So many cookbooks were published this year that I couldn’t pick just one or two to list as favorites, but I was able to narrow down the list to about a dozen. Here’s what I have been reading and cooking from in 2011:
Modernist Cuisine: My number one pick is also the largest and most expensive cookbook in the Belm Utility Research Kitchen Reference Library. It will probably take me the rest of the new year to finish reading, but it has already paid off with new techniques for stock and duck confit, and one stunning meal.
Heston Blumenthal at Home: If The Fat Duck Cookbook is too intimidating, this book is the introduction you need to Blumenthal’s cooking. In addition to some simplified Fat Duck recipes, he provides his takes on classics like onion soup, roast chicken, shepherd’s pie, and lemon tart. if you’re feeling more adventurous you can try the cinnamon and vanilla ice cream that changes flavors as you eat. As an added bonus, the book is beautifully designed and photographed.
Ruhlman’s Twenty: Think, salt, water, onion, acid, egg, butter, dough, batter, sugar, sauce, vinaigrette, soup, sauté, roast, braise, poach, grill, fry, chill – there are the twenty things a good cook should know how to do, and Michael Ruhlman explains them all with illustrative recipes. The organization of the book can be frustrating at times – the butter-caper sauce that goes with the Sage-Garic Brined Pork Chops in the Salt chapter isn’t described until the Fry chapter much later in the book – but mastery of the techniques and recipes will improve your cooking and get you thinking about how you cook. I would recommend this to any new cook, even before they tried The Joy of Cooking.
Odd Bits: How could I not love a book about cooking “the rest of the animal”? Author Jennifer McLagan takes you in order from nose through tail, with a roast suckling pig interlude. This is a worthy successor to Richard Olney’s long out of print Variety Meats.
Hunt, Gather, Cook: I’ve already written about Hank Shaw’s guide to finding your own food. No matter where you live, Hank can help you find something edible in your back yard or neighborhood.
Mission Street Food: The story of how a food truck became a popup restaurant that has since become a real dining destination in San Francisco, this book is half biography and half cookbook. Worth the read just for the hamburger and PB&J (pork belly and jicama) recipes.
Momofuku Milk Bar: Crack pie and compost cookies are just two of the addictive creations found in this companion to the Momofuku cookbook. Like its predecessor, the Milk Bar recipes are full of sub-recipes for things like “crunch” and “crumbs,” but once you develop a stockpile of the precursors, the main recipes come together quickly. My family inhaled the cornflake-chocolate chip-marshmallow cookies I brought home for the holiday, a winning endorsement from a long line of dessert bakers.
Lucky Peach: It’s not a cookbook, but it’s a magazine about food and cooking complete with recipes. And it’s curated by David Chang. The two issues released this year (on a quarterly schedule) were devoted to ramen and “the sweet spot,” and were both “single-minded in their pursuit of what’s wonderful about cooking and eating food.” I’m hoping that the promised iPad app arrives soon; the accompanying videos promise to be quite entertaining.
Serious Eats: The subtitle says it all: “a comprehensive guide to making and eating delicious food wherever you are.” The book condenses the Serious Eats web site into one manageable volume while still leaving plenty of room for argument about where the best burger/pizza/hot dog/ice cream/barbecue/sandwich can be found. Not satisfied with providing comprehensive “best of” lists for each category, the editors unleash their secret weapon – cook/scientist J. Kenji Lopez-Alt – who developed recipes for everything from pancakes to sliders to Korean fried chicken.
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream: This is the first ice cream recipe book I’ve read that doesn’t rely on the traditional egg custard as a base for its finished product. Jeni’s focus is on using milk and cream alone, removing as much water as possible, and adding starch to produce a creamy, gelato-like texture. Her maple flavor is the base for my own french toast ice cream, but her other recipes present unusual flavor combinations. I’m still feasting on her Queen City Chocolate Cayenne.
The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook: I have been a Cook’s Illustrated subscriber since 1996, and have the shelf of back issues to prove it. My complaints about the single issues are the need to update the separate index every year and an absence of issue numbers in the indexing. This book solves those problems by compiling every published recipe, grouping them by type, and providing a comprehensive index. You lose the writeups for the recipes as well as the non-recipe features from the magazines, but you regain a whole lot of shelf space for a very reasonable price.
Eat Your Books: This site, which I have written about recently, is a meta-cookbook with search and filtering capabilities. If you have more than a single shelf of cookbooks, you should be using Eat Your Books.
Next: Paris 1906: I didn’t et to eat the inaugural menu at Next, a homage to classics from Escoffier, but I can look at the photos and cook the entire menu myself, thanks to this iPad-only cookbook/souvenir. I hope they continue the trend because I’m dying to cook some of the dishes I ate from the Thailand menu.
Life, on the Line: Not a cookbook at all, this is Grant Achatz’s autobiography, following his cooking career from the CIA to the French Laundry and then his Chicago restaurants Trio, Alinea, and Next. Achatz’s chapters are interspersed with commentary from his business partner Nick Kokonas, which makes for some jarring transitions, but Kokonas’s no-nonsense style and willingness to dish dirt about the restaurant business is a fitting counterpoint to Achatz’s drive to perfection. Lest you forget, he beat a potentially career-ending case of tongue cancer and opened two new restaurants.
Special thanks to every publisher who sewed a cloth bookmark (or bookmarks) into a cookbook. They’re very useful, and show that you’re actually thinking about your readers.