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The Most Delectable Surprises Inside 2011 Notable Cookbooks

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Selecting ten notable cookbooks for 2011 is like running a culinary pageant in a recipe tester’s kitchen. Each recipe is judged by the ingenuity of its ingredient combinations and how the finished dish speaks to the palate.

These final 10 offered the most delectable surprises – recipes that yielded sensuous and memorable tastes with reasonable effort. They are the works of cooks and chefs of inexhaustible spirit, who provide not only clear and insightful instruction to the home cook, but also a sense of solidarity.

There are no obvious trends among the notable ten, although at first it might seem so: Maria Speck, author of “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals” tells of her “milling obsession.” In Laura B. Russell’s “The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen” there are recipes that call for the combining of different flours to compliment more dominant ingredients. But then there’s Domenica Marchetti's “Glorious Pasta of Italy,” a cookbook as wheat- dairy- and tomato-centric as it gets.

Two are notable for their enthusiastic pairings of fresh garden produce, herbs and spices, yet one is vegetarian the other not. Yotam Ottolenghi, author of “Plenty” is like a kid in the spice store with a Mediterranean imagination run wild. His recipes are mosaics of tantalizing flavors where meat is not missed. But few of the recipes from any of the ten are so tightly woven that they don’t leave room for inserting one’s own judgment. Nigel Slater’s “Tender” is most generous this way. His pairings often have a loose, ad hoc feel, although carried off with deceptive skill and precision. His experimental and soulful nature, as well as gardening tips, adds to his book’s appeal.

The cookbook with seemingly the most narrow focus, Amy Traverso’s “The Apple Lover's Cookbook,” is anything but. With 59 apple varieties discussed and a plethora of indulgent recipes, it’s as much a love affair as a cookbook.

“Truly Mexican” gives the most bang for your salsa, moles and guacamole urges. There are many good books in this category, but Roberto Santibañez is such a charitable and careful instructor of technique it feels like he’s merely a heartbeat away.

If you’re ever disappointed when you can’t recreate the dishes you eat in other countries, try “Rustica: A Return to Spanish Home Cooking” by Frank Camorra. In fact I can’t recall having a better huevos rotos (fried eggs and potatoes with chorizo) in all my travels in Spain.

Sometimes the culinary summersaults of young cookbook authors can be daunting. For this reason Jacque Pepin has a special place among the notables. The recipes in “Essential Pepin: More Than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food” are even-keel, familiar yet elegant.

One cookbook was chosen predominantly for its theme: Marissa Guggiana’s “Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America's Top Restaurants.” It details a time-honored practice of chefs preparing dishes for the restaurant staff, often devoured before customers arrive. The next time a waiter tells you “I hear the osso bucco is good,” you’ll know the restaurant has dropped the tradition, to your detriment.

Fennel Soup

Three books of 2011 that focus on food history and the culinary experience also deserve mention: Annia Ciezadlo’s “Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War,” is an account of ritual in the midst of Middle East upheaval. "The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food," by Adam Gopnik, contains chapters of chatty erudite food history and personal anecdote, and observations on how we levy our animal appetites. T. Susan Chang introduces mostly practical recipes – lots of great soups – along with her family and friends in “A Spoonful of Promises: Stories & Recipes from a Well-Tempered Table.”

Ten Notable Cookbooks of 2011:
1. Rustica: A Return to Spanish Home Cooking, by Frank Camorra, Chronicle Books, $35.00
2. Tender, by Nigel Slater, Ten Speed Press, $40.00
3. Truly Mexican, by Roberto Santibanez, Wiley, $35.00
4. Ancient Grains for Modern Meals: Mediterranean Whole Grain Recipes for Barley, Farro, Kamut, Polenta, Wheat Berries & More, by Maria Speck, Ten Speed Press, $29.99
5. Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London's Ottolenghi, by Yotam Ottolenghi, Chronicle Books, $35.00
6. The Apple Lover's Cookbook, by Amy Traverso, W. W. Norton & Company, $29.95
7. The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen: Recipes for Noodles, Dumplings, Sauces, and More, by Laura B. Russell, Celestial Arts, $22.99
8. Glorious Pasta of Italy, by Domenica Marchetti, Chronicle Books, $30.00
9. Essential Pepin: More Than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food, by Jacques Pepin, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40.00
10. Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America's Top Restaurants, by Marissa Guggiana, Welcome Books, $40.00

Three Notable Books of Culinary Experience 2011:
1. Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War, Annia Ciezadlo, Free Press, $26.00
2. The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, by Adam Gopnik, Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95
3. A Spoonful of Promises: Stories & Recipes from a Well-Tempered Table, by T. Susan Chang, Lyons Press, $24.95