Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Cookbook Roundup for the Holidays

Posted By on Tue, Dec 11, 2012 at 9:04 AM

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One thing we miss now that Nicki P. Wood isn't hanging around the Bites cave on a regular basis is her cookbook expertise. Not only has she written and edited them for years, but she really appreciates a well-written tome. With the advent of websites like epicurious.com and recipes.com, it's so easy to search for a specific recipe for what you want to cook or what you have to rid of in your pantry that often we forget the joy of reading a great cookbook from cover to cover, as you dream of the food that you'll make out of the book.

Happily, there are still plenty of good cookbooks out there, and with the gift giving season in full swing, I thought I'd highlight a few that I've encountered recently. First and foremost is the reason that chefs Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel visited our town last week, Bouchon Bakery. Like all of Chef Keller's previous cookbooks, Bouchon Bakery is beautifully photographed and very precisely written. And you wouldn't want to drop it on your foot.

Filled with personal anecdotes about Keller's childhood experience of gobbling Oreos and baking Duncan Hines cakes with his mother, this is a surprisingly intimate book considering its size and the authors' statuses in the culinary world. Still, it has some really technical recipes that will challenge the most experienced pastry chef. Don't even think of buying it unless you already have a kitchen scale that measures in grams. Baking is in many ways a science, and scientists and bakers live within the metric system. Forget about your cups and tablespoons in this one.

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But the book isn't all graduate level. The recipes tend to progress from simpler to insanely complicated. Keller suggests that you first pick a recipe within your skill set and practice the easy ones to build confidence before you plunge on to delicate croissants. At $50 (and about half that on Amazon), Bouchon Bakery is as much of a coffee-table book as a working text, but Keller and Rouxel would be disappointed if your copy didn't have some flour on the cover within a few months of receiving it as a gift.

On the less elaborate side is the latest in a series of cookbooks from a friend of mine from Memphis, Jennifer Chandler. She has followed up her first two successful books, Simply Supper and Simply Salads with her third offering, Simply Grilling. Rejecting the idea that the grill should strictly be the domain of men, Chandler takes readers of all genders on a step-by-step guide to selecting the proper equipment, how to maintain food safety, and tips for becoming a grillmaster.

She also offers 105 easy recipes and numerous quick variations of these recipes to help you plan meals for any time of day and any season. Living up to the name of the book, Chandler's recipes and instructions are clear and simple. They are also not just limited to charring big chunks of meat over flame. A section of salads includes delicious-sounding dishes like Tuna Nicoise Salad with Lemon-Caper Vinaigrette and Mediterranean Quinoa Salad. I've prepared her Grilled Caesar Salad at home and love the smoky flavor of the grilled romaine, especially with the addition of shrimp or chicken. If there's someone on your holiday list who loves to grill out, this might be a nice choice to give them something to read while they await the return of outdoor cooking weather.

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Not limited to grilling, but also fiery is Kevin Gillespie's Fire in My Belly. You might remember Chef Gillespie from his stint on Top Chef, but you should also know he cooks at a spectacular restaurant only about four hours from Nashville, Woodfire Grill in Atlanta.

In his first cookbook, Gillespie shares his philosophy on farm-to-table seasonal ingredients and his techniques for reinventing traditional Southern fare. The book is written with an entertaining narrative form, and is divided into clever sections like "Foods You Thought You Hated," "Food + Fire = Delicious" and "When I Want to Eat Healthy." Though I have to admit that the first section I just mentioned didn't convince me to give haggis a try, Gillespie's "Junk Food" chapter did get my Pavlovian responses going.

Gillespie seems like someone who would get along with Nashville's group of playful and casual chefs, so maybe we can lure him here for the next outpost of Woodfire Grill. He describes his father as someone who "always judged the doneness of food by how many beers it would take. Chicken was six beers. Pork chops were two." Putting aside the fact that his dad must have been a pretty fast drinker, Gillespie sounds like he could tip a few back at Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint while waiting for the whole hog to finish.

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The author of the last book I want to tell you about probably would not spend much time at Martin's. But since we are right in the middle of Hanukkah, why not talk about Susie Fishbein's Kosher By Design Cooking Coach? Not just limited to the kosher kitchen, this interesting book is subtitled "Recipes, Tips and Techniques to Make Anyone a Better Cook."

This is Fishbein's eighth cookbook, and she has created something of a brand for herself with her advice on stylish kosher cooking. I remember when I was a student at University School and the Spanish Club planned a party at our club president's house without knowing that his family kept kosher. Between all the shrimp, cheese and pork of the covered dishes we had prepared, the party was quickly moved to the outside patio, where we reheated everything over a small charcoal grill.

But kosher doesn't mean uptight at all. Basic tenets of sanitation and choosing quality ingredients are a positive for any home kitchen. Fishbein offers information that would be useful for most chefs, like how to use a whetstone, how to dice an onion and how to use an immersion blender without totally messing up your kitchen. (Hint: Don't turn it on until the blending part is below the level of the liquid.) Ten pictorial coaching sections are also very clearly written and illustrated.

She also offers suggestions on essential kitchen equipment and how to stock a pantry with staple ingredients. Building on all this advice and information, Fishbein has developed 120 new recipes that are illustrated with hundreds of colorful photos. Her Butternut Squash Broken Lasgana is on my short-term radar as soon as I can get over to Lazzaroli to pick up some fresh noodles. No matter your religion or the holiday you're celebrating, Kosher by Design Cooking Coach would make an excellent addition to any cook's library.

Believe it or not, I still have a few more books to share with you, but I'll save them for another post in case you procrastinators out there need last-minute gifting advice. Until then, get cooking!

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