Have you ordered your copy of the latest five-ingredient-paleo-gluten-free-Nordic-kale smoothie cookbook yet? Me either.
You know why? Because nobody outside hipster man bun-loving enclaves in Brooklyn and Los Angeles actually eats that way. Just don’t tell the publishing industry, which forever seems to trip over itself to get into ink whatever outrageous culinary fad crosses the editors’ Facebook feeds. Surely there’s a better way…
Until then, we’re left to sift through the thousands of food books spewed forth each year. And we do it with particular fervour during this season of gifting as we search for books to satiate the foodies on our lists. So to save you a bit of trouble, I’ve assembled my list of the most useful, most inspiring and most interesting food books of 2015. In no particular order:
“Kitchen Hacks: How Clever Cooks Get Things Done” by Cook’s Illustrated magazine (America’s Test Kitchen, $19.95)
The folks at Cook’s Illustrated magazine have long collected kitchen tips and hacks from readers — the original culinary crowdsourcing. Now they’ve gathered their top 1,000 tips into one book (perfectly sized for stuffing in stockings). Nicely organized by circumstance (such as cleaning, food storage and how to transport things), the book is an amusing collection of ways to help you get the job done.
Ideas include how to tame the tears when chopping onions (burn a candle), what to do when avocado pits get stuck on your knife (tap it on the counter) and how to pit olives using an upside down funnel (you’ll just have to see that one for yourself). There also are some easy recipe hacks, including my favourite — how to use dry sherry, vanilla and liquid smoke to improve the flavour of cheap bourbon.
“The Broad Fork” by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, $35)
This is Southerner-by-way-of-Canada Hugh Acheson’s gorgeous ode to produce, and it is seriously inspiring. As in, the man makes a bowl of kohlrabi puree look (and taste) decadent, and that’s no easy task. Blissfully, the book isn’t vegetarian, but it does show you how to truly enjoy your veggies. Organized by season, then by vegetable, the book guides the reader through simple — yet sensual — ways to eat more plants. I mean, fried Brussels sprouts with lime vinaigrette? Poached eggs over sunchoke hash? Sauteed parsnips with country ham, parsley and basil? One of each, please. This is a prime contender for best cookbook of year.
“Spuntino: Comfort Food (New York Style)” by Russell Norman (Bloomsbury, $45)
A London restaurateur idealizing New York City food and drink? Sounds like doomed carpetbagging. But Russell Norman captures if not a Big Apple vibe, at least a taste of comfort you will crave. The book, named for Norman’s London eatery, is a gorgeous romp through visceral recipes you will crave. Things like mackerel sliders, eggplant chips with fennel yogurt, and a salad of ribbon steak, chicory and anchovy. Make no mistake: This is Brit gastro pub grub, but it’s tinged with a New York flavour. And the section on Prohibition-era cocktails certainly ups the appeal.
“A Visual Guide to Drink” by Ben Gibson, Patrick Mulligan and Pop Chart Lab (Avery, $30)
This is a book I was prepared to hate. When you first open it, it seems like just page after page of charts and graphs that leave you feeling a bit like you’ve stumbled into a nightmare PowerPoint presentation. Then you start reading and you get sucked in by the minimalist presentation of gobs upon gobs of cools facts, figures and lesser known tidbits about everything booze.
The “Breweries of the United States” chart, for example, is just a two-page map of the country with dots indicating craft breweries. Simple and dull? Yes. And no. It’s easy to get lost wondering things like, what the heck is wrong with North Dakota? And I could spend hours dissecting the family tree diagram of beer styles. No question — this is a weird coffee table book. But for the boozer in your life, it’s going to be hypnotic.
“What Katie Ate on the Weekend” by Katie Quinn Davies (Viking Studio, $40)
Speaking of books I wanted to hate… There is a growing genre of cookbooks that seem to exist mostly to let you know that the authors’ lives are more beautiful, more delicious and way more fun than your own. Australian food photographer and blogger Katie Quinn Davies is right at home here. Except I was drawn to her book anyway. And I became convinced her life really is more beautiful, more delicious and way more fun than my own.
In fact, her book — a follow to her first, “What Katie Ate” (also the name of her blog) — is beautifully photographed (no shock since that’s her day gig) and the recipes are truly appealing. I want her spiced squash and apple soup with bacon, and her crab, lemon and chili spaghetti (even if I have to wade through dozens of pages of lifestyle photos to get to them). Get this book for the person who wants to get lost in — and inspired by — a cookbook.
“Milk Bar Life” by Christina Tosi (Clarkson Potter, $35)
If “What Katie Ate on the Weekend” is all about aspirational eating, Christina Tosi’s book is dedicated to embracing your grubby inner child. Deliciously so. As the pastry chef and owner of Momofuku Milk Bar, she made a name for herself with crazy good creations like compost cookies, crack pie and cereal milk ice cream. Her latest book pulls her more into savory territory, but with the same sense of whimsy.
Many of the recipes are riffs on the banal eats she (and many of us) had growing up. And so she gives us slow cooker cocktail meatballs (complete with a bottle of Heinz Chili Sauce), desperation nachos (which allow for Cheez Whiz) and Spaghettios sammy (which is exactly what you think it is). Tosi has a sense of humour. The recipient of this book should, too.
“Olympia Provisions” by Elias Cairo (Ten Speed Press, $40)
Elias Cairo is a bit of an icon in the food world, particularly on the Portland, Oregon, scene, where his Olympia Provisions has become a revered institution. What started as a salumeria has morphed into a mail order business, two restaurants and now a book. This is a book to inspire carnivorous cravings. Are you likely to tackle its three-page recipe for homemade chorizo? Probably not. But you will LOVE the centerfold spread of 19 creative ways to dress hot dogs. Get this book for the meat geek in your life (because it also has ample recipes for using charcuterie, even if you’re not ambitious enough to make it from scratch).
“The New Sugar and Spice” by Samantha Seneviratne (Ten Speed Press, $27.50)
And I’ll wrap with something to satisfy the holiday sugar rush. Samantha Seneviratne has a fresh approach to what can feel like a tired niche — the baking book. She organizes her beautifully photographed cookbook by spice, so chapters are sorted by cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and so on. It’s a different way to peruse — and be inspired by — a baking book. And tucked inside those chapters are approachable and creative takes on classic treats. So you get brownies laced with cinnamon, a frosted chocolate cake spiked with an impressive tablespoon of nutmeg, and an orange pull-apart bread flavoured with cloves. Great for the home baker eager for fresh ideas.