Notable cookbooks 2017: A Nod to Tradition with Extras
When it comes to satisfying our palates, we're voyeuristic, but also loyal to familiar foods. What we want from cookbooks can venture from recipes that show us how to improve on old standards, to ones that are lavish surprises but easy to master. These books were also chosen with gift-giving in mind. It’s why you’ll see an Indian street food cookbook along with one featuring gourmet recipes to make in your crockpot. There's a scholarly book on peppers of the Americas along with one by a heavily tattooed intrepid New England chef. There's a cookbook that focuses on four essential cooking elements: salt, fat, acid and heat, and there's the eagerly awaited "Sioux Chef," on Native American cuisine. If you're a willing participant, each of these cookbooks holds the promise of one great meal after another, with desert to follow!
1. "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen," by Sean Sherman, University of Minnesota Press, ($34.95)
Sean Sherman's "Sioux Chef” raises Native American cuisine to the stature it has long deserved. It is odd that it took this long, given so many trends at the center of “natural” cuisines. We've heralded a Nordic chef (Rene Redzepi) as the best in the world for his foraging, eating in season, and locavorism, Yet we never consulted with our own indigenous people, the authorities in our country. Although many recipes have their root in middle America's northern plains, there are plenty for New Englanders. True, many of us recognize succotash, cornbread and popcorn as native cuisine but there is a lot more. Sherman, a Sioux chef, offers simplicity of ingredients, eating in season, and with family, community sharing, non-exploitation of resources, and use of natural sweeteners such as maple syrup. What you'll get goes beyond the recipes; it will make you more aware of how you fill your shopping cart. It's adaptable to regional ingredients. There are good recipes on smaller fresh water fish. For those who eat venison or prefer lean cuts of other meats, look to the cedar-braised bison recipe. The familiar idea is to simmer a lean cut over a low flame but the here the instructions are to braise under a broiler after the cooking, rather than charring beforehand.
2. "Homegrown: Cooking from My New England Roots," by Matt Jennings, Artisan ($35.00)
Just as a Renaissance is happening in regional cooking throughout other areas of the country, Jennings is helping make it happen for New England. He stays true to traditional New England culinary stalwarts like clam chowder and roasted venison but pushes the boundaries with grilled corn flatbread, farro verde and moo shu pancakes. Whether it's game-changing with creative openness to ingredients that blow in from other lands (and the chef's own travels), it makes for an intriguing array of recipes. The passionate New Englander is chef-owner of Townsman in Boston. The recipes are enough to lure any New Englanders back to their roots, at least in the kitchen. If there's any question, then consider recipes like minted pea and arugula soup, maple lime grilled chicken legs with chickpea and pinto bean salad and a sweet potato gnochi. There isn't just a tip of the hat to vegetables. Recipes like duck fat potatoes, grilled zucchini with mint, roasted squash salad with gouda and apple butter, and red cabbage wedge salad don't play second fiddle to meat dishes. The recipes are familiar but innovative. Chocolate beet cake with a glaze of chocolate and orange zest really does take the cake.
3. "Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking," by Samin Nosrat, Simon & Shuster ($35.00)
The unusual arrangement of entertaining lessons (the first half of the book) on often-ignored cooking basics along with solid recipes (the second half) makes this an ideal book for the home cook who desires more. There are indeed complete chapters on salt, fat, acid, heat and smoke. And there are plenty of brilliantly illustrated prep details scattered among the recipes themselves. Readers are rewarded with equal parts "oh that's why my beans come out so good" and "that's why my chicken falls flat." The tone has a bit of that know-it-all, smartest kid in the class feeling, but it's warmly and enthusiastically presented. The recipes we tried -- mostly on the easy-prep side, like brined turkey breast and some terrific salads -- were all keepers. The hash tag "#YouCanToo" would be appropriate. The book's sincere ambition yields great things by just having users understand when to salt a piece of meat.
4. "The Chef and the Slow Cooker," by Hugh Acheson, Clarkson Potter ($29.99)
It's just possible that it's taken this long for a star chef to discover the appliance busy, stressed out parents have long championed. While heralded as a time-saver, the crockpot has been generally thought to be too pedestrian for the higher echelon food world. But Chef Acheson proves otherwise. "We need to be cooking from scratch again," he says. Amen for that. And he wins points for the original simpler crockpot with just two settings, low simmer and high simmer. We may have put our crockpots away because we got tired of the predictable recipes that were sometimes too uniform in taste. But we still long for the ease. These recipes require a longer prep time but they make a world of difference in taste and still allow for unencumbered hours of not having to run to the stove to check that a roast is being unevenly cooked. Stocks and broths (most are easy to make in the crockpot itself) are either the foundation of these recipes or what gives them nuance and heightened flavor.
5. Adventures in Slow Cooking: 120 Slow-Cooker Recipes for People Who Love Food," by Sarah DiGregorio, William Morrow ($24.99)
Like Acheson's slow cooker recipes, few of food writer DiGregorio's are made exclusively with the crockpot but with a hybrid of different techniques. The za'atar roast chicken with tahini panzanella, for instance, requires a short finish under the broiler. It's all to avoid "crock pot texture"--that overly uniform taste that early crockpot recipes were prone to. It's also what allows for the elevation of crockpot recipes. The recipes swing from the expected to the wildly new. They move quickly along from chawan mushi (a delicate Japanese egg custard) with scallops, to dips and hot spiced drinks, to granola (an unexpected recipe for a crockpot) and then to a bagel strata. For dinner there's a ricotta-spinach polenta topped with seasoned tomatoes. Still, as the title suggests, this is for "people who love food" who are not always the time-crazed and overworked. Along with main courses, recipes like rosemary honey applesauce and pumpkin-spiced butter are especially welcome on the New England table. A fuller examination of crockpots as appliances can be found by this author on the Food & Wine website for February, 2017.
6. "Market Cooking: Recipes and Revelations, Ingredient by Ingredient," by David Tanis, Artisan ($35.00)
Let's face it. We pick up an interesting cookbook and immediately look for the easiest recipes to make. We want the greatest outcome for the least time shopping and cooking. Chef and writer David Tanis gets it. There's simple magic right at the start of many of the chapters on individual market ingredients. The chapter (on garlic) starts with garlic bread toast and a rather logical recommendation to pair it with strong coffee for breakfast as is done in Spain. The recipes in this first chapter build to a more complex crescendo with Provencal garlic soup, to mussels with green garlic and fregola. Each ingredient chapter starts off similarly. Naturally the one on corn starts with seasoning combos like red chile and lime for corn on the cob. You can stick to the early recipes of each chapter, or you'll decide a longer shopping list is worth it, especially for the Turkish spoon salad that includes sumac, mint, walnuts, pistachios and pomegranate molasses. There's a kabocha squash recipe with miso, sake and red chile peppers that's easy to make once the ingredients are on hand.
7. "Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capsicums That Forever Changed Flavor," by Maricel E. Presilla, Ten Speed ($35.00)
The conquistadors brought back treasures ultimately more valuable than gold from the New World -- new foods such as the potato, tomato, and their close nightshade relatives, the capsicums --peppers. It is ironic that Spanish and Portuguese explorers reached the New World in an unsuccessful effort to find a shortcut to the spice fields of Asia, but ended up spreading peppers around the globe. We could guess that the crafty plants used their hot capsaicin to discourage animals. But who knew that birds are immune to the stuff -- and spread pepper seeds throughout Latin America from their origin in Bolivia? The book includes more than 40 recipes, all from Spanish or Latin American cuisines. Presilla, a three-time James Beard Award winner, owns two restaurants in Hoboken, NJ where she has grown hundreds of pepper varieties in her backyard. Her last book was on the history of chocolate, another New World creation.
8. "Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World," by Joan Nathan, Knopf ($35.00)
In the intro, Joan Nathan imagines the exquisite culinary riches of Solomon's empire. From pomegranates and olives, to dates, spice-pickled fish and fruits, what Jews have borrowed and lent to worldwide culinary stage is prodigious, both ancient and ongoing. It's not culinary history repeating itself, as much as it is recognition of the scope of Jews' wanderings. Nathan snags recipes that might be centuries old and ones that are as recent as restaurant reviewer Jonathan Gold's chiliquiles (a Mexican breakfast dish of crisp tortillas, salsa, cheese and eggs). But mostly, Nathan highlights what makes Jewish cooking unique. Earlier it was Jews carrying their culinary traditions to new lands, while also adapting the recipes of their adopted lands to kashrut (the laws of kosher cooking). Now it's of a people with a homeland who still wander--sometimes for culinary pleasure as a sole motivation or profession, "picking up flavors" along the way.
9. "Chai, Chaat & Chutney: A Street Food Journey Through India," by Chetna Makan, Mitchell Beazley ($29.99)
If nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves are as far as you're willing to venture into cooking with spices, traditional Indian recipes might seem daunting. But not so here. If there's one thing about street food it's that all streets lead to a common humanity when it comes to cuisine. The palate of the Rhodes Scholar and the common laborer are equal and the food affordable. As with all street food, there's a greater rush to be fed, and with it comes less fear you might offend someone's god or grandmother. What's especially helpful is knowing how well many of the dishes in the book fit in with potluck-style meals, or alongside familiar dishes on a New England table. Cauliflower pakor, eggplant or fish curry, corn chaat or Bombay chicken will impress and easy to make. If you have any doubt start your day with the lovely milky masala chai made with ginger, breakfast tea, hot milk and cardamom. It pairs perfectly with a bowl of granola. For a far-away feeling on a cold winter morning, not so bad.
10. "Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire" by Barbara Lynch, Atria Books ($26.00)
Our choice for this year's culinary read is Boston chef Barbara Lynch's rousing new memoir with recipes. The gloves never come off. But the woman throwing the punches at least through her early Southie years matures by following her talent and drive. From busing to Whitey Bulger, her neighborhood was impacted like none other in the North East. The book traces how her values, which were always deep-set, aligned with remarkable mentors to become one of the country’s most celebrated chefs and restaurateurs. From South Boston to a restaurant across from the state house isn't far distance-wise in Boston, but it only happens when you have a wellspring of toughness and remarkable talent behind you. Recipes like Irish Soda bread with caraway and currants, and lamb with juniper and red wine reduction, seem like a sharing of so many deep secrets.
Rachel Ellner has written about food, the New England fisheries and cultural affairs for the Boston Globe, Bangor Daily News, Connecticut Post, Lowell Sun, New Hampshire Magazine and elsewhere. She previously wrote an “In the Market” column for the Nashua Telegraph where she covered trends in New England cooking.
Editor’s Note: All of the cookbooks that appear in this round-up are ones that feature ingredients common or complementary to the New England table. There is an emphasis on recipes, techniques and affordable ingredients for busy people. As befits the healthiest region of the country, an ample number of recipes are moderate in fats and refined sugar. In almost every cookbook, three to five recipes were tested.