Cookbooks are personal. We are all drawn in by different things — an aesthetic, a viewpoint, that one recipe that demands we get into the kitchen and make it right now. This is part of what makes a cookbook a thoughtful gift. It tells the recipient you know his or her taste, literally.
But choosing can be a challenge. There are volumes of eye candy released each year, with holiday gift-giving in mind. These books are often stunning and hefty and impressive. But they’re not always gratifying to cook from. (Sometimes, in fact, it seems the more self-consciously gorgeous the cookbook, the less thoroughly its recipes have been tested.)
So here is a selection of the season’s best cookbooks for giving: volumes that both look great and offer real rewards. Some create a sense of place so clear and specific you feel that you’re there. Others impart clever techniques, useful tips, new ways of looking at dishes and ingredients. And all of them make the reader want to get into the kitchen and start cooking.
Technique, two ways
These volumes use recipes to illustrate and teach techniques that will improve anyone’s cooking. The first, Julia Turshen’s “Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home-Cooking Triumphs” (Chronicle), comes from a recipe developer who has co-written cookbooks with chefs such as Mario Batali. This one’s all her own, and it’s full of lovely dishes (a clambake with Korean flavors, curried red lentils with coconut milk) that also happen to offer lessons. Each recipe includes a “small victory” — be it learning how to easily cut corn off the cob or mastering braises. And with every recipe, Turshen offers variations on the theme — for instance, after having you roast the radishes (see recipe, Page G4) you usually eat raw, she offers instructions for stir-frying lettuce and braising celery. A great gift, especially for a novice in the kitchen.
Naomi Pomeroy wants to teach you to think like a chef. The James Beard award winner behind Beast in Portland, Ore., teams with writer Jamie Feldmar on “Taste & Technique: Recipes to Elevate Your Home Cooking” (Ten Speed Press). A reader might start at the beginning, with something simple like parsley sauce verte, a lesson in using acid and salt. Next, move on to souffles, with plenty of coaching and a relaxed attitude about what constitutes success: “Even an imperfect souffle is still delicious,” the book helpfully reminds. There is joy in learning when the instruction comes couched in dishes like baked Camembert with Armagnac prunes, mushrooms, and thyme; roasted beets and pink grapefruit with frisee and mint creme fraiche; porcini braised chicken thighs; and buckwheat crepes with sauteed apples and toffee sauce.
Food is culture
For years, the writers Naomi Duguid and Fuchsia Dunlop have brought faraway lands and cuisines to life through their cookbooks. Duguid has previously roamed Southeast Asia, homed in on Myanmar, and explored the Indian subcontinent. She takes on new territory in her latest, “Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan” (Artisan) — exploring the flavors and dishes that unite and distinguish these different countries. We meet street vendors, learn an intriguing way of preparing mushrooms from a home cook in Azerbaijan, encounter a vast repertoire of flatbreads, and eat fresh, bracing herbs with everything. Even if someone were able to resist dried apricot soup with wheat berries from southern Georgia, or cabbage dolmas with pomegranate-coriander sauce, or all manner of kebabs, rice dishes, and lamb stews, he or she would get sucked in by the photos, vivid glimpses into lives both different from and similar to our own.
Dunlop might be best known for her first book, the indispensable “Land of Plenty,” which has given so many an education in Sichuan food. (Get that one, too, if your gift recipient doesn’t have it.) In her new “Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes From the Culinary Heart of China” (W.W. Norton), she leaves behind the fiery and the numbing for the subtle and harmonious fare found south of the Yangtze River. Jiangnan is a land of agricultural riches, and “a crucible of Chinese gastronomy,” as Dunlop puts it. She has fallen in love with the region, and by telling us the story of the place, she convinces us we should love it, too. Recipes for Hangzhou breakfast tofu, Shanghai fried rice (see recipe below), and red-braised pork don’t hurt either.
Restaurants with a point of view
Some of the most appealing cookbooks this season come out of restaurants. Locally, Ana Sortun and Maura Kilpatrick have written “Soframiz: Vibrant Middle Eastern Recipes From Sofra Bakery & Cafe” (Ten Speed Press). It’s totally delightful to be able to re-create their shakshuka, meze, and shawarma at home. But let’s be honest. We’re all buying this book for a cookie recipe: Now we, too, can make the fudgy, confectioners’ sugar-dusted Earthquakes.
Next, head to New York, where chef and gifted writer Marcus Samuelsson runs his restaurant. “The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) takes us into his kitchen and his neighborhood. There are stunning portraits of local denizens, a foreword by Hilton Als, playlists for each chapter. The recipes draw on soul food, Samuelsson’s Ethiopian heritage, and more — from fried yardbird to lamb and grits with grilled chile vinaigrette to Obama’s short ribs, part of a menu when the president came to eat. As much as it is a cookbook, this is a paean to a place. “Right now in Harlem there’s room; there’s hope; there’s inspiration; there’s good food. I may not be able to explain the magic, but it is there,” Samuelsson writes.
In Chicago, a Portuguese-American kid who grew up in Lowell and a Chinese-American local opened a restaurant focusing on the food of Macau. Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo’s Fat Rice serves up its namesake dish, arroz gordo; Malay vegetable curry; piri piri chicken; and more. Now these recipes are collected in a cookbook as freewheeling as the restaurant’s origin story. “The Adventures of Fat Rice: Recipes From the Chicago Restaurant Inspired by Macau” (Ten Speed Press), co-written with Hugh Amano, is designed for many things, but not for ease of execution by a home cook. These are projects for people inspired by history and jazzed by clear instruction that happens to be offered in multi-page comic-book panels. The cover, featuring an illustration of a giant fire-breathing clam emerging from the waves, effectively sets the tone.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the general takeover of the food world by grain-based bowls, topped with lots of vegetables and often a runny egg. This likely has something to do with Jessica Koslow and the sorrel pesto rice bowl she made famous at Sqirl in LA. Sqirl began as a jam business and evolved into a culinary touchstone, with the masses happy to stand in line for brown rice porridge, kabbouleh, and turmeric tonic. It would be a California cliche if Koslow, Sqirl, and the food weren’t so delightful. With “Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking” (Abrams), the home cook can create dishes that have had a genuine impact on the way we eat. Make some fermented hot sauce or crispy rice salad and begin to understand the obsession.
The baked goods
Those who love to bake face an embarrassment of riches this season. To single out a few: “Dorie’s Cookies” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), from cookbook doyenne Dorie Greenspan, is a must for the person in your life who goes cookie crazy every holiday season. (You’ll be happy, too, as the quality of those cookies goes suddenly way up.) “Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking” (Artisan), by Uri Scheft of Breads Bakery (New York) and Lehamim Bakery (Tel Aviv), is a delight to contemplate, offering up utterly creative and beautiful challahs, babkas, rugelach, burekas, and pita, with a small array of savory dips, salads, and condiments at the end. It’s baker porn. Genevieve Ko’s “Better Baking: Wholesome Ingredients, Delicious Desserts” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) manages to improve baked goods by using more-nutritious ingredients and less sugar; there’s also plenty here for those who don’t eat gluten or dairy. And fans of “The Great British Baking Show” will recognize contestant Chetna Makan, whose book, “The Cardamom Trail: Chetna Bakes With Flavours of the East” (Mitchell Beazley), plays deliriously with spices — think masala chai baklava, pear and cardamom caramel upside-down cake, and saffron meringue cake.
If there is a vegan in your life, “The Superfun Times Vegan Holiday Cookbook” (Little, Brown) is required gifting. He or she will already be aware of author Isa Chandra Moskowitz, who is also behind such books as “Veganomicon,” “Vegan With a Vengeance,” and “Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World.” But you might also want to consider the book for anyone who simply likes vegetables — or doesn’t, but needs to get over that. There’s a little fake meat here, but you don’t have to make that seitan roast; mostly the cookbook offers things like cauliflower tikka masala and tomatillo pozole that anybody might want to eat.
Do not overlook “Power Vegetables! Turbocharged Recipes for Vegetables With Guts” (Clarkson Potter) just because it has the cheesiest cover you have ever seen. Author Peter Meehan kicks off his acknowledgments section with this: “I’d like to acknowledge you for looking at this book and being like, Heheh, did he just call the book Power Vegetables! so he could run out to Spencer’s and buy a bunch of plasma balls?” (Yes, pretty much, he says.) Meehan and his fellow editors at Lucky Peach magazine have produced a book of entirely charismatic vegetable dishes. Readers will find the likes of Buffalo cucumbers, Tex-Mex shepherd’s pie, Sichuan squash stew, and zucchini mujadara, along with input from hotshot chefs such as David Chang and Ivan Orkin.
We have a plan
For those who want to feel organized, or simply wish to stop eating pasta four nights a week, there is Food52’s “A New Way to Dinner: A Playbook of Recipes and Strategies for the Week Ahead” (Ten Speed Press). Written by website founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, this volume lays out menus by the week, according to seasons, along with shopping lists and game plans of what to do when. So one heads into the week knowing lamb chops and roasted Brussels sprouts, gnocchi with creamed kale, and stuck-pot rice with fried eggs lie ahead.
“Mozza at Home: More Than 150 Crowd-Pleasing Recipes for Relaxed, Family-Style Entertaining” (Knopf) also offers a plan, this time from chef Nancy Silverton. The book is geared toward get-togethers — a casual Saturday night meal of chicken thighs with Italian sausage and spicy pickled peppers, a giant roast pork shoulder with all manner of condiments. Now, when someone wants to have a party, the menu is already set.
Well, maybe justa little eye candy
Are you likely to cook from “Dali: Les Diners de Gala” (Taschen)? That depends on how much you crave snail saltimbocca and steamed and stuffed larks. No matter. This cookbook was first published in 1973 by Salvador Dali, who reportedly wanted to be a cook when he was 6 years old and finally got his chance at 68. Now it has been reprinted, and it is a surrealist feast for the eyes, a kaleidoscope of weird, captivating, extraordinary, and mind-bending images, with recipes to match. It is exactly what you’d expect a cookbook by Dali to be like, and you should buy it for someone special — maybe yourself.