As I reflect upon my year, I have to admit I haven’t cooked nearly as often as I would have liked to, as may be obvious by my spotty blogging output. 2015 brought a move, a new job, lots of travel… and a host of other distractions (many wonderful, others not so much) that have kept me from pushing my creative envelope in the kitchen. I think I’ve made the same arugula salad 25 times. It’s an excellent salad, but really, many other greens would be quite happy to take a turn in the salad bowl.
Oddly, this has in no way slowed my cookbook addiction. Over the year, I’ve amassed a stack of new favorites… Each has taken a turn in the pile on my bedside table. They inform and inspire me… and (unlike the fiction in the pile) I can be sure they always have happy endings.
I have high standards when it comes to cookbook adulation … to me, it’s not good enough to simply bind together a series of recipes. I admire a strong sense of place or narrative… be it a part of the world, or the story of how food has shaped a person’s life… I want my cookbooks to tell a story.
Perhaps even more importantly, when standing in a bookshop evaluating a potential purchase, I must want to cook at least five dishes in the book immediately. If not, it goes back on the shelf.
I also want to be inspired by the food, and learn new techniques… but I don’t want an excessively complicated recipe to span three or four pages – as a home cook without a culinary degree, fancy schmancy restaurant cookbooks
rarely never thrill me. If I’m in the kitchen cooking, I’m hungry, and likely in a hurry … and have never been a particularly patient person.
I tend to fall for books with gorgeous photography and great design. (Having said that, a handful of cookbooks in my collection, such as How to Eat by Nigella Lawson, Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser, and the old Sheila Lukins cookbooks are all among my all-time favorites… the writing and recipes are so darn solid they required no photography to be awesome.)
So in no particular order, here are my favorites from the year:
The BTC Cookbook by Alexe Van Beuren – A bookseller at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi told me I must take this book home with me, and I’m so glad I did. (She also ordered me to drive 20 minutes down the road to visit the BTC Old Fashioned Grocery, and now that I’ve read the book, I’m sad I didn’t…) This is a charming story of a small town, and the Grocery Store/Cafe that transformed it. Recipes I have bookmarked to try include classic Southern comfort foods like chicken gumbo soup, pimento cheese sandwiches, chicken n’ dumplings, and shrimp and grits.
Cookie Love by Mindy Segal – When I read the forward of Mindy’s book, I was immediately hooked: “[For] Hanukkah when I was thirteen, my parents bestowed a KitchenAid mixer on me. Immediately, this new powerful piece of equipment became my instrument of choice. While my brother practiced the piano, I performed solo in the kitchen, one off-the-cuff baking project after another. Cookies were prime territory for experimentation.” I had my own Christmas cookie decorating business as a 12 year-old, so I knew I had found a kindred spirit in Mindy. I’m in awe of the creativity and passion she brings to her cookie-baking game. I have to admit, the only recipe I’ve yet tried is the basic Rugelach (amazing), but I am determined to work my way through the book. I think I’ll start with her Smoky Bacon Candy Bar Cookies, the Chocolate Pretzel Shortbread with Milk Chocolate Caramel, or perhaps the Peanut Butter Peanut Brittle Cookies.
What Katie Ate on the Weekends by Katie Quinn – The word that immediately comes to mind when I think of this book is sun-drenched… the stunning photography in the entire book is bathed in a sort of ethereal lighting. And the food is divine… I’ve not spent nearly enough time in Australia, but it makes me wonder – is all the food there so fresh and gorgeous? I’ve prepared the lovely Pomegranate Chicken half a dozen times (yum!), and the Proscuitto, Fig and Chargrilled Peach Salad twice… though I’m in love with all the salads in the book. Let me also gush about the Spaghetti with Almond, Mint and Basil Pesto, and the Spiced Apple and Salted Butterscotch Pavlova…. Gosh, maybe I’ve cooked more this year than I realized…
Seven Spoons by Tara O’Brady – This Canadian blogger of Indian heritage captured my heart with her stories and recipes influenced by food and experiences around the world. It’s a fascinating, eclectic collection of recipes, with lovely stories to set-up each dish. Tara is a truly gifted writer. Sadly, I’ve only baked one dish – The Blueberry Poppy Seed Snacking Cake – but it was spot-on delicious. I have sticky notes marking at least a dozen recipes to be tried – including Bostocks, Halloumi in Chermoula, Feel-Better Curried Soup with Crispy Chicken and Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream.
The New Sugar and Spice by Samantha Seneviratne Samatha, author of a fabulous blog titled Love, Cake (really, who doesn’t want to read a blog with a title like that?) divides the chapters of this beguiling book thus: Peppercorn & Chile; Cinnamon; Nutmeg; Clove & Cardamom; Vanilla; Ginger; Savory Herbs & Spices. I have found the recipes to be stunningly creative, yet approachable… and the writing smart and welcoming. We started with the Pistachio and Chocolate Butter Cake at House Morell (simply divine), and Big Chewy Apricot and Ginger Cookies, Blackberry Cuatro Leches, and Salt and Pepper Caramel Brownies are all bookmarked to be tried soon.
Brown Sugar Kitchen by Tanya Holland – This was a birthday gift from Sarah, who thought I might like the title, and it has become one of my all-time faves. Why, oh why can’t we have a soul food restaurant as awesome as The Brown Sugar Kitchen in Virginia? A place that serves up Cornmeal Waffles with Apple Cider Syrup for breakfast, and Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Jerk Baby Back Ribs with Pineapple Salsa for dinner, with Caramel Layer Cake with Brown Butter-Caramel Frosting for dessert? Paging through the story of this unlikely success story of a place that is more community than restaurant, this wonderful book has been a delicious inspiration.
Date Night In by Ashley Rodriguez – Remember that “I must want to cook at least five items from the book immediately ” rule? I picked up this book and determined I wanted to cook every single recipe. Oh, and make every last cocktail… Organized by seasonal menus, this is the charming story of a couple with young children who set out to nurture their relationship through delicious date nights. Though I’m far beyond the days of a home full of tiny tots, I was in awe of Ashley’s determination to create such fun, lovely food in the midst of the toddler madness. (I think we mostly survived on take-out Thai food for our date nights back in the day – it’s kind of a blur.) Even with our kids nearly launched, a date night in sounds divine if Roast Beef Tenderloin Sandwiches with Caramelized Onions, Horseradish Mayonnaise, and Arugula are on the menu. Or perhaps Herb Butter Roasted Chicken with Tarragon Aioli? Oh and to finish… Dulce de Leche and Nectarine Creamsicles? or perhaps the Bittersweet Brownies with Salted Peanut Butter Frosting? Love, love this book.
Huckleberry by Zoe Nathan and Matt Armendariz – Every now and again, someone will have one of my baked goods in hand, (usually a Salted Alfajores Bar) and say: “You know, you should really open a bakery.” I briefly daydream about how awesome that would be, and come to my senses. Because I just read The Huckleberry Cookbook. And though every last recipe oozes scrumptious happiness, Zoe’s prose also serves as a reminder that running a bakery is seriously hard work. Much of it in the middle of the night. And lots can go wrong… So, with this lovely book in hand, I’ve recreated the maple bacon biscuits in my own kitchen (wow!) and bookmarked so many others… the Lemon Cornmeal Muffins with Lemon Glaze, the Chocolate Hazelnut Scones, and the Apricot-Vanilla Bean Pound Cake.
Genius Recipes by Food 52 – Yup, this book is seriously Genius. (Just like the title says.) I actually read this on a long plane ride, and I’m not sure I’ve ever learned so much about cooking from one book. Every recipe is blissfully short yet super informative. I have to admit I’ve only tried one dish, “The Simplest Roast Chicken” but it was spot-on brilliant. Bookmarked recipes include the Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion, the Ratatouille, and the Cauliflower Steaks, but I know I’ll be turning to this book for guidance for years to come.
Make it Ahead by Ina Garten – Once again, Ina scored an instant classic in my book. I’m forever carrying on about making things in advance for my gatherings, and who better to turn to than Ina? As with most of her books, I’d quite happily serve nearly every recipe in the book. I think my family needs to indulge in the Pastitsio sometime very soon… or the Moroccan Lamb Tagine, but definitely the Skillet Brownies.
Seems I best get busy cooking… and am looking forward to much more time in the kitchen (and blogging) in 2016!