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Thursday, December 17,2009

Favorite cookbooks for holiday giving

A gift from the kitchen is so often a gift from the heart. We cook for those we love, sometimes saying more through the roast goose or potato latkes than we can ever express out loud. For those people on your holiday gift list who wear their hearts on their aprons, those who love nothing more than getting into the kitchen and mixing batter or tackling a new lamb chop recipe, nothing says thank you like a new glorious cookbook, one that will inspire and challenge and teach. For them — and for you, of course — we have sifted through the annual year-end deluge of new cookbooks to come up with 10 of our favorites.

Gourmet Today

Edited by Ruth Reichl (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40) Unfortunately, Gourmet magazine is no more, but this hefty volume is a fitting au revoir from the magazine as well as a travel companion for those headed into the kitchen for the first (or 500th) time.

That’s because Reichl and her team approached the book with the understanding that, “You aren’t eating the way you used to. None of us are,” she writes in the book.

So among the more than 1,000 recipes — from simple (roasted asparagus with feta) to involved (pork belly buns, opera cake) — are sidebars coaching on “sea vegetables” (aka seaweeds), offering a “beef buyer’s guide” and defining “softened butter.”

Techniques and resources round out the book. So does the recipe for Elvis Presley’s favorite pound cake.

Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking

By Eileen Yin-Fei Lo (Chronicle, $50) Yin-Fei Lo sees herself as an educator above all else. Consider this 384-page book to be an accessible if exacting tutorial on how to cook Chinese food. Her book is divided not into chapters but lessons. She wants you to absorb her traditional teachings in a certain sequence. She starts off with the simpler dishes and more familiar ingredients and grows increasingly more sophisticated. Yin-Fei Lo has no hesitation about dropping a topic or a food — rice, say — only to come back around to it later with more challenging presentations. Large, colorful photographs underscore the teaching. This is one cookbook you are meant to read — and use — from beginning to end.

Rose’s Heavenly Cakes

By Rose Levy Beranbaum (Wiley, $39.95) Author of the venerable The Cake Bible, Beranbaum rises to the occasion with her new take on cake, raising the subject to new heights without eschewing the seminal book that made her reputation. The glorious photos capture a tempting array of 100-plus recipes, from cupcakes to wedding cakes. More important is Beranbaum’s authoritative, passionate and personable text. These recipes, from chocolate layer cake with caramel ganache to no-bake whipped cream cheesecake, will challenge the veteran and guide the less experienced. If you like to bake, this book will keep you busy for a long time.

Baking

By James Peterson (Ten Speed, $40) Peterson has earned a reputation for his comprehensive focus on single topics; this hefty tome delivers a comprehensive tutorial on the subject, covering 350 recipes and techniques. What distinguishes this book from the competition might well be the 1,500 photographs, the majority providing step-by-meticulous-step instruction that will prove invaluable for anyone looking to master a technique, whether it’s for crimping a pie crust or mastering apple strudel.

New American Table

By Marcus Samuelsson (Wiley, $40) Samuelsson is on a roll. Author of previous well-regarded cookbooks (Aquavit: And the New Scandinavian Cuisine and The Soul of a New Cuisine), the chef of Aquavit restaurant in New York now turns to America and its regional and ethnic cuisines. As an immigrant (from Sweden) himself, the author focuses on many immigrant stories he has learned during travels throughout the States. With them, he includes 300 appealing recipes, such as his greens recipe (mixing typical Southern black food with Asian touches of lemon grass and bok choy) and an intriguing quick beef curry with avocado and plantains. Natural looking photos of people, ingredients and finished dishes enhance the eclectic book.

Ad Hoc at Home

By Thomas Keller (Artisan, $50) One of the heftier tomes in a bevy of hefty tomes this year, Keller’s cookbook declares the contents to be “Family-Style Recipes” to let readers know this is not just another chef/coffee-table book. Despite the fact that the author is one of the world’s most famous chefs (owner of The French Laundry, per se, Ad Hoc and other restaurants around the country), it appears he can come down to earth and offer his fans doable, tasty weeknight fare. We’re talking great fried chicken and biscuits, for gosh sakes. Plus chicken soup with dumplings and meatballs with pappardelle. “Lightbulb” tips dot the book as Keller teaches us how to tie a roast, trim green beans with scissors and other handy lessons. It’s fun and approachable.

French Feasts

By Stephane Reynaud (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $40) “I remember the Sundays of my childhood (just one a week was never enough),” writes Reynaud in the opening essay of this charming if massive homage — 480 pages, 500 color photographs and illustrations, 299 recipes — to traditional French family cooking. Francophiles will drool at the sexy food shots, chortle over the witty cartoons and study up on Burgundian wines. Heck, they can even learn how to sing “Moulin Rouge.” But whether anyone will cook out of this book is another matter. Recipes are simple, yes, but some are too simple in that terse shorthand way professional chefs use to render instructions. You’ll need cooking experience. You’ll also need muscle. At 5.6 pounds, this book sorely needs its padded cover to cushion the blow.

The Complete Tassajara Cookbook

By Edward Espe Brown (Shambhala Publications Inc., $35) Subtitled “Recipes, Techniques and Reflections From the Famed Zen Kitchen,” this volume offers 300-plus vegetarian recipes (some use eggs and dairy) and a nurturing text. “I want you to know that cooking is not just about working on food, but working on yourself,” writes Zen priest/chef Brown, who cooked and baked at the Bay Area’s Tassajara Zen Mountain Center for several years. Recipes have been tweaked. His early free-wheeling, noquantities style remains in some recipes; others offer measurements and incorporate now-common ingredients (balsamic vinegar, goat cheese). More than recipes for kim chee, tofu burritos, a quick vegan spice cake and potato gratin with celery root and fennel, the book boasts tips (handling knives, dissolving cornstarch) and Brown’s essays and urgings:

“Let your innate capacity flourish.”

How to Roast a Lamb

By Michael Psilakis (Little, Brown, $35) The inspiring story of Psilakis, the self-trained chef of acclaimed New York restaurants Anthos and Kefi, among others, informs this celebration of “New Greek Classic Cooking,” as the subhead reads. The tales of his immigrant parents and the lessons they instilled set up the chapters. Instead of appetizer, entrée, dessert, you’ve got his father’s vegetable garden (salads), a hunting trip (game) and an emotional lesson about where food comes from (lamb and goat). He also applies modern sensibilities to Greek ingredients.

Good Eats: The Early Years

By Alton Brown (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $37.50) From a let´s-put-on-a-show naive beginning, “Good Eats,” the kitchenscience-laced Food Network standout, has emerged as the best-written cooking show on television, consistently funny and entertaining, often teaching us something surprising. This weighty tome captures that essence, with mad scientist star Alton Brown dispensing heaping helpings of the sometimes droll, sometimes goofy wit that seasons the show. Nearly 400 pages — it’s just book one of a three-volume set conceived to celebrate the show’s 10th anniversary — the book dedicates a chapter to each of the first 80 episodes. You’ll find each show’s salient points, the “Knowledge Concentrate,” and the recipes, or “Applications” of that knowledge, most reworked. Tons of photos, explanatory line drawings, trivia and anecdotes make “Good Eats” almost as vividly visual as the show itself. To paraphrase Brown’s gambit that opens each program, it’s good fun — and a must for fans.

Chicago Tribune Newspapers reporters Bill Daley, Renee Enna, Joe Gray, Carol Haddix and Judy Hevrdejs. Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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