Top 5 European Cookbooks
<em>The Country Cooking of Ireland</em>
Colman Andrews may not have rocked the food world with this tome as he did in 1988 with Catalan Cuisine, which made the case for a thrilling tradition that was flying almost entirely under the radar of American cooks. But The Country Cooking of Ireland proves that a delicious culinary landscape lies beyond soda bread and Irish stew. This is also one of those lovely, heavy, heartfelt cookbooks that is a good read and a worthy gift.
Most of us need to be reminded again and again that simplicity is important; the majority of recipes here do that. Turnip and Rosemary Soup with Honey contains only three ingredients beyond those mentioned in the name. The combination of butter, earthy turnips, and herbs, with sweet finishing honey, was fantastic (and I cut down on the amount of heavy cream, swapping in some whole milk—still delicious). Good old Colcannon—basically mashed potatoes with kale and scallions—defines comfort and is a perfect side to a leftovers-based dish like Ham in Whiskey Sauce. Offal recipes like Collared Head or Crubeens (Pig’s Feet) feel like they’re taking you back to the source: Nothing hipster is afoot here. Chefs are profiled here and there; the quality of Ireland’s land and produce is celebrated in prose and picture; and there’s a smattering of history. But none of it overthickens the stew. And there are modern touches, like a truly startling-sounding dish from “pioneering modern Irish chef Gerry Glavin”: Roast Pike with Lamb Sauce, Lovage, and Bacon.
As you will have detected and expected, meat, butter, and cream pitch in frequently, and not lightly, but the very simplicity of the recipes suggests that tinkering and reducing are not difficult or risky. This is a book not of culinary chemistry but country wisdom.
GIVE THIS TO: Anyone who gets teary on St. Patrick’s day, or who loves country cooking. —Scott Mowbray
<em>The Food of Spain</em>
Roden takes the same ambitious approach that made The Book of Jewish Food and The New Book of Middle Eastern Food modern classics, weaving together luscious cooking, local and national history, and charming slices of Spanish life shown through mini-essays on some of the country’s most fascinating cooks and food authorities.
The book begins with more than 100 pages of Spanish gastronomic history and a breakdown of regional cuisines. After that, Roden’s detailed recipe headnotes offer ample info to put each dish in proper cultural context. The food is a delectable mix of national standards—paella, tapas, gazpacho, flan—along with lesser-known regional and microregional specialties. Simple, rustic dishes like smoky and complex Potatoes with Chorizo or Braised Rabbit with Herbs and White Wine show just how much flavor can be coaxed from a handful of well-chosen ingredients.
GIVE THIS TO: Armchair travelers and cooks of all skill levels with an interest in Spanish food. —Tim Cebula
<em>The Scandinavian Kitchen: 100 Essential Ingredients with 200 Authentic Recipes</em>
Following the wild success of Copenhagen’s Noma and a burst of inventive restaurants in that city, many cooks are taking a second (or first, in many cases) look at Scandinavian cuisine. That restaurant’s namesake cookbook, though, is exquisitely complicated, certainly not for any but the most ambitious home cook. Start here instead.
This book is organized by 100 ingredients, with accompanying recipes, plus sidebars explaining the ingredient’s place in Scandinavian culture. There is tons of helpful info on how each ingredient grows and tastes, how to buy and store, and how it is used. Gorgeous photos depicting the region abound, and the book maintains a sort of silvery-gray Nordic aesthetic.
The recipes walk the line between special occasion and home cooking. Chicken and Asparagus Stew is undoubtedly comfort food but also worthy of a casual dinner party. Mushrooms Pickled in Vinegar and Olive Oil are simple but exotic. Sugar-Salted Salmon with Seville Orange is an unfussy preparation with complex and rewarding results on the palate, and a bit of a wow factor (not every recipe is based on hyper-local foods, obviously). Recipes require basic cooking skills and little in the way of advanced techniques or specialty equipment. There are numerous recipes for preserving foods (pickling, salting, smoking, jam-making) for the larder.
GIVE THIS TO: Curious cooks who love playing with new flavors and ingredients. —Robin Bashinsky
<em>Pintxos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition</em>
Pronounced PEEN-chos, pintxos is the Basque word for tapas, celebrated here in luscious photography and delicious recipes. You’ll no doubt dog-ear or flag at least 10 pages when you browse the book—or more, as I did. The Basque region, from which Hirigoyen hails, spans France and Spain on the Atlantic coast. This food-of-the-place is happy food for entertaining. It’s easy, Hirigoyen says: “You need only to buy some good charcuterie and cheese, open a can or jar, and make one or two braised or grilled dishes and a salad and you will have a no-fuss, fast-to-assemble dinner for four, six, eight, or more.” Everyone gets to sample lots of different foods.
The recipes do not disappoint. Even something as simple as Griddled Ham and Cheese Bocadillos—basically a grilled-cheese sandwich made with a few exquisite ingredients—will knock your socks off. A bit more involved but certainly not complicated, Clams with Spicy Smoked Tomatoes rewards the effort of smoking the tomatoes by imbuing the whole dish with wonderful depth and lick-your-bowl deliciousness. There are also light and fresh salads, meat and seafood braises, skewers, and soups to round out your party. Be sure to pay attention to the wine suggestions for the recipes, as the experience is not complete without well-matched sippers.
GIVE THIS TO: An avid entertainer looking to step up her repertoire. —Tiffany Vickers Davis
<em>How to Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking</em>
Long Island–raised Psilakis, son of first-generation Greek immigrants—started his culinary career as a waiter at TGI Fridays, then moved on to long, grueling days at other restaurants as waiter, manager, restaurateur, and finally, because his chef didn’t show up for work one day, self-taught chef. This is a book by an extremely likable guy; you instinctively trust everything he says. And he writes recipes for the home cook, conceding, for example, that water can be the base for many dishes rather than a long-cooked stock. “It’s more important to me that you begin to cook Greek food than it is for you to spend hours making a stock,” he reasons. All throughout are helpful tips about ingredients, make-ahead instructions, and substitution suggestions.
Pastitsio, a sort of Greek lasagna, is one of the more labor-intensive dishes in the book but a huge success and well worth the time spent making it. A simpler recipe of Cucumber Salad, Celery, Leek, and Tsakistes Olives with Lemon-Dill Vinaigrette had folks asking for the recipe; the bowl was empty in a flash. Both of these dishes rely on subrecipes (Greek Béchamel, Lemon-Dill Vinaigrette), but Psilakis makes sure they are building blocks of several dishes. Many recipes include an autobiographical note, tying the dish to a part of Psilakis’ life; you feel that you are being taken to dinner with him and his family, while also learning about Greek food. It’s a lovely approach in a book of truly inspiring food.
GIVE THIS TO: Cooks who enjoy zippy flavors and a personal touch. —Tiffany Vickers Davis