The algorithm has spoken: Today’s home cooks want books written by those who cook at home. So restaurant cookbooks, with their chefsplaining and impossible-to-recreate recipes, take up less of this season’s pile. (Don’t think I’m exaggerating: A handful of recent chefs’ books are so willfully uncookable they veer toward fantasy fiction.) Instead, let’s step into the well-worn groove that professional food writers, private chefs, YouTube stars and octogenarian nonnas have walked between counter, stove and table.
Adeena Sussman has been a co-author of 11 cookbooks, including two best sellers with Chrissy Teigen, but now she’s going solo. Whether we have her therapist or her now-husband, for whom she moved to Israel in 2015, to thank, we should be grateful. SABABA: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen (Avery, 368 pp., $35) is a breath of fresh, sunny air. Sussman had visited and occasionally lived in Israel since childhood, becoming “all the more smitten with the edible life here” as the food scene went from nonstop hummus and falafel to one of international interest. Her recipes are personal, playful and always approachable, be it the “magical hummus” taught to her by a famous Tel Aviv chef or a grilled chicken and corn salad with the avocado-za’atar green goddess dressing I now make in bulk. And her tahini caramel tart justifiably earns its parenthetical description as “the Gal Gadot of tarts.” With this book, Sussman will most likely prove to be a new kind of Amazon warrior goddess.
The award-winning British food writer Diana Henry is the most reassuring of recipe writers, offering deliciousness, comfort and ease in these twitchy times. Even the subtitle of her new book is a warm bath with a cup of tea: FROM THE OVEN TO THE TABLE: Simple Dishes That Look After Themselves (Mitchell Beazley, 240 pp., $29.99). The Brits have long been at ease incorporating international flavors into their cooking (culinary colonialism, you could say). So into the roasting pan — sheet pans are rare in the U.K., according to Henry — goes a whole cauliflower, to be served with pistachio and preserved-lemon relish and a tahini sauce. A dish of butter-roasted eggplant and tomatoes with juice-plumped freekeh is jolted by the complex Ethiopian sauce called koch-kocha. And poussins get an Indonesian marinade-cum-sauce that Henry efficiently introduces as “Sticky, messy, quick.” She even riffs on American baked beans, albeit with the addition of pork belly. For all the muss and fuss so many cookbooks require, Henry’s one-and-done approach produces food that’s comforting on multiple levels, all necessary.
No one could have described Paul Kahan’s first cookbook as simple. Even those of us who are fans of the talented Chicago chef’s many restaurants deemed it too restaurant-y, with each recipe a Russian doll of subrecipes stacking up to a weekend’s work. He’s corrected course brilliantly with COOKING FOR GOOD TIMES: Super Delicious, Super Simple (Lorena Jones/Ten Speed, 277 pp., $35), written with Rachel Holtzman and Perry Hendrix, the chef de cuisine at his Mediterranean/Midwestern restaurant, Avec. This is the kind of food Kahan and his wife serve by the platter at their Wisconsin cabin: dishes that allow them to hang out in the kitchen with guests, snacking on salumi and pouring wine. (It’s also based on the food he serves at Avec.) Each of the 13 chapters concentrates on one directive — Roast Some Roots, Braise a Pork Shoulder, Make a Simple Dessert — and offers a master recipe with inspired seasonal riffs. Said roots might team up with persimmons and a walnut-anchovy vinaigrette in winter, or be tossed with strawberries, ricotta and pistachios come summer, while that brined and braised shoulder could emerge with white beans, chorizo and cider, or braised apricots, couscous and fennel yogurt. As someone who has taken a cab from O’Hare straight to Avec for the chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates, I was thrilled to finally have the recipe. Relaxed but still serious about good food, this book will be to Gen X entertainers what Alison Roman’s new cookbook, “Nothing Fancy,” is to millennials: a chill bible.
Amy Chaplin’s first book, “At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen,” was a sneaker. It arrived quietly from a small press, then won a James Beard Award for Chaplin’s deeply thoughtful approach to vegetarian cooking, which is rooted more in macrobiotics than trendy meatless Mondays. (She was the chef at Angelica Kitchen in the East Village a decade before rice bowls and turmeric were cool.) Her gorgeous sequel, WHOLE FOOD COOKING EVERY DAY: Transform the Way You Eat With 250 Vegetarian Recipes Free of Gluten, Dairy, and Refined Sugar (Artisan, 400 pp., $40), is a different creature. More of a manual than a menu-generator, it offers a disparate range of base recipes, along with creative variations. Chaplin prefers to give readers the blueprints they need to be able to improvise in any season. So that nut or seed milk formula can become rose almond milk, black sesame milk or cardamom-pumpkin seed milk. A buckwheat hazelnut cake can incorporate berries or cacao and pears. Granola, seeded crackers, land and sea vegetables, waffles, dressings, compotes, baked marinated tempeh and other hippie-leaning delights are riffed upon to delicious, often visually lovely effect. Best of all, this is food that makes you feel invincible.
Even if you don’t have celiac disease, gluten-free baked goods are impossible to avoid — even in Parisian bakeries. They’re not bad, but they’re not … great. My GF GFs (that’s gluten-free girlfriends) have long raved about the bread and baked-good recipes Aran Goyoaga has posted on her site, Cannelle et Vanille. The Seattle-based writer, photographer and food stylist had left her job as a pastry chef at a five-star hotel before realizing she was gluten-intolerant. She has spent years developing recipes that can satisfy even naysayers. That’s why I pretty much skipped Goyoaga’s savory stuff and treated CANNELLE ET VANILLE: Nourishing, Gluten-Free Recipes for Every Meal and Mood (Sasquatch, 337 pp., $35) as a baking book, turning to its recipes for Nordic rye-style seed bread, banana bread with sunflower seed icing, caramelized apple galette, even sourdough boules. My cupboard now overflows with flours (oat, superfine brown rice) and starches (potato, tapioca), as well as psyllium husk powder, but I’ll need them as I happily return to these excellent recipes. Next I’ll try her sourdough waffles, fresh pasta and brown butter madeleines.
Maangchi is a first-name-only YouTube star. The South Korean turned New Yorker uploaded her first home-cooking video over 10 years ago — back in the days before you could find kimchi at Midwestern grocery stores — and now has almost four million subscribers. Her second book, MAANGCHI’S BIG BOOK OF KOREAN COOKING: From Everyday Meals to Celebration Cuisine (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 448 pp., $35), written with Martha Rose Shulman, is a comprehensive introduction to bringing Korean food home. The welcoming, unpretentious tone is set by the pictorial guide to produce, kitchenware and more: These aren’t stylized, hard-to-follow tableaus but snapshots of the items in the wild (in other words, at H-Mart), accompanied by their Korean names and characters. Maangchi respects tradition, but knows her audience — and therefore isn’t afraid to freestyle. The recipes range from gateway adaptations, such as bibimbap with mushrooms, vegetables and avocado and grilled beef short ribs (minus the tabletop grill), to traditional temple food like rice and nuts wrapped in a lotus leaf. And if you haven’t been introduced to spicy soft tofu stew, you’ll be glad you made the trip to H-Mart. Though if Maangchi has her way, gochugaru hot pepper flakes will soon be in Midwestern grocery stores too.
Shopping for the ingredients in THE FOOD OF SICHUAN (Norton, 495 pp., $40) proved a hair more intensive. As glad as I am that the award-winning British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s 2001 book, published in the United States as “Land of Plenty” in 2003, has been expanded and revised, Maangchi had gotten me hooked on the helpfulness of norm-core visuals. (Oddly, the stylized tableaus in Dunlop’s book have no numbers on the photos corresponding to the ingredients listed, so it’s hard to distinguish the “facing-heaven” chiles from the “little rice” chiles.) But it was worth the Great Chinatown Grocery Translation Comedy to be able to make the dishes in this masterful book, which has been updated to absorb the brisk changes of the last 18 years. (Many of Dunlop’s favorite dishes when she was a student in China in the mid-1990s have disappeared, replaced by new ingredients and techniques.) Mapo tofu and dandan noodles are here in their now internationally famous fiery state, but Dunlop also shows the glorious subtlety of Sichuan cuisine. Why not ease in with green beans in a gentle ginger sauce or serve deep-fried chicken strips with celery in a delicate vinegar sauce? Dunlop is a scholar with an engaging, contagious curiosity and a deft touch, as interested in when the Chinese character for chestnut first appeared as she is in teaching us that “eating vinegar” is a common Chinese phrase that means to be “cuckolded or to feel amorous jealousy.” And, thankfully, she’s an expert culinary translator.
Ivan Orkin is an obsessive’s obsessive. A Long Island native who moved to Japan almost 30 years ago and mastered ramen well enough to become a successful restaurateur, his “Ivan Ramen” cookbook was, well, for the 1 percent of food nerds. Now that he and his family live in the New York burbs, his second book is a humble, homesick reveal of what he really serves at home. THE GAIJIN COOKBOOK: Japanese Recipes From a Chef, Father, Eater, and Lifelong Outsider (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pp., $30) finds him and his friend and co-author, Chris Ying, writing humorously and honestly about cookability and what kids will actually eat. There are cute things to tuck into school lunches (stuffed tofu pouches, rice balls) and family-pleasers (pork cutlets, stir-fried udon, teriyaki), sure, but it’s still Ivan. One of the book’s themes is otaku (geeking out). Orkin can’t resist hosting a tempura party, making 60 gyoza and topping them with a dramatic lattice net or pairing tuna and squid with the polarizing fermented soybeans called natto. There are excellent cookbooks about the Japanese fundamentals by Westerners who write as insiders. This is an excellent cookbook about the experience of one Western guy who, after all this time, still feels like an outsider. He’s almost O.K. with it. Check back in another decade.
Mandy Lee, however, is not O.K. with her outsider status. This New Yorker moved to Beijing for her husband’s work in 2012 and swiftly went off the rails. Cooking became the only way to cope with her alienation and dread, giving rise to her “angry food blog,” Lady and Pups. Instead of the typical posts of gorgeous food paired with gee-life’s-great text, Lee’s gorgeous food is paired with extremely crafted blasts of bile and despair; it’s like looking at a Caravaggio while listening to Rammstein. Her book, THE ART OF ESCAPISM COOKING: A Survival Story, With Intensely Good Flavors (Morrow, 392 pp., $35), pushes the edges of intensity in terms of flavor and fierce originality. (And that’s just the writing.) Lee isn’t your source for rose-scented almond milk and buckwheat banana bread. Instead, she’ll give you Chinese southern almond (apricot kernel) milk, which you can drink with your slice of ombre birthday meatcake after you’ve had a sardine-topped rice bowl she named “cat food.” (“I consider people who don’t appreciate canned sardines to be of a less evolved genome. … Not their fault — a thought that helps me not to go dark on them.”) Will you commit to the four-page recipe for Peking duck ramen? Or just her “fast and furious carbonara,” using instant ramen noodles? It depends on how much you’re hating life RN.
Maybe Lee just needs to hang with the Pasta Grannies. Sometimes it takes a village-dwelling octogenarian who can make tortellini with her eyes closed to tell you what life — and cooking — is really about: It’s easy once you’ve done it for long enough. “Pasta Grannies” is a YouTube channel and Instagram account started by Vicky Bennison, who sought out elderly women to teach her a variety of pasta shapes and sauces — a lost art that’s disappearing as Italians opt for quicker meals. The recipes in her cookbook, PASTA GRANNIES: The Secrets of Italy’s Best Home Cooks (Hardie Grant, 255 pp., $29.99), are humble and strictly regional, the spirit rich and joyful. One-hundred-year-old Letizia from Sicily makes hand-cut tagliatelle with a simple purée of dried fava beans and wild fennel, a dish she could afford to feed her children during World War II. Emilia in Abruzzo makes “guitar” spaghetti with tiny meatballs. Lucia, 89, prepares thick raschiatelli to serve with a sauce of chopped salami, garlic and a can of tomatoes, finished with a grating of fresh horseradish and pecorino. The real delight (and instruction) is in watching the corresponding video for each dish. Seeing the women’s hands, as well as the twinkle in their eyes, will inspire a new generation of pasta-makers, thanks to Bennison.
Toni Tipton-Martin has brought to light generations of African-Americans’ contributions to what’s viewed as American cuisine. The award-winning author of “The Jemima Code,” a history of African-American cooking as seen through over 150 cookbooks, brings a beautiful new dimension to some of their recipes in JUBILEE: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking (Clarkson Potter, 320 pp., $35). Tipton-Martin found black culinary history to involve far more than soul food and Southern cuisine, drawing on a wide range of skills and ingredients: the elite cooking learned in plantation houses as well as the ingenious recipes field hands cooked in their slave cabins. Tipton-Martin also folds in luxe dishes favored by the black bourgeoisie and the “sturdy but refined” cooking that fueled community activism. Her recipes are updates, amalgams and her own inventions. A recipe for fluffy sweet potato biscuits stems from one that appeared in a George Washington Carver booklet, adding ham from a recipe in a cookbook published a century later, “Well, Shut My Mouth!” Oven-baked ribs with cola barbecue sauce hail from the Black Panther Party co-founder — and avid BBQer — Bobby Seale. And spicy okra and tomatoes? That’s all her. Elsewhere she offers Senegalese-inspired braised lamb shanks with peanut sauce, Jamaican rice and peas with coconut, Louisiana barbecued shrimp, French-accented beef stew, Chinese chicken wings from a 1950s Oklahoma caterer and more, highlighting just some of the many voices that make up this delicious and essential celebration.
And now for something completely different. With “The Flavor Thesaurus,” the British food writer Niki Segnit broke new ground, creating a bible for serious cooks who want to understand how and why flavors combine. As she was testing those flavor pairings, she wondered why there wasn’t a cookbook that not only laid out but linked classic recipes, tracing the through-line from bread to batter to soups, and so on. Almost a decade later, we are fortunate to have LATERAL COOKING: One Dish Leads to Another (Bloomsbury, 609 pp., $40), hundreds of pages of pure, informative delight. Nigella Lawson deems Segnit “a one-woman Larousse.” If only Larousse had been as intrepid — and funny. Segnit not only covers continents but also makes deft, slyly humorous work of connecting their dishes. Each chapter, or “continuum,” offers basic recipes for starting points, followed by a “leeway” section for adaptations and “flavors and variations” to spark creativity. So a recipe for flatbreads and crackers can be spun into charcoal biscuits, coconut roti, matzo, millet flatbread (resulting in a “pinky-gray dough” that “looked like Iggy Pop’s tongue, circa 1972”), oatcakes (“a Methodist’s flapjack”), potato parathas and more, before Segnit segues into a mother recipe for soda bread, biscuits and cobbler. And on and on. Segnit effortlessly glides readers up and over her culinary Everest. They descend as confident, improvisational cooks, with a base knowledge of the relationship between dishes that allows them to adapt recipes from other books, make bread from memory and let the ingredients lead. “It’s a question of confidence, ultimately,” she writes. “Nail the daily loaf and brioche feels like less of a challenge.” Even if nailing the daily loaf isn’t at the top of your list of 2020 resolutions, reading the work of this culinary powerhouse most certainly should be.
Want more inspiration? Here are 20 additional recommendations:
ALPINE COOKING: Recipes and Stories From Europe’s Grand Mountaintops (Ten Speed, 352 pp., $50), by Meredith Erickson. Lavishly illustrated mile-high menus, organized by country.
AMA: A Modern Tex-Mex Kitchen (Chronicle, 272 pp., $29.95), by Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock. A fresh, stylish take on queso and more from the San Antonio-born chef of the popular Los Angeles restaurant.
AMERICAN SFOGLINO: A Master Class in Handmade Pasta (Chronicle, 272 pp., $35), by Evan Funke, with Katie Parla. Deep dough knowledge from the chef behind the award-winning restaurant Felix Trattoria in Venice, Calif., offering the shapes and sauces he learned in Emilia Romagna.
BREAD ON THE TABLE: Recipes for Making and Enjoying Europe’s Most Beloved Breads (Ten Speed, 256 pp., $35), by David Norman. Advanced recipes and advice from one of the partners in the Easy Tiger Bake Shop and Beer Garden in Austin, Tex.
BUTCHER AND BEAST: Mastering the Art of Meat (Clarkson Potter, 304 pp., $40), by Angie Mar. The award-winning chef and owner of New York’s Beatrice Inn has created a fashionably photographed book that’s as high-rolling and unapologetically carnivorous as her restaurant.
CANAL HOUSE: COOK SOMETHING: Recipes to Rely On (Voracious, 448 pp., $35), by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. The creators of the Canal House cooking series bring their decades of wisdom and impeccable, approachable taste to an essential volume.
JAPANESE HOME COOKING: Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors (Roost, 304 pp., $40), by Sonoko Sakai. A beautifully photographed, clearly written introduction to Japanese cuisine, from a California-based Japanese-American teacher and recipe developer.
THE JEWISH COOKBOOK (Phaidon, 432 pp., $49.95), by Leah Koenig. More than 400 recipes from Jewish communities and Jewish chefs throughout the world.
THE JOY OF COOKING (Scribner, 1,156 pp., $40), by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker, John Becker and Megan Scott. The great-grandson of the original author of this cookery bible has joined with his wife to update his family’s continuing contribution to American cuisine.
THE LAST COURSE: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern (Random House, 320 pp., $40), by Claudia Fleming, with Melissa Clark. A reissue of this seminal 2001 book was in order since out-of-print copies were fetching hundreds of dollars on Amazon. For good reason: Fleming’s seasonal recipes are still groundbreaking and influential today, from the chocolate caramel tart to the peach tartes tatin.
LIVING BREAD: Tradition and Innovation in Artisan Bread Baking (Avery, 368 pp., $40), by Daniel Leader, with Lauren Chattman. Leader’s bakery in the Catskills, Bread Alone, is a place of pilgrimage for those devoted to artisan breads. This book explains why.
MASTERING SPICE: Recipes and Techniques to Transform Your Everyday added Cooking (Clarkson Potter, 272 pp., $35), by Lior Lev Sercarz, with Genevieve Ko. Trained as a chef, the highly respected owner of the New York spice shop La Boîte offers techniques and variations for amping up a range of dishes.
THE NEW ORLEANS KITCHEN: Classic Recipes and Modern Techniques for an Unrivaled Cuisine (Lorena Jones/Ten Speed, 384 pp., $40), by Justin Devillier, with Jamie Feldmar. Step-by-step instructions for replicating the best-known dishes of Crescent City cuisine, from the chef at the French Quarter restaurant Justine.
NOTHING FANCY: Unfussy Food for Having People Over (Clarkson Potter, 320 pp., $32.50), by Alison Roman. The New York Times and Bon Appétit columnist demystifies home entertaining with elegantly approachable recipes and event-elevating tips for the post-post-Martha generation. Martini bar, anyone?
OAXACA: Home Cooking From the Heart of Mexico (Abrams, 320 pp., $40), by Bricia Lopez, with Javier Cabral. A guide to the “soul food” of Mexico, courtesy of the family that presides over the Los Angeles restaurant Guelaguetza.
PASTRY LOVE: A Baker’s Journal of Favorite Recipes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 464 pp., $40), by Joanne Chang. She has an empire of bakeries in Boston, but in her latest cookbook Chang features recipes for some treats not found in her shops.
SALTWATER TABLE: Recipes From the Coastal South (Abrams, 288 pp., $40), by Whitney Otawka. Using her own recipes and Emily Dorio’s photographs, Otawka transports readers to the historic Greyfield Inn on Georgia’s Cumberland Island, where she serves up award-winning meals.
SEEKING THE SOUTH: Finding Inspired Regional Cuisines (Avery, 336 pp., $35), by Rob Newton, with Jamie Feldmar. A guide to the ever-evolving cuisine of an increasingly diverse section of America, from an Arkansas-born chef now based in Nashville.
SOUTH: Essential Recipes and New Inspirations (Artisan, 376 pp., $40), by Sean Brock. Another compilation of impressive dishes, old and new, from the award-winning Nashville chef.
TARTINE: A Classic Revisited (Chronicle, 328 pp., $40), by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson. Dozens of new recipes and an array of new photographs make this updated edition of a beloved baking book even more valuable than its original edition.
Christine Muhlke is the author of the new books “Wine Simple,” with Aldo Sohm, and “Signature Dishes That Matter.”