Cookbooks offer so much in the way of a gift: a glimpse into a chef's kitchen, a visit to another country, elaborate blueprints for meals you will never attempt, even just a chance to enjoy exceptionally gorgeous food photography.
Whether the cookbook lover on your list is interested in re-creating dishes at Pok Pok, the best Thai restaurant in the country, or discovering what makes the legendary petit fours at Valerie Confections in L.A. so good, or learning the secret to preparing one of the creations from Philadelphia's best vegan restaurant, Vedge, this season's offerings do not disappoint.
Franny's, by Andrew Feinberg, Francine Stephens, and Melissa Clark (Artisan, $35).
I remember our meal at Franny's in Brooklyn fondly largely because of the stellar pizzas - heat-blistered and topped with bounty from the nearest farmer's market. Unfortunately, the surprisingly simple recipe in Franny's new cookbook just did not translate to my regular old home oven. The good news is that Franny's is much more than a pizzeria. And the rest of this book from the owners bursts with smart ideas for seasonally inspired Italian cooking, from the pumpkin and cranberry bean soup (tanged with Parmesan rinds), to a soulful ragu of deconstructed pork sausage, hearty salads sparked with bitter greens, beans and pancetta, and a crostata recipe that will be my new standard.
- Craig LaBan
The New California Wine by Jon Bonné ($35, Ten Speed Press).
Jon Bonné, an East Coast skeptic who landed in California in 2006 as wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, saw an industry in a "self-satisfied funk" that was a slave to "Big Flavor" - an addiction to commercialized over-ripeness that paid little heed to terroir.
Bonné's view has since evolved and this book is his homage to the upstart winemakers and regions that aim for change. But Bonné paints compelling portraits of several - the biodynamic farmer and pinot master of Littorai, Ted Lemon; wacky Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project. Beyond its strong storytelling, Bonne's book offers an history lesson and a practical guide to the new stars, from Paso Robles syrah to a "neo-Friulian" white blend from Napa's Massican that "sums up all the changes from California." Not surprisingly, it contains no chardonnay.
Pok Pok by Andy Ricker with J.J. Goode (Ten Speed Press, $35).
Eating at both of Andy Ricker's Pok Pok restaurants - in Portland, Ore., and Brooklyn - remains a seminal experience in my eating education, because real Thai food (especially from the north) turns out to be almost nothing like what most Americans believe. After cooking through the Pok Pok cookbook, I understand why. Genuine Thai food is labor intensive and layered, and use of an old-style mortar and pestle (whose pounding sounds out "pok-pok") is required. This is not a book for quickie noodles. But the rewards are extraordinary, with a vividness of flavors that will make your eyes snap open, from the lemongrass-stuffed Cornish hens to spicy beef salad dusted with toasted rice. Add Ricker's engaging and opinionated voice and Pok Pok the book is an instant classic.
Keepers: Two Home Cooks Share Their Tried-and-True Weeknight Recipes and the Secrets to Happiness in the Kitchen by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion (Rodale, $26.99).
These two former colleagues at Saveur magazine have put together a collection of delicious, no-fail recipes for busy households, designed to make planning and preparing dinner a fun, relatively uncomplicated ritual that nourishes body and soul. Most of the 125 recipes, culled from the authors' personal and professional cooking experiences, are surprisingly down-to-earth. They take no longer than 45 minutes to make and require no crazy ingredients. More good news: Substitutions are allowed. For those of us who are too darned stressed or disorganized, Brennan and Campion have done the hard part. All we have to do is stock the pantry, do what we're told, and enjoy the results. Keepers is definitely a keeper.
- Virginia A. Smith
Vedge: 100 Plates, Large and Small, That Redefine Vegetable Cooking by Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby (The Experiment).
This husband-and-wife chef-owner team has set the standard for vegetarian cooking in Philadelphia, and they share their secrets in this cookbook, from their spice blends and stocks to their most popular dishes, even their cocktails. The recipes demonstrate how Landau builds levels of flavor without meat, and the best part is that the book is completely approachable. With the list of pantry ingredients and manageable instructions, you really can make the shaved Brussels sprouts with whole-grain mustard sauce or the peas and carrots with Jamaican curry, even Kate's panna cotta.
- Maureen Fitzgerald
Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant (W.W. Norton, $35).
Why in the world would we need another pasta cookbook? Surely everything that possibly could be said has been covered to death by now. Well, pick up this book and find out just how wrong you are. It's the companion to 2009's Encyclopedia of Pasta by the same authors. Encyclopedia was more than 350 pages of everything you could possibly want to know about pasta history, geography, literature and, yes, cooking - without a single recipe. This new book fills that gap, thoroughly, admirably, and entertainingly.
- L.A. Times
One Good Dish: The Pleasures of a Simple Meal by David Tanis (Artisan, $25.95).
Amid this season's flurry of massive tomes comes this modest entry from a former Chez Panisse chef. What he means by one good dish is "tasty, simple, and real," i.e., something a home cook could make without devoting the entire weekend to one recipe. Browsing through, I kept slipping torn pieces of paper next to recipes I want to try. At the end of an hour, my book was bristling with strips of paper.
- L.A. Times
The A.O.C. Cookbook by Suzanne Goin (Knopf, $35).
Among a certain crowd, Suzanne Goin's first cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, is close to kitchen sacrament, this generation's answer to The Silver Palate Cookbook in the 1980s. It's taken eight years, but Goin has finally followed it up. It's farmer's market-driven in all the right ways: great ingredients treated with nuance and without cant. The stunning photography has a natural kitchen glow. This is a book about how we cook here and now.
- L.A. Times
Sweet: Inspired Ingredients, Unforgettable Desserts by Valerie Gordon (Artisan, $35).
Valerie Gordon chronicles her bakery's menu of cakes, petit fours, pies, cookies, chocolates, jams, and more. A self-taught baker and confectioner, Gordon's Valerie Confections has become a Los Angeles institution. As at her bakery, in the cookbook she calls for the best possible ingredients and exacting standards. And the spectrum of flavors hits all the right notes: chocolaty, buttery, creamy, fruity, nutty, and spicy. Gordon always seems to add the right "extra," such as grated aged Gouda in the crust for her apple crostata, or matcha in her white chocolate macadamia cookies. There are plenty of the kinds of simple dishes that resonate with elemental sweet-tooth cravings: glazed citrus pound cake, salted peanut blondies, and Eton mess, to name a few.
- L.A. Times
L.A. Son: My Life. My City, My Food by Roy Choi with Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan (Ecco).
Choi is the tattooed bad-boy popularizer of the Korean taco and the food-truck craze, thanks to his Kogi truck, and may well be the epitome of the life of a new generation of chefs - for those who choose a life in the kitchen (as an alternative to, say, joining a band).
This memoir cookbook pops with Choi's hip-hop verbal rhythms - and the boy does like his F-bombs, even in the recipes: there are 60, nicely chosen but mainly footnotes to the main story, including some classics like My Milkshake, with vanilla ice cream, sea salt, and Frosted Flakes; 49-cent spaghetti; ketchup fried rice; and beef cheek tacos.
- L.A. Times
Notes from the Larder, A Kitchen Diary with Recipes by Nigel Slater (Ten Speed Press).
This longtime columnist for Britain's Observer newspaper shares his kitchen notebook, not, he says "a set of exquisitely bound kitchen chronicles, but a scruffy hodgepodge" of his daily food musings, on herbs, leftovers, knives, the reason pancetta is superior to regular bacon for recipes (its more subtle aromatic flavor.)
He shares recipes for everyday (a marinade in 10 minutes) as well as festive holidays (roast goose with chickpea and lemon stuffing), all written in a lovely style that makes you believe it really can by done in your own kitchen, with lots of tips and insights into the mind of a very prolific home cook.
Pok Pok's Kai Yaang (roasted chickens)
Makes 4 servings
2 Cornish game hens or poussins (1 1/4-1 1/2 pounds each), rinsed inside and out
For the brine:
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup superfine sugar
10 cups tepid water
5-6 unpeeled garlic cloves
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
A thumb-size hunk of unpeeled ginger, coarsely sliced against the grain
1 large unpeeled stalk lemongrass, cut into 2-inch lengths
1 small handful cilantro stems, preferably with roots attached, torn in half
2-3 whole green onions, torn in half
For the stuffing:
3 large stalks lemongrass, outer layer, bottom 1/2 inch, and top 4 inches removed
3 3/4 ounces unpeeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise (about 3/4 cup)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 oz. thin sliced cilantro stems (about 1/2 cup)
For the marinade:
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
2 tablespoons Thai thin soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons fried shallot oil (see recipe)
1/4 cup honey mixed well with 2 tablespoons hot water
One recommended dip:
Naam Jim Kai (sweet chile dip, see recipe)
1. Brine the birds: whisk salt and sugar with the 10 cups of tepid water in a large mixing bow until the sugar and salt fully dissolve. Combine the garlic, peppercorns, ginger, and lemongrass in a mortar and lightly pound to bruise and slightly crush them. Add along with the cilantro and green onions to the brine, then add the birds breast side down. If they float, weigh them down with a plate. Birds should be completely submerged. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight.
2. Make the stuffing: Remove the birds, discarding the brine, and sit them butt down in a colander to drain.
3. Cut lemongrass crosswise into rough 1/8-inch slices. Firmly pound it in a granite mortar until it's very fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the garlic and pound to break it into small pieces (not a paste), about 20 seconds. Add the salt and pepper, pound briefly, then add the cilantro stems and pound to bruise them, about 10 seconds more.
4. Divide the stuffing equally among the birds' cavities, set the birds breast side up on a plate (or even better, a rack set over an oven tray) so there's some space between them. Tuck each wing tip under the body. Put the birds in the fridge, uncovered, to dry out for at least 4 hours, or up to 12.
5. Marinate the birds: stir fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and pepper in small bowl along with the 2 tablespoons of water until the sugar is fully dissolved. Brush the birds with the marinade, then put them back, uncovered, into the fridge for 2 hours.
6. To cook: If using a grill (recommended method), heat grill to 350-375 degrees and prepare it for indirect cooking, pushing coals to one side of grill to form a mound. Add the birds, breasts up, to the grill rack opposite the charcoal, and cover the grill, with vents open in lid directly over the birds to foster smoky flavor. Cook for 25 minutes, flip the birds over to get color on the other side, and after about 5 minutes, flip the birds over again.
7. After 5 minutes, brush birds all over with shallot oil and re-cover grill. After 5 minutes, brush birds with honey mixture and move them directly over the coals. Keep cooking, covered, turning over and rotating the birds to achieve even browning, and brushing occasionally with the honey mixture until the skin is glossy golden brown with dark patches, and the thigh juices run clear, 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the birds.
8. If using oven, move rack to the bottom third of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Bake birds on a rack over a baking tray breast side up for 30 minutes. Rotate pan and brush all over with the shallot oil. Cook for 5 minutes more, then brush with honey mixture. Raise heat to 400 degrees. Check every 5 minutes, brushing them with honey mixture until done, as per instructions above.
9. Let birds rest 10 to 30 minutes. Serve whole or carved, with dipping sauces.
Per serving: 478 calories; 67 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams sugar; 15 grams fat; 301 milligrams cholesterol; 2,889 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.
Naam Jim Kai (Sweet Chile Dipping Sauce)
Makes 11/4 cups
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar (preferably a Thai brand)
1/2 cup water
21 grams (3/4 ounce) fresh or drained pickled Thai red chiles, coarsely sliced (or half the chiles if crowd can't handle big spice)
1. Combine the sugar, vinegar, and water in a medium pot set over high heat, and bring to a vigorous simmer, cooking for 10 minutes or so, whisking to help dissolve the sugar.
2. Meanwhile, pound the chiles, garlic and salt in a granite mortar (or food processor) to a very coarse paste. Stir the mixture into the pot.
3. Decrease the heat to maintain a steady simmer and cook until the liquid thickens slightly and becomes just slightly syrupy, 8 to 12 minutes. The sauce thickens as it cools to room temperature. Use right away or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to a few months.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 86 calories; trace protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 21 grams sugar; trace fat; no cholesterol; 2 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.
Franny's Apple Crostata
Makes six 6-inch crostatas (6-12 servings)
For the crumb topping:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of kosher salt
Pinch of baking powder
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cool but not cold
1/3 cup chopped pecans (optional)
For the filling:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped out and reserved
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 pounds tart apples, such as Granny Smith
Large pinch of kosher salt
1 1/2 pounds crostata dough (see recipe) rolled into 6 rounds and chilled
2 large egg yolks beaten with 2 tablespoons heavy cream for egg wash
1 tablespoon sugar
1. To make the crumb topping: In a medium bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder. Using a pastry cutter or a fork, cut in the butter until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. Toss in the pecans, if using. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until ready to use. (Can be made up to 2 days in advance.)
2. To make the filling: In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the brown sugar, vanilla seeds, lemon zest, and juice. Stir in the apples and cook until the apples are tender but not mushy and the juices have thickened slightly, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl to cool then toss with salt.
3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spoon about 1/2 cup of the filling onto the center of each dough round, leaving a 1-inch border of dough all around. Mound about 2 heaping tablespoons of the crumb mixture on top of each portion of apples. Fold the edges of the dough up around the filling to partially cover it. Chill the crostatas for 15 minutes. Brush the crust of each crostata with the egg wash. Sprinkle with the sugar.
4. Bake, rotating the pan halfway through the baking, until the crust is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling, 40 to 50 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly and serve warm, or let cool completely and serve at room temperature. The crostatas can be rewarmed in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes before serving.
Per serving (based on 12): 476 calories; 5 grams protein; 52 grams carbohydrates; 21 grams sugar; 29 grams fat; 109 milligrams cholesterol; 388 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.
Franny's Crostata Dough
Makes six 6-inch crostatas (serves 6 to 12)
1/2 cup water
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 pound salted butter, cubed and chilled
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1. In a small bowl, combine the water and sea salt.
2. Place the butter in a separate bowl. Put both bowls in the freezer for 10 minutes.
3. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour and cold butter about 5 times, or until the mixture has some large chunks and some small. Pulse in the water until the dough just comes together but is not smooth.
4. Dump the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and shape into a ball. Lightly flour a rolling pin. Pat the dough into a rectangle. Roll the dough out to 71/2-by-101/2 inches. With a short end toward you, using a dough scraper, fold the top third down, then fold the bottom third over (like folding a letter to put into an envelope) and rotate 1/4 turn clockwise. Reroll. Repeat three times, lightly flouring the work surface as needed. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, and up to three days.
5. Divide the dough into six equal pieces and flatten into disks. Chill for 15 minutes. On a lightly floured surface roll each one into a 6-inch round slightly less than 1/8 inch thick. Transfer the rounds to a baking sheet, cover with plastic, and chill for at least 10 minutes. (Dough can be refrigerated up to 24 hours.)