It’s a great year for cookbooks. There literally is something for everyone. If you’re shopping for a super foodie friend, however, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef (about $40 on Amazon) is the way to go. Chef Massimo Bottura of the acclaimed Osteria Francescana (No. 3 in the world on the famous San Pellegrino best restaurants list) in Modena, Italy, shares the magic behind his unforgettable food. I know because I was lucky enough to have one of the best meals of my life there last year. There are nods to the traditional cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, but the sheer brilliance and boundary-breaking technique boggles the mind.
Few of us may actually cook from the book, but each recipe comes with an enchanting backstory. It’s a chance for the food obsessed to get inside the mind of an avant-garde culinary genius. A perfect example is the dish, “An Eel Swimming Up the Po River.” In 1598, Pope Clement VIII forced the local dukes of Ferrara up the river north to Modena. Bottura’s dish represents a fable about a displaced eel “who is willing to do anything to find her roots.” Ingredients gathered on the eel’s journey (similar to the dukes’) are highlighted on the plate.
My dining companion, though a bit squeamish and definitely skeptical, found the dish, which we tasted at Osteria, one of the most thrilling we could recall anywhere. The eel fillet cooks for four hours in a sous-vide water bath, then is lacquered in the oven with three coats of sake with saba, the grape must reduction precursor to balsamic. It’s flanked on the plate by lines of creamy polenta and a wild Campanine apple gelée. One corner of the eel is dusted with a black powder made from charred onions, pine nuts, saba and black squid ink. The result is simply unforgettable.
And Bottura’s book is filled with dozens of other memorable stories alongside mouth-watering photos and mind-blowing recipes. They unlock the secrets from one of the globe’s great restaurants and the creative mind taking Italian cuisine to unexpected heights.
Another restaurant book from a culinary superstar is The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food ($40). One of San Francisco’s celebrated restaurants now has a cookbook to celebrate the wonderful Vietnamese creations of chef Charlie Phan. For 20 years, the Slanted Door eatery has been a must-do for gastronauts visiting the other Bay area. And now you can bring those thrilling flavors home.
Back in the real world is the Southern Foodie’s Guide to the Pig ($25). Despite my vegan daughter’s voice in my ear reminding me that pigs are smarter than the family dog, pork is my protein of choice. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Chris Chamberlain’s culinary tour of the South’s best barbecue restaurants and the recipes that made them famous has me jazzed. He covers “how to select, prepare, cook and enjoy everything but the oink.”
What’s wonderful is the anatomical survey of the hog from nose to tail, with detailed instructions on everything from how to construct your pit for the 18-hour process of roasting a whole hog to instructions on how to build a “proper BBQ sandwich.” There are three ways to cook bacon and eight ways to use bacon grease. There are profiles of more than 50 restaurants from Florida to Texas that cover barbecue’s entire gastronomic landscape. On top of that, Chamberlain got the ’cue experts to share more than 100 pages of recipes covering soups, salads, sides and entrées. If you’re a devotee of porcine glory, this book will have you in hog heaven from drinks to dessert — just bring plenty of napkins.
Two delectable choices are out there for baking fanatics, or people seeking just the right present for those who are. The Baking Bible ($40) is another wonderful baking tome by Rose Levy Berenbaum, “the most meticulous cook who ever lived.” Her foolproof recipes for cookies, cakes and pies will have you drooling. Then, there’s Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes ($35), which reveals the coveted recipe for the mega-popular Cronut™, a croissant-doughnut hybrid from NYC’s most praised bakery. It’s a philosophical book, and some of the recipes are quite challenging, but for an ambitious home chef, it provides an enjoyable ride.
When buying for vegetarians, you can’t go wrong with Karen Page’s The Vegetarian Flavor Bible ($40). It’s not a cookbook, but rather a highly useful synthesis of wisdom from leading chefs about flavor affinities to unlock your culinary creativity using vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and more. Or perhaps Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook ($25) is a better fit. The book’s totally vegan for those of you who want to “eat like you give a f*ck.” And it’s from the only website dedicated to verbally abusing you into a healthier diet. If the idea of roasted beer and lime cauliflower tacos, or pumpkin chili, has you wanting to heat up the kitchen, this one’s for you.
And as New Year’s Eve approaches, and days of auld lang syne fill your head, thoughts may turn to adult refreshments. For cutting-edge cocktails that kick butt, look no further than Liquid Intelligence ($35) by Dave Arnold of NYC’s high-tech bar, Booker and Dax. It’s the art and science of the perfect cocktail.
Also, check out the Florida heritage-loaded recipes in Joy Sheffield Harris’s A Culinary History of Florida.