Thursday, September 29, 2011

Booklist’s Top 10 Food Books: 2011

--titles chosen by Brad Hooper (article first published in Booklist and individual reviews published in earlier Booklist issues by their writers)

It seems as if foodies are everywhere these days. And that is definitely a good thing. Everyone eats, and if we can elevate the quality of ingredients and experience, more power to all of us. However, many people, not simply avowed foodies, will appreciate these 10 outstanding food-related books, which Booklist has reviewed over the past 12 months. —Brad Hooper

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto; Food, Friendship, & the Making of a Masterpiece (Joan Reardon, editor) Many Julia Child followers already know the story of her extensive letter writing to “pen pal” Avis DeVoto, which began when DeVoto replied to a fan letter Child had sent to her husband, Bernard. But this volume marks the first appearance of their complete correspondence. Painstakingly compiled by editor Reardon (thanks to new archival access), the letters tell the incredible story of the rocky development of Child’s chef d’oeuvre, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Child and DeVoto’s relationship-on-paper began as a cooking one; living in Paris, Child enlisted DeVoto’s help in determining what ingredients were available to housewives in the States, her target audience. Their talk of solely “cookery-bookery,” cutely named by Child, quickly turned to friendly discussions of much more: family, social circles, and the politically taut McCarthy era. DeVoto, plugged into the American literary world, played an integral role in publishing Mastering. Helping one another through hardship (failed publishing attempts) and tragedy (Bernard’s death), the women’s frank, tender letters are an absolute delight to read, as much for their mouthwatering discussion of cuisine as for the palpable fondness they portray for one another. In an early note, DeVoto calls Child’s evolving manuscript “as exciting as a novel to read,” and, indeed, so are their conversations. — Annie Bostrom

Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily (Jessica Theroux) Grandmotherly cooking summons up images that virtually define comfort food. Grandmothers across Italy invited Theroux into their kitchens, allowing her to record a smart selection of unique and utterly appealing dishes that will leave readers of all ethnicities yearning for an Italian grandmother in the family lineage. Without traveling to Italy, cooks can turn to recipes for some extraordinary dishes such as Milanese involtini, thinly sliced steak nestling a stuffing of pork, chicken, beef, and cheese slowly braised in the simplest of tomato sauces. To accompany this, nothing could surpass the elegance of a layered creation of mashed potatoes, prosciutto, and cheeses bound together with eggs. Desserts range from cornmeal cookies through a showstopping hazelnut pastry. Instructions are clear, but experienced cooks may realize that some recipes can be simplified by using a food processor. Those obsessed with authenticity will relish Theroux’s detailed instructions for brewing one’s own walnut liqueur, a two-year endeavor. — Mark Knoblauch

Homemade Soda (Andrew Schloss) Making sodas at home may be uncharted territory for even the most serious foodies. Schloss’ exhaustive menu of recipes and tips, however, shows just how approachable it can be. Cataloging more than 200 recipes, from such time-honored staples as root beers, colas, cream sodas, and ginger ales to newer types like sparkling teas, herbal sodas, and the über-trendy kombucha, Schloss leaves no stone unturned. Along with those basic concoctions, Schloss includes such truly imaginative examples as blueberry cinnamon soda and cardamom apricot soda. For each, he proffers detailed instructions for turning syrup into actual soda with either seltzer water, a soda siphon, and/or through brewing with yeast. Throughout the recipes, information is provided on such hidden constituents as caffeine, working with kombucha, and the eternal debate over calling the stuff soda or pop. The back third of the book is devoted to incorporating carbonated beverages into both savory and sweet dishes; recipes include ginger ale braised pork shoulder and cola meatloaf (savory) and chocolate root beer cheesecake (sweet). Plenty of similar books exist, but this gorgeous collection is in a class by itself. A must-have for budding soda jerks and brewing pros alike. — Casey Bayer

Ideas in Food: Recipes and Why They Work (Aki Kamozawa & H. Alexander Talbot) Say “molecular gastronomy,” and chances are that people will think of either Bravo’s Top Chef or Spanish restaurateur Ferran Adria, chef of El Bulli. Now, six years after Harold McGee’s ground-breaking scientific investigation, On Food and Cooking, comes a more consumer-friendly and recipe-packed (75) series of essays by husband-and-wife Talbot and Kamozawa. Several features interact to seduce reader-cooks. First is the authors’ exuberance and passion for the subject. No longer, for instance, will hydrocolloids be items of fear and loathing; they’ll be an acceptable ingredient that forms a gel when water is added. Second is the brevity of their 50 essays, whose length rarely exceeds five pages. Third is that the scientific explanation, even though communicated in the vernacular, is immeasurably bolstered by the inclusion of at least one relevant recipe. A bonus for foodies and professionals alike. — Barbara Jacobs

The Joy of Cheesemaking: The Ultimate Guide to Understanding, Making, and Eating Fine Cheese (Jody Farnham & Marc Druart) Brush up on Chemistry 101 and be prepared to master all kinds of new techniques, beginning with mesophilic and thermophilic starter cultures and including the creation of a cheese-aging environment in your own home. In between the scientific lingo and the critical procedures of learning about the art of cheesemaking come some great color photographs, a few dozen recipes (e.g., Texas cheese soufflé, fromage flatbread), and introductions to “rock star” cheesemakers around the country that include personal histories, a cheese-featured dish or two, and contact information. And lest we lose sight of the end results, enjoying le fromage has its day in two chapters covering the how-tos of building a cheese board and pairings with wine or beer. The authors — one American, the other French — are affiliated with the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese, one of a handful of similar accredited educational institutions in the U.S. — Barbara Jacobs

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (Nathan Myhrvoid) The brave new universe of molecular gastronomy is just one facet of today’s cooking revolution that has the food world reeling. Innovative kitchen equipment transforms raw ingredients not just through heat but also through extreme cold to open up fresh and barely explored culinary possibilities. This magisterial multivolume compendium rationalizes food science and technology for the new century. Compiling and systematizing data about virtually every known ingredient and technique that cooks have exploited since the dawn of time, it documents novel approaches that even now illumine new vistas for daring professional chefs and seriously venturesome home cooks. This set’s reference value within any serious cookery collection cannot be overstated. Culinary apprentices will find answers to just about every imaginable question in cooking science and practice. Supplementary online text and video resources will prove crucially helpful to librarians and researchers. Stunning, dramatic color photographs transform every page into a visual banquet. Libraries should be aware that the set’s sixth volume has spiral binding. — Mark Knoblauch

One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking (Molly O’Neill) This is One Big Book, filled to the brim with anecdotes, references, information, memorabilia, and 800 recipes that are truly representative of all U.S. cultures and ethnicities. O’Neill, former New York Times Magazine food columnist, respected author (New York Cookbook, 1992), and TV host, has outdone herself. It’s difficult not to stop and savor every page, from the gee-whiz type of historical illustration and mouthwatering food photography to the stories of new and well-honed cooks. In fact, the documented recipes often seem like footnotes, even if they’re preserved lemons, borscht, cioppino, or feijoada (Brazilian black-bean stew), simply because of the powerful stories. Take a minute to meet painter-waterman Bobby Bridges, living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, who imparts the secrets of his clam clouds (aka clam fritters), or Chicago’s Mark Reitman, a self-made expert on hot dogs as well as the founder of the Hot Dog University. Read more about Michigan celery, a subtle variety called Golden Hue. Flip to the pages celebrating the soul and food (barbecued chicken) or Gee’s Bend, Alabama, natives, a community made famous by its quilts displayed at New York’s Whitney Museum of Art. Perhaps no better and more humble quote summarizes O’Neill’s attempt to capture the spirit of our eating past and present than these comments from Alabamian Mary Lee Bendolph: “Old clothes have a spirit in them. I see that scrap of apron in a quilt and I remember the woman who wore that apron thin. Cooking is like that, too. I make my cornbread to remember all the cornbread that was made for me.” — Barbara Jacobs

Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (Joan Nathan) If the very act of cooking connotes love, then the combination of recipes with stories is an open acknowledgment of the emotional bonds that food creates. As is her wont, TV host and award-winning cookbook author Nathan (Jewish Cooking in America, 1994, plus eight others) not only plunges into her collection of 200 recipes but also narrates, factually and with no small sentiment, the history of Jews in France. First, it’s a highly personal mission, prompted by her stay as a teenager in France in the 1950s. It’s also a motley narrative, filled with stories of persecution as well as joy, documented with personal accounts of the Holocaust and memories of kosher cooking (i.e., adhering to Jewish dietary laws). Food items represent the influence of Alsatian, Provençal, Moroccan-Tunisian, Algerian, and Eastern European cuisines — a well-functioning melting pot that yields brik (a North African turnover), borscht (the French equivalent of this Russian beet soup), Alsatian pear kugel (noodle casserole) with prunes, and cholent, a Sabbath beef stew. Just as compelling are the people who populate these pages: Ariel, a Jewish policeman in Auch, France, who craves a kosher version of lasagna; the Baroness de Rothschild; Daniel Rose, a young American chef in Paris whose 16-seat Spring restaurant is garnering raves. Historical and recipe photographs plus illustrations round out this very memorable collection. Appended are a sampling of French Jewish menus, a glossary of terms and ingredients, and a source guide. — Barbara Jacobs

The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria’s elBulli (Lisa Abend) Until very recently, Spain’s elBulli has been pretty much the consensus best restaurant in the world. Led by Ferran Adrià, the restaurant has been honing the cutting edge of avant-garde cuisine, exploring and often subverting the expectations of what food can be. For the six months a year that it’s open, elBulli works as a sort of cross between a da Vinci workshop and a Ford factory. Thirty-five stagiaires from around the world come to work for free (except for the chance that a bit of Adrià’s greatness rubs off on them), but the blunt reality soon hits them that working in this haute-cuisine kitchen/laboratory is really a crushing tedium of minutely precise and stiflingly repetitive tasks. Abend spent the 2009 season (one of elBulli’s last, as it will soon cease being a restaurant and become a sort of culinary think-tank) among the stagiaires, and if her strategy of profiling the experiences of the bit players while the Picasso of modern cuisine burns so brightly just offstage at first seems a bit coy, what she’s really doing is finding qualities in each young cook that reflect, amplify, and illuminate who Adrià is and what he’s doing at elBulli — crossing and even demolishing the lines between food and art. Anyone interested in the very vanguard of creativity in any medium, aside from the ever-growing ranks of foodies and celebrity-chef watchers, is certain to be enchanted. — Ian Chipman

The Vertical Farm: Feeding Ourselves and the World in the 21st Century (Dickson Despommier) Despommier, an award-winning professor of microbiology and public and environmental health sciences, adds his voice to those calling for agricultural reform. It’s time to confront agrochemical pollution, he declares, and to convert waste into energy, conserve water, stop cutting down forests for fields, and make cities the equivalent of healthy ecosystems. It’s time, Despommier believes after more than a decade of study and brainstorming, for vertical farming. Farms that “would raise food without soil in specially constructed buildings”: energy- and water-efficient high-rise greenhouses using hydroponic and aeroponic growing techniques. The challenges involved are many, Despommier cheerfully concedes, but the advantages he cites are profound. In making his case, Despommier offers a fresh look at the history of farming, a staggering overview of the health and environmental problems associated with industrial agriculture, and a sobering report on current food and water shortages soon to be exacerbated by rapid climate change and exponential population growth. A visionary known the world over, Despommier believes that the “vertical farm is the keystone enterprise for establishing an urban-based ecosystem” and for “restoring balance between our lives and the rest of nature.” A provocative introduction to a pragmatic approach to growing safe, nutritious, local food. — Donna Seaman