vibrant takes on pot roasts and meat pies, recipes from simple salads to more elaborate preparations for headcheese and red current jelly. The publisher sent me an extra copy—it will be a GIVEAWAY to a commenter, just name your favorite cookbook (other than mine, were you to be so inclined) in the comments section.

UPDATE: Mary Beth Marion, of Atlanta, GA, won, btw. Her choice Jacques Pepin’s Fast Food My Way, with a nod to his excellent memoir, The Apprentice. I highly recommend both, especially the memoir.

I only knew about Katzen’s new book because I met this famous author (Moosewood Cookbook, an enduring classic) in the green room at The Leonard Lopate Show. What a delightful woman. She insisted I take the copy she had with her for the show, signing it to me and Donna and praising Donna’s pix as she herself did her own photography for this book and knows how hard it is. An all-vegetable cookbook for me? You bet. I’m doing my darnedest to eat less meat and more veg and this book will be my beacon.

I’m a huge memoir fan and this season’s chef memoir pick is Norman Van Aken’s rollicking No Experience Necessary—unvarnished and true. For a more literary memoir with food on the periphery, the novelist Kate Christensen’s Blue Plate Special is superb.

Two other excellent nonfiction works are Maureen Ogle’s In Meat We Trust, an exploration of the history of meat in America, how we got to where we are, what it means, and how we should deal with the many complex issues our hunger for meat raises; much of our current system has to do with the post-war rise of cities, she argues, and we can’t have it all, for which she’s already taking some heat. And Allen Salkin’s From Scratch: Inside the Food Network, a journalist’s inside exploration of a network that has created many national stars at a pivotal moment in our country’s food revolution.

As for more cookbooks:

Maximum Flavor by the ever-curious and provocative team of Aki Kamozawa and Alexander H. Talbot. I’ve already written about the best mac & cheese book out there, Melt, by Stephanie Stiavetti and Garrett McCord, but it deserves to be mentioned here. For wild things, expert hunter and cook Hank Shaw delivers again with Duck, Duck, Goose.

Nom Nom Paleo by Michelle Tam and Henry Fong is a fabulous Paleo cookbook, especially for beginners, but the diverse recipes are excellent even if you’re not a strict Paleo, it’s just good food.

I met Lolis Eric Elie, one of the writers for the excellent show Treme at the Miami book fair. He’s written a cookbook, Treme, that combines the authentic cuisine of New Orleans, one of the most interesting and delicious regional cuisines of America, and blends it with stories from the show and the characters. The blending of food and story always gets me. I also me the exuberant Sandra A. Gutierrez and bought her Latin American Street Food because I know so little about the subject. She grew up in Guatemala, literally surrounded by Jewish families who cooked with schmaltz, so we had much to talk about. And finally The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays by Ree Drummond, whose career fascinates me. She hardly needs my blessing, but I’ve long been a fan of her writing and she continues here with recipes for nine of our cherished holidays.

My girl Friday, Emilia Juocys, is a trained chef and avid cook and wanted to mention some of her faves.

Emilia’s Picks

Smoke and Pickles By Edward Lee is my big pick for the season.  I enjoy that he marries his Korean heritage with the traditions of Southern food.  Together they make fun recipes such as braised beef kalbi, Kentucky fried quail, and southern fried rice. Don’t worry Chef Lee has a few BBQ dishes, but you can also find recipes for pickles, cocktails, and desserts.  His restaurant, 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky, is on my list to visit in 2014.  Korean cuisine will come more to the forefront of the food world—it is very exciting, complex in flavors, and stresses communal dining.  Another Korean chef to watch out for is Bill Kim of Chicago who has Urban Belly, Belly Shack and Belly Q.

I had the opportunity to dine at Eleven Madison Park when it came to Alinea on the dinner tour called The 21st Century Limited.  Dining with Chef Humm and his staff in Chicago was quite the experience and fell in line with his first book Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook.  What I like the most about their new book I Love New York: Ingredients and Recipes by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara is that it covers the rich culinary history of the New York region featuring the local produce, farmers, and artisans there.  New York State has a rich in culinary heritage. The book covers recipes and stories, and ingredients raging from apples to clams to walnuts. Its is a book you can’t put down.

While in NYC, I visited the culinary bookstore Kitchen Arts & Letters and I came across this beautiful cookbook, Le Livre Blanc by Anne-Sophie Pic.  In these current times when male chefs are highlighted for their contribution to the culinary world it is great to see that Chef Pic has released a book of her own showing her skills.  Chef Pic runs Pic a Michelin three-star restaurant in France, and she is the only female chef to have that honor.  This is a serious recipe book with beautiful photos.  She takes her family’s traditional recipes and modernizes them.

There’s plenty to choose from, and you can’t go wrong with any of these. Happy holidays!

© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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69 Wonderful responses to “Food Books for Gifts”

  • Chandler

    Salt to Taste, Marco Canora, or All About Roasting, Molly Stevens. Both really good techinique driven books that I’ve learned a lot from.

  • Sherri

    The books I’m most looking forward to getting in the kitchen with are Sweet by Valerie Gordon and The Scarpetta Cookbook by Scott Conant.

  • Chris

    eleven madison park: the cookbook by humm & guidara
    (gorgeous, nuanced, and yet highly accessible, this book is a fantastic asset to any culinary layman’s library)

  • kevin

    Hero Food by Seamus Mullen and Mr. Wilkinsons Vegetables. And of course twenty, since I live in Cleveland.

  • sheila reyes

    Favorite cookbook is Diana Kennedy ” The art of mexican cooking”. I was born in Michoacan grew up in the United States . Her recipes taste just like moms for me that is a winner . Its a classic .

  • Kat

    Favorite cookbook of the year: Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi. Favorite cookbook ever? Oh wow. I can’t decide. Maybe Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child.

  • Ryan

    Hard to choose, but probably either Craft of Cooking by Tom Colicchio, or Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz.

    Both work to elevate simpler dishes by focusing heavily on perfecting techniques and balance, not just tossing in more and more and confusing the food.

  • Heather

    Japanese Soul Cooking by Tadashi Ono. It’s one of the only Japanese cookbooks with a section on curry that I have found. My husband was stationed in Japan and became addicted to Japanese curry. Favorite of all time? Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat.

  • Peter

    The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin.

    Quite simply, Jacques is the man.

  • Deanna

    I think the book I’ve cooked the most from this year is Jerusalem. But the Mozza and Sunday Suppers at Lucque’s are also high on the list.

  • Peter Howell

    Love cookbooks! Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand Hardcover
    by Andy Ricker is my most recent fav! Still go to your Charcuterie book on a regular basis however!!

  • Victoria

    P.S. I am interested that you don’t have A.O.C. on this list. I’m going back to re-read the list to see if I missed it. By the way, thanks for the recommendation on Blue Plate Special – a well-written odyssey. Right now I’m reading the Julia Child/Avis deVoto letters and enjoying it immensely. And I’m still so sad about Judy Rodgers :(.

  • Stephanie Henson

    Good Cooks Terrines, Pates, and Galantines. As a child I loved the pictures, as an adult I love the range of garde manger techniques it covers.

  • Christian

    The cookbook used the most in our home are the Good Eats series by Alton Brown. They got my 12 year old daughter to cook and begin thinking about the possibilities of food. And the Mac ans Cheese recipe is simply the best ever.

  • Kit

    Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli. Inspired my creativity and made me believe that with a thoughtful discipline, I could produce this kind of lusty food.

  • Amanda

    The Science of Good Cooking by ATK. This was the first book to show me that cooking can be a science, not just recipes. Ratio and Twenty obviously expanded that thinking.

  • Derek

    How to Cook Without a Book by Pamela Anderson. I own a lot of cookbooks, but I got more out of this one than most of the others combined.

  • Carolyn Z

    I don’t have a favorite cookbook. I make recipes for a time and then move on to the next one. For example, I make ice cream from The Perfect Scoop in the warmer months. Then if I’m making chicken breasts, I go to Back to Basics to see how long to cook them with lemon. If I can’t find a recipe for what I want to cook, I look at one of the Betty Crocker cookbooks. You’d be surprised at what is covered.

  • nora

    The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, the very first serious cookbook that I purchased for myself. I often give a copy as wedding gifts :)

  • Anthony Guzzaldo

    Favorite cookbook…. tough to decide. Science of Good Cooking by ATK is great. Also a fan of American Pie by Peter Reinhart.

  • Rick Myers

    My Mother went back to school to get her Doctorate at the age of 57. She gave me the NY Times Cookbook and asked me to start cooking dinners. I was 13 and I still have it 36 years later.

  • paul

    My go-to cookbook and online resource is Alton Brown. I use Food+Heat=Cooking and I’m Just Here for the Food all the time.

  • Auntie Allyn

    My two current favorite cookbooks are “Eat Your Vegetables” by Joe Yonan and “Masala Farm” by Suvir Saran. Both of these books have heavily influenced my cooking over the last year and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

  • Chuck Falzone

    I recently did one of those “name fifteen books that really stuck with you” on Facebook. Three of my fifteen were cookbooks; two were yours; the other was Serious Pig by John Thorne.

  • Rivkah T

    Oooh. Tough one. Will be hitting up my library’s website later based on all of the above comments.

    I now have a small child and am also working on eating high quality food which is naturally delicious and doesn’t need much embellishment, so I’ve been hooked on Mark Bittman’s “How To Cook Everything” for a while now (the Vegetarian edition too). The app is rather excellent as well.

  • Tyler

    My favorites, besides 20 (which really is my favorite) is Cooks Illustrated big how to cook everything book. A great cocktail recipe book is Speakeasy: The Employees Only book. Lot of great stuff in there, including a good chicken soup recipe.

  • Maria V.

    Laura Calder’s Dinner Chez Moi. I like the intimate writing, it makes me feel like I’m reading letters from a friend. But there are so many books that have taught me how to cook. Love your writing too.

  • Cissa

    My most-used cookbook (besides “Twenty”) is “The Victory Garden Cookbook”. It’s got info on cooking ALL the vegetables! Now, the recipes tend to the plain so I usually tweak them, but it gives a really solid base.

  • joanneinjax

    I read “Blue Plate Special” on your recommendation and loved it. Thanks for introducing me to the talented Kate Christensen.

  • terri

    I can’t pick just one–but the book that started me on thinking about the “whys” of cooking, not just the “hows,” was “The Cake Bible” by Rose Levy Beranbaum.

  • May

    The books I keep coming back to?

    “Great British Puddings,” Mary and Debbie Smith.

    “Traditional Scottish Cookery,” Theodora FitzGibbon.

    “Far Eastern Cookery,” Madhur Jaffrey.

    Why, yes, I am Scottish – why ever do you ask?!

  • Jamie Frazell

    My favorite cookbook is my grandmothers 1952 good housekeeping cookbook- for sentimental reasons & because the best chocolate pudding ever is in there

  • Matthew

    So many cookbooks to choose from. I think the most important thing a cookbook can do is to instruct on making a dish one would otherwise not be able to make. In that vein, and because I have read it from cover to cover at least three times in the last year, my favorite cookbook is Japanese Cooking by Shizuoka Tsuji.

  • witloof

    My favorite cookbook is Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin, although I don’t cook out of it. I just love her voice and never get tired of it. The book I cook from is The Tassajara Recipe Book by Edward Espe Brown. There are recipes in there I have been making for more than 25 years.

  • KT Giombolini

    Bouchon by Thomas Keller. The first cookbook given to me by the Chef I was apprenticing with.

  • Tristan A

    The Food-Lover’s Garden (1970!) by Angelo Pellegrini, Italian immigrant, English professor and in his proud word, peasant. It’s a lovely book on how to grow a kitchen garden and savor the bounty. His philosophy of food and cooking has encouraged and stayed with me for all these years.

  • EightPondFarm

    Any of the Cottage series are older favorites; newer ones: The Model Bakery Cookbook and Gramercy Tavern.

  • Brian B

    Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish. I know I am rare in that I enjoy cookbooks that are not just all recipes. I enjoyed his little stories of opening Ken’s Artisan Bakery and the “day in the life of a baker” piece. As far as the recipes, his were spot on and I enjoyed the bread we made from it.

  • Julia The Jeweler

    I also have to vote for Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal. Less of a cookbook and more about the philosophy of “cooking with economy and grace.” Certainly the best food book I read this year.

  • JGD

    Bistro Cooking at Home by Gordon Hamersley at 10 years old it’s still one of my favorites.

  • Kitty

    I learned to cook out of Betty Crocker as a teenager. Momofuku was the funniest, and I learned how to make a good bolognese from the Marcella Hazan book.

  • Aaron

    I’ll echo the support for Smoke & Pickles – I really like cookbooks that offer an insight into the Chef/Author’s background and perspective. I can find recipe compilations online easily enough!