Each December, I look forward to collecting all of my favorite cookbooks from the year–the stained, the dog-eared, the newly-beloved–and then sharing them with you. If you (or your intended gift-recipient) are like me, then you can never have too much cookery-bookery in your life. The shelves may groan, your relatives may call you a hoarder behind your back, but you just can’t stop. Now that I’ve emerged from from the cookbook-writing trenches myself, I also have an even greater appreciation for the efforts of all of the authors, chefs, cooks, (and ghost-writers) who worked on these tomes. To write and create a truly useful, beautiful, engaging, classic cookbook, takes a heck of a lot of work. So here’s my list for this year’s best cookbooks, with the inclusion of one beautiful crafting book that I just adore!
I first learned of this cookbook from a fellow blogger’s Instagram. As soon as I saw the cover of a cheddar and cream cheese owl ball, with almond-sliver feathers, I was sold (there’s also a ball called Nacho Cat). This small book would be the perfect gift for not only the whimsical cheese lover in your life, but also anyone who loves to throw dinner parties that are never the same-old-same-old.
If you’re already a fan of Slater’s previous books—Ripe and Tender (I swear these are cookbook titles, not erotica)—then you’ll want this to complete the trio. Although seasonally-organized cookbooks are a bit trendy, Slater tells his cooking-life story from month-to-month, day-to-day, through wonderful yet simple recipes and ingredients. For example, on December 6th there’s a recipe for “a big, useful casserole”, and I can’t wait to make the Orange and Pomegranate Cake from December 7th. The book is also designed beautifully, in that British-book-packaging style: cloth bound with food simply and beautifully photographed.
Some cookbooks are meant to be read as much as they’re meant to be cooked from (and honestly some books may think that they have an interesting story to tell, but they really don’t), and in this rare category belongs Ivan Ramen. Orkin shares an inspiring, sometimes sad, story of following his passion to make ramen in the most unlikely of places. His vision, humor, and resourcefulness, may make you want to run away and open that ice-cream/sandwich/ chicken hut of your dreams. But if you decide to stay put, then the added value of this book are the clean and concise recipes. If you know someone who is obsessed with ramen (and there are many of us out there), they will learn how to create the perfect bowl (shio ramen), as well as multiple uses for all of those Japanese ingredients you’ll have to stock your pantry with (like a rolled omelet that uses dashi).
I love hearing about plucky couples who one day decide to take the plunge and open their own restaurant. Even better when they’re actually successful. The owner-chefs of Franny’s are such a team. They created a beloved neighborhood institution in Brooklyn before that outer-borough became a hip destination and baby-name. Arguably the main draw–besides the lively yet homey atmosphere–is the pizza, and the book has them all: tomato, provolone piccante, and roasted onion; pizza rustica; clam, chili, and parsley. More importantly, they share HOW they make their pizza at home. The dough, the sauce, the technique. Once you’ve got that down you’ll never have to leave your home again for pizza. Master their homemade gelatos and you can happily become a hermit.
If I had to pick one restaurant in New York City that is my beloved, my favorite, it would have to be Gramercy Tavern. When I was a young magazine editor with my first expense account (ahhhh…those were the days), and got to wine and dine writers, Gramercy Tavern is where I took them to lunch. To me, it represented everything a destination meal in NYC should be: There is always a sense of occasion, brought on by the combination of hospitality, decor, flowers, atmosphere, and of course, the food. What makes this new cookbook so wonderful is that it captures all of these attributes, with stories about how the magic is made, from the florist to the sommelier to the art on the walls; while also showing you how to make some of their signature dishes in the realm of your home kitchen (and full disclosure: my KEEPERS co-author worked on the book, specifically in the role of making sure the dishes could be duplicated by the home cook). Some of my favorites include: the Halibut with Red Cabbage and Yogurt Sauce; Red Kuri Squash Soup with Brussels Sprouts and Apples; Meatballs with Braised Onions and Mashed Potatoes; Fried Oysters with Spinach; and Bacon Cheddar Biscuits. And then there are the infamous desserts: Chocolate Pudding with Brioche Croutons, Blueberry-Sweet Corn Ice Cream Sundae; Rhubarb Streusal Tart…hopefully the person you get this book for will make them all for you.
I am one of the lucky few who have had the opportunity to eat at Pok Pok, a Thai restaurant located in Brooklyn (the lines are somewhat legendary); and it was easily one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever enjoyed. There was the incendiary yet addictive central Thai-style papaya salad; marinated pork ribs served with a spicy, tart dipping sauce; a deep-fried whole fish with chile sauce, all washed down with what can best be described as a beer slushy. So when owner-chef Andy Ricker’s book came out this year, I was ecstatic. Now I can make that salad, fish, and ribs at home (after some serious pantry stocking), but also discover new dishes to make like Ba Mii Tom Yam Muu Haeng (spicy, sweet, tart noodles with pork, peanuts, and herbs). The book is also just chock-full of Thai food knowledge, all told in a colorful fashion. Now I’m hungry.
It seems the vegan movement is here to stay, and by that I mean, even friends and family who are not “hard-core” vegan, are choosing to reduce the amount of animal protein in their diet, while trying to consume more grains, beans, and vegetables. Of all the books out on this very-topic, the one I’ve been the most drawn to is Isa’s. First there are her recipes, which are as healthful as they are tempting: like Goddess Noodles, which finally gave me an idea of how to cook tempeh and use nutritional yeast flakes; mango fried rice; sweet potato gnocchi (using miso, one of my most favorite ingredients); Omaha Yaksisoba with red cabbage and corn…there are just so many good recipes. But the entire presentation–from the photos, to the hand-written recipe titles, and colored pages–makes something good for you also feel very gift-worthy.
I realize that having a crafting book in this list is an outlier, but I fell in love with this truly gorgeous collection when I received it this year. Now I have to tell you that some (most) of the flower projects in this book are for people with some real craftinating-skills (if origami makes you nauseous, and paint-by-numbers is the apex of your handmade capabilities, then this book is not for you). But if you have a friend/sister/mom who you constantly envy for their wizardly- sewing/scrapbooking/gift-wrapping creations, then this is the book for them. The instructions are very detailed, with photos and lists explaining every step of the way, so that even an enthusiastic beginner can make something like the Crumpled Poppies, and then use them for gift-wrapping, place cards, or perhaps a boutineer.
With this last choice, I’m realizing that my picks are somewhat Brooklyn heavy. Which is odd since I’ve never lived there, having always been a Manhattan-ite when I lived in the city. But this is a bit of a sentimental pick since I think Roberta’s is truly one of the most special places I’ve ever eaten–a combination restaurant, club house, fringe hang-out, experimental food kibbutz in, of all places, Bushwick. My friend Leslie was married there in the outdoor courtyard, and when guests walked in through the huge gates from the street, they were greeted by a long table laden with the most amazing pizza from Roberta’s two-and-a-half ton wood-fired oven (my one regret from that wedding is that I didn’t eat more pizza). The perfectly-charred margherita pies, the tattoed barmaids, the fading sun lighting up the former urban blight-of-a spot so that it glowed…that experience alone has etched the place in my heart. The book tells the story of how the restaurant’s founders cobbled together friends and funds, scavenging materials from dumpsters even, to turn a formerly crumbling building into a unique dining-institution. You also learn how to make that pizza at home (perhaps doing a side-by-side comparison to Franny’s), as well as some of there other signature dishes, particularly their salads (the Roasted Garlic Dressing!!) and pastas, like Citrus Maltagliati and Lamb Carbonara. Almost as good a making the trip to Bushwick.