Books for Cooks 

The season's most inspiring food-related tomes

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I have a music stand in my kitchen that I use to prop up books and recipes within eyeshot when I'm cooking. It's made of sturdy, heavy metal, but even so it tends to accumulate so many grease-stained papers and swollen tomes that at any given time walking through the room will set it tilting and swaying like a drunken crane. It's certainly no match for the Yellow Pages-size cookbooks that publishers release every year around this time, apparently leveling whole forests in the process.

The first thing I wonder when one of these beasts thuds on the doorstop is whether it'll be the one that buckles my music stand. The second is whether the author truly expects anyone to cook from it on a regular basis. Often these books are just beautiful objects, more likely to transport you to another world like a good work of fiction than to keep you company in the kitchen. You might be better off photocopying the recipes you actually want to try and leaving the books on the coffee table to impress your friends.

That said, here are a few of my favorites this season:

GOURMET TODAY
Edited by Ruth Reichl
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Reichl and company carved out this 1,000-plus-recipe epitaph in response to the massive changes over the last decade or so in American attitudes to food—with chapters on cocktails, vegetarian mains, and grilling and a plethora of one-dish meals—just in time for Conde Nast to pull the plug on the 69-year-old Gourmet. Don't expect a Rachael Ray-like underestimation of palate, ability, or ambition: recipes are as varied as goat tacos, mashed yuca with coconut, and midwest boiled dinner. This one's relatively functional compared to most of those that follow. Bonus punch in the gut: the first printing includes a coupon for a free subscription to the magazine.

I Know How to Cook
Ginette Mathiot
(Phaidon)
Another beautiful and massive translation of a foreign "culinary bible" from art-book publisher Phaidon. This one is the French Joy of Cooking, published in 1932 by a young home-ec teacher writing for French housewives; it eventually sold more than six million copies. It's been adapted by Clotilde Dusoulier of the blog Chocolate & Zucchini and an unnamed posse of experts who filled in some of Mathiot's "laconic" instructions, reduced cooking times, and lightened up on the butter. There are 62 egg recipes alone, not including variations, practically every classic bistro-style French dish you've ever heard of, and plenty of others you haven't. Old-fashioned endive loaf, anyone?

Ad Hoc at Home
Thomas Keller
(Artisan)
In 1999 Keller set an impossibly high standard for untold numbers of home cooks (not to mention plenty of pros) with the publication of The French Laundry Cookbook. This one, though just as weighty, seems designed to make you feel better for not for not having days to master the chef's so-called Quick Duck Sauce. Boost your confidence with recipes for home-style foods as inspired by Keller's casual Napa Valley restaurant, Ad Hoc, itself inspired by staff "family meals." Dishes like fried chicken, grilled cheese, and split pea soup imply that simplicity is the rule, but Keller aims to perfect these familiar foods with the application of solid technique and careful preparation, and there aren't many shortcuts. There are instructions for pulling mozzarella and confiting pork belly, but what I like most are his solid and sometimes quirky deviations from the norm: pretoasting roasts with a propane torch, grinding your own beef, using pigskin parchment paper, and finger pinches instead of measuring spoons. This would be regularly useful if scaled down from its 11¼-square-inch format.

The Fat Duck Cookbook
Heston Blumenthal
(Bloombury)

A budget rerelease of last year's $250 doorstop by the self-trained chef-scientist behind the British temple to molecular gastronomy, "technoemotional cuisine," or whatever you want to call it. Divided into three long sections, it's an exhibit not only of his powers of deductive cookery but also his abilities as a writer. (The New Yorker thinks highly of the latter: last month it ran his short essay on reimagining duck a l'orange.) The first part, "History," covers his remarkable and determined development as a cook, his pursuit of Michelin stars, and his gradual ascendance as an international authority on food science. "Recipes" includes such creations as salmon poached in licorice gel—impossibly technical but enlivened by the story behind their creation. The final section is an anthology of scientific papers by a range of academics. Despite the nice price—just $30—it's still a beautiful volume, with abundant, lavish illustrations and photographs. Pure bookshelf eye candy.

My New Orleans: The Cookbook
200 of my Favorite Recipes & Stories from My Hometown
John Besh

(Andrews McMeel)
An unwieldy 374-page ledger with a title to match from the New Orleans chef-celeb, this is the least slick and stylized among the group. Like The Fat Duck Cookbook, it does double duty as a memoir, cementing not just the food but the man-brand in the reader's mind. It's also the most down-to-earth and least affected: the stories about Besh's service in Desert Storm or his Iron Chef victory over Mario Batali actually seem relevant to his primary obsession: preserving New Orleans food traditions. At the moment I'm more excited to apply myself to Besh's complex—but hardly insurmountable—recipes than I am about any of the other tree killers here. The goat cheese semifreddo, the duck porchetta, and the crab meat pumpkin soup all seem worth bending the music stand for.   v

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