I haven’t written about new cookbooks in a while. It’s such a good Christmas or otherwise gift category for fledgling and experienced home cooks. Maybe it’s because my friends, who still like to turn out meals for family and friends, tell me that more and more often they get their recipes from the net. Well, so do I, but at the same time I still love to hold a book in my hands, gaze closely at the wonderful photography (getting better each year), prop it on the kitchen counter, and sauté away. After all, I’ve been collecting cookery books for years. Lots of years, lots of books. And so many favorites.
Still, I get a thrill when I discover something new and helpful in the culinary category, a tome that transcends what you might think of as a “cookbook,” in the Betty Crocker, Jamie Oliver, Barefoot You-Know-Who, and Martha Stewart sense of the word. So here are some suggestions that may or may not contain recipes but are rewarding to read as well as use as references. I think these make great presents because they have great presence. Here goes:
Still at the Stove at Ninety-plus
Let me start off with a charmer. It’s called Dinner with Edward, written by Isobel Vincent and subtitled, The Story of a Remarkable Friendship (Algonquin Books 2016). Edward is the father of a Toronto friend of Isobel’s. When Isobel moves to Manhattan with her sullen husband and pre-teen daughter, the marriage is unraveling.
The friend suggests that Isobel have dinner with her father, Edward, who is ninety-plus and a recent widower after sixty-nine years of marriage. Imagine! Why dinner? “He’s a great cook,” his daughter confesses. (He had started cooking in his seventies after retirement, because, as he told his wife, “You’ve done this for fifty-two years and it’s my turn.” So Isobel and Edward meet and he starts cooking, usually once a week, for the forty-ish woman. She quickly realizes that “meeting Edward would change my life.” And it does. Each chapter begins with a menu of what Edward cooked on that occasion. They are beautifully thought-out and include an appropriate wine. Isobel confides in Edward and, as she says, this friendship helps her navigate middle age.
Edward confesses that he approached cooking with “a passion and sometimes serious art form to be shared with a select few.” Readers who are cooks of a certain age will fly through this book. I forced myself to read one chapter (one meal) at a time and, while the menus made me very hungry, they also gave me ideas for crafting a satisfying repast. I didn’t want the book to end.
This is certainly not a cookbook, but I learned two techniques I hadn’t tried. Edward’s trick for the “Best Scrambled Eggs” (quantities are up to you) are as follows: he uses farm-fresh eggs and breaks them into a bowl, whisking with a splash of milk or cream, salt and pepper. He melts sweet (unsalted) butter in a hot fry pan, and just when the butter is “on the edge of turning brown” adds only half the egg mixture. After this begins to sizzle and bubble, “gently loosen the eggs with a spoon, reduce heat, and add the rest of the eggs, cooking until the eggs are light, fluffy, and completely coated in butter.” Try it!
Edward’s other tip involves the one martini he serves before dinner: he chills the martini glasses in the freezer and zests a lemon. He adds this zest to the cup of gin that he has also chilled (in a Pyrex measure, I might add). After about ten minutes, he strains the lemony gin and adds dry vermouth. He returns the mixture to the freezer for a few minutes and then pours the cocktails into the chilled glasses “with a flourish.” Ah ha! Could that be the nonagenarian’s secret to a long life?
The Legacy of Two Extraordinary Women
In the cooking pantheon, two women stand out: the late Marcella Hazan, for her state-of-the-art Italian cuisine, and Alice Waters, who blazed the way for today’s emphasis on healthy cooking using the best (and most local) raw materials. I would strongly recommend both books.
I’ve had the enormous pleasure of knowing Marcella and her husband, Victor (the expert on Italian wine, pictured with Marcella above), for more than a quarter century. I even assisted in her classes. She prefaced these classes with talk about how to buy and use the best ingredients. And now we have Ingredienti: Marcella’s Guide to the Market, published by Scribner (2016). is book is no-nonsense (just like Marcella). By that I mean the “ingredients” are illustrated with line drawings. It’s the prose that counts, and you should not miss husband Victor’s essay, “What Am I Doing Here?” and Marcella’s introduction, “How I Fell in Love with Ingredients.” No more vacillating in the vegetable aisles.
When those of us in the cooking world chat among ourselves, we constantly invoke “Julia,” “Marcella,” and “Alice,” three stellar stars in the gastronomic galaxy. Julia brought French (and other) cuisines to life in her books and TV appearances. I could happily binge-watch her French Chef reruns. As you’ve read (above), I’ve talked about Marcella many times and how you really only need her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking to whip up practically everyone’s favorite foreign food.
Then there is Alice Waters, the buoyant Berkley chef who, along with other pioneering culinary ideas, championed the Edible Schoolyard Project, which teaches kids about how to grow and enjoy the fruits and vegetables of their labors.
Now we have Waters’ My Pantry: Homemade Ingredients that Make Simple Meals Your Own, written with Fanny Singer, Alice’s daughter, who also did the appropriate illustrations. This book is a homerun for the home cook. Topics include spice mixtures and condiments; nuts, beans, and other legumes; savory preserves; whole grains; preserved fish and meats; cheese; and sweet preserves. See what I mean? What a great feeling to spend a little time up front creating some of these items, then being secure in the knowledge that you are prepared to cook well just by opening a jar, defrosting a treasure, adding something you made to create a memorable sauce, or spreading a topping on good bread (crostini anyone?), or taking someone a delicious present—with instructions as to use. The book is worth every penny if you sincerely want to cook better, tastier meals.
A Culinary Geography Book
I must include The World on a Plate by Mina Holland in this list of suggested books. Published in 2014 by Penguin, it boasts 40 Cuisines, 100 Recipes, and the Stories Behind Them. In the U.K., where it was first published, it won the “Best Culinary Travel Book at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.” Heck, with this book you can travel from your market to the stove and try something new without leaving home. I can’t wait to cook “Shakshuka,” a newly heralded (in The New York Times) meatless dish from Israel. The recipe looks eminently doable and tasty, perfect for cool weather. I’ll start the meal with a “Pickled Cucumber Salad” from Scandinavia. The “Fufu” recipe from West Africa I’ll save for another time. It’s seasoned and buttered yams. Thanksgiving maybe?
Be a great giver to a grateful recipient (and maybe snare a book for yourself ). One or more could change a cook’s life! Now for that martini. And hold the Fufu.