Hello friends. Remember me? I’m reporting in after a rather extended wander.
You see, my husband took a fellowship at the University of Chicago this fall, so after a bit of hand-wringing and angst, I took leave from my day job and my blog and tagged along. We set up base camp in a little apartment in Hyde Park and I walked and biked miles every day exploring the city – and the incredible food. Chicago in the fall is among my favorite cities on the planet (Call me crazy, but when it’s 20 below zero in February with the wind whipping off the lake, not so much).
The timing of our Chicago adventure was perfect, as my brother opened a hip, highly acclaimed new restaurant in August, so we hung out at El Che Bar and feasted on grilled Argentine-inspired wonders pretty much every other day we were in town. It’s good to have a chef in the family.
During that time (and because I like frequent flyer miles and lead a ridiculously charmed life), we found ourselves in Napa, Belize, and New York City, south Florida and hopped back and forth to DC a bit. Have you ever had that moment when you wake up in the morning and have no idea where you are? That happened to me all the time in October and November.
I didn’t cook for two months. Which makes it hard to write a food blog.
But I did read cookbooks… stacks of them. As the tone and substance of the election grew worse and worse, I turned off CNN and escaped into beautifully photographed pages where creative, thoughtful, generous people showcased the food they share with family and friends with love. In stark contrast to the intolerance, hate, and downright craziness being spewed on the news, I found cookbooks to be profoundly comforting and hopeful – as one of my dear friends says: Cookbooks always have happy endings. While I’ve never been political in this space, and don’t plan to (because I know you’ve really stopped by to contemplate Salted Alfajores Bars, and I leave such things to other members of my family) I’ll admit I’ve been gutted by the decidedly unhappy ending of the election. I’m still cycling through the various stages of grief, but I’ve resolved to try to better understand what happened, work on coping, and try to make my corner of the world a little better.
First up though, I thought I’d share a list of my favorite cookbooks of the year – if you’re looking for a little bundles of comfort and joy to share with your loved ones this season I suggest one of these.
A few notes on my selections. I realize I haven’t gravitated toward anything particularly adventurous this year – Maybe 2017 will bring out daring culinary leanings, but simple, soothing comfort food has ruled 2016 (especially as I work through my post-election grief. Lots of mac and cheese and chocolate and red wine has been involved in this process.). If I’ve gone international, I’ve only wandered as far as the British Empire – three British books, one from Australia. As I’m paging through a book (usually at Politics and Prose), I have a rule that I must want to cook at least five recipes immediately if it is to come home with me – with this crop of books, each has dozens. I seem to have picked up books with an eye for the sorts of things I would like to serve guests at home. A pair of Southern (American) books are among my faves this year. I love a good story, so strong narratives, and books about entertaining also rule on this list.
Here we go…
Simple – Diana Henry
Diana Henry, a lesser known British cookbook author here in the US, has won my heart this year. I adore this cozy sweater of a cookbook… so many delicious comfort food ideas pour out of the pages – such as roast citrus, ginger and honey chicken or baked sausages with apples, raisins & hard cider. Perhaps I find this collection so dreamy because I love simplicity in a recipe – something as straightforward as orzo with lemon & parsley or toasted brioche with boozy mushrooms sounds divine, and all the more so because I know I won’t use every pot and pan in my collection while cooking. The extensive collection of recipes – and accompanying photographs – feel unpretentious, comforting and warm. Oh and those baked goods! I plan to try Diana’s espresso loaf cake with burnt butter & coffee icing next time I wander into the kitchen.
The Farmhouse Cookbook – Sarah Mayor
Okay, I’ll admit, the cover doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but trust me, this one is a gem. Pour yourself a steaming cup of Earl Gray and curl up with this cozy collection of recipes from a dairy farm in Somerset England. I dare you to page through this gorgeous photos in this book and not want to pick up a pair of wellies and go tromp about in the British countryside, gathering items to cook in the Mayor kitchen (or your own). As a hopeless Anglophile, I found dozens of drool-worthy dishes, such as the beef and barley cottage pie, herby scotch eggs with sage and lemon, quince and orange marmalade, and sponge cake with baked raspberry jam and lemon cream.
Nigella Lawson – Simply Nigella
Nigella’s writing voice is so vivid that I feel I have a posh British friend gently guiding me through her favorite recipes right in my own kitchen. Her recipes are unfailingly uncomplicated yet utterly delicious. I must admit overall I wasn’t particularly impressed with the food styling and photography (except for that lemon pav above), but Nigella’s writing is such a gift it more than compensates. I love the chapter titles: Quick and Calm, Bowlfood, Dine, Breathe, Sides, Sweets and Beginnings. The recipes in Breathe are calling my name, as they are the sorts of things you can make in advance for a crowd, such as spiced lamb stew with a goat cheese and thyme cobbler topping. And from Sweet, the thyme and lemon bundt cake looks divine.
Molly on the Range – Molly Yeh
What an utterly delightful read. It’s impossible to read this book without smiling. I sat down and inhaled the journey of a young Julliard-trained percussionist with a serious appetite from New York City to a sugar beet farm in North Dakota (with a husband affectionately known as eggboy). I have been following Molly’s blog mynameisyeh for years, and the same infectious joy that permeates the blog can be found in the book. If you love quirky takes on ethnic food, like za’atar monkey bread with garlic and onion labneh or wild rice hotdish with ras el hanout and dates – or funfetti cake (her specialty), this is your book.
Deep Run Roots – Vivian Howard
Deep Run Roots is a monster of a book, and I mean that in the most loving way – it’s 550 pages long. Vivian is a gal who grew up in North Carolina, left home to cook in New York City, but returned home to her beloved roots. In this love letter to her North Carolina roots that’s as much a storybook as a cookbook, she selects 21 ingredients – such peaches, pecans, ground corn, sausage, oysters, and takes a deep dive on each – offering personal stories, practical tips and advice, and beautifully photographed recipes. Recipes that have caught my eye include cornbread coffee cake with fresh figs and walnut streusel, charred spring vegetables with creamy scallion dressing and hushpuppy croutons, and buttermilk orange rice pudding with pistachio. Her blueberry barbecue chicken is legendary, and I can’t wait to make it.
Julia Reed’s South – Julia Reed
I’m usually a gal who goes for a informal, almost rustic approach to entertaining, so I’m not sure why Julia’s gorgeous book so captivated me, but it did. Perhaps because Julia is a born storyteller, and each of the menus and recipes are woven into mosaic of wonderful tales. Perhaps because she pours a mean cocktail – I suspect she builds each of the dozen menus around those boozy concoctions of hers. Perhaps and manages to make her approach to parties so unfailingly welcoming even while showcasing her finest china and linens and floral arrangements. Beyond all that, I want to dive into those magnificent platters of food – grilled deviled crab and cheese sandwiches and shrimp remoulade and cafe au lait pots de creme.
(Julia, you do understand I would likely spill something sticky on those shimmering linens – right?)
Cooking for Jeffrey – Ina Garten
Let’s be clear. Ina is my culinary hero. When this book arrived, I set aside my 40 item to-do list, and inhaled the sweet story of Ina and Jeffrey’s journey from college students through nearly 50 years together. This is Ina’s 10th book – the other 9 are all in my kitchen, and among the stickiest (translation: they are well-loved and used with abandon). As always, the food is gorgeous – elegant yet accessible, and the photography and styling spot-on. I happen to know the apple pie bars are to die for – and have a dozen other recipes bookmarked to try – filet mignon with mustard and mushrooms is at the top of the list.
Life in Balance – Donna Hay
I’m not sure anyone has ever made healthy eating look so utterly delicious. Australia’s beloved Donna Hay says she doesn’t believe in diets, but rather a balanced approach to eating. Each chapter, from breakfast to baking, has simple recipes enriched with nature’s superfoods – think leafy greens, bright fresh berries, creamy nuts, and nourishing grains, The photography is simply stunning, and the design quite dramatic, with simple recipes superimposed onto the photographs. I made the firey peri-peri chicken this summer, to raves in House Morell, and have other recipes bookmarked such as the espresso granola, the smoky pumpkin, spelt, pomegranate and feta salad, and the apricot and almond bars.
Twenty Dinners – Ithal Schori and Chris Taylor
I have been charmed by this window into hipster dinner parties, written by the lead singer of a band called Grizzly Bear and his friends. As the title suggests, the book offers menus for 20 gatherings, divided by season. Not only do the authors provide drool-worthy menus, but they enlisted their favorite pastry chef, mixologist, sommelier, and baristas to write detailed material on wine, desserts, stocking a home bar, mixing drinks, and buying and brewing fantastic coffee. I have “dinner 5” bookmarked to make for my (meat and potato-loving) family: classic arugula and parmesean salad, slow-roasted duck fat potatoes, rib eye steaks seared, roasted and basted in butter and burnt cream (cream brulee). I’d be a hero around here If I served that menu.
Small Victories – by Julia Turshen
Wow, this book is a home run. Julia’s book combines some of the things I love most in a cookbook – deeply personal stories, delicious accessible recipes, and a reassuring voice that leads you through the process. I have cooked for years, yet learned so much while reading through this book – she offers genius tips that she calls “small victories.” This is destined to become one of the stickiest and best-loved cookbooks in my collection. I was particularly impressed with the breakfast selections: sour cream pancakes with roasted blueberries? raspberry jam buns with creme fraiche frosting? What a reason to get out of bed in the morning…
Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist
This book is a few years old, and isn’t truly a cookbook, but rather a series of deeply personal, often hilarious essays with recipes at the end of each. Lindsay on Pinch of Yum mentioned her work in a post, and when I opened Amazon to see if this book would be for me, one reviewer convinced me to pop it in my cart: “if you love food, hospitality, cooking, wine and just-for-the-fun-of-it dinner parties; if your idea of a great night is a house full of people and a whole afternoon spent cooking and smiling as you anticipate your guests; if you love having people in your home; if your idea of a good dinner is one that lasts several hours; if you love to give a good toast – to lock eyes with the people you love across a candlelit table and tell them why they’re important to you; if you believe that everything is spiritual, and maybe especially food; if you love a well crafted sentence and rich metaphor, then this is your book.” Sometimes you find the perfect book at the perfect time in your life. This book inspired me to return to my kitchen with an eye toward building a loving community with my friends and family. Baby steps to rebuilding a generous and loving community in our nation.