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Feature Fri Dec 21 2007
If you haven't bought your holiday gifts yet, you may think that now is the time to head to the nearest chain store and pick up a unremarkable gift card for your special someones. But if that someone likes to cook (or think about cooking), you can give them the gift that keeps giving: a cookbook. Even with the billions of recipes that you can find online (often for free), cookbooks still are important to developing skills and knowledge. When I crack open a cookbook and look at a recipe whose page is streaked with ingredients from past meals, it's a neat time capsule; the recipe doesn't change, but your ability to make it does. Food is ultimately timeless; the red sauce recipe that my thick-ankled grandmother brought over from Sicily in 1916 is the same recipe that I struggle to reproduce a few times a year; the notes I made in my notebook about how to handle the pork neck bones needed to make the sauce meatier are almost laughable ("Note to self: where can I find pork neck bones?") and a great chronicle of how I've improved (or deteriorated).. Cookbooks are a wonderful gift and resource for the cooks in your life. The Drive Thru staff took a moment this week to review some new titles, as well as older favorites in their collection.
American Profile, the magazine and website that “celebrates the hometown spirit in all of us,” have published three collections of recipes from readers, including the newly released “Hometown Recipes for the Holidays.” It’s a cookbook that’s as comfortable and relaxed as its name, with recipes ranging from folksy, fried Cornflake Chicken Strips and Blueberry Jell-O Salad, to the lighter and healthier sounding Sugar Snap Peas with Wilted Mesclun Greens or Almost Lasagna Zucchini Casserole. Several of the soups look good, as do the desserts. The recipes are organized by meal or course (from breakfast to dessert), with a comprehensive ingredient index and holiday index in the back. Each page also features a little holiday icon, for readers browsing for the perfect St. Patrick’s Day or Flag Day treat. This is the perfect cookbook for anyone who liked the recipes in Amy Sedaris’s I Like You, but didn’t like the humor.
Catherine Cranston mastered late-nineteenth-century tearooms in Scotland with her commission of architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh to decorate her spaces. Perilla Kinchin's book, Taking Tea with Mackintosh, celebrates Cranston's entrepreneurial spirit at a time when women weren't known for it, as well as the clean geometrics and viny flowers of Mackintosh's wall decorations and furniture. Chicago Architecture Foundation's store sells an accompanying set of cards with traditional tearoom recipes taken from the book - like scones, Scotch pancakes, shortbread and oatcakes. I've taped vegan adaptations like "replacer" after "1 egg" and "soy" in front of milk, and mailed some as holiday cards to several vegan-friendly pals who enjoy cooking.
Masaharu Morimoto calls Morimoto: The new art of Japanese Cooking "global cooking for the 21st century". This Iron Chef extrodinaire shares concepts, techniques and philosophies from his citizen of the world perspective. Aesthetically sophisticated and playful, both fearless and intriguing comes to mind.
Meghan Murphy Gill
In A Love Affair with Southern Cooking: Recipes and Recollections by Jean Anderson, it's difficult to find the actual recipes. They're mostly hidden among all the quotes by quintessential Southerners, and dragging paragraphs of personal memoirs in which Anderson refers to her parents as "Mother" and "Daddy," and a time line that notes major moments in Southern cuisine (which is remarkably laden with information about major brand names such as Lipton and Proctor and Gamble). If you're willing to sort through all the extras, or if you like your cookbooks to be a compendium of sorts, then this is a great book. Give it to your mis-placed Southern friend or to a home chef interested in regional cooking.
The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons & Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters has been a shining star in the food blog universe, and for good reason. A collection of basic recipes made with simple, delicious ingredients. I'm partial to Waters' recipe for tortilla soup. This is a perfect Christmas gift for anyone who has a track record for resolving to "eat better" in the New Year.
Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless helps you to take advantage of the availability of all the essential ingredients to Mexican cooking that you can find in Chicago. Tomatillos, achiote seasoning, quesos, epazote, and all the beautiful varieties of peppers, both fresh and dried: you can walk to the Mexican grocery store to find these things, which should make snicker at all those poor saps who have to order their ingredients at jacked up prices online, per Rick's suggestions. Give this to your roommate whose Friday nights usually include beer-induced cravings for late-night tacos. (Click here for Meghan's blog entry where she cooks a recipe from this book.)
Three words: Molten Chocolate Babycakes. When I prepared these for the first time from How to Be A Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking, by Nigella Lawson, I nearly fell over with shock that such a decadent dessert came out of my kitchen. As I plated and served these little wonder cakes, not only did I feel very goddess-like, I was revered as such. This book is perfect for the person in your life who claims not to be a baker (I'm one of those), the friend who claims he loves to bake (from a box), or the tried and true baker who could use some fresh inspiration.
Rick Rodgers has put together a formidable handbook on Christmas, aimed primarily at new holiday hosts with his book Christmas 101: 100 festive recipes with menus and timetables for stress-free holiday entertaining. From Roast Turkey with Bourbon Gravy to Figgy Pudding, the recipes included in this collection follow a classic interpretation of a Christmas feast. Rodgers sets his book apart by included detailed information for menu planning. Not only does each recipe have "make ahead" instructions to help manage time, but there is also a substantial appendix that suggests several full menus with detailed timetables for preparation. I made the quick and satisfying Parsnip and Leek soup last night for dinner and my boyfriend proclaimed it his favorite soup ever(!). Other recipes that I will be sure to try soon include: Roasted Beet and Apple Salad, Overnight Sticky Maple Pecan Buns and Savory Walnut Rolls. There are no surprises in Christmas 101, but that might be a welcome omission if you find yourself in charge of a traditional holiday feast.
I found The Old West Baking Book by Lon Walters to be an extremely unique cookbook, which combines my interests in frontier history and bread baking, in Glacier National Park a few years ago. Along with quality recipes, Walter's provides the reader with detailed information about how each recipe developed, what type of equipment might have been available to chuck wagon cooks, fascinating historical photographs and instructions for making each recipe on the open-range. With recipes for Apple Corn Bread Charlotte, Green Tomato Pie and Gems, this well-researched book is essential for any baker who would like to learn more about how the North American baking tradition evolved. (Click here for Gemma's blog entry where she cooks a recipe from this book.)
Williams and Sonoma Essentials of Baking by Burgett, Klivans and Pappas is a beautiful book with straight-forward instructions for bakers of any level. The first portion of this cookbook explains in detail the types of ingredients used in baking, the function each performs in the baking process and method instructions. Whether you are looking to bake quickbreads, cakes, pastries or leavened breads, this is a perfect cookbook to start first. Many of these recipes can be easily adapted or embellished as the baker becomes more comfortable. (Click here for Gemma's blog entry where she cooks a recipe from this book.)
I don't own very many cookbooks. Joy, Gourmet, and a teetering pile of Everyday Food back issues take up most of the room on my admittedly small cooking bookshelf. But I picked up the Dean and Deluca Cookbook on a whim recently, and it seems to be settling in well with its literary neighbors so far. A little prolix, but written with an obvious appreciation for food, recipes are interspersed among long descriptions of food -- the varieties of lettuce, salmon, sausages, etc. make for a rich backdrop to a grocery list (certain techniques or tips are also called out in sidebar boxes for even more guidance to better enjoy what you're cooking -- or find similar recipes in other parts of the book that might appeal to that part of your newly stimulated palate). Recipes for simple or familiar dishes are followed up by trickier or riskier variations -- minestrone is bolstered by a Tuscan cousin and a version involving fennel. Be forwarned -- the loving care with which organ meats and mushrooms are described does not extend to the sweeter end of the spectrum. This is not a dessert cookbook. But just getting through all the options, to say nothing of the extensive back-story, may be more than enough to enjoy this particular volume.