On cookbooks

I received three cookbooks for Christmas, and I am in love with two of them. The third, the one I actually requested, is okay but unlikely to become a favorite.

The lesser of these three is the most hyped, Anthony Bourdain’s Appetites: A Cookbook, and while I enjoyed his strong opinions and riffs on classics, it felt either so accessible as to be elementary, even pandering (as in Bodega Sandwich or Tuna Salad) or so far-reaching (think Portuguese Squid and Octopus Soup) as to be an unlikely addition to my kitchen repertoire. That says more about how I cook and eat than the quality or versatility of the recipes, but as cooking staples can be deeply personal, so can opinions, and this book, though visually grabbing, was not one I’ll be reaching for often.

I also seek out cookbooks that tell stories, and while this one definitely told stories — colorful travel stories, homey father-daughter stories, restaurant brunch woes, they were tales I’d heard repeated on NPR, in Gourmet, and in the various pre-holiday hype for the book, so the book needed to deliver more that I’d seen and heard already. It was a bit like watching a much anticipated movie and then realizing you had seen all the best parts and funniest punchlines in the trailers. But it is a solid book, and I’ll come back in a few months and reexamine it to see if I am still of the same opinion.

Another book, Food52’s Genius Recipes by Kristin Miglore, was lovely. It is subtitled with “100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook,” so I knew going in to expect some strong, innovative variations on standard fare. Each recipe was offered with a story of why or how the recipes was “genius” as well as tips on adapting techniques to other foods or variations on the preparation itself. Accessible, yes. Personal stories, not so much, but they were not what this book — a compilation of new standard recipes from great cooks and chefs, restaurants and bloggers — was about.

Recipes I am excited to prepare:

  • Basic Hummus (using baking soda to soften skins for pulverizing) from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi with One Ingredient Whole Grain Crackers from Dan Barber
  • Tomato Water Bloody Mary from Todd Thrasher
  • Cliff Old Fashioned from Dave Arnold
  • Romaine Hearts with Caesar Salad Dressing from Frankies Sputino
  • “Use A Spoon” Chopped Salad from Michel Nischan
  • Onion Carbonara from Michel Richard
  • Simplest Roast Chicken from Barbara Kafka
  • Gratin of Zucchini, Rice & Onions from Julia Child
  • Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Fish Sauce Vinaigrette from Momofuku
  • Strawberry Shortcakes from James Beard
  • Dense Chocolate Loaf from Nigella Lawson

The third cookbook I bought for a friend, then coveted so much my husband bought it for me as well. Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes, by Ronni Lundy. The book is part history of the region, part memoir, part cookbook — always a compelling combination for me. In some ways, it is a more researched, better photographed version of The Cracker Kitchen by Janis Owens (not a better book, just a different one). With chapters devoted to Salt, Corn, and Beans, among other things, the book runs through the culinary past and present of Appalachian cooking. Gently opinionated, Ronni Lundy incorporates Scots-Irish, German, Cherokee, and other heritages with mountain preparations of chicken, ramps, potatoes, various greens, and she gives homage to the chefs who are exploring and keeping Appalachian cooking vital (not revitalizing, because it has not tapered off or died — it is real and living and evolving).

The photographs in all three books were stunning, Appetites‘ being more artful and in your face, with photos of Bourdain and his family and friends sprinkled throughout, Genius Recipes’ being well-styled and clean photos of the dishes and preparations, and Victuals’ being sweeping mountainscapes, children, animals, and, of course, food that is simply and gorgeously plated. Victuals is a my heart on a plate.

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