Thursday, June 22, 2006

Cookbook Awards

This post comes to you as the result of a great idea by Adam of The Amateur Gourmet. He will post a list of links to everyone who contributes to the meme. I love cookbooks in general, and I love MY cookbooks specifically. When I have time on my lunch hour, I have been known to drive to Barnes & Noble and cruise through the cookbook section with no specific goal in mind. I love to see what is new, what might catch my eye and what is being promoted by the store (on a display table or endcap), as I someday hope to write my own cookbook. In the best of circumstances, I view the books on my shelf at home as a conjurer’s tools, guides to bring to life the promises of nourishment, shared experience and joy that are contained in their pages. I handle them carefully. I take their recommendations to heart, then interpret a dish in my own style knowing that personalization and creativity are the goals of the best cookbook writers. I do not own an excessive number of books. Space is one problem, but I also like to curate my collection carefully. There is nothing worse than ordering a book from amazon, anticipating its arrival and almost immediately discovering that it is not what you hoped for and does not live up to the fantastic review you read, etc. I do not like mixing those books on the shelf among my favorites, but I can’t help hoping that I’ll find a use for them someday. Here are my 1st Annual Cookbook Award Winners, in the categories devised by Adam, plus one extra category of my own:

Desert Island Cookbooks

1. How to Eat by Nigella Lawson. Ah, the original domestic goddess. Reading this book validated my belief that food is one of the most important, inspiring and restorative elements of our lives and that being totally obsessed with the preparation and eating of it is perfectly okay. And if you are Nigella, it is not only okay, but sexy, glamorous and worthy of celebration. I love the way the book is organized (Basics, Meals for One or Two, Healthy Food), and I love Nigella’s very opinionated, slightly bossy prose. She just wants your dinner to be the best it can be. This is the book I turn to for ideas on anything, and her basic roast chicken is the absolute definitive for me.
2. The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden. Claudia is one of those grand dames of cookbook authors in a class with Paula Wolfert and Marcella Hazan. This is an updated version of the book she released in the 70s and a fairly recent acquisition for me. Middle Eastern (especially Turkey, Syria and Morocco) is one of my favorite cuisines and this book is an encyclopedia of recipes with multiple variations and the stories and traditions behind them. If I could only bring one book to the desert island, this might just be it.
3. Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen by the lovely Deborah Madison, proponent of fresh, local produce and simple preparations where the ingredients are the stars of the dish. I constantly flip through this book just to look at the pictures, and I curse the fact that South Florida is not exactly the easiest place to find farmers markets brimming with seasonally grown, organic produce. Still, her ingredients are far from exotic and her methods are accessible. If I am on Adam’s fantasy desert island with access to all the fresh ingredients I could ever dream of, this book is definitely coming with me.
4. The King Arthur Flour Baking Book. These people eat, sleep and dream flour, and they know their stuff. The tone of the book strikes me as a less obsessive America’s Test Kitchen, meaning that they have tried and tested every recipe to ensure that they are providing readers with the best method. Everything is in here. Every dessert from fancy cakes to basic brownies gets its due. Then there’s the bread; bagels, baguettes, whole wheat, not to mention quick breads and muffins. This may not have the prestige of a professional chef behind it, but it is an incredible resource for home bakers.

The Most Beautiful Cookbooks

1. Rocco DiSpirito’s Flavor. How could this book not be at the top of this category? Rocco (the man’s name is Rocco) is the Chippendale’s version of celebrity chefs and his book lives up to the promise of food porn like no other. Granted, Rocco does not cover his own scantily-clad body in melted chocolate, he just pimps out his attractive female sous chef or whoever she is. There are photos of Rocco’s powerful, yet smooth and sensual hands tossing your salad—no tongs for this bad boy. The recipes are helpfully rated for ease of preparation, there is a nice essay by Rocco on the importance of the five flavors in his cooking, and there are a few recipes that I hope to get around to trying. Still, there are a large number of esoteric and downright wacky dishes (Ceviche of Diver Sea Scallops with Tamarind and Popcorn), and the book is more of a work of pop art and a stellar example of innovative cookbook design than a useful resource.
2. Forever Summer by Nigella Lawson. It’s Nigella. She’s gazing at you with those big doe eyes, about to toss her silky mane of black-brown curls. She entices you with the freshest tomatoes that taste better in her Italian villa than anywhere else on the planet. Her come-hither look draws you in and you surrender to her simple, fresh pasta dishes and pastel colored cocktails. True, there isn’t much that is terribly innovative or challenging here, but it’s Nigella finally escaped from dreary London and loving every minute of it.
3. Williams Sonoma’s Savouring Series. I am embarrassed to say that I got my three books from the Savouring series (Savoring Spain and Portugal, Savoring Italy, Savoring Southeast Asia) at Buck-A-Book a few years ago because I would absolutely have paid more for these beauties (they didn’t cost a dollar, it was more like $12). Unlike the previous two winners in this category, I love to use these books, both to learn about the food culture of the title countries and to cook the authentic dishes marked with the specific region from within their country of origin. I used Spain & Portugal to make the fabulous Portuguese Bread Soup and the bacalhau dish from one of my recent posts. The photojournalism in the introductions to each section of the books is transportive, and the gorgeous photos of every finished dish are reason enough to own these books. Sadly, I’m not sure where you might find these. I just checked amazon, and there are a few hanging around. Actually, I just bought Savoring Provence!

Best Book for a Specific Purpose

1. Meze by Diane Kochilas. I love Diane and I love her meze. This type of food fits right in with my obsession with Spanish tapas, as meze is the Greek version of these small bites, often served with a leisurely conversation and a carafe of wine. I put Meze in this category because, although I love to read the recipes and look at the photos, the opportunity to serve meze only comes up on specific occasions like when Mike and I make a point to hang out and cook a bunch of small plates instead of a whole meal. This is slightly impractical to do for just two people, but we find it worthwhile to stretch our meal out over a few hours and sample lots of different flavors. This book is also handy for cocktail party nibbles, although that is a slight departure from the tradition of meze that Diane so fondly describes in her introduction.

Best Book I Am Glad to Own But Barely Use

1. Feast by Nigella Lawson. I am sorry Nigella, I really am. And I do love this book, truly I do. Nigella’s most recent offering is a massive, beautifully photographed tome, detailing menus for every possible celebratory and/or monumental occasion. It is classic Nigella with recipes tending towards her own personal tastes and obsessions, but that is why we love her. The reason I do not use this book much is because I am not a glorious earth-mother figure and provider of feasts to my adoring ensemble of loved ones at this stage in my life. In fact, most of Mike’s and my loved ones are not often within feasting distance of my kitchen. But I know this book will remain a valued part of my collection, and rotate into more regular usage when the time comes.

Best Cookbooks that Read Like a Novel
This is my own category, and I include it because I want to honor the cookbook authors who not only provide excellent instructional content, but lively, engrossing prose. When it comes to these books, I do not care if I ever cook a single recipe because the knowledge and distinct voice of the writers are my favorite feature.

1. How to Eat by Nigella Lawson. I already alluded to Nigella’s writing above, but it bears repeating. This woman has opinions about food and cooking, and her love and enthusiasm for her subject are as inspiring and comforting as her risotto.
2. The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden. She has traveled so extensively and amassed so much information, that I’m sure she could fill a second volume. Claudia has been in the kitchens of home cooks all over the region and this immersion in the culture comes through in her writing.
3. The Italian Country Table by Lynn Rosetto Kasper. This book by the host of NPR’s The Splendid Table is all about simple peasant food, except that the peasants are in Italy and have been preparing glorious ingredients with practiced restraint for generations. Lynn introduces every recipe with helpful tidbits or background information. The book is full of sidebars with stories from Italian kitchens and food artisans. Like Claudia Roden’s book, this is the result of the author’s immersion in the life of her subject.

I hope you enjoyed my very biased cookbook awards. I hope other bloggers take up this meme; I’d love to do it on a yearly basis. It is a great way to discover new cookbooks worthy of a place on my shelf.

1 comment:

Meredith said...

Hey Julie!

Came over here from Adam's site. I posted my own cook book awards too and we both chose Roden's book as a desert island favorite. Nice to meet a fellow Roden fan.