Still More Cookbooks for You and Other People

all cookbooksCookbooks are back. Well, they never left, but popularity waned. It has been oft cited this year that cookbook sales are up over 20%. As you can see from the catalog of links below, I would agree that cookbooks are a valuable use of your funds and shelf space. I love food blogs as much as the next food blogger for the instant gratification, the ease of sharing recipes, and the variety you can find (all available for free!). But, a cookbook is a person and a moment in time committed to paper. Cookbooks are recipes, techniques, and stories literally bound together for both cohesive narrative and lessons. They are beautiful inspiration. The link to your favorite recipe never breaks, and you can keep the page to a recipe open and save your phone from getting caked with raw egg and flour.

Cookbooks can also make wonderful gifts. I have an extensive collection, but have limited my suggestions here to cookbooks I truly use all the time and have also gifted myself. I still own and love all of the cookbooks I wrote about previously, so be sure to look at past year’s lists as well (they are all linked to at the bottom).

But, maybe you aren’t into buying people things, or you don’t have the cash to do so right now. I’ve also given homemade cookbooks with a collection of my favorite recipes. Use a binder, some spray paint or cool paper (purchasing is not necessary, you could just use a brown paper bag and draw/stamp on it!), and fill it with dividers. Print out your favorite recipes and load them in! You could do a specific theme too, like one year I made my mom one with all soup recipes because she makes lots of soup during the winter for our family.

good and cheapGood and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/day by Leanne Brown. Brown wrote this cookbook as part of her masters in food studies to help people on SNAP cook healthy, flavorful, and interesting meals. She released the cookbook as a free PDF (which you can download through the link above), but if you buy a paper copy her publisher will donate a book to someone in need. The book is available in English and Spanish. These reasons alone would seem like enough to earn a recommendation, but what is most important is the book is full of solid, easy to follow, and delicious recipes. She is truly a master of taking cheap basics and reworking them in many dishes.

This book is best for: people who may not be comfortable in the kitchen yet, people who are not into long ingredient lists or fancy techniques, students, people who like saving money.

Favorite recipes: poutine, peanut chicken with broccoli and coconut rice, coconut and lime brown rice pudding.

IMG_6535Smitten Kitchen Every Day by Deb Perelman. I approached this book cautiously when it came out last year. Could I possibly love and cook from it as much as I had Deb’s first book? It is still early to tell (I’ve had her first book for six years), but I think the answer is yes. Like her first cookbook this one has a wide range of types of recipes with everything from breakfast to salads to vegetarian mains to dessert (it is not an exclusively vegetarian cookbook, but many recipes are). Her recipes are always well written, and are interesting but feel very achievable on a weeknight. While I am not in the business of recommending cookbooks for a single recipe, the street cart chicken and rice alone makes the book worthwhile to me. I’ve written about my love for this recipe before, and for my husband’s birthday this year I quadrupled the recipe for a party and it was a huge hit.

This cookbook is best for: busy people with a wide palate, people who aren’t afraid to try a new ingredient or technique, your best friend, bakers, part or full time vegetarians.

Favorite recipes: street cart chicken and rice, skirt steak salad, spaghetti pangratto with crispy eggs, pizza beans.

homemade kitchenThe Homemade Kitchen by Alana Chernila. This book is just so lovely. It is Chernila’s second book (I recommended her first, The Homemade Pantry, in my first cookbook post way back in 2014) and the chapters are based around inspirational mantras, like “start where you are,” “eat outside” and “do your best, and then let go.” The recipes range from simple and perfect for a beginner like roast chicken to more complicated projects like making tofu. Many of the recipes have ideas for other variations to adapt to your tastes or the season. Chernila is empowering, reflective, and an excellent teacher.

This cookbook is best for: people who love cooking and talking about why they cook, beginners who need encouragement, parents, people who like to cook for crowds.

Favorite recipes: quick pickled cabbage, chicken pot pie, kimchi breakfast tata, spoon butter.

IMG_6543Dinner: Changing the Game by Melissa Clark. I got this out of the library last year, and knew immediately it was the perfect book for my mom. The recipes are incredibly varied and vegetable heavy, but each recipe constitutes an entire meal. I bought it for her birthday and she loved cooking from it, and then bought it for me for Christmas last year (how is that for a gift endorsement??).  I’ve been cooking for work more and more, and while I still love planning elaborate meals I’ve found myself with less energy to do that during the week and just needing to figure out something for dinner. This book delivers with straightforward recipes that are never boring. Clark does rely on some more exotic ingredients to get maximum flavor from simple recipes, but just about every one can be found at a well-stocked grocery store.

This cookbook is best for: your mom, people who like flavor-packed ingredients like harissa, anchovies, and vinegar, busy people who like interesting food.

Favorite recipes: olive oil-braised chickpeas, harissa chicken, red curry and coconut tofu.

Are you still not convinced that cookbooks are the right gift for yourself? Or maybe you need to buy a gift for the friend who lives in a shoe box apartment with no room for a cookbook shelf? This year I started subscribing to New York Times Cooking and I will never look back. Sam Sifton has entirely transformed the Cooking section to be an extensive catalog of recipes that is easily searchable and save-able in your “recipe box.” The staff (including the great Melissa Clark and Alison Roman) publish great recipes and long-form pieces regularly. It is $5/month or $40/year.

Past Recommendations:

Even More Kitchen Gear Everyone Needs

DSC02048 (2)My argument around the holidays is always if you are going to buy someone kitchen gear, make it something essential and useful. Don’t bother with futzy, single use things. And if you can’t make it something useful, then make it something edible (tea, coffee, liquor, or spices are all awesome things that don’t need to be consumed immediately). These are a few things in my kitchen I love. If you’re looking for even more ideas, check out the other two iterations of this list I made: Kitchen Gear Everyone Needs and More Kitchen Gear Everyone Needs. I still stand by every item I mentioned previously, and use them constantly. With the exception of the citrus squeezer, which I recently had to replace because the coating was chipping off, I still use all of those exact items weekly, if not daily.

This list is working from the bottom up and clockwise through what is in the photo above.

Commercial baking sheets. Do your baking sheets ever make a popping noise in the oven? And then when you open the door to look, the baking sheet is no longer flat, but warped? Those should be demoted to craft-only baking sheets. Invest in a couple really nice baking sheets which are meant to withstand high temperatures (like those in an oven!!) and they will last a lifetime. I have half and quarter sheet pans which I use frequently (the standard size in a home kitchen is actually a half-sheet pan, the giant ones used in commercial kitchens are full). (My half and quarter sheet pans look vastly different because the half has logged over 5 years of constant use, and the quarter is only a year old.)

Cooling racks the same size as your baking sheets. These were a game changer for me. I bought a cooling rack without measuring it, only to find it was much thinner and longer than a standard half sheet pan. This is very inconvenient when you need to nest a cooling rack within a sheet pan for very important tasks like allowing chicken wings to rest in the fridge prior to baking, or cooling/draining just fried breaded eggplant.

Fine mesh brewing basket. This isn’t cooking gear per se, but I still find this invaluable. There are plenty of adorable tea infusers out there (like the MANATEA!!!!!!), but….THEY DON’T WORK. I want to drink tea, not water full of leaves. This is the only strainer I’ve used that has holes that are so fine that even rooibos can’t get through it.

1/4 cup measure. Admittedly, I bought this after reading Julia Turshen sing its praises, and she sure was right. This tiny cup is endlessly useful and has saved what I’m sure will account for many hours of my life that I could have spent measuring 4 individual tablespoons, but instead just measured once. (It is also great for measuring cocktail ingredients, and far easier to pour than a shot glass.)

Glass containers for food storage (shown with the red top). I don’t know where I was without these in my life. They stand up to being filled with hot foods, stack, don’t stain or retain smells, and work great for reheating in an oven or microwave. I’m partial to the 4 cup size, which I think is the perfect portion for a lunch, but I have a few larger and a few smaller containers that I wouldn’t want to go without. The lids are not as durable at the glass bases (mine lasted about 2 years), but you can buy replacement lids separately.

A mandoline (no, not a mandolin). This does some with a caveat, because it is really easy to slice of the tip of your finger with one of these. But….they do make consistent, thin slices or matchsticks of many a vegetable. My one complaint with this particular model is it is fairly narrow, so if you have a large vegetable you have to cut it down a bit.

For a bit more fun, check out this year’s edition of my absolute favorite gift guide.

Beer Advent Calendar

beer-advent-calendarIf you need a great gift for a beer lover, a beer advent calendar is hard to beat. Many liquor stores or specialty beer stores (like Craft Beer Cellar) sell single bottles or make your own six packs. (Looking on the Craft Beer Cellar website right now it even looks like they sell something to make a beer advent calendar…but you can do it on your own!) Find 24 distinct beers, keeping in mind the preferences of your beer drinker, but also the fact that you are buying single bottles of beer which is an excellent opportunity to take some risks. I went with 12 ounce bottles and a few 16 ounce cans, but if you are a big spender you can go for 22 ouncer bottles or bombers. It’s fun to make at least the final beer a bomber, and last year I ended with Culmination (which pleased me greatly). I used paper grocery bags to wrap them and just wrote a number on each, but you could get even fancier (that effort would have been lost on my recipient, so I did not bother).

I love the calendar concept for a gift, even if beer is not your chosen medium. Mix it up with other beverages, chocolates, love notes, or anything else. Combine the childhood delight of getting a new gift every day with your expanded adult tastes (or just make one for a kid, they will still love it). Will liked this so much that we decided it would be an annual tradition and switch off making them for each other (which greatly simplifies the process, because buying and storing beer in secret in this house is HARD).

Another huge benefit of the beer advent calendar (besides maybe getting to partake in the consumption yourself), is the entire prep is done before Decemeber even starts, so you’re immediately ahead of the gift game. Instead of dealing with crowds Black Friday, spend a couple hours curating an awesome gift that lasts all month. Cheers!

Food Resolutions

Vegetal Matters - Food ResolutionsI’m most definitely a resolver. I love the beginning of a new year, the chance to reflect on the past 12 months, and thinking of ways to grow and improve. I always make a list of resolutions, some more about who I want to be or how I want to behave, but there are always a few that revolve around cooking and eating. A few years ago it was to cook more fish (which never really happened, and I’m fine with that). This past year it was to eat less meat, and when eating meat choose the more sustainable options (eating less definitely happened, and I can’t vouch for the happy life for every animal I ate, but I do think it was a larger percentage).

This year I’m focusing on being a better reader overall (taking more notes, reviewing and retaining more), and I want that to carry over into the kitchen as well. I try new recipes a lot, but it happens way more than it should that I read the ingredient list, skim the instructions, and then miss a step. Nothing tragic has ever come of this, but definitely a few frazzled moments. I also want to focus more on simple food. I love trying new and challenging recipes, and don’t plan to stop doing that entirely. But sometimes after making something super simple that turns out well I think ‘why don’t I do this more often?!?’ So, now I will.

The photo above does not exemplify this resolution in the slightest. It is my first ever buche de noel that I made on Christmas (plus the 2 days leading up to it) from Flour, Too. It involved a very flat and not as pliable as I’d hoped cake, amazing white chocolate whipped filling, chocolate ganache, and meringe mushrooms (I didn’t read the bit about leaving them in the cooling oven overnight…so that didn’t happen). It was fun and impressive but quite a bit of work. I will always find joy in doing projects like this, but there is equal merit in doing something simple very well.

PS – Here are a few food related titles I’m planning to pick up in 2015:

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler

The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture by Wendell Berry

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation by David Kamp

More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

PPS – Thanks Ken for the wonderful photo and editing!

Mrs. Buerschaper’s Molasses Crinkles

Vegetal Matters - Molasses Crinkle CookiesThere are a lot of cookies and recipes circulating right now. I don’t have quite the obsession with Christmas cookies that the rest of the world seems to this time of year. But if you’re going to twist my arm into making some, they will most likely be my Grandma Buer’s Molasses Crinkles. These cookies are the Buerschaper family’s claim to culinary fame. My dad’s family grew up next door to chef and cookbook author Mollie Katzen, who included my grandmother’s recipe in her book Still Life with Menu and calls it the first dessert she loved that didn’t have chocolate in it.

The smell of molasses always makes me think of my grandmother, and I make them every year not just for nostalgia, but also because they are a truly excellent cookie. The dough is is soft and almost velvety, and comes together quickly with the most basic equipment and technique (mix wet, mix dry, mix together). Then each cookie ball is rolled in sugar, so the baked cookies have a crunchy, cracked exterior. Inside though they are the perfect cookie chewiness and deliciously spiced.

Vegetal Matters - Molasses Crinkle CookiesVegetal Matters - Molasses Crinkle CookiesVegetal Matters - Molasses Crinkle CookiesVegetal Matters - Molasses Crinkle Cookies

Mrs. Buerschaper’s Molasses Crinkles

2-3 dozen cookies. If you roll the dough into 1.5″ balls, yield is 2 dozen 3″ cookies. 1″ balls yield 3 dozen 2″ cookies. I also included weights for dry goods if you’re baking with a scale. I’ve adapted these ever so slightly to my taste by using both white and wheat flour. Use only white if that’s what you have, but I like the added fiber and nice chew of a whole wheat cookie.

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup (3 oz) molasses
  • 1 cup (7 oz) sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 cup (4.25 oz) white flour
  • 1 cup (4 oz) wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup additional sugar for rolling

Preheat the oven to 350F and prep 2 cookie sheets. Whisk melted butter, molasses, and 1 cup of sugar. Add in egg and whisk until incorporated. In another bowl sift together all dry ingredients except the last 1/4 cup of sugar. Add mixed dry ingredients to the wet, and stir until combined with no flour pockets. Pour the sugar onto a small plate, then using your hands form the dough into 1-1.5″ balls (see head note for sizes and quantities). Roll each ball in the sugar until it is entirely coated, then place a dozen spaced evenly on each cookie sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until they are cracked and firm. Move to a rack to cool.

Vegetal Matters - Molasses Crinkle Cookies