This is an updated version of a column that ran a couple of years ago.
It’s the day before Christmas. Good luck to you if you are reading this looking for gift ideas. Your goose is pretty well cooked. I say that in the kindest way, because I am hiding out in the guest room, trying to wrap my presents, something that I hate doing. The shopping is much more pleasurable, provided you have an idea of what will please your nearest and dearest. You still have a little time to ease quietly out of the house and run downtown. And see if they offer gift wrapping services…
’Tis the season to be jolly, and generous, and thoughtful, and creative, while also being mindful of your budget, and taking into consideration other people’s delicate sensibilities and constitutions. I will refer you to your local independent bookstore where recommendations will be helpful and insightful.
When we renovated this house we added two walls of built-in bookcases, one in the living room and one in the kitchen, because we live with books. I come from a family of readers and writers and book lovers. This week’s illustration is one of four shelves devoted to our cookbooks. Sometimes the books are grouped thematically – Jamie Oliver’s stands next to The River Café Cook Book because he got his start working at the River Café. Mark Bittman and Amanda Hesser bookend the shelf because of their New York Times connection. The well-thumbed Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts falls open to favorite, oft-baked Flourless Chocolate Cake. I still refer to the book, even though I bake the flourless chocolate cake a couple of times a year, and have done so every year since 1985. It also has the best recipe for chocolate ganache.
Using the internets for finding recipes is convenient, but hardly as evocative as flipping through the grease-flecked pages of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is on another shelf, just out of the frame above. I can’t have physical recipe cards tucked into my own mother’s old copy of Google. I can’t dog ear or underline important directions that I overlook when I am in a hurry. Sometimes it is important to mix all the dry ingredients together FIRST. Or that an egg should be beaten before adding it to the mixture. I tend to be hasty in the kitchen, and do better with a paper version of the dish I am trying to produce than with a webpage that needs to be refreshed every few minutes. One of these days I will memorize Mark Bittman’s easy peasy pizza dough recipe, since I whip up a version of it every week, so it is a signal that the weekend is about to begin when I get his book off the shelf on a Friday morning, and it opens to the very spot I seek.
And thus the holiday theme for this week’s Food Friday. Gift giving. Not gifting. What a terrible word! Please promise me that you will give book gifts.
You can start with the newest edition of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. The Basic Pizza Dough recipe can be found in my edition of the book on page 178. This is a wonderful book to give to youngsters just starting out – or to have as a handy dandy reference, or to give to someone who does not subscribe to The New York Times. I have the tenth anniversary edition – but a new and improved 20th anniversary edition is now in print. (Mr. Sanders found this copy on a remainder table! Always a bargain hunter, our Mr. Sanders.) https://www.markbittman.com/books
Vivian Howard’s Deep Run Roots is a beautifully designed book. She must have developed high production values when doing her PBS show A Chef’s Life. Her recipes are just as charming and quirky as the program. We cooked Scarlett’s Chicken Rice a couple of weeks ago, and froze several containers to have for winter weather insurance. https://www.vivianhoward.com/deep-run-roots
Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table was a revelation! I had always thought she was a baker. I hadn’t realized her versatility until a friend cooked the most impressive Chicken in a Pot for us. Amazing. It introduced us to another portal in the universe that leads to garlic and preserved lemons. And the fact that a screwdriver is a key cooking utensil lends the dish a certain bit of je ne sais quoi. For sure. https://doriegreenspan.com/book/around-my-french-table-more-than-300-recipes-from-my-home-to-yours-5/
While not a cook book, this new book is rather charming memoir by New York Magazine restaurant writer Adam Platt. It was a throughly enjoyable bit of armchair travel and fine dining: The Book of Eating. I always read his reviews in New York, not that I will ever dine in any of the eateries he reviews, but it feels as if the opportunity ever presents itself, I will be au currant and prepared for discussions about farm-to-table, fois gras, New Age crabmeat pithivier, or even “elegantly sliced hamachi crudo.” Here is an excerpt: https://www.grubstreet.com/2019/10/in-defense-of-wasp-cooking.html
Speaking of charming – this is a British podcast that I have been enjoying while walking Luke the wonder dog: Table Manners. Jessie Ware and her mother Lenny cook warmly satisfying meals for a panoply of talented guests, while discussing creative projects, books, movies, food, travel, Uber ratings, and final meals in a fairly ribald manner. (Spoiler alert – F bombs are dropped, but with cute British accents.) https://play.acast.com/s/tablemanners
I hope you will stroll into your local, independent bookshop and will rummage through the cookbooks for all your nearest and dearest this festive season. Holiday meals can be minefields: it is good to have protective armor and reference books. No screens at the table, please. And another key to easing your holiday burdens – books are easily wrapped. Plus, one size fits all – you can always squeeze one more book onto a shelf.
“This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook — try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”