Find our top picks for the best cookbooks, that simply don't fit in our other categories.
April 11, 2013
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1 of 9Photo: Randy Mayor
Top 8 Best-of-the-Rest Cookbooks
After reading and testing hundreds of cookbooks to find our top 100 of the past 25 years, we were left with eight books that earned wild praise but didn’t fit neatly into our other categories. This list includes a few reference books that don’t contain recipes but that, in the end, we feel no cook should live without.
In recent years a new breed of aggressively casual chefs has come forward to write a new sort of authoritative, opinionated, humorous, always irreverent cookbook—Anthony Bourdain is their god or mascot. More than one of them comes from Quebec. This is a leading example. Health is never part of the equation; sheer extravagant gusto is. Egg yolks ooze, meat fills the plate, and rich sauces proliferate. But there’s an inherent honesty to the uniquely Montreal interpretations of French bistro cuisine cooked up by owners-chefs Morin and McMillan at Joe Beef. Lamb Shoulder for Two, Condimint (they love puns) brings together a springy lamb stew with fresh peas and mint, all with a sweet-sour sauce built from dates and cider vinegar and a pronounced horseradish bite. We swooned. Lentils Like Baked Beans, according to the authors, “has a bit of a Quebecois-lumberjack-in-Bollywood taste.” Uh, sure—and it’s a perfect example of how brilliant chefs can take a dish you’ve had countless times and make it something new and exciting.
The book is wacky, good fun. One chapter is devoted to train travel and train-inspired recipes (like the lentils mentioned above). The authors warn the home cook against deep-frying without a proper fryer, especially if “drunk and/or naked.” A recipe for mashed potatoes instructs the cook to “rectify the seasoning.” A cocktail right out of Mordecai Richler, called Gin ’N’ Jews, marries Manischewitz with gin, egg white, and lemon juice. For all the bawd and bombast, this is a heartwarming success story of two chefs who unflinchingly stick to their unique vision.
GIVE THIS TO: Cutting-edge cooks who enjoy a taste of braggadocio. —Robin Bashinsky
What is second nature to experienced cooks may be confounding to those less experienced, presenting a roadblock to discovering the pleasures of cooking at home. Early in this elegant book, Spungen states that “no point is too basic to review, no technique too simple to teach.” This principle governs the whole enterprise, from recipe selection—which includes such basics as toasted nuts, roasted garlic, toasted breadcrumbs—to recipe instructions, which are specific, concrete, and thorough. Even seasoned cooks will appreciate having a chance to refamiliarize themselves with techniques, or may learn new and simpler ways of doing things.
The recipes, about 100 of them, are elegant and simple. Corn Salad uses only five ingredients and turns out both beautiful and eat-the-whole-bowl good. “You have to learn the basics to be able to do ‘simple’ well,” Spungen says, “or it can just be boring.” The recipes here are lively, fresh, easy, and sure-fire. Everything we tried turned out perfect: hard-cooked eggs, homemade crème fraîche, popovers. The refreshing opposite of a comprehensive tome, this is a tidy collection of just-enough go-to recipes that may just become an “In case of fire, grab me!” essential.
GIVE THIS TO: Beginning or no-nonsense cooks. —Tiffany Vickers Davis
This book reads like a series of funny, charming short stories, the recipes being a delicious bonus. Each recipe—there are 150 of them, a sound collection spanning weeknight and special-occasion cooking—is preceded by a narrative about how it came about, recounting Clark’s triumphs or trials and errors in developing the dish. Crispy Tofu with Chorizo and Shiitakes, found in the “I Never Was a Vegetarian” chapter, recounts the memory of an old boyfriend who made the best crispy tofu (sadly, not enough to make him a keeper). After years of unsuccessful attempts to re-create that crunchy-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside texture, Clark learned the secret in Deborah Madison’s classic cookbook, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. It’s a secret we’re glad she shared, for the combo of crispy-creamy tofu, bold sausage, and smoky shiitake mushrooms is delicious. Wanting to quickly satisfy a craving for Moroccan braised chicken with preserved lemon, Clark innovated a technique that would save her a trip to the specialty market or a seven-day process to make preserved lemons: She blanched fresh lemon slices in salted water and tossed them into the dish. Quick-Braised Chicken with Moroccan Spices, Lemon, and Olives has the same bright, beautifully balanced, not-too-bitter qualities as the classic that inspired it but comes together in only about an hour. This no-nonsense cooking style pervades all the recipes—ingredient lists are typically short, there’s not a lot of work involved, and the results are consistently delicious.
GIVE THIS TO: Cooks who enjoy a good read as much as a good recipe. —Adam Hickman
This book version of Perelman’s wildly popular blog feels like chipper conversations with a close friend about what to cook for dinner. Lucky for us, that close friend just happens to be a self-taught cook obsessed with creating and sharing the most delicious, fuss-free versions of recipes possible. She will test a recipe multiple times in her tiny New York City kitchen, seeing if, for example, you can get away with mixing everything in one bowl for the cake instead of messing up three. She photographs all her recipes herself. She is innovative, creative, and effortlessly funny. You almost want to hate her.
But you don’t, and here’s why: Her food is that good. Buttered Popcorn Cookies are simply fabulous—popped corn folded into brown sugar dough. “In some bites,” Perelman writes, “it provides a little extra buttery crunch, and in others, a soft cloud to break up the crispness of the cookie.” In the section on party foods, she explains, “The thing is, when I go to a party, I rarely want to bite into some really funky Brie … it would make guests smell mostly like a cave all night. … I want the very best foods I know how to make made portable and I want them to go well with wine.” So she turned a favorite food, French onion soup, into easily toted French Onion Toasts—crisped baguette rounds topped with cognac-splashed caramelized onions. You’ll find yourself flagging many more recipes, such as Whole Lemon Bars, made with—yes—whole lemons, no need to squeeze juice or grate the rind; or Cheddar Swirl Breakfast Buns, a savory cheesy-herbed version of sticky buns.
GIVE THIS TO: Practical cooks with a sense of fun. —Deb Wise
Although this book contains no actual recipes, it is a must-have reference for any cook seeking fresh ideas. The first two short chapters are a bit pointy-headed, discussing how one builds food from the harmonious interplay of flavors (salty, sour, bitter, sweet), mouthfeel, texture, temperature, emotion, and more. But the real meat of the book, about 340 pages of it, comes in the form of flavor-matching charts organized A to Z by ingredient name or cuisine (Afghan to Vietnamese). Each entry is followed by a list of complementary flavors, plus tips from chefs and foodies on how to use the ingredient, and sometimes flavor combos that one should avoid (like soy sauce with mangoes). The chart for oranges, for instance, shows tons of nice flavor pairings, including basil, cranberries, and some shellfish, while chef Michel Richard of Citronelle in Washington, D.C., notes, “I like orange zest with crab and shrimp. … Lemon and lime are too strong. Orange is feminine—the lady of citrus.” The Flavor Bible can help any cook out of a jam, whether she finds herself lacking an ingredient in the pantry, or, say, ends up with a superabundance of cucumbers in the garden (in that case, move beyond dill and buttermilk and try a salad with coriander, jicama, or peanuts).
GIVE THIS TO: Cooks hungry for new ideas. —Tiffany Vickers Davis
The odd thing about McGee’s epic book of kitchen wisdom: It’s as enjoyable when read as a book as it is used as a reference. Sure, it’s an exceptionally valuable guide. If you’re looking to cook a turkey, the Meat chapter will give the pros and cons of brining and the lowdown on roasting whole birds, as well as a few pertinent and immutable truths about meat cookery in general. This is not kitchen dogma handed down from on high: This is the nation’s preeminent food scientist clearly explaining the hows—and more importantly, the whys—of cooking.
But if you truly love cooking, have an inquisitive mind, and want to broaden your culinary knowledge, it’s an absolute blast just picking a chapter and reading it start to finish. The book is an assembly of excellent tips, sometimes loosely organized, and reads like the CliffsNotes of a culinary master class.
GIVE THIS TO: Cooking nerds looking to up their game. —Tim Cebula
Acclaimed chef Suzanne Goin hit upon a successful idea when she started serving Sunday suppers at her Los Angeles restaurant, Lucques. The casual, family-style meals instantly became popular, the seasonal menus drawing people in and inviting them to linger. Here she shares 32 three-course menus, each to serve six (not too large, too daunting, of a dinner party but encouragingly just right). And anyone who prepares one of these meals will be rewarded with food that sets an atmosphere for sharing and connecting. The flavors are outstanding, as Goin is a master at layering seasonings and letting the intrinsic nature of her ingredients shine. Although most of the meals are distinctly Mediterranean, her St. Patrick’s Day Menu intrigued us. The starter course is a smooth, brilliant green watercress soup with a faint backnote of arbol chile, and the corned beef and cabbage are brightened with tangy parsley-mustard vinaigrette. Introducing the dessert recipe of Chocolate-Stout Cake with Guinness Ice Cream, Goin says, “When chefs use weird ingredients just for the sake of being different, I usually pass. But here the dark beer flavor really works in the ice cream to complement the cake.” We agree: The bold, distinct flavor of the beer is softened by the creamy custard—it’s rich and spicy, and you’ll be proud to share it. And that’s the beautiful aim of this book, to arm home cooks with lovingly developed recipes and deeply soulful food that’s meant to be shared.
GIVE THIS TO: Cooks who love to entertain. —Adam Hickman
At first, we admit we were skeptical of Corriher’s legendary “Touch-of-Grace” Southern Biscuits. She uses self-rising flour, which feels like a cheat. She describes the dough as “a wet mess—not soup, but cottage-cheese texture.” But these are the secrets to the lightest, fluffiest biscuits you may ever taste. In fact, a few of us on staff witnessed Corriher at a food conference a few years ago, scooping up that wet, sticky, shapeless dough and baking biscuits for hundreds of folks in the middle of an expo. And though prepared under less than ideal circumstances in a makeshift kitchen, they were shockingly, consistently perfect.
Baking is all science, and in Corriher’s hands, we can all become junior scientists and darn fine bakers. The book is organized by category of baked goods: breads, cakes, pies, and the like, with tons of valuable explanations about the best ingredients for and ways to approach making each. Lest you feel intimidated by heavy sciencespeak, don’t worry. This is baking advice for the everyday cook, not just science geeks or professional bakers. Corriher precedes every recipe with a “What This Recipe Shows” box so the budding baker understands why and how the recipes work (in the case of those biscuits, “A very wet dough makes more steam in a hot oven and creates lighter biscuits”). It’s all trustworthy advice with a takeaway more than just recipes—this book truly teaches the fundamentals of baking science so that your piecrusts will be flakier, your muffins more moist, your biscuits absolutely ethereal.
GIVE THIS TO: Any cook interested in baking, from novice to pro. —Julianna Grimes