Down East 2013 ©
Photo copyright Russell French 2009
It’s that time of year again. Shopping, wrapping, making lists, and then making more lists. When it comes to gift-giving my philosophy is simple: stay close to home and choose something that will teach someone something new.
When I’m not home in my kitchen making buttercrunch or cookies, or canning up the last of my garden produce to give as gifts, I’m looking through the year’s best cookbooks. Whether your friends and family are bakers, want-to-be bakers, soup lovers, Asian food fans, or those who yearn to master the art of French cooking, there is a new cookbook out there.
2010 may go down as “The Year of the Giant Cookbook.” There are so many books that could be used as weights, or as a substitute for a gym membership. I’m talking about books with over 400 pages, books that weigh over four pounds, and books that are almost as large and tall as a newborn child. It’s a crazy trend given that these are not books that are actually easy to bring into the kitchen, open on a small counter, and cook out of.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite new books, including several from Maine, from 2010:
Fresh From Maine, Recipes and Stories from the State’s Best Chefs by Michael Sanders with photography by Russell French (Table Arts Media) reads like a love letter to Maine chefs. The duo traveled the state in search of food that truly expresses the best of the state. As Sanders writes, ”…we have held onto more of our traditions, or, at least, have lost fewer, destroyed less landscape, and wiped out fewer ways of life in the rush to progress than most of our neighbors. Our traditional foods — heirloom vegetables, dried beans, apple varieties, and seafood dishes…have not been lost to the ages but here are experiencing a popularity that only grows each year.”
Working from southern Maine (Kittery to Portland) up to mid-Maine (Yarmouth to Camden) to the north and the Mount Desert Island region, Sanders and French spent time in the kitchens of chefs that focus on cooking with, and featuring, local ingredients. It’s kind of a who’s who of Maine chefs – there’s Fore Street and Hugo’s and Five Fifty Five in Portland, but as you travel north, and even south, you may learn about restaurants and chefs you aren’t as familiar with. And the recipes — from Cod with Sautéed Kale, Bacon, and Triple Citrus Beurre Blanc and Pan-Roasted Striped Bass with Endive and Orange to Pan-Fried Mushrooms on Brioche Toast and Francine Bistro’s Mussels — will make you very hungry. The photography is stunning. This is a great gift for those who live here, spend summers here, as well as for those who wish Maine were home.
Also from Maine: From the Land, Maine Farms at Work by John Piotti, executive director of Maine Farmland Trust, with photographs by Bridget Besaw. This, too, is a gorgeous book telling the stories of some of Maine ‘s best farms. We watch the farming cycles — from preparing the land, planting seeds with dirt-strewn hands, to weeding, harvesting, and finally selling the gorgeous, freshly-picked fruits and vegetables at local farmer’s markets. The joy and love these farmers exude makes for a beautiful, inspiring book.
Down East has reissued two classics: Cooking Down East  by Marjorie Standish (originally published in 1969) with a new foreword and recipes from Chef Melissa Kelly of Primo’s and Good Maine Food  — Ancient and Modern New England Food and Drink by Marjorie Mosser, originally published in 1939 with over 1,200 recipes. Both books are filled with Maine classics ranging from baked beans and red flannel hash to maple syrup pie to butterscotch cookies.
Going farther from home, Dorie Greenspan is best known as the author of award-winning dessert and pastry books, but this year she published Around My French Table (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). It took me a while to understand why it is that this book holds so much appeal. There are more than enough books to turn to if you want inspiration for French cuisine, but there’s something about this collection, with over 300 recipes for food inspired in Greenspan’s French kitchen, that sweeps you off your feet. Reading this book makes you feel that if you just follow her recipes your food might just look and taste like it came from a French kitchen. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Greenspan divides her time between Paris and New York (where do you sign up for that life?) — she seems to understand what makes a French recipe accessible to an average American cook.
You’ll find classics here — cheese soufflé, roast chicken, beef cheek daube — but also dishes that feel new and appealing like pork roast with mangoes and lychees, cod and spinach roulades, and spinach and mint gnocchi. In the dessert category there’s Honey-Spiced Madeleines, Crème Brulee made with raspberry jam, and double chocolate mousse cake. I think you could easily find a menu for this year’s holiday feast and many more to come within these pages.
Grace Young has authored Stir-Frying To the Sky’s Edge, The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Authentic Recipes and Stories. Young is a wonderful writer and did much research, traveling throughout Asia and the world to learn about stir-frying techniques, history, and recipes. As she writes in the introduction: “I consider stir-frying a form of culinary magic in which ingredients are transformed. The alchemy of stir-frying brings a blush of color to raw shrimp and a radiance to vegetables. Meats grow plump and fragrant from browning. The stir-fry dish brings food to life.”
If you think stir-frying is too complex, you’re in for a treat, because, as Young explains, this technique is so much simpler than you think, but also requires nuance and skill. You’ll learn how to shop for a wok, season it, and then cook in it. I tried her recipe for Cashew Chicken and it tasted so fresh and authentic and delicious that I was thoroughly impressed with myself. The book is filled with great tips. If you’ve ever wondered the “right” way to peel fresh ginger you’ll appreciate Young’s step-by-step guide.
Molly O’Neill’s One Big Table (Simon and Schuster), which bills itself as “A Portrait of American Cooking,” is a gigantic collection of 600 recipes from home cooks, farmers, pit-masters, and chefs. O’Neill, a former New York Times reporter, spent years traveling around the U.S. talking to people, cooking with them, and gathering recipes. O’Neill set out to learn if “home cooking in the U.S. is dead?” She writes, “…As soon as I decamped from one place…I knew that the reports of the demise of home cooking were greatly overstated. I found a preponderance of grocery stores, markets and farm stands with stocks of uncooked food — irrefutable evidence that most homes still contain working kitchens — and observed many people preparing dinner.”
This is a feel-good story about food in America — from beanhole suppers and clambakes in Maine to tamale making in New Mexico and fish boils in Wisconsin — with lots and lots of plain-old delicious home cooking. There are dozens of dishes I am anxious to try from this fat tome, and surely enough diversity of recipes to reflect the melting pot that is America.
There was a wealth of excellent baking books published this year. One of my favorites was Flour, Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery and Café by Joanne Chang (Chronicle). Chang has a degree in applied math and economics from Harvard and, much as it may sound like baking and math are two very different worlds, she is well equipped to explain the science and basics of baking. The writing is clear and easy to read, and the recipes are exceptional. I tried the Oatmeal-Raisin Cookies and they were the best I’ve ever tasted. Then I tried a recipe modestly titled “Flour’s Famous Banana Bread” because I had four seriously rotting black bananas sitting on my kitchen counter. I followed her directions and the bread rose with great elegance and achieved a gorgeous walnut brown. The texture was perfect and the flavor lush and complex. Who knew banana bread could be so good?
The recipes range from the simple — cookies and scones and homemade Oreos — to more complex cakes, buttercreams, clafoutis, and sorbets. Chang’s List of Top 12 Baking Tips may seem basic but understanding the importance of having all your ingredients at the right temperature, preheating the oven properly, weighing out ingredients can make the difference between good baking and great results.
Other favorite baking books: The Gourmet Cookie Book—The Single Best Recipe from Each Year, 1941-2009 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). A wonderful collection of cookie recipes — from Honey Refrigerator Cookies that were created as a response to sugar rationing during the second World War to pine nut macaroons to cranberry turtle bars. For those, like me, who mourn the loss of Gourmet magazine, this little gem of a cookie book is a small consolation prize.