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Top Ten 2013 cookbooks review

Best Cookbooks 2013
Best Cookbooks 2013

This Examiner has the delicious good fortune to attend myriad cookbook talks, demonstrations, tastings, and lectures throughout the year.

Primarily, the cookbook talks take place at the 92 St Y, the James Beard Foundation’s “Beard on Books,” the Food Book Fair and The New School.

Every one of the following Top-Ten recommended cookbooks noted here is an autographed souvenir purchased after a lecture and occupies a featured spot in the home library. Making recipes from these outstanding cookbooks is a joy and adventure.

Enjoy the recommended food journeys.

1. Smoke & Pickles Recipes & Stories from a New Southern Kitchen – Headlining the chapter Pickles & Matrimony - “Pickles are a lot like love stories,” claims the new darling of the culinary world: author and chef, Edward Lee. “They both take time and you worry that it’s not going to work out but with patience there is a happy ending.”

Make no mistake; Lee is the “It Chef” now.

His bylines and features grace most every media outlet and his book is a best seller.

This Examiner was introduced to his mash up of Korean and Southern cuisine at a Beard on Books talk. Lee’s appeal is that he is both humble and cool and ambitious all at the same time. Plus, he’s super talented.

Here is this Examiner’s Smoke & Pickles full cookbook review:

In many ways, Lee’s story is the classic American Horatio Alger story.

Born to Korean immigrants, he grew up in Brooklyn, and through sheer tenacity overcame the odds, managed to open a “hot” Manhattan restaurant that he ultimately lost/closed and got back his karma after moving to Louisville to indulge his passion for bourbon, only to discover his over-the-rainbow dream of a true love – he met and married his wife -- opened successful restaurants that “married” two cultural cuisines, brokered his own line of bourbon and managed to produce his rather groundbreaking cookbook.

The Cookbook is a curiosity. Why? Its look is part artsy, underground imagery; part cooking memoir, part cultural – there is a scrapbook look to it but it manages to be coolly elevated despite so many influences. One can read it and use it. The Korean cultural traditions that pepper many of Lee’s heritage restaurants are so endearing – they draw you in. Who would’ve thought this would work?

Try this: “If a young girl leaves rice in her bowl after a meal, she will end up with a pimply-faced husband” – Korean superstition. Or how about this keeper? “Never stick your chopsticks straight up into a bowl of rice; it signifies death.”

One ends up loving Lee even more…

Smoke & Pickles is chock-a-block with doable recipes that manage to challenge the ho-hum status quo and get readers to try making things they never heard of.

Like oysters? Try Lee’s rhubarb mignonette or Bourbon Brown Butter Sauce. How about Chilled Buttermilk Maple Soup with bourbon-soaked cherries, or Rice Bowl with Lamb and aromatic tomato-yogurt gravy.

This is a cookbook with gravitas and sense of humor. Lee claims, “What I cook is who I am.”

The Table of Contents tempts with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. Witness: Lamb & Whistles, Cows & Clover, Birds & Bluegrass, Bourbon & Bar Snacks.

Smoke & Pickles at Amazon:

2. Alive & Cooking An Easy Guide to Health for You and Your Parents - A sleeper of a best seller published late in 2013.

This cookbook is a superb blend of cooking and family heritage memoir, recipes and nutrition.

It's a cookbook whose time has come. Demographics alone tell us that more of the “kids” will be partnering with the parents to achieve good health by way of their diets. While the catalyst for the book was born out of family loss and the challenges of caring for family taken with illness, the enduring legacy of the book is one of hopefulness.

This is a joyful, family-focused cookbook to guide us on our life journey to better health. It is not some trendy, diet book of the moment. Rather it is arguably the best, nutritionally-based avenue to enduring good health. It is extraordinarily researched. Food, Health & Nutrition topics are carefully laid out up front in a series of chapters that include Beverages, Cleaning Fruits, Probiotics, Enzymes and Detox Cleaning, along with Buying Bread, Crackers and Flour – and one dedicated to my favorite daily treat: Cinnamon. Who knew it “contains antioxidants that create healthier arteries and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.” It just tastes good!

While there is plenty of invaluable, expert advice that is easy to understand - on food, health, and nutrition, readers will also enjoy the family stories, chapter heading narratives and of course, the sublime family recipes.

This Cookbook takes comfort food to the next level.

There are traditional family recipes; those that are deconstructed to include healthier ingredients. There are chapters devoted to Raw, Gluten Free, Vegan and Vegetarian recipes, and of course family favorites.

The dishes are simple, seasonal and delicious. The directions are easy to follow. Every recipe notes how many it serves so it's a snap to scale up or down.

This Examiner cooked Maryann’s Mesquite Brussels Sprouts and Carrots for Thanksgiving and it was a tasty hit with all the guests.

Another must-make is Dotty’s Manicotti. In fact, there is an entire chapter devoted to “The Manicotti Lesson.” It’s a delightful story about singing opera in the kitchen and cooking together… Isn’t that what culinary art and eating together is all about?

All the recipes here are terrific: an adventure and exploration to health and taste.

Also, unique to this cookbook are the added-value extras: Books recommended by the authors: Maryann De Leo and Nancy Addision; along with tips on those things that enhance our life and certainly our dining experiences, including, Flowers & Plants, Laughter is the Best Medicine, Lighting and Sleep.

This Examiner is honored to have been asked to provide the Foreword to Alive & Cooking. Seeing it in print in the Cookbook amplifies the support and enthusiasm for this very special, must-read cookbook.

Alive & Cooking at Amazon:

3. Smitten Kitchen Cookbook – I had known of Deb Perlman: self-described obsessive home cook, author and successful blogger but I met her for the first time at the Food Book Fair. I was not a regular reader of her super-popular blog. I heard her interview on NPR and liked her right away. Deb cultivates the BFF “girl next door” personality and brand image and that chatty, sometimes intimate conversational culinary memoir style that takes a page from her endearing blog is carried throughout the cookbook, especially in the detailed head notes.

I for one, appreciate the narrative behind the recipes. Unwittingly, one is drawn into the backstories, prompting a connection to the dish. Perhaps the memoirs serve as a catalyst for selecting certain recipes…

This Examiner made Deb’s Wild Mushroom Tart for Thanksgiving – improvising a tad. It was a big hit.

Part of the mushroom story? Deb writes: “I told my sister I was a mushroom eater now.” And proved it by plucking one from the ground and taking a bite. She was quick to learn she wasn’t exactly an expert as her mother rushed her to the hospital! Thank goodness she recovered and even embraces the fungi enough to offer fantastically delicious, yet simple recipes, using these earthy delights.

The book is filled with similarly memorable, plucky, funny stories that make you want to cook.

Smitten Kitchen at Amazon:

4. Martha Stewart Cake Cookbook - After getting over the scratch-your-head wonder that this is indeed Martha’s first-ever cake cookbook, there is an equal astonishment at the expansive variety of cakes offered in this sure-to-be a go-to resource for all things cake. From Bundts & Tubes to Coffee Cakes to Cheesecakes and Icebox and Cakes with Fruit there is a cake for every day and every occasion.

The cookbook offers 150 + plus recipes, including “Golden Rules for Cakes” and frosting and filling tips and recipes, produced by the editors at Martha Stewart Living.

Martha notes in the Introduction “In one’s lifetime there are so many occasions that call for celebration, so many rites of passage that require ‘something special’ - birthdays, anniversaries engagements, weddings, showers… A homemade, home-baked, and hand-crafted cake... makes these events more special.”

This Examiner has heard it said that the sheer beauty of pretty cakes makes them hands-down favorite desserts and guests will choose a cake over pies or cookies every time.

Martha’s Cake cookbook makes it fun and easy to share the cake love.

The Table of Contents is organized by type of cake and the curated recipes listed there so it’s easy to peruse and dream of the cake to make. Every recipe is presented with a title page a clear description of the cake so even if it’s a new-to-you cake - one gets the idea. If there is any hesitation – the full-color melt-in-your-mouth images of the finished cake leave no doubt about where to put the fork.

There are also plenty of step-by-step photo layouts that help with the preparation. On one side of the recipe page is the list of ingredients. The how-to recipes are written in easy to follow, numbered steps, not more than seven steps – with most around four - to recipe completion.

Pretty, sweet confections that will add glamour to everyday celebrations – and the big ones too.

Martha Stewart Cakes at Amazon:

5. Salt, Sugar, Fat. How the Food Giants Hooked Us - From Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss, a New York Times investigative reporter, this is - not a surprise - an extraordinarily researched book. This is not a cookbook; rather a “recipe” of sorts about how the big food companies’ development and insistent marketing practices are foisted on an unsuspecting population. Corporate or Big Food is more like a parasite preying on huge (and I do mean Huge – as in the size of the people who are now victims of the effects of eating processed foods) swaths of people who are now suffering from disease brought on by a steady diet of these foodstuffs.

It’s more sales and profits vs. taste and nourishment.

More than $1 trillion sales of processed foods in the US alone.

Seen at the James Beard House ‘Beard on Books,” Moss makes a compelling news story – describing his tenacious investigation and all its twists and turns. It’s a must-read for anyone who cares about the food chain and the curious place American diets find themselves in at the grocery store and at restaurants, particularly chain restaurants.

Think Mad Men without the sex.

In his talk and on Amazon, Moss explains why he chose to pursue these three ingredients: I’d been investigating a surge in deadly outbreaks of E. coli in meat when an industry source, a microbiologist, suggested that if I wanted to see an even bigger public health hazard, I should look at what food companies were intentionally adding to their products, starting with salt. And sure enough, when I looked at this--by gaining access to high level industry officials and a trove of sensitive, internal records--a window opened on how aggressive the industry was wielding not only salt, but sugar and fat, too. These are the pillars of processed foods, the three ingredients without which there would be no processed foods.

As all foodies know, we want to eat foods that will “go bad” or that have a “shelf life.” Please, only eat foods that are fresh, local and seasonal.

Salt, Sugar, Fat at Amazon:

6. Family Table – Favorite Staff Meals from Our Restaurants to Your Home - The recipes from the uber-successful restaurants and chefs in Danny Meyer’s culinary constellation as part of his Union Square Hospitality Group is unmatched. So of course it makes perfect sense that the Family Table Cookbook and it’s distinctive elegance, courtesy of offering their recipes to "You," flows from the same vein as the hospitality and service that Meyer has so assiduously cultivated and made a core brand element.

In the bubble of “why didn’t someone think of this sooner? – (especially this Examiner) – at long last there is a compendium of the best recipes, from the clutch of New York City’s enduring, favorite restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Union Square, Eleven Madison, Tabla (hey- for the record, the food was superb), The Modern, Maialino, Untitled, and North End Grill.

Union Square Restaurant’s long-time executive chef, Michael Romano is the credited author of this seminal cookbook.

This Examiner adores all of Danny’s restaurants and eats at these culinary stars with frequency. The Family Table Cookbook is part culinary memoir, too, telling stories about the loyal and talented staff.

I especially adore Modesta Batista who is a featured Gramercy Tavern steward extraordinaire and an icon of the Union Square Greenmarket.

The recipes in the cookbook are the best of the best. Favorite recipes include the Corn Soup from James Beard Award-Winner, Chef Michael Anthony, Gramercy Tavern, Chef Romano’s Secret Ingredients Soup and Maialino’s Andrea Czachon and her family restaurant’s Mac N’ Cheese recipe.

It might have been daunting to include so much diverse text in one overarching cookbook. Rather, the editors made it easy to understand and select from the hundreds of tempting offerings. Readers can select a favorite chef and restaurant or explore new ones readily in the Table of Contents. Further, the recipes are included by descriptive category markers: Beans & Grain; Pasta & Noodles; Seafood; Chicken & Turkey; Beef, Pork & Lamb; Side Dishes, Egg & bread, Dessert; Drinks.

This Examiner's full cookbook review after Chef Romano's Beard on Books talk. Not long after the talk, Romano took off the toque at Union Square Restaurant after 25 years and is now a culinary consultant for USHG, traveling between properties in NY and Tokyo.

Family Table Cookbook at Amazon:

7. The New School hosted a panel discussion about the iconoclastic African-American cook, Edna Lewis. For many in attendance, it was also an introduction to this influential restaurateur, who is hailed as perhaps the original homegrown chef, who promoted the use of locally grown, seasonal recipes with passion. Lewis attracted legions of loyal foodie followers. She also served true Southern cuisine, being a native of Freeport, Virginia, and in the process helped preserve a culinary culture.

It takes a family – and in this case, Lewis’ niece, Nina Williams who sat with Lewis transcribing the chef’s long-hand notes. Typing and re-typing the manuscript as she notes in the Acknowledgments. Now, dishes such as Corn Pone, Rabbit and Pheasant are available for all to enjoy.

The Taste of Country Cooking – Edna Lewis cookbook is organized by seasons and holidays.

Amplifying Lewis’ devotion to eating in season, her recipes are hyper-seasonal and the names of the recipes read like poetry.

In spring, Lewis serves up A Spring Breakfast When the Shad Were Running recipe. Shad? Who even knows of this fish now?

This Examiner fondly remembers the Shad Roe Festivals along the Delaware when the fish would go from the River to the barbeque!

Summer recipes feature a cornucopia of dishes, including, Early Summer Dinner of Veal, Scallions and First Berries; Midsummer: the Night for a Boiled Virginia Ham Dinner to Sunday Revival Diner to Making Ice Cream on a Summer Afternoon. Fall boasts Race Day Picnic and Breakfast Before a Day of Hunting. Winter features A Dinner Celebrating the Last of the Barnyard Fowl and a Dinner of Chicken & Dumplings & Warm Gingerbread.

Don’t they just sound evocative? Meals filled with good food, family and conversations…

Thoughtfully included is the Appendix with two citations: A Note on Baking Powder and A Note on Herbs to Grow on the Windowsill

These are simple and good recipes. That’s not just this Examiner’s informed point of view, but these are the opinions as expressed by culinary luminaries James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher who lauded Lewis, loved her food and admired her knowledge of food and cooking American cuisine with dignity …

The Taste of Country Cooking at Amazon:

8. Arguably, tomatoes are the most popular and versatile fruit. Miriam Rubin’s Tomato book is a tidy, informative book that traces the history of the red marvel and its impact on culinary cultures from Italy to Atlanta, along with exuberant recipes that takes the reader on a food journey that shows off the limitless capabilities -- from savory to sweet, along with beverages, too.

Readers readily grasp the full scope of the tomato from the Table of Contents, organized by Starters, Soups, Salads, Sandwiches, Main Dishes, Sides, Casseroles, Cobblers, Desserts, Sauces & Gravies, Preserves and Juices. All this in a small, almost hand-held sized book!

In a nod to Edna Lewis, Rubin includes her Baked Tomato with Crusty Bread recipe. Rubin writes she was inspired by her recipe in Gourmet Magazine and that she would often see Lewis at the Union Square Greenmarket looking so serene and regal.

Rubin was the first woman to work at the venerable Four Seasons restaurant and her true love of the food and devotion to the single-note ingredient never feels diminished.

The Zen of Rubin’s approach is the complete focus that feels expansive at the same time.

Celebrate the tomato and learn just how much there is to discover.

Here is this Examiner’s review of the Tomato cookbook:

Tomato at Amazon:

9. Francine Segan is a food historian, Italian food expert and author of six cookbooks. Her latest, Pasta Modern New & Inspired Recipes from Italy is, like Tomato, a singular, focused review of a popular ingredient that one can be forgiven for thinking there’s nothing left to talk to about.


Segan leaves no doubt how much more there is to know and love about pasta.

And she’s done her homework having visited all of Italy’s 20 regions and most of its provinces.

The pivot in this cookbook is its emphasis on new. Think purple pasta.

While the perception may be Italy is to pasta what hot dogs are to Coney Island – Segan turns that notion on its head.

Segan gleaned her recipes not from Italy’s Nonnis – rather from today’s food bloggers, home cooks, and artisanal pasta makers.

With more than 100 recipes there is heft too.

The variety of pasta dishes is common knowledge. Here, Segan embraces new techniques that create new taste sensations, including smoking the pasta, cooking the pasta in vegetable juice. Or vegan dishes, with no cheese, savory pasta with sweet chocolate and coffee. And sweet pasta for dessert.

The cookbook is organized into 10 chapters moving from Appetizers & Soups to Fruits, Nuts, Vegetarian, Fish, Meat, through to Holidays, Fresh Pasta and Pasta for Dessert.

The photographs in Pasta Modern are striking and inspirational. Nothing moody here – just reach out and pick up that fork.

Pasta Modern at Amazon:

10. Momofuku - In Japanese it means “lucky peach.” Hence the iconic fruit that graces celebrity Chef David Chang’s signature cookbook. The peach seems to be ubiquitous now - given Chef Chang’s rapid expansion of his culinary empire.

At this New School panel discussion he talked about his most recent gem, Momofuku in Toronto. Chang has come a long way from a scrappy Lower East Side outpost. Today he has interior designers working for him to extend his vision and brand...

However he works hard and seems at pains to maintain his naiveté, rebelliousness, (Chang is a street talker and loves using the F-word – starting with the Momofuku) and curiosity to maintain his culinary vanguard.

He has already changed the world of food. Maybe his name alone… Chang=change… hmmm.

The cookbook, like Chef Chang is practiced edginess.

The photographs of people eating and the food are – like Chang’s recipes - provocative, dreamy and artful in a way that would look at home hanging in a pure white, SoHo gallery.

Part cooking memoir, Chang spins his narrative about working every conceivable kitchen job in Craft, one of the best restaurant kitchens in New York City to a noodle shop in Tokyo – one of the worst. And all along, his passion for noodles. Particularly ramen. In all its permutations. There is a tremendous culinary history surrounding ramen and it possesses unlimited variations by region, chef, and season.

Like his restaurants, Chef Chang mixes up the menu offerings with simple, delicious ingredients, including bo ssäm, rib-eye, and Fried or Roasted Brussels sprouts with fish sauce vinaigrette or fun with meat glue.

There is no table of contents.

After the Introduction, there is an overview of his first restaurant, Noodle Bar. The first recipe on page 39 is not surprising: Momofuku Ramen.

A little less than halfway through the book is the overview of his second restaurant, Ssäm Bar, followed by recipes. The final chapter is Ko restaurant – the space that was once the Noodle Bar (circle of life?!)

The layout of the recipes is all business. There are sidebars on the menu pages listing all the needed ingredients. Each recipe also features step-by-step preparation photos and/or the finished, plated dish.

Arresting menu items include Peas with Horseradish, Kimchi Stew with Rice Cakes and Shredded Pork, Roasted New Jersey Diver Scallop with kohlrabi puree and iwa nori and sooo many others that are bracing and just waiting to be tried.

The desserts here are crazy-good. The pastry chef, Christina Tosi who now has a cookbook of her own, first showcased her wanton way as a confectionary goddess here. The Cereal Milk was the Cronut of its day. Note: Caramelized Cornflakes, Miso Butterscotch, Fried Apple Pie…

The recipes are exciting, challenging, doable.

Momofuku at Amazon:

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