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Best cookbooks for holiday giving

A taste of Cuba, tacos from L.A., American baking, unfussy home cooking, and new rules for drinking wine. These are some of our picks for best cookbooks this year.

A selection of cookbooks suggested as holiday gifts.
A selection of cookbooks suggested as holiday gifts.Read moreCHARLES FOX

These new cookbooks translate the flavors of Cuba, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and more into recipes for your home kitchens. Here are our recommendations for the bakers and cooks on your gift list.

New York City Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba, by Anya Von Bremzen and Megan Fawn Schlow, 352 pp., $40 (Abrams)

Few destinations are freighted with as much mystery and political intrigue for Americans as Cuba. President Barack Obama opened the country for a thaw. President Trump said not so fast, placing restrictions on how Americans can spend their money. Thankfully, the door is wide open to Cuba's thriving food world in Anya Von Bremzen and photographer Megan Fawn Schlow's book Paladares, a gorgeous and evocative homage to the chefs, recipes, and stories behind the island's burgeoning renaissance of private restaurants, called "paladares." Von Bremzen, a Soviet-era emigre-turned accomplished travel writer, has a special gift for illuminating the irrepressible humanity in communist food cultures, and her well-reported storytelling here adds deep nuance like a good sofrita in a pot of black beans — itself the subject of a fascinating philosophical round table, and my new go-to recipe. The book's other 149 recipes showcase the range and ingenuity of Cuba's cuisine, from homey ajiaco stew to ceviche with mango and black-eyed peas, a stunningly pretty pot of chicken and rice "à la Chorrera," coffee-rubbed pork, and a minty mojito sorbet from Helad'oro, a popular new artisan ice cream shop in Havana, that looks like Cuban summer in a cone.

— Craig LaBan

Bianco: Pizza, Pasta, and Other Food I Like, by Chris Bianco, $34.99, 224 pp. (Ecco)

If you've lived in Phoenix or traveled there on vacation (as we did this spring), Chris Bianco should be a familiar name. He operates what are easily some of that city's best restaurants, including the legendary Pizzeria Bianco, where he became rightfully renowned as one of the godfathers of America's Neapolitan pizza movement. So, as expected, a chapter on how to make pizza, sauce, and toppings (including his Pizza Rosa with pistachios) leads off this slim and engaging new cookbook. It's a surprisingly straightforward recipe that works perfectly well, though, to be honest, no home oven can replicate the crust-puffing firepower of his wood-burning professional hearth. This book is most compelling as a rumination on some of the little things that go into the touch of a practiced master, from the hand-crushing of the tomato sauce for extra texture, to the personal reminiscences on the family recipes that inspired him from a young age growing up in the Bronx, like his grandmother's simple but soulful chicken cacciatore, and his aunt's braciole. The real bonus, though, are the more authentic trattoria dishes, like the sage-laced farinata chickpea pancakes and fresh tagliatelle with lemon and spinach that nod to the menu at his other restaurant, Tratto. And it's acknowledgment that Bianco isn't just a pizza master, but a great Italian chef, too.

— C.L.

The New Wine Rules: A Genuinely Helpful Guide to Everything You Need to Know, by Jon Bonné, 152 pp., $14.99 (Ten Speed Press)

Former San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné is one of the best in a rising generation of writers who have  begun to go deeper than the 100-point horse race that's dominated the wine press for decades, and, in the process, he's broken a lot of the conventional rules. Among them is debunking Americans' obsession with the "myth of connoisseurship" and obsessing "over details that have almost zero bearing on how the rest of us live our lives."  His slim new stocking stuffer, The New Wine Rules, is a collection of 89 his own observations about what really matters beyond the typical "drink this, not that" advice. "Drink the Rainbow" is Rule 1 and a guiding principal (he cites Kermit the Frog) to embrace the stunning variety of wines being made today. But there are many other worthy bits here, from avoiding the "residual sugar" pretense of wine jargon (Rule 4) to skeptical advice, such as "not every new wave wine is cool" (Rule 41) and "be wary of wines that aren't clear about exactly where they come from" (Rule 30). "Drink wines young" (Rule 61) is another keeper: "There's great romance (and a lot of b.s.) about the age-worthiness of wine." There are also practical notes on storage, food pairing, identifying flaws, and ordering in restaurants, with advice on talking to sommeliers (Rule 75) and knowing your rights as a customer (Rule 80). If, taken together, all these charming nuggets can somehow coax readers to indeed get past the "fear" that hindered generations of American wine lovers, and instead inspire them to "drink with joy," this accessible little book will have had a large impact, indeed.

— C.L.

BraveTart, by Stella Parks, 395 pp. $35 (Norton)

Pastry chef Stella Parks, who worked in the restaurant industry for more than a decade and authored the popular blog "BraveTart," has produced a wonder of a book that not only celebrates American baking, but also researches its history, debunking the history of the "American apple pie" and explaining how products like Thomas' English Muffins came into being (dating to the "Muffin Man," who peddled fresh-baked muffins through the streets of Philadelphia in the 1850s). Of course, she also provides her well-tested, from-scratch recipes, along with gorgeous photographs, of all your childhood favorites. So if you're looking for the best possible version of fudge brownies or buttermilk biscuits, homemade thin mints, or coconut cream pie, this new tome will provide you with everything you need.

— Maureen Fitzgerald

Smitten Kitchen Everyday, by Deb Perelman, 330 pp. (Knopf)

Deb Perelman, who rose to fame with her popular blog "Smitten Kitchen," charms us once again with her second cookbook, containing more than  100 recipes for everyday use that are unfussy but not the least bit boring. Cooking for a family of four with two little ones has made her approach a tad more practical, but she combats the common what-should-I-make-for-dinner dilemma with a fresh point of view.  "These recipes don't just fit into our lives, they make us happy," she writes in her introduction. Her goal was to fill the book with dishes "we are really, really excited to eat."  And she succeeds with recipes that will feed a family without losing the fun and excitement of new tastes and flavors: Manhattan-style clams with fregola; meatballs marsala with egg noodles and chives; fennel, pear, celery, and hazelnut salad; and apricot pistachio squares to name a few. I'm in!

— M.F. 

Guerrilla Tacos: Recipes from the Streets of L.A., by Wesley Avila (Ten Speed Press)

Guerrilla Tacos highlights Wesley Avila's passion for food, cooking, and, most of all, the taco. It's a truly personal book recounting  Avila's  interesting story. He was a DJ and forklift driver before going to culinary school. He cooked in fine-dining establishments, then started a taco truck on a most successful whim. Using the taco as a blank canvas and encouraging imagination, the book has 50 base recipes and includes Avila's best-selling fried Baja taco and sweet potato taco. Adding a Mexican spin on romesco for the salsa and topped with crunchy corn nuts and feta, the sweet potato taco offers the ultimate sweet and salty balance. Beautifully photographed and full of innovation, inspiration, and flavor, Guerilla Tacos delivers in every possible way.

— Robin Currie

Half Baked Harvest Cookbook: Recipes from My Barn in the Mountains,  by Tieghan Gerard (Potter)

This book is a home cook's dream. Gerard, a multitalented blogger/recipe tester/food photographer, packs each recipe with fresh, flavorful ingredients easily found in the grocery store. Dad's one-pan Friday night pasta is just that, a delicious wonder filled with herbs, veggies, cheese, Kalamata olives, and pepperoni, and the pasta cooks in the pan. It's filled with creative and inspired recipes, like herb-whipped goat cheese with harissa, poached eggs and toast, and creamy polenta with garlic-butter kale and mushrooms; the latter was so good even my mushroom-hating son loved it. It's no surprise that Gerard's blog has won multiple awards, including the 2016 Saveur Blog Award for most inspired weeknight dinners, making this  an ideal  book for those who want to light the creative fire under their cooking.