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Tasteful reading

The year's crop of cookbooks tends to focus on specialties and special places.

As restaurant concepts become more niche, cookbooks have, too - many of our favorites this year homed in on single topics (chicken, brisket, meatballs, roasts, cookies).

And of course, we restaurant-worshippers will always get excited about books that offer a peek into the often-emulated eateries that we think are worth traveling to. This year, Montreal restaurant Joe Beef, and from New York, cocktail culture standard-setter PDT and chef Andrew Carmellini (of The Dutch) topped our list.

Trends aside, there is always room on the shelf for the reliable names. Veteran food journalist Ed Levine and the staff from his popular website, Serious Eats, weigh in with a national eater's guide. And New York Times doyenne Melissa Clark proves why trusted recipe writers are as comforting as hot chocolate on a cold day.  

Poulet,  by Cree LeFavour  (Chronicle Books, $27.50) Mouthwatering photography by San-Francisco-based France Ruffenach adds to the appeal of LeFavour's second cookbook, an homage to the humble chicken. Eschewing the skinless, boneless (flavorless) breast, LeFavour, who lives in nearby Frenchtown, N.J., uses the whole bird and rethinks dark meat. This is no dumbed-down "50 ways to cook chicken." Instead, Poulet is focused on seasonal ingredients and today's standards for humane, organic antibiotic-free certification.

  - Dianna Marder

 Vegan Holiday Kitchen, by Nava Atlas  (Sterling Books $24.95) Atlas has a slew of vegan cookbooks under her belt but this one is most likely to have crossover appeal to friends and family hosting vegans at their holiday tables. In chapters devoted to Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Jewish holidays, Easter, and Independence Day, Atlas offers main dishes and sides that the rest of your guests will not easily identify (and turn away from) as dairy-free. (Try the Quinoa and Lentil-Stuffed Golden Squashes.) Many of her recipes can be made nut-, soy- and gluten-free too without sacrificing flavor.

  - D.M.
 by Shax Riegler  (Artisan books, $35) An attractive dinner table requires more than artfully prepared ingredients. So in a twist on the coffee-table-books-for-foodies genre, Riegler, the features editor of House Beautiful magazine, examines centuries of dinner plates made of ceramic, porcelain, melamine, and even paper. Illustrated with large color photography, Dish contains profiles of more than 800 plates from notable companies of old, as well as technological breakthroughs by today's artisans. (He's a fan of the wedding registry of made-to-order place settings at Philadelphia's nonprofit the Clay Studio.)

Here are elegant and Asian-influenced pieces: classic whites, Wedgwood and Limoges, Noritake and Homer Laughlin, bold graphics and delicate florals, designs by Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, and Kate Spade. "Warning: This book may induce dish mania," Riegler cautions.

  - D.M.

American Flavor,  by Andrew Carmellini  (Ecco, $34.99) The New York chef's newest cookbook is a lot like his newest restaurant, The Dutch. They both have an odd mix of flavors, from Korean BBQ to Greek lamb stew, that are as questionable as specializing in sushi and pizza. But like the popular eatery, the book totally works, because the dishes reflect the best flavors that our contemporary melting-pot food scene has to offer. And since all the recipes are written by Carmellini, they also reflect his no-nonsense, aggressively flavored cooking style. Any food-loving manly man will appreciate the bold flavors and straight-to-the-point cooking instructions: "There are two ways to get the marinade on the steak. Do whichever floats your boat . . ."

 - A.P.

The Meatball Shop Cookbook, by Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow  (Ballantine Books, $28) You can thank these two for our country's current meatball obsession. They opened their tiny East Village restaurant, the Meatball Shop, in early 2010, and in nanoseconds it became a hit. (They've since opened two more.) The concept is simple: serve a variety of meatballs, in a variety of ways, and ensure each one is delicious. This book is fun, surprisingly diverse, wholesome, and easy. The chapters are categories that let home cooks create a complete menu. There are, of course, the meatballs, which range from traditional, like spicy pork, to unique, like lamb Mediterranean. The next chapters are filled with sauces, hearty sides and comforting veggies like roasted cauliflower with cherry peppers and breadcrumbs, plus salads and easy desserts. And while they suggest sauce and meatball pairings they also encourage experimentation. Don't think spaghetti here - the meatballs, which are baked, not fried, are served in a bowl with sauce, on a sandwich, or even in a salad. A great gift for those who like to create meals that are the life of the party.

- A.P.

N.Y. cocktails; wine to love with food

The PDT Cocktail Book by Jim Meehan and Chris Gall (Sterling Epicure, $24.95) Mr. Boston will likely be taking a permanent seat on the back shelf once the New Cocktailians get their hands on The PDT Cocktail Book. This comprehensive tome of both revamped classics and new creations comes from "Please Don't Tell," the New York speakeasy with the "secret" phone-booth entrance (which, in turn, is tucked inside Crif Dogs, known for its deep-fried hot dog), which was recently named by Drinks International the best bar in the world.

Gall's vividly cartooned illustrations set the tone, at once East Village edgy and retro, that embody the spirit of these 300 drinks, which manage in turn to be both timeless and contemporary. There's the Benton's Old Fashioned (made with bacon-infused bourbon) and the Rhubarbarita (tequila and rhubarb puree) for extreme-cheffy drinkers; dozens of revamped classics (Mary Pickford, Ward Eight, Sloe Gin Fizz, Zombie Punch); directions for homemade mixers (ginger beer, grenadine); and tips on everything from how long to shake your drinks (8-12 seconds with 11/4-inch ice cubes) to how to set up the back bar and pantry of your own secret speakeasy.

- Craig LaBan
The Food Lover's Guide to Wine by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg (Little, Brown, $35) There is no shortage of wine primers out there, but books that lucidly handle the complex and mysterious art of pairing wine with food are rare. This ambitious and comprehensive effort comes from the authors of The Flavor Bible, and offers similarly methodical approach, surveying a host of industry experts for wisdom on different ways to consider wine - by "weight," "volume," or simply finding new wines similar to old favorites. The most useful part of the book, though, is the A-Z encyclopedia of 250 wines with pairing advice and suggestions on the best producers. That is followed, in turn, by a companion chapter surveying sommeliers for pairings with specific courses.

- C.L.

  - A.P.

Rôtis: Roasts for Every Day of the Week by Stéphane Reynaud (Melville House, $29.95) Known for his other whimsical book, Pork and Sons, French chef Reynaud takes a turn for the simpler with this beautiful book, which is dedicated to the art of the roast, without sacrificing any of his je ne sais quoi.

Adorable illustrations mark the start of each chapter, which are divided by a day of the week matched with a protein. (Tuesday is for veal, Wednesday for chicken and game birds, Friday for fish.) The recipes are doable, even for the novice. For the most part, they are a few ingredients tossed into a dish and shoved in the oven. Many, especially the fish options, are quick. However, stringent recipe followers, take note: This book was written in metric and converted, so a few things - like preheating the oven to 315 degrees, and measurements in ounces - are endearing, but wonky.

  - A.P. 

The Art of Living According to Joe Beef by Frédéric Morin, David McMillan, and Meredith Erickson (Ten Speed Press, $40) There's a reason food gods such as David Chang heap praise upon Montreal's irresistible Joe Beef - which happens to be one of my favorites, too. It serves a phenomenal côte du boeuf with house Montreal spice, but it's hardly a steak house (the name is an homage to a historic tavern keep). This Petite-Bourgogne gem is more a French-Canadian bistro gone wild with two-fisted flavors and quirky charm, from the bric-a-brac dining room objets to a menu fueled in equal parts by foie gras, maple smoke, oysters, a backyard garden, and an extra helping of wit.

That joyful, pleasure-driven personality, and the characters behind it, are on vivid display in this cookbook. Not only does it capture many of Joe Beef's greatest dishes (porchetta with Babylon plum jam; hot oysters on the radio; the "hot delicieux" sandwich; the deep-fried foie gras "double-down"), it also captures the culture and curiosity of chef Morin and his partners, from digressions on local history, Canadian trains, and how to make absinthe, to theories on "the four seasons of lardons."

- Craig LaBan
The Brisket Book by Stephanie Pierson (Andrews McMeel, $29.99) In the words of culinary bookseller and brisket sage Nach Waxman, looking for the original brisket recipe is "like looking for the original recipe for toast. No one invented a brisket except a cow." That didn't stop author Stephanie Pierson, though, from giving this humble cut - beloved by Jews, Irish, Texas pit-masters, Norwegians, and Asians alike - its most definitive ode to date.

Packed with history, wit, and expert opinions (including a list of 50 things about brisket that people disagree on), this book presents one of the world's great comfort foods in all its lovable, chameleonlike glory, with recipes for corned beef, smoked brisket, Korean brisket soup, brisket burgers, and myriad Jewish braises, including Waxman's supposedly "most-Googled brisket recipe" of all, smothered in onions and virtually no liquid. It is undoubtedly, as the subtitle claims, "A Love Story with Recipes."

- C.L.
Serious Eats by Ed Levine (Potter, $27.99) It may be a "man bites dog" moment for the burgeoning world of blog-based foodzines when a popular site such as five-year-old Serious Eats, now logging millions of users online, turns to the static world of a printed book, if not necessarily for legitimization, at least to give some permanence to its finest work. Given the unlimited space restraints online, founder and veteran food journalist Ed Levine concedes that making the final cuts was tricky: "It's good, but is it book-worthy?"

The scope of this national survey of "deliciousness" is impressive, nonetheless, scouring 41 states for a must-hit list of barbecue joints, pizzerias, gelato shops, lobster rolls, designer doughnuts, regional burgers, and roast pork sandwiches (John's Roast Pork and Paesano's make Philly cameos). The meticulously tested recipes from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt on everything from Korean fried chicken to halal cart-style chicken and rice are a worthy bonus. In case you can't make the trip, Serious Eats' crew has logged the miles (and test-bitten their share of hot dogs, too) for you.

- C.L.

Mediterranean Lamb Balls

Makes 6 servings


2 tablespoons olive oil

2 pounds ground lamb

3 large eggs

1 cup dark raisins

½ cup walnut halves,  finely chopped

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

½ cup chopped fresh mint

½ cup breadcrumbs

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper


   1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Drizzle the olive oil into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and use your hands to evenly coat the entire surface. Set aside. Combine remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl, and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated.

   2. Roll the mixture into round, golf-ball-size meatballs (about 1½ inches; about 24 balls), making sure to pack the meat firmly. Place the balls in the prepared baking dish, being careful to line them up snugly and in even rows vertically and horizontally to form a grid. The meatballs should be touching one another. Roast for 20 minutes, or until firm and cooked through. A meat thermometer should reach 165 degrees. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before servings.

Per serving: 535 calories, 51 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams sugar, 25 grams fat, 242 milligrams cholesterol, 999 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Porchetta Alla Joe Beef

Makes 8 servings


4-pound piece pork  belly, skin removed and reserved

2 1/2-pound cylinder Boston butt  (pork shoulder)

8 sprigs rosemary

2 cloves garlic

1/2 jalapeno chile

2 tablespoons fennel seeds

1/4 cup white vermouth

2 tablespoons salt

1 tablespoon pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

Canola oil for coating

2 large carrots, halved crosswise


1. You want to be sure that the belly width and the butt length are the same, and that they don't look like a cartoon hot dog (big weiner, small bun). So if they are not identical, do some trimming. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. For the seasoning paste, pulse rosemary, garlic, chile, fennel seeds, vermouth, salt, pepper, and olive oil in a food processor until a paste forms. Or, use a mortar and pestle.

   3. Rub the paste on the butt and the belly, inside and out. Wrap the butt in the belly, fat side out. Roll tightly and tie securely with kitchen twine. Coat the outside with canola oil.

   4. Line up the carrots, to make a support, on the bottom of a roasting pan. Place a folded bundle of the reserved skin on top, like a mattress. Place the tied pork on top. Roast for 2 hours. Lower the temperature to 275 degrees and continue to roast for 5 hours more. You are slow-roasting pig fat here, so it's much better to slightly overcook than to undercook. The smell, just as much as the look, should clue you in to its doneness.

   5. Remove from the oven and let rest for 30 minutes. Snip the twine, slice, and serve with potato dinner rolls and Babylon plum jam.

   Note: This recipe can be cooked in a shorter cycle, with one hour at 375 degrees and three hours at 325 degrees. The texture will be more that of a tender roast rather than the falling-apart confit meat of the slower method. There will also be more remaining fat. Either way, the final flavor is still satisfying - this is a forgiving dish.

Per serving: 1,579 calories, 139 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 107 grams fat, 354 milligrams cholesterol, 5,938 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Babylon Plum Jam

Makes about 1 1/2 pints


1 1/2 pounds plums (about 10), pitted and  chopped

2 1/4 cups sugar

1/4 cup distilled white vinegar

1 small fresh or dried red chile

2 tablespoons ground ginger

1/2 cup mustard seeds


   1. In a heavy saucepan, combine the plums, sugar, and vinegar and let stand for 1 hour.

2. Place the pan over low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour, or until the mixture thickens.

3. Add the chile, ginger, and mustard seeds and continue to cook, stirring, for about 15 minutes, or until you have the right jammy consistency. It should be thick, not soupy. If you're using big plums, you may have to keep it on the heat for a bit longer to cook away the extra water. Remove and discard the chile. If you don't want chunky jam, buzz it with a hand blender.

4. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving or jarring. The jam will keep for up to a month stored in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator.

Per serving (based on 12 servings): 207 calories, 2 grams protein, 47 grams carbohydrates, 44 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, no cholesterol, 22 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.