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Omnivorous: Books for Cooks 

Spring's best tomes on food and drink

Spring food books are sprouting up like sweet peas and stinking onions, and I've been indoors, digging into them instead of my own little patch o' dirt. Here's a half dozen of my favorites, in no particular order—I'll run down a bunch more over on our blog the Food Chain.

RENEWING AMERICA'S FOOD TRADITIONS: SAVING AND SAVORING THE WORLD'S MOST ENDANGERED FOODSGary Paul Nabhan, editorChelsea Green, $35.00

Based at the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University, Renewing America's Food Traditions (RAFT) is an alliance of organizations devoted to identifying and rescuing heritage animal breeds and heirloom plants. The group's second book is a beautiful encyclopedia of beasts and verdure that, owing to their obscurity, you may well never get to eat (though recipes are included). Guided by the principle of eater-based conservation, which holds that to survive such species must be reintroduced to consumers (and eaten) rather than treated like museum pieces, editor Gary Paul Nabhan and contributors cover dozens of once-secure native foods—Palmer's saltgrass, the Tennessee fainting goat, Snake River salmon, and the Southern Queen yam, to name just a few—and document efforts to save them. But this otherwise admirable project isn't helped by the dewy-eyed preciousness of its tone, and it's outright harmed when the information presented is wrong—Nabhan, for example, contends that there are only 150 purebred mulefoot hogs left when in fact there are at least three times that, probably more.

WINE BAR FOOD: MEDITERRANEAN FLAVORS TO CRAVE WITH WINES TO MATCHCathy and Tony MantuanoClarkson Potter, $27.50

In this appetizer to the Chicago couple's forthcoming South Beach wine bar, Enoteca Spiaggia, each of ten chapters focuses on a traditional pairing of libations and small plates found in a particular European city—Venetian Bellinis and cicchetti, for example, or the pinchos and sherries of Seville. It's more accessible to the average home cook than 2004's lavish Spiaggia Cookbook, with sections on cheese, cured meats, and how to source quality prepackaged ingredients. Simple but not strictly traditional recipes for things like Sicilian arancini (stuffed deep-fried rice balls), Florentine tripe, or Portuguese cataplana (a seafood stew) are punctuated by a few extravagances, like Barolo risotto.

THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR: THE MYSTERY OF THE WORLD'S MOST EXPENSIVE BOTTLE OF WINEBenjamin WallaceCrown, $24.95

Thanks to pending litigation, the story of Hardy Rodenstock's colossal mid-80s con job on some of the world's most prominent oenophiles has received quite a bit of attention lately, but this treatment of how the German wine collector allegedly counterfeited a cache of Bordeaux said to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson and pawned it off at record-breaking prices is the most detailed, vibrant, and narratively gripping I've seen yet—it reads like a mystery novel set in the exclusive world of vintage and rare wine auctioneering.

IZAKAYA: THE JAPANESE PUB COOKBOOKMark RobinsonKodansha, $25.00

In this cookbook cum introduction to Japanese pub culture, Robinson profiles eight Tokyo izakaya, informal watering holes frequented as much for their tasty snacks and small plates as for their booze. Once male-dominated, izakayas these days come in forms as varied and stylized as any sort of Western bar, and Robinson examines a range of them, from his casual local to the high-end luxury model to a venerable literati hangout. The recipes are by and large fun and unfussy—fresh corn tempura, fried tofu stuffed with raclette cheese, julienned potatoes fried with spicy cod roe—though I'm willing to make the commitment to try the two-year-old miso-cured tofu. This is a timely release, as the style is growing international legs in the wake of the small-plates boom: Chicago already has its own handful of izakaya in the northwestern burbs, and the form is being adapted by Western restaurateurs, like at Shochu, the new lounge and small-plates spot in Lakeview.

TERRINE

Stephane Reynaud

Phaidon, $29.95

This gorgeously photographed follow-up to the French chef's Pork and Sons (2007) explores terrain far beyond the traditional definition of terrine as layered forcemeat cooked in an rectangular earthenware vessel. It lacks its predecessor's whimsy, but quickly makes two crucial points: (1) terrine making is among the least intimidating of classic French techniques (are you familiar with meat loaf? Reynaud likes his smeared in ketchup too), and (2) it's one of the most versatile. Sure, there are all sorts of meat and game varieties included (seven different foie gras terrines alone), but there are also whole chapters on fish, dessert, and vegetable terrines, most of which require no cooking.

SHARK'S FIN AND SICHUAN PEPPER: A SWEET-SOUR MEMOIR OF EATING IN CHINAFuschia DunlopNorton, $24.95

Until now the story behind Fuschia Dunlop's remarkable regional Chinese cookbooks, Land of Plenty (Sichuan) and The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook (Hunan), remained in the background. But this memoir tells the tale of how the British Sinophile went from working a stultifying gig as a socioeconomic analyst to being a passionate student and interpreter of Sichuan cooking—in fact, she was the only foreign student in the provincial capital's culinary academy during the last gasps of Maoist seclusion. Her gradual seduction by what she calls "the spice girl among Chinese cuisines, bold and lipsticked, with a witty tongue and a thousand lively moods," provides terrific cultural context for both of her previous works.

For more, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

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