Every year, when it comes time to compile my annual list of favorite cookbooks, I ask myself the same questions: What makes a cookbook compulsively readable? Why do some cookbooks – even those without the Food Network imprimatur – become bestsellers, while others languish on the shelves? Most importantly, which new cookbooks can I not live without?
This year, I got a little extra help in my quest from two-time James Beard Award-winning food journalist and author Nina Barrett, who also happens to own one of my favorite independent bookstores, Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston. We share similar sensibilities when it comes to cookbooks.
“The first job of a great cookbook is to be inspirational,” says Barrett. “It needs to make you want to make the recipes. Great pictures help. Then it needs to deliver do-able recipes that won’t make you fall short of its promises.”
Nina’s top five cookbook picks for 2015, in no particular order, along with her commentary:
“His previous books have been so remarkable that just looking at the name ‘Ottolenghi’ makes my mouth water. Anything he can dish out, I want to cook.” (Julie’s note: in stores October 20, just in time for his appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival. This is also one of my top picks!)
“Bite-size foods rock. Who wouldn’t rather eat 10 different dishes in one sitting than 10 bites of one thing? This lavishly illustrated update of the 1990s classic, ‘Martha Stewart’s Hors d’Oeuvres Handbook,’ screams: Throw party now!”
“Sugar-Coated Pork and Raisin Turnovers! Roquefort and Walnut Mini Pies! Creamy Tuna and Roasted Red Pepper Pies! Now there’s a food truck in your kitchen.”
“These recipes from the popular Food52 website are easy enough for any home cook to follow, yet each offers some clever twist that even experienced cooks can learn from. Fabulous Caesar salad dressing without the scary raw egg yolks? For me, that’s a game changer.” (Julie’s note: Agreed. Also on my list – I’m a big fan of this largely crowd-sourced website.)
“I’m still in withdrawal from the disappearance of Bittman’s mix-and-match recipe columns from the New York Times Sunday Magazine, which would present a dish like paella, and instead of telling us how to ‘do it right, damn it,’ would encourage us to have fun playing with the concept. This book finally enables us to throw away all the two-page recipe spreads we ripped out and stashed in our other cookbook! (Julie’s note: Mark Bittman is a brilliant, intuitive home cook. Another on my list. See what I mean about shared sensibilities?)
I’ll add to Barrett’s list five more of my favorite cookbooks of 2015 for an even 10:
Clams, cranberries, crab and corn: all the stalwarts of New England cuisine, cooked with love. The New England-born and bred Chase is a true storyteller, and Ina Garten, the cookbook queen (who wrote the book’s foreword) is a big fan. My new go-to Clam Chowder recipe.
Segal is Chicago’s favorite rock-and-roll pastry chef, and HotChocolate, her restaurant in Wicker Park, has long been a favorite of the food cognoscenti. And let me tell you, the woman can flat-out BAKE. Her Peanut Butter Peanut Brittle Cookies will make you weep.
This charming book grew out of Delk Adams’ popular recipe blog, Grandbaby Cakes. It’s all about family, love and memories. These are twists on the desserts she grew up baking with her grandmother, with clear, concise directions and helpful tips. Delk Adams took the mouthwatering photos as well. This book is worth buying for the Cream Cheese Poundcake recipe alone—but you will return to it again and again.
San Francisco and New York foodies wait hours for a taste of his (sometimes crazy, often inspired) mash-ups of American and classic Chinese foods. Feel free to take down the heat a notch on incendiary specialties like Kung Pao Pastrami, Ma Po Tofu and Sour Chili Chicken – or not. You can always write it off as a hot flash. (in stores November 10)
The subtitle pretty much tells the story, but the owners of this Lower Manhattan bar have won countless awards (including World’s Best Bar and World’s Best Drink Selection) for their inventive takes on turn-of-the-twentieth-century cocktails and punches. They’ve forgotten more about absinthe than you’ll ever know, perhaps from drinking it in quantity. This book is the next-best thing to being there. (in stores October 13)
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