No reliable scientific study has yet demonstrated that people who get cookbooks for Christmas actually cook anything with them. But think of all the other things cookbooks do for us. They brighten up a kitchen. They also keep us slender, since most recipes are best enjoyed by gazing at the color pictures, the same way sex can be enjoyed by flipping through the pages of Playboy. For your foodie friends, cookbooks make better gifts than, say, an egg slicer, a cherry pitter, or a gizmo that cooks hot dogs and warms the buns at the same time.
It pleases me to announce that I’ve been selected to help Santa pick his cookbook gifts this year. Frank Bruni was busy trimming the White House tree (as thanks for his adulatory Bush campaign memoir, Ambling Into History), so I got the nod. Here are the best cookbooks I found, and the worst too.
Simon Rimmer, The Accidental Vegetarian (Cassell Illustrated, 2004, paper, $17.95). With luscious color illustrations, this recipe collection—from an obscure Manchester, England, chef—circumnavigates the globe, furnishing an Italian panzanella shotgunned with capers, a Thai green-bean curry, and a Moroccan pasta with chickpeas, cilantro, and tomatoes. Give it to the most devout carnivore you know.
Scott Conant’s New Italian Cooking (Broadway Books, 2005, $35). The chef who made his mark at L’Impero in Tudor City spins off a book as elegant and well organized as the restaurant. It includes such signatures as roast baby goat, spaghetti puttanesca, and scallop carpaccio with scallions, interspersed with charming personal anecdotes about growing up Italian American.
Marlena Spieler, Grilled Cheese: 50 Recipes to Make You Melt (Chronicle Books, 2004, paper, $16.95). All those oozing pictures of toasted cheese sandwiches made me think of—oh, never mind. I usually hate one-subject
cookbooks, but there’s a unique appeal to toasted cheese: associations with childhood, use of leftover cheeses in your fridge, and easy concealment of grease.
Suzanne Goin, Sunday Suppers at Lucques (Knopf, 2005, $35). West Hollywood’s quintessential restaurant produces the only farmers market cookbook you’ll ever need, with a foreword by Alice Waters. It’s California between two covers. Organized by seasons, the book includes mouthwatering recipes for watercress soup with relish toast, lobster salad with bacon and fava beans, and grilled quail with ricotta pudding.
Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Mangoes & Curry Leaves (Artisan, 2005, $45). This gorgeous coffee-table book combines travelogue, anthropology text, and recipe collection, with color photos of India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh that will knock your eyes out. In addition to everyday fare, it offers festival food. Included are a cuke and tomato salad called cachoombar (bless you!), banana fritters, and beef curry with toasted spices.
Brooke Dojny, The New England Clam Shack Cookbook (Storey Books, 2003, paper, $16.95). Salt spray blows from every page, as Dojny visits the seafood shacks you remember from Maine to Connecticut, collecting their unique recipes—every joint has one. Crammed with photos, vivid stories, and taxonomic information about local seafood, this masterpiece delivers a quick summer vacation in the dead of winter.
Francine Segan, Shakespeare’s Kitchen (Random House, 2003, $35). In the bard’s day gold was used in cooking and a rabbit’s foot was the handiest pastry brush. These and other facts make this the perfect cookbook for your favorite literary gourmand. The modernized “receipts” (recipes) are drawn from cookbooks of Shakespeare’s time and include purses stuffed with beef and candied fruit, leg of lamb with oyster stuffing, and rose-flavored cookies.
Melissa Clark, Chef, Interrupted (Clarkson Potter, 2005, $32.50). The author has collected one or two quintessential recipes each from 50 chefs, including Batali (chicken liver and fennel crostini), Bouley (asparagus-and-potato salad), and Boulud (braised Basque chicken). Why buy dozens of celebrity chef cookbooks, when you need only one?
Susanna Hoffman, The Olive and the Caper (Workman, 2004, paper, $19.95). With plenty of travel photos to put you in the mood, this hefty volume regards Greek cooking from a regional perspective. Sometimes unexpected flavors appear—orange zest in a lamb barley soup, for example, or pork-stuffed cabbage leaves with caraway seeds.
Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004, $45). The now corpulent godfather of New York food writing has ferreted out stories and recipes from Gotham’s beloved dining institutions, places like Schrafft’s and Longchamps and Lundy’s. This is a book for the most avid New Yorkers on your list.
Marguerite Patten, Spam (Hamlyn, 2001, paper, $9.95). The Queen of Spam offers Spam scones, Spam paella, and Spam steaks in port wine sauce. Will it surprise you to learn she’s English?
Betty Crocker’s Low Fat, Low Cholesterol Cooking Today (Macmillan, 2000, $22.95). Trading on the celebrity status of a non-existent person, the people who helped make you fat in the first place offer to fix everything.
Jamie Purviance, Weber’s Art of the Grill Deck (Chronicle, 2002, paper, $14.95). For the truly brain-dead, instructional playing cards you can take with you to the grill.
Andy Ennis, Cooking for Cher (Fireside, 1997, paper, $15). Thrill to the recipe for “Cher’s BBQ Baked Beans”: two cans baked beans, ketchup, brown sugar.
Rachael Ray, Best Eats in Town on $40 a Day (Lake Life Press, 2004, paper, $16.95). From Ray’s worst TV series, in which she cajoles her hapless hosts into all sorts of freebies, sidestepping her fiduciary responsibilities. She learned it from the “$25 and Under” column in the Times.
Jamie Oliver, Jamie’s Dinners: The Essential Family Cookbook
(Hyperion, 2004, $33.95). I got news for you: The “Naked Chef” isn’t really naked. Until he shows his pudding, I won’t be buying anything from him and his football hooligan “mates.”
Ariel De Guzman, The Bush Family Cookbook (Scribner’s, 2005, $30). What kind of pissant would buy this book?
Tony Lip and Steven Priggé, Shut Up and Eat (Berkley, 2005, $24.95). Who cares about the favorite recipes of the Italian American members of the Sopranos cast? The Mafia Cookbook is the superior volume.