Give a cook a cookbook and you may reap the benefits forevermore. Our staff selection of the year's best includes books with challenging cooking projects and simple weekday suppers, from croissants to slow-braised lamb shoulder, to homemade apple cider vinegar - something for every cook on your list.

nolead begins The Food Lab
nolead ends nolead begins By J. Kenji López-Alt, Norton, 960 pp. $49.95

nolead ends Every so often, a big book comes along that changes the way we think about cooking and introduces a new star. And self-professed kitchen nerd J. Kenji López-Alt, an MIT grad turned kitchen pro and test kitchen guru, proves through 900 pages of engaging, convention-challenging text what readers of his blog on seriouseats.com have known. Kenji López-Alt is the Internet-era successor to food scientist Harold McGee. He's distilled years of meticulous trial and error à la Cook's Illustrated (where he was an editor) for a down-to-earth exploration of dishes with populist appeal. Whether writing about preventing burger puff, replicating sous-vide in a beer cooler, advocating a wok for deep-frying, the efforts to demystify science are always in the cause of better cooking. - Craig LaBan

nolead begins Slow Fires
nolead ends nolead begins By Justin Smillie, Clarkson Potter, 320 pp. $40

nolead ends Stephen Starr has been quiet on the Philadelphia front of late. But if Justin Smillie is any indication of the temptations luring him to other cities, I understand the draw. Smillie is the chef at Starr's much-lauded Upland in Manhattan, and his new cookbook, Slow Fires, is so appealing it makes me want to book a table on Park Avenue South. Fortunately, Smillie's recipes – Italianesque in origin, rustic in spirit, and brightened with seasonal produce-forward finishes that nod to his California roots - are accessible to home cooks with time to tackle a weekend project. But these meals, grouped in chapters on braising, roasting, and grilling, elaborate on those basic techniques to build deeper flavors. We tried the braised lamb shoulder with onion-anchovy jam, and it was memorable for its complex flavor, as well as the warm buttered beans and butter lettuce layered right over the top. - C.L.

 
nolead begins Zahav, A World of Israeli Cooking
nolead ends nolead begins By Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 368 pp. $35

nolead ends I love this book. It is so much more than a cookbook, it is a beautiful memoir, the story of Michael Solomonov's family, his parents, his grandparents, and his journey - back and forth from Israel to the U.S. - that eventually led to the opening his groundbreaking, award-winning Israeli restaurant, Zahav, in Philadelphia. Oh, yeah, and then there are the recipes. Some are simple, some are projects, but the recipe for his hummus alone is worth the price of the book.
- Maureen Fitzgerald

nolead begins My Pantry: Homemade Ingredients That Make Simple Meals Your Own
nolead ends nolead begins By Alice Waters with Fanny Singer, Pam Krauss Books. 143 pp. $24.99

nolead ends As someone who grew up making cake from a box and buying every condiment for the fridge, I love stepping back to the way our great-grandmothers did things. And who better to show us the way than grand dame Alice Waters?

I've been making salad dressing for years, but Waters has inspired me to make my own vinegar, making use of those apple peels that were headed for the compost bin.

She gives us recipes for making almond milk, ricotta, and chicken stock, in a voice that makes you believe you will be doing it as often as she. - M.F.

nolead begins NOPI
nolead ends nolead begins By Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, 330 pp. $40

nolead ends From the London chef-author of the hugely popular cookbooks Plenty, Jerusalem, and Ottolenghi comes a new and more complicated offering. NOPI - named for the upscale Soho restaurant - is a full-on restaurant cookbook, which means many recipes call for expensive or hard-to-find ingredients and involve processes that take time to execute, let alone perfect. Still, bold and seductive flavor combinations make this the perfect manual for your next dinner party or special-occasion meal. And Ottolenghi's Israeli-inflected cooking collides with Scully's Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese influences in unexpected ways. Think butternut squash roasted with ginger and tomatoes, topped with lime and cardamom yogurt, cilantro leaves, and cashews. - Samantha Melamed

 
Patisserie Made Simple: From macarons to millefeuille and more
By Edd Kimber, Kyle Books, 191 pp. $24.95

nolead ends There are few things I find more disheartening than cracking open a cookbook and finding a recipe that begins, "Day one . . .." For those of us who demand instant (or at least same-day) gratification, there's a new pastry treatise from British celebrity chef Edd Kimber. He offers an extensive menu of approachable but satisfyingly fancy tarts, like fig and star anise or poached pear. He also tackles classic French baked goods, from caneles to croissants, that can't really be rushed, but he offers concise versions of the traditional recipes. - S.M.

 
Root to Leaf: A Southern chef cooks through the seasons
By Steven Satterfield, Harper Wave, 488 pp. $45

nolead ends For CSA subscribers and farmers' market shoppers, it helps to have a vegetable bible on hand - someplace you can turn and say, "I have celeriac. What now?" or, "What am I supposed to do with carrot tops, anyway?" Satterfield, chef at Atlanta's Miller Union, gamely attempts to answer such wonderings while making the most of every scrap and stem. The book is divided by season and mixes delicate salads and sautes with indulgences like chanterelle and Camembert toast or confit sweet potatoes in duck fat. - S.M.

 
Jacques Pepin, Heart and Soul in the Kitchen
By Jacques Pepin, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 434 pp. $35

nolead ends After two dozen cookbooks over the last 40 years, Jacques Pepin says this is his last. And for me, it may be my favorite, as he shares the recipes for food he cooks at home. Not only does he provide instructions for his tomato velvet soup, mussels with cream and chives, and hamburgers royale (the secret is ground brisket), but he shares his philosophy about cooking: "I know I will never make any recipe exactly the same way again . . .. Feel free to do the same . . .. They will reflect your heart and soul." It's a cookbook I'll turn to again and again. - M.F.

 
American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit
By Clay Risen, Sterling Epicure, 392 pp. $24.95

nolead ends "It may be the best of times for American whiskey, but it can also seem like the most frustrating," writes Clay Risen. And he's right: America's distilling scene has undergone such explosive growth of new distilleries - many with well-oiled marketing machines - it can be hard to keep up, let alone discern quality. Risen has done his part to clarify with his excellent guides. A New York Times editor and drink columnist for Garden & Gun, he's rapidly become an independent voice I trust. His second edition has grown enough, with 145 new entries over the last two years, that its 330-plus bottle guide is now a usefully comprehensive encyclopedia. - C.L.

Braised Lamb Shoulder With Onion-Anchovy Jam

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Makes 6 to 8 servings

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3 to 4 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, preferably with a thick fat cap

2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more

3 tablespoons whole black peppercorns, toasted and lightly crushed

Olive oil, as needed

3 medium red onions, sliced very thin

10 garlic cloves, smashed or finely grated to paste

2 tablespoons each: tomato paste, Dijon mustard

1/4 cup anchovy paste

2 tablespoons rosemary leaves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon smoked paprika (pimentón)

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1 cup fruity red wine

1 tablespoon agave or honey

1 quart lamb or chicken broth

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1. Score, tie, and dry-brine the lamb: If your lamb shoulder does not come with a thick fat cap, skip this step. Place lamb on clean work surface so its fat side faces up. Hold a very sharp knife at a 45-degree angle over one of the fat cap's corners. Score the fat on a diagonal, running the blade from the top corner down and across. When scoring, make sure not to cut through into the meat; each incision should just barely cut into the fat, about 1/8-inch deep. Continue scoring the fat, spacing incisions 1/4-inch apart. Stop scoring where the fat begins to taper off. Working in the opposite direction, repeat the scoring so a tight diamond pattern forms across the fat cap.

Season the lamb on all sides with 2 tablespoons of salt and the pepper. Tie the lamb up with butcher's twine, using a standard butcher's loop at 1-inch intervals. The tied shoulder should form a uniform cylinder. Place the shoulder on a cooling rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Dry-brine the shoulder, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.

2. Build the braise: Remove the lamb from the refrigerator. Set a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat and swirl 2 tablespoons of olive oil (1/4 cup if shoulder does not have a fat cap). When the oil is hot, lay in the lamb, fat side down. Sear the fat cap, lowering the heat to prevent scorching, for about 10 minutes, or until it crisps and browns deeply. Rotate, lightly searing all sides of the shoulder until they easily release from the pot and are a light golden brown. Transfer lamb to a rack and set aside. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the pot, be sure to keep the "fond" in place. Set pot back over medium-low heat and stir in the onions, scraping up all the fond on the bottom. Gently stew the onions for 45 minutes, or until they collapse and caramelize richly. Stir frequently so they color evenly.

3. While onions cook, make the anchovy paste: remove fillets from jar and smash to a paste with a mortar and pestle, or hand-chop finely, adding oil back in as needed to form a smooth paste.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Stir the garlic into the onions and cook for about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and mustard and sauté for 2 minutes, until paste cooks into the onions. Add the anchovy paste, rosemary, and pimentón. Raise the heat to medium-high. Pour in the vinegar, wine, and agave. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the liquid turns syrupy and the onions are spreadably soft. Season with salt to taste. Return lamb shoulder to the pot with its fat cap facing up. Spoon and smear the jam all over the lamb and pour in enough broth to cover two-thirds of the shoulder. Bring the broth to a simmer, then reduce to a lazy bubble. Cover the pot and transfer to center rack of the oven. Braise the lamb for 11/2 hours, or until the center is easily pierced with a knife but the meat is still bouncy when prodded. Every 30 minutes, baste the lamb, re-cover, and rotate the pot 90 degrees.

Finish and serve: Remove the pot from the oven and thoroughly baste the lamb shoulder with the juices and caramelized onions. Season with salt to taste. Re-cover and let the lamb rest for 30 minutes. (At this stage, you can cool it and keep it overnight; rewarm it gently in its own juices.) To serve, transfer lamb to a cutting board and remove the twine. Cut the meat into thick slices and arrange them on a warm platter. Spoon juices over top and serve. Excellent with a salad of butterleaf lettuce tossed with warm black-eyed peas (or beans) glazed in warm, lemony butter.

- From Slow Fires by Justin Smillie (Clarkson Potter)EndText