Cookbooks worth giving for Christmas!

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The gift of inspiration

The Cookbook Issue; It wasn't easy picking cookbooks worth giving this year, but here are my suggestions

Like waiting at a level crossing for an interminable freight train to pass, TV celebrity chefs again this Christmas have returned to roll out what seems an endless cavalcade of trite-and-true cookbooks.

Some are OK, but many are just shameless attempts cash in. Who really cares what game-show contestants on the Bravo network show Top Chef say about practically anything? The TV series had little value the first time around; I don't want to shell out $34.95 for the book to revisit a wreck.

When do you suppose we might expect the British star Nigella Lawson to actually present ingredients in pounds, cups and teaspoons for the North American peons she hopes will buy her books?

(How much is a 400-g can of tomatoes, anyway, required to make Lawson's recipe for Slut's Spaghetti in this year's Kitchen Recipes from the Heart of the Home? How many cups is 150 grams of flour? Does your oven even show 150 C or gas mark 2? And, after you break out the Enigma machine, you may wonder how one can make a genuine Chocolate Key Lime Pie without using, ah, key limes? Is this book worth $55?)

So this year I'm thinking there's an inordinate amount of chaff to sift through -- certainly more than last Christmas, when I had no trouble selecting 15 Canadian cookbooks to fill my entire list of top tomes. Among my favourite titles for 2010, only four are Canadian. Pity.

Still, there are a few nuggets in the rough. Chief among them is Flavours of Prince Edward Island, from the P.E.I. Association of Chefs and Cooks. Thoughtful and beautifully illustrated, it brims with heartfelt appreciation for island terroir, seasonal ingredients and down-home delectable goodness.

Of course, by now it's not striking to find chefs everywhere singing the praises of seasonal, local, 100-mile, organic-where-possible, blah, blah. But beyond the platitudes, I'm looking for cookbooks that inspire as much as they inform.

Which leads me to this rather surprising also-ran pick this year:

Regular readers may be shocked to see I've listed the new Rachael Ray Look + Cook among my "also recommended" titles listed on page F5 -- not because I have a new infatuation for mediocre, but because the recipes in these 320 pages are ridiculously easy, nicely illustrated and so utterly unchallenging that they just might inspire couch potatoes to put down their Twinkies and move toward the stove.

If Rachael Ray can levitate the lethargic, despite her annoying ear-piercing shrieks of glee, then go to it, babe.

So here is my list for suggested gifts this Christmas. For each I've included the ISBN catalogue number to make it easier for you to order at a bookstore or online (at considerable savings off the list price, I should add).

The list is in order of preference, give or take. Season's Eatings to you, too.

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Flavours of Prince edward Island, a Culinary Journey

By Jeff McCourt, Allan Williams and Austin Clement, Whitecap Books, 260 pages, $39.95

ISBN No. 978-1-77050-009-9

In a world where celebrity chefs feel compelled to share too much, too often, it's refreshing to spot an inspiring cookbook by unpretentious craftsmen off the radar who speak of their roots with elegant simplicity. This delightful, lavishly illustrated book is all about time and place. It is a fundraising project for the Prince Edward Island Association of Chefs and Cooks, whose members contributed recipes and anecdotes of culinary island adventure. From clam-digging to foraging for mushrooms, you feel a heartfelt respect for the culinary life and times of committed islanders. The main author is island-born Jeff McCourt, who I first met in 1999 when he was executive chef at the Inn at Bay Fortune. Even then, he and his kitchen crew were growing their own herbs and vegetables, and was able to recite the name of the woman who raised his lamb and the fellow who harvested the oysters. That's the kind of visceral connection that spills across the pages of this above-average book. Recipes are seductively approachable, with lists of ingredients that tend to be mercifully short.

3 Chefs, The Kitchen Men

By Michael Bonacini, Massimo Capra and Jason Parsons, Whitecap Books, 278 pages, $26.95

ISBN No. 978-1-77050-034-1

Each with his own distinctive style, these now-Canadian chefs regularly appear on the popular Citytv daytime show CityLine where they have entertained and served delicious, doable dishes for more than a decade.

Bonacini (originally from Wales) is co-owner of Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants with seven restaurants in Toronto, Oakville and Collingwood, Capra (from Italy) is co-owner of Mistura Restaurant and Sopra Upper Lounge in Toronto, while Parsons (from England) is chef at Peller Estates Winery Restaurant in Niagara.

Here you will find a cornucopia of tastes and sensations, from Bonacini's Oxtail and Onion Soup with Stilton, to Parsons' Turkey Pot Pie, and Capra's Spring Greens and Chanterelles with Soft-Boiled Egg.

From sandwiches to scallops, this is a reasonably priced and pretty cookbook to help you find comfort in the kitchen.

More Cookbook Picks: F4--f5

Chefs at Home, Favourite Recipes from the Chefs of Relais & Chateaux in North America

From Relais & Chateaux, Network Book Publishing, 288 pages, $30

ISBN No. 978-0-9562661-4-9

These are recipes that some of the top chefs across the continent cook at home. Think comfort food, dinner-party dishes and sweets all packaged with favourite ingredients, seasoned with vignettes about what they like to do in their spare time. Featuring such uber-chefs as Thomas Kellar of The French Laundry with his brined and roasted chicken, and Daniel Boulud of Daniel with his cod Lynonnaise. Also showcasing 17 chefs from Relais and Chateaux properties across the United States and Canada. Recipes like Macaroni and Cheese with Seared Foie Gras, Braised Veal Cheeks, and Mushroom Risotto with Roasted Celery Root are all approachable, lavishly illustrated and inspiring. Far from being another vanity entry, this is down-to-earth stuff that presents interesting and clever dishes you'll actually want to make. Even better, at $30 this is among the better values this season. The sad news is, it can be very difficult to find -- apparently, only sold at a Relais & Chateaux properties (none in the Ottawa area) but there's still time to get it online at www.relaischateaux.com.Shipping is extra. Established in France in 1954, Relais & Chateaux is an association of hotels and gourmet restaurants in 58 countries.

Napoleon's Everyday Gourmet Burgers

By Ted Reader, Key Porter Books, 317 pages, $27.95 ISBN No. 978-1-55470-261-9

Teddy is a big, loveable and completely off-the-wall chef who loves his pyrotechnics at meal time. Which is pretty much always. The fact that his latest in a (long) series of grilling cookbooks is just about burgers makes it all the more proletarian and irresistible. The burger bliss includes 100 recipes with a difference, from lamb to pork to salmon, with beautiful, large colour photos to illustrate. Great tips, step-by-step instructions that cover basically all the important food groups (as long as they include fat, that is). Try encasing a hot dog wiener in ground beef, or mixing Captain Crunch cereal into a patty and waffle batter. Although many recipes call for Reader's own proprietary brands of widely available barbecue sauces and seasonings, you can easily substitute your favourites. These recipes are playful, creative, and the book is excellent value.

Weber's On The Grill, Steak & Sides/Chicken & Sides

By Jamie Purviance, Weber-Stephen Products Co. and Sunset Books, each 144 pages, $17.95 ISBN No. 978-0-376-02035-2 (chicken); 978-0-376-02033-8 (steak)

Here are two more grilling books from -- surprise! -- a grill manufacturer, by a bestselling American cookbook author focused on easy barbecue recipes you can do any day of the week. With recipes for everything from grilled asparagus (one of my faves) to roasted salad, rubs and marinades.

Each book offers more than 100 recipes, although many for rubs and sides are the same in each -- but at this low price, it's no big deal. Learn about grilling fundamentals, with handy charts and tables to keep you on course.

Roughly 70 colour photos in each book, these are entry-level grilling cookbooks for those who want to move beyond incinerating another slab of bovine.

Radically Simple, Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease

By Rozanne Gold, Rodale Books, 340 pages, $40 ISBN No. 978-1-60529-470-4

I have always appreciated Rozanne Gold's straightforward approach to unpretentious dishes. At age 23, she began her career as chef to New York City mayor Ed Koch, and these days promotes simple cooking with her 1-2-3 cookbook series. Here she's offering 325 streamlined recipes -- mercifully, each minus those arms-length lists of ingredients favoured by some who just want to show off. Try Cauliflower Vichyssoise with Chive Flowers, a more healthful take on classic vichyssoise made stunning with a puree of blanched parsley and chive flowers to garnish. Or, Sauteed Cod with Chorizo, Orange and Wild Arugula, Sherry Vinaigrette -- that's luxurious, flaky white fish given zip with the spicy sausage, then citrus notes on a bed of greens to harmonize the whole. I'm a fan and, as usual, Gold does not disappoint.

Bobby Flay's Throwdown!

By Bobby Flay with Stephanie Banyas and Miriam Garron, Random House, 272 pages, $31

ISBN No. 978-0-307-71916-4

OK, let's see if we get this Food Network series down pat: Take one regional hick who makes really good whatever -- say, fried prunes on a stick -- then parachute in highfalutin' New York celebrity TV chef Bobby Flay for a surprise challenge on his home turf. Then, enlist two local yokels to judge the result and -- presto! -- you get lambs to the slaughter, week after week. Now, that's entertainment. Normally I would have dismissed this cookbook as a shameless spinoff from the TV series -- which is exactly what it is. Except, in this case you actually get good recipes for some tried-and-true favourites, from matzo ball soup by New York chef Jeff Nathan (he wins the TV episode throwdown) to Shrimp and Grits by Joe Barnett in Washington, Georgia (he wins too, hmm). While Bobby Flay does win a few throw-downs, (grilled cheese, coconut cake) it seems the home teams in general fare much better -- and those are the recipes you want.

Food Presentation Secrets, Styling Techniques of Professionals

By Cara Hobday and Jo Denbury, Firefly Books, 176 pages, $29.95.

ISBN No. 978-1-55407-491-4

As any chef will tell you, if you want to bore your dinner guests silly then serve them a plate of monochromatic slop devoid of visual acuity. A formless, flaccid tuna casserole comes quickly to mind. What this clever book does (one hopes) is inspire you to elevate ordinary dishes into works of art with simple tips, instructions and recipes for more than 100 sweet, savoury and colourful garnishes. (You could tart up that casserole with some quickly sculpted vegetables, for example.) Five sections show techniques, tools, ingredients and designs used by chefs in hoitytoity restaurants that you can apply at home, with step-by-step photos showing exactly how to do it. With a few basic skills, you too can serve food with flair and impress everyone.

Around My French Table

By Dorie Greenspan, Thomas Allen & Son, 544 pages, $49.95

ISBN No. 978-0-618-87553-5

You can't have enough French cookbooks. Or should I say, good French cookbooks. And the latest from this James Beard Award-winning author hits the mark with a selection of classics from pot-au-feu to duck confit with some interesting ideas, like Salmon and Potatoes in a Jar (a clever appetizer presentation I had not considered before). Helpful discussions of key points, such as how to serve cheese properly (hint: you definitely do not cut it into cubes and impale with toothpicks). Lovely colour photos, but not excessively illustrated. At $50 a copy, it's a tad expensive, but it is thoughtful and useful and, in two words, worth considering.

Zwilling J.A. Henckels Complete Book of Knife Skills

Bt Jeffrey Elliott and James P. DeWan, Robert Rose Inc., 400 pages, $34.95

ISBN No. 978-0-7788-0256-3

My teenage son who chops vegetables each weekend at Biagio's Italian Kitchen has learned impressive knife skills over the months, and he's the first to point out how many so-called cooking celebrities on TV simply don't know how to manipulate sharp objects. Oh, sure, you can extend your fingers perilously toward the blade -- and it's all fun until someone finds the tip of a human digit in the salad nicoise. We hate when that happens. This very well-illustrated how-to book will spare you from making silly and dangerous mistakes, as well as teach simple knife-carving tricks to transform, say, cucumber and celery into little sculpted works of art. Shows you how to save big money by taking two minutes to properly butcher a whole eviscerated chicken, bone out a leg of lamb, butterfly shrimp and split a lobster. Learn how to use basic tools, and be amazed at the utter simplicity of it all.

This is a must-have culinary reference for everyone who loves to cook.

The Boreal Gourmet, Adventures in Northern Cooking

By Michele Guest, Habour Publishing Co. Ltd., 224 pages, $26.95

ISBN No. 978-1-55017-475-5

I hummed and hawed about this one, but kept returning because it is so blessedly unique -- and, believe me, a new title these days that's not boringly derivative is welcome indeed. This is for the curious gourmet reader who seeks adventurous new flavours and combinations using the indigenous and sometimes-exotic ingredients found in the Canadian boreal forest (a. k.a. god-forsaken wilderness). While I'll not likely be serving caribou or moose anytime soon (however, game meat is available at better butchers), this is the go-to book for elk liver pate and earthbound delights. But there is blessedly more, a lot more: jams, sauces and tarts made with various wild berries; birch syrup; spruce tips; and how-to steps to make genuine sourdough. The author also pairs international flavours from Italy, Greece, Asia and India with her northern recipes. Reasonably priced, this is among the more interesting offerings of 2010 but it's not for those who cook from a box.

Put 'Em Up!

By Sherri Brooks Vinton, Thomas Allen & Son, 303 pages, $24.95

ISBN No. 978-1-60342-546-9

Everyone these days seems to be pining for fresh, seasonal and local foodstuffs, and those who don't put up their own preserves would doubtless like to if they only could be convinced it's not difficult. If only there was a helpful book ...Well, it's not difficult and this one will show you, as Put 'em Up! takes you through all the steps to enjoy local produce all year by drying, canning, pickling and freezing. Includes mercifully brief but important discussions about food safety, moving small-batch home canning out of grandma's kitchen and into the 21st Century.

Not a lot of beautiful photos, but stuffed with plenty of drawings and illustrations to keep you on track. Try classic fermented sauerkraut or, my favourite, kimchee, the fermented and spicy national staple of Korea.

Chicken & Other Fowl

By John Torode, Firefly Books Ltd., 256 pages, $24.95 ISBN No. 978-1-55407-612-3

You can never have too many good recipes to prepare chicken, undoubtedly among the most versatile creatures that has ever graced our plates. This tome, with more than 150 recipes and cooking tips from British master chef John Torode, starts with the basics and moves on roasting searing, braising, stewing. Start with a simple stock and use it to create creamy soups, chowders and consomme. It is not an absolutely brilliant cookbook, but it is a good cookbook that's attractively priced.

My Cooking Class

Series titles include: Chocolate Basics (ISBN No. 978-1-55407-758-8);

Middle Eastern Basics

(ISBN No. 978-1-55407-759-5);

Steaming Basics

(ISBN No. 978-1-55407-757-1);

Sauce Basics

(ISBN No. 978-1-55407-761-8);

Vegetable Basics

(ISBN No. 978-1-55407-760-1);

Pasta Basics

(ISBN No. 978-1-55407-756-4) Various authors, Firefly Books, about 250 pages, $24.95 each, paperback

This is a series by various authors with complete (and I mean complete) step-by-step and how-to colour photos to describe every conceivable step in every conceivable process. Each with 70 to 97 recipes. These books are extremely clear in presentation, right down to photos of egg yolks (with every other ingredient) so you don't accidentally reach for, say, Palmolive dishwashing soup when you should be making Bearnaise sauce. Some might think the series is too dumbed-down but, at only $25 a copy, I think these books are perfect for entry-level cooks who want to move beyond Kraft Dinner to discover that homemade lasagna does not always have to be made with dried gypsum board. I'd be tempted to give the whole set as a gift to the right person.