Best cookbook gifts of 2008

[image-1]The 600-page book (not counting multiple inserts that include Adria's resume, sample menus and wisdom about creativity) contains luscious photos, an almost minute-by-minute illustrated schedule of the day, and 30 recipes representing the 30 dishes served as elBulli's tasting menu. As if the reminder on the cover weren't enough ("2,000,000 requests for 8,000 places every year"), it'd be an enormous feat for the home cook, or any other cook for that matter, to execute any of these dishes. Even if you could find the ingredients for, say, the monkfish liver fondue with ponzu and white sesame-flavored kumquat, Adria uses equipment most of us have never heard of. But that's the truth and beauty of elBulli and the reason for the millions of reservation requests and the fawning, pornarific Phaidon book. Think of it as an art book rather than a cookbook and it becomes a fascinating and inspiring read, and a great gift for the rabid foodies in your life.

[image-2]On the opposite side of the spectrum, Michael Ruhlman has written The Elements of Cooking (Scribner, $24), based on the grammar classic The Elements of Style. Much like its inspiration, Ruhlman's book is a beginners guide, covering such topics as salt, stock, and tools, with an A to Z of everything kitchen- and cooking-related. But also like The Elements of Style, the book can serve as an indispensable reference for even the most seasoned among us. Ruhlman is opinionated, witty and smart, making for a great read and a thoughtful gift for a cook of any level.

[image-3]Another book great for any level of cook, especially those Francophiles on your list (we all have them, don't be embarrassed), is The Complete Robuchon (Knopf, $35). In some ways, the book's objective is the opposite of elBulli's – rather than showcase the extreme difficulty of restaurant cooking at its highest level (Joel Robuchon has more Michelin stars than any other chef, so I'm assuming he's fully capable of such a book), The Complete Robuchon aims to provide the basics of French cooking for the home cook. There are no photos, and instructions are straightforward and simple. Cook your way through this book and you'll have a firm grasp on French cooking's fundamentals from one of the tradition's great masters.

[image-4]If you have a friend who's been harping all year about wanting to get back to the land and raise livestock – maybe only I have friends like that, but I like to think not – you should consider The River Cottage Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, $35). Originally released in the U.K. in 2001, this new, slightly Americanized version is full of invaluable lessons on how to keep, kill and butcher livestock, as well as recipes to guide you once the butchering is done. Not for the faint of heart, but a must-have for the proud carnivore.

[image-5]Two ethnic cookbooks stood out to me this year. The first, Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook (Kodansha International, $25), uncovers the delight, etiquette and flavors of Tokyo's best pubs. Recipes are straightforward and easy to accomplish as long as you can find the ingredients. Warning: Copious sake drinking may ensue.

[image-6]The other came across my desk randomly, but has already become a favorite within my curry-loving family. 660 Curries (Workman, $32.50) is an exhaustive tome of Indian home cooking, and is especially enlightening if you're used to using pre-mixed curry powders. Author Raghavan Iyer offers so many variations of spices blended in different ways, it allows a fuller understanding of how exotic flavors are actually crafted. There are also invaluable tips, such as how to make Indian breads at home without fancy ovens or tools.

One of my favorite gifts to give, though, is a homemade cookbook (approx. $6). If you have an arsenal of recipes already, it's as simple as buying an inexpensive but attractive journal and transcribing your favorite recipes into the book. But even if you can't cook, there's an easy way to make something thoughtful. Just search online for recipes you think the recipient might like. Are they vegetarian? Look for great chefs' vegetarian recipes. Do they love cocktails? Search for signature cocktail recipes from the country's best restaurants. Then just print them, cut them out in artsy shapes and paste them into the pages of the journal.

To give a cookbook as a gift is an act of nourishment. You hope that your offering will inspire and ultimately feed the recipient. You hope he/she will think of you while standing in the kitchen, excited and covered in flour.

Perhaps the year's best cookbook, or at least the most lavish, isn't nourishing to anything but your brain and fantasy life. A Day at elBulli: An Insight into the Ideas, Methods and Creativity of Ferran Adria (Phaidon Press Inc., $49.95) is less a cookbook than an act of highbrow food porn – and I mean that in a more literal sense than the term "food porn" usually conjures. The meticulous chronicling of "the best restaurant in the world" walks us through every aspect of the cutting-edge eatery in northern Spain, but it quickly becomes apparent that the true experience of elBulli is unattainable. We can look, but we can't touch, and we certainly can't taste.

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