Do you really need to give or get another cookbook this holiday season? Well, of course, you do. Never mind that you’ve accumulated roughly 13,892 cookbooks during your lifetime, and you only use three of them: Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and a shriveled up, gravy-stained little gem called the West Bend Cook Book published in 1902 by Hattie E. Crump and handed down from Grandma. It’s got the only recipe for homemade “nudels” you’d even consider using, along with wonderful handwritten marginal scribbles (in pencil) from your mom and grandmother. Reading “Teddy likes his noodles really thick” in my mother’s hand makes me a bit verklempt! You can tell that the West Bend Cook Book recipe for pie crust was a keeper: It’s nearly impossible to read now through the oil, lard and shortening stains crusted onto the pages. That’s the kind of book you want to give someone for the holidays'one that will get read and used over and over through the years, always reminding the cook of the giver.
It’s not so easy to find cookbooks like that, despite the thousands that get published each year. Too many of today’s cookbooks have the shelf life of fresh arugula. That’s because they are so in the now, but not in the Zen sense.
Take a new book that came across my desk. It’s called Sasur: A Culinary Life ($50), and it’s actually two books in one. In Book 1, you’ll be immersed in the life, techniques, philosophy, resume, ponderings and general gestalt of Toronto’s famed 47-year-old wunder-chef Sasur Lee. That takes up the first 128 pages. Book 2 is another 128 pages of recipes so elaborate and technically daunting that even the easiest one'fresh oysters with mignonette'involves scrounging up stuff like Malpeque oysters, Kalamanci lime juice, Pennywort vinaigrette and dried Pennywort leaves, uni (sea urchin), banana leaves, caviar, sea urchin spikes, onion oil, saffron, English cucumber, homemade dashi, fleur de sel and roughly another two-dozen items you probably don’t have in your pantry. So save this cookbook for April Fool’s Day, unless you want to completely demoralize your favorite cook on Christmas. Braised veal cheek with parsnip puree, cocoa nibs, grapes stuffed with dry-cured olives and Parmesan, anyone?
No, better to give a cook something useful'like The Niman Ranch Cookbook ($35), which really isn’t a cookbook at all. I mean yes, Bill Niman and Janet Fletcher’s new book has some fine recipes for beef, pork and lamb, along with practical information about the various cuts of meat (do you know where sweetbreads come from?), brining, aging meat and so on.
But that’s not until the latter third of the book. The real meat of the book is found in enlightening chapters like “Rethinking Meat” and “Beef Our Way” (grass-grown, grain-finished). Niman and his co-author guide the reader through the green pastures of environmental stewardship and a natural approach to ranching that even stalwart vegetarians could get behind. I always thought those Niman Ranch pork chops tasted sublime; now I know why.
The book that’s given me the most food for thought this season is a remarkable work by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio entitled Hungry Planet: What the World Eats ($40). Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser calls it “A beautiful and important book about one of the world’s most important subjects.” But don’t get the idea that this book is a downer. Like The Niman Ranch Cookbook, Hungry Planet opens culinary cupboards we might never otherwise reach into.
The authors sat down to dinner with 30 families in 24 countries to research Hungry Planet. In this fascinating work, you’ll meet an Ecuadorian family that raises and eats guinea pigs, and a guy in Greenland who still hunts seal for food by dogsled. Interspersed among fabulous photographs and thoughtful food essays in Hungry Planet are family recipes: everything from Polish pig’s knuckle to Mongolian steamed dumplings stuffed with mutton. I can’t begin to do justice to this fine book in one paragraph. Thumb through a copy for yourself.
I’m one of those people who think that Mario Batali is overextended: Too many restaurants, too many cooking shows and too many cookbooks. So, how he managed to produce Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home ($34.95) this year is a mystery. Unlike his previous cookbooks, it looks like someone took the time to actually kitchen-test the recipes in Molto Italiano before it was published. The result is sensational. Batali’s newest Italian cookbook book sits on the shelf right next to Marcella Hazan’s, and it’s been getting a workout in my kitchen.
It’s a little more up-to-date than Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and a bit more aimed at American home cooks. But Mario’s flavors are 100 percent Italian'“molto Italiano,” in fact. I can’t imagine a time in my cooking life when I won’t be drawn back to Batali’s simple recipes for dishes like fettuccine with chicken livers; quail with artichokes; stuffed rice balls Roman-style; or his killer spaghetti alla Carbonara.
My hope is that my son will get lots of joy out of this terrific cookbook, as will his kids after that. Put one under the tree for someone you love to cook with.