Find our top 5 picks for the best healthy cookbooks of the past 25 years.
We were well into our review of a quarter-century of cookbooks when we were again struck by how fast the “healthy” category changes. Both the scientific and popular ideas of a healthy diet are in flux. On the science side, obsessions with total fat, sodium, antioxidants, and other micronutrients rose and fell. On the popular side: health foods, superfoods, gluten free foods. Today the overall understanding of healthy diet seems to be moving away from extremes and toward a balanced, varied, global-meets-local, always delicious ideal. But a lot of “healthy” cookbooks just don’t stand up. Here are five that do. We didn’t consider Cooking Light cookbooks for obvious reasons.
Spices of Life: Simple and Delicious Recipes for Great Health
By Nina Simonds, Knopf, 2005. Hardcover. $25; 383 pages
This is a fascinating book, more ambitiously and wholly health-focused than any other book on our list, yet harder to pin down: It’s an East-meets-West chef’s salad of conventional and holistic ideas, all rooted in Simonds’ belief in the importance of a good, balanced diet and the “tonic” properties of herbs and spices. The pages include brief asides with appearances from health experts (like Andrew Weil, on the holistic side, and Med-diet guru Walter Willett, on the science side); breathing exercises; a color-driven approach to food choices; and “Dr. Duke’s Anti Fatigue Tea.”
But Simonds is a cook above all, and a good one, a former Asian correspondent for Gourmet magazine and a Cooking Light contributor. If you choose, you can bypass the tonics and testimonials and dive into more than 175 vivid recipes. A Napa
cabbage soup with gingery pork meatballs was light, warming, touched with soy. Beets with Ginger and Balsamic Vinegar or Sesame
Grilled Eggplant yielded interesting sides.
GIVE THIS TO: Adventurous cooks open-minded enough to roll with this oddly affecting cookbook. —Scott Mowbray
The America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook
By the editors at America’s Test Kitchen, America’s Test Kitchen, 2010. Hardcover. $35; 520 pages
This comprehensive collection of 800+ family and global favorites helps put healthy eating in an everyday context, from meat loaf to Indian curry with chicken. Whole grains and vegetables abound, dishes use leaner cuts of meat, and portion sizes are sensible.
Recipes reveal clever lightening tricks that you’ll feel compelled to try, like browning a smaller amount of butter for bigger flavor in Chocolate Chip Cookies. Stripped of the lengthy trial-and-error reporting of its magazine counterpart, Cook’s Illustrated, this book takes a CliffsNotes approach with product recommendations (high-performing muffin pans), kitchen tips (how to quickly thaw steaks), and other helpful information on just about every page. Nutrition analysis is also provided with each recipe.
GIVE THIS TO: The practical cook of any skill level who wants ideas for everyday healthy meals for her family. —Ann Taylor Pittman
The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health
By Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Bantam, 2009. Hardcover. $35; 496 pages
Almost two decades ago, when Nancy Harmon Jenkins published The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, she helped advance the concept of healthy fats at a time when all fats were under the gun. Her New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook updates this now-mainstream idea and others: Eat a plant-based diet, let olive oil be the main fat source, and enjoy wine with meals. The most notable change is that Harmon Jenkins has dropped nutrition analysis with her recipes (which we found a bit troubling), arguing that analysis is often inaccurate, and that eaters should focus on diet at a whole-foods level, not a nutrient level. The book then takes a grand tour through the region: paella from Spain, eggplant stuffed with meat and rice (Karni Yarik) from Turkey, tagines from Morocco. Pasta, breads, pizza, couscous, rice: The grains are all here.
GIVE THIS TO: Med enthusiasts, unless they’re avid number crunchers. —Julianna Grimes
The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes, and Stories from the Market and Farm
By Amelia Saltsman, Blenheim Press, 2007. Paperback. $23; 216 pages
We looked through basketfuls of market-based cookbooks before picking The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook as best infield. This is not a guide to healthy eating per se, but as an inspiration for moving fresh produce to the center of your plate, it’s a winner. Saltsman believes that the best recipes are often the simplest, and that local crops, “nourished by the sun, picked at their peak, and brought to market fresh are more nutrient rich.” She adds, “To say that cooking from the farmers’ market is more ‘nutritious’ or ‘healthier’ makes it sound medicinal instead of the delectable pleasure it is.” For her, variety is critical. Flavor is first. And sustainable is best. All sentiments we endorse.
The recipes sound delicious, and they deliver: Fava Bean and Pea Shoot Salad, Slow-Baked Quince with Honey and Cognac. Of
26 entrées, a fourth are vegetarian, and almost a third are fish and shellfish. And, though a total indulgence, the Dried
Plum and Toasted Almond Cream Tart is one of the most delicious desserts we’ve ever tasted.
This is an example of the sort of not-explicitly-healthy book that a health-minded cook can use to rebalance her diet and dive into the joys of the fresh and the local.
GIVE THIS TO: Beginners and confident locavores alike will love every bite. —Tiffany Vickers Davis
Ancient Grains for Modern Meals
By Maria Speck, Ten Speed Press, 2011. Hardcover. $30; 231 pages
Because this is the most joyful book about whole-grain cookery we’ve seen, we take Maria Speck at her word when she says, “I don’t eat whole grains because they are healthy, or wholesome, or to reap their nutritional benefits.” She simply loves them.
This is not an exhaustive survey. Speck spotlights her favorites: rice and wheat from her Greek mother and barley and rye from her German father. She’s not promoting a 100%-whole-grain diet, but the recipes make it possible to eat more grains, deliciously. Walnut Spice Breakfast Cake has a light crumb and perfectly balanced flavor. Other standouts: Crispy Brown Rice Cakes with Green Olives, Pecorino, and Sage, and Artisanal Fruit Bread made with whole-grain rye flour.
GIVE THIS TO: Anyone who wants to up her or his wholegrain intake. —Deb Wise