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When I sent her last week’s post, with its simmer sauce adapted from the River Cottage Family Cookbook, my editor, Katy, wrote back to say she’d been inspired to order several of the River Cottage Cookbooks, which she hadn’t known about. I enthused about how wonderful they are and told her the Family Cookbook is one of my favorite gifts for new parents or older children just getting into cooking. This got me thinking. Now maybe it’s professional bias—I’m a food writer after all—but I do think that a cookbook, when well-suited to the recipient, is the ideal gift. Cookbooks offer inspiration, comfort, new perspectives, nostalgic gratifications, company in the kitchen, and just about the greatest sense of possibility you can give a person.
Plenty of publications make lists of “favorite new books of the year.” Because there are so many brilliant old books out there awaiting rediscovery, I thought I’d put together my current list of favorites, new and old, with a focus on lesser-known titles (since you probably have heard about a book called The Joy of Cooking?). There’s something here for busy moms, retro-minded homemakers, healthful granola types, people who love vegetables (or wish they did), tweens who want to make their own sausage, vegetarians and everyone who could eat pasta every day. Many of these titles have come up in my posts, whether I’ve adapted recipes from them, reviewed them or used them as jumping-off points for my own creations. All of these books migrate around our house, from counter to couch to bedside table, and I believe they’d make spectacular gifts.
If I’ve left off any of your favorites, please chime in! Oh and if you’re thinking of getting me a book for the holidays this year, I’ve got my eye on the new James Peterson Meat Book, as well as Dave Wondrich’s Punch book. (Gee, maybe I’ve been watching too much Mad Men!).
Ten Favorite Cookbooks for Cooks, Non-Cooks and Others Who Eat
The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham
• Who Will Love This Book: Moms and Dads who make breakfast on the weekends, anyone who loves American cooking from a slightly less butter-phobic era, kids who adore muffins.
• Sampling of Recipes: Whole Wheat Buttermilk Waffles; Indian Pudding; Huevos Verdes; Homemade Yogurt
Time for Dinner by Pilar Guzman, Jenny Rosenstratch, and Alanna Stang
• Who Will Love This Book: Parents who live in the real world and crave home-cooked dinner—at least some of the time, all kids
• Sampling of Recipes: Rigatoni Casserole with Tofu (HUGE hit at our place); One Pot Coconut-Chicken Curry; Turkey Bolognese
Mangoes and Curry Leaves by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
• Who Will Love This Book: Home cooks craving accessible, authentic Indian food, armchair travelers
• Sampling of Recipes: Chicken Biryani; Chapatis; Bangla Dal with a Hint of Lime
• Who Will Love This Book: Bakers, parents… anyone who wants to work in more whole grains
• Sampling of Recipes: Chewy Oatmeal Cookies; Eggnog Oat Scones with a Whiskey Glaze; Cornmeal Maple Biscuits; Granola Bread; Pumpkin Cake
Pasta e Verdura by Jack Bishop
• Who Will Love This Book: Pasta lovers, Greenmarket shoppers, vegetarians and others searching for fast, family-friendly one-pot meals
• Sampling of Recipes: Fettucine and Browned Savoy Cabbage with Garlic and Parmesan; Fusilli and Braised Green Beans with Tomatoes and Goat Cheese; Farfalle and Italian Succotash with Tomatoes, Corn, Lima Beans and Chives
Vegetarian Classics by Jeanne Lemlin
• Who Will Love This Book: Vegetarians of all cooking abilities, and anyone who wants to cook without meat some of the time
• Sampling of Recipes: White Bean Spread with Lemon and Mint; Sweet Potato Bread, Pad Thai with Crispy Tofu; Large Soft Ginger Cookies
In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark
• Who Will Love This Book: Cooks seeking creative, appealing, streamlined recipes, former-foodies turned parents, people who love reading cookbooks and planning their next meal
• Sampling of Recipes: Roasted Shrimp and Broccoli; Lamb Tagine with Apricots, Olives, and Buttered Almonds; Fudgy Bourbon Balls; Whole Wheat Cinnamon Snacking Cake
The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash
• Who Will Love This Book: Anyone who buys seasonal vegetables—or grows them
• Sampling of Recipes: Leek and Potato Soup; Kohlrabi and Chicken Stew; Zucchini Bread; Spinach Crepes; Fennel, Bean and Tomato Soup
On Top of Spaghetti… by Johanne Killeen and George Germon
• Who Will Love This Book: Cooks who adore pasta/Italian cooking
• Sampling of Recipes: Linguini with Frenched Green Beans and Parsley “Pesto”; Sunday Gravy with Sausages and Meatballs; Mushroom Lasagne
The River Cottage Family Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fizz Carr
• Who Will Love This Book: Parents who want to celebrate and learn about real food for/with their kids, foodie kids
• Sampling of Recipes: Vegetable Fritters; Soda Bread; Roast Chicken; Spicy Lamb Pie; Honey-Ginger Cake
In the spirit of the holidays, generous soul that I am, I have just given myself a new cookbook: Nigella Kitchen (by Nigella Lawson of course). The first recipe I picked is her Chocolate Banana Muffins. We had everything on the very short ingredient list, and the muffins came together in the time it took to preheat the oven. Nigella claims these “positively beg to be brought out with coffee after dinner,” but then she probably didn’t count on my addition of oat bran (which, um, counteracts the effects of banana on certain toddlers). Instead, I’ll be presenting these as a very exciting after-school snack, accompanied by a glass of milk. Perhaps I’ll make myself a cup of coffee and feel both domestic and adult as we dig in. That’s the transporting power of a good cookbook for you.
Zoe Singer is a freelance food writer and cookbook editor and co-author of The Flexitarian Table. Food Editor and blogger for The Faster Times, she tries not to eat for two now that her son is a toddler.