Christmas is only a couple of weeks away and if you have someone in your life that is in the industry, or a home cook (or, like me, both!) you can count on them loving and appreciating a good cookbook in their stocking. But which cookbook should you invest in? Everyone’s writing cookbooks now! Bloggers, restaurateurs, stay-at-home moms with million-dollar cameras, they’ve all got their little slice of domestic life out there on the bookshelves. So what makes one better than the other?
In my humble opinion a good cookbook’s number one asset should be balance. The recipes should be well-tested and delicious… If you don’t use it to cook, why have it? The food photography should be sexy, yet honest. Finally, the inter-weaving narrative of the book should be focused. I love a cookbook that tells a story.
That’s why I usually gravitate towards cookbooks written by chefs, or based on restaurant menus. Restaurants all have unique stories and their recipes (always tested!) usually reflect their concept, culture, ingredients or place in time. When you want to make something for dinner you (or at least, I) think, “all right, I’ve got this, this, and this… how about making something like…” and you reach for a cookbook best suited to those ingredients. Italian? Thai? How about something more close to home? What flavours and techniques would best represent these ingredients, and what story should my Tuesday night dinner tell?
Of course, a person’s interests and dietary choices will also dictate their likes and dislikes. A vegan may not love unwrapping The Complete Meat Cookbook as much as they would reFresh… But the look on their face. Ha! Priceless.
So with this list I can only offer suggestions that I personally drool over and would love finding wrapped in a bow. I’ve tried to keep the list focused on contemporary books (published within a couple years), but one or two old favourites may have snuck on as well. Some of these books I already own, others have been recommended by friends that own ‘em, and still others I have fondled covetously in my local bookstore when none of the staff were looking.
Using the Canadian Seafood Guide as a basis for a sustainable seafood cookbook is a great idea. Spending a good portion of pages instructing the reader on how to choose, purchase and process lesser-known fish like sardines and herring is a practical idea. Getting over 30 of Canada’s best seafood chefs to contribute their recipes is a delicious idea. Getting David Suzuki to do the forward… That’s genius.
Food blogger, author and activist Anita Stewart has got a lot of friends in the industry! She has traveled extensively around our country and sourced ingredients, learned techniques, and collected recipes. The result of her tireless efforts is this big, beautiful monument to Canadiana! There are Great recipes and photos throughout. I especially like the inside cover with a pic of my buddy (Anita’s son) Mark Stewart and his daughter fishing. So cute!
Taking their cue from the wildly successful Au Pied de Cochon’s patented brew of maple syrup, duck fat and rock’n roll, the family behind Joe Beef add a dash of nostalgia and a big swig of pure storytelling. The Art Of Living… is as much about the people, places and stories of Montreal as it is about the city’s food. The section of the book detailing the history of eating out in old Montreal is a treasure, as is the section of memories from staff members about building a “Tiny restaurant in the middle of no-where”. The food is attractively simple (bone marrow salad, potted eggs, pork chops, fois gros), completely free of pretention and evocative of a time and place. What’s going on in Montreal right now is important, and Joe Beef’s the one to sit you down, feed you, and tell you the story of it all.
Vancouver’s premier seafood restaurant shares it’s secrets for proper fish and shellfish processing and cooking. Half wine and oyster bar-half Japanese sashimi bar, the Blue Water Cafe is 100% quality. It’s not all fancy sauces… but you may need to bust out some impressive knife work to replicate some of the recipes. The cookbook also goes above and beyond to inform the reader on what “sustainable seafood” really means, and offers ecologically mindful suggestions on how to choose the perfect piece of fish for your dinner party.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (with feeling!). The best way to really understand the food culture of Canada is to listen to the wisdom of our elders. Andrew George Jr. has done just that by interviewing First Nations elders from all over Canada and translating their traditional foraging and cooking methods into a modern context. Ingredients harvested from, “the land, sea and sky” combine to make some amazing dishes, and beautiful food photography. Recipes are split between the contemporary-conventional (stuffed and roasted duck with wild berries) and the bushbaby crazy (boiled porcupine or smoked beaver). Every page is another reason to get out of the house and get in touch with the land.
Nestled in a remote valley in northern Sweden, just below the arctic circle is the world’s most daring restaurant. Soft-spoken Magnus Nilsson’s barn-turned restaurant Fäviken has been serving up food so locally-sourced (only what can be harvested from the valley) that it’s moved beyond the local foods movement, it’s become something unique. Something neo- primitive. Fäviken is a diary of survival, from the concept, to the logistics (“who’s going to drive all the way out here for dinner?”) and where to look for new ideas and ingredients. Literally anything that can be plucked off of a rock can be cooked and eaten according to Nilsson, and so some of the recipes are a little…out there. Also, most ingredients are native to Sweden and hard to substitute for us here on the Westcoast. Still, über-locavores are a forgiving bunch. This book is so beautiful and contains such an inspirational concept… I’m ‘gonna make some “Autumn Leaf Broth” tonight.
From a barn in Sweden to a secluded Buddhist temple and retreat center in South Africa. The Ixopo Buddhist Retreat Center is an world famous melting pot of spiritual awakening, nature conservation and damn good eating. The sequel to their Quiet Food cookbook expands upon the message of respect for living things, slow and careful handling of ingredients, and the mindfulness of eating. Precepts that can be applied to any home cook’s daily rituals, whether vegetarian or not.
Yoshihiro Murata is the man. He’s the chef of a Japanese retreat/restaurant in Kyoto that goes back to the time of Hideyoshi Toyatomi… That’s just, wow. The restaurant is Kikunoi, and it’s cookbook/food porn bible is aptly titled Kaiseki, after the long Japanese tradition of serving food during Zen tea ceremonies and retreats. The book is separated into four chapters, one for each of the seasons (the way we prepare the “specials” menu at my restaurant) and has… without question… the best food photography I’ve ever seen in any cookbook… Ever… Also, recipes… but yeah… what?
When most of us dream about vacationing in Venice we usually picture romantic rides through long stone canals in boats helmed by singing gondoliers in funny hats. When English chef Russell Norman dreams of Venice he sees tiny plates of marinated octopus, gnocchi, duck salad and zucchini flatbread. Polpo is a new take on a very old city, and incorporates both new concepts (urban tapas plates) with old-world awesome (Medici-era woodblock illustrations).
It’s one thing to find a morel mushroom under a stump in the woods, it’s another thing entirely to bring that sucker home and cook it to perfection. Wild foods advocate and “huntress” Connie Green has been providing big name Napa Valley, California restaurants with wild foraged ingredients for over 20 years. Now she shares her secrets, anecdotes, and recipes in this beautifully photographed book. Is that a fiddlehead in your frittata?
Books About Food
About time we returned to the North-Westcoast eh? Langdon Cook’s been all over Washington and Oregon and has a lot of stories to tell about harvesting wild, and sometimes still-wriggling foods from our own plentiful backyard. Each chapter is a jolt, a journey and a gem of written experience, and begins with a traditional Westcoast family recipe.
Whenever Jesus sat down to teach, there was always food involved. The rituals of eating and family are quintessential to the Christian religion, and therefore also fundamental to western civilization. This exhaustively researched and brilliantly written set of essays cover the strange metamorphosis of dietary rituals in Christianity from the monasteries, to the missionaries, to eventually, the Maori islands. Any fan of food, history, religion, or any combination thereof will truly dig this book.
What could be more epicurean than a book of poetry about food and the pleasures of eating? Kevin Young collects poems in a variety of styles from such luminaries as Allen Ginsburg, Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Rumi, and a bazillion more. Some of the poems are just light snacks (Howard Nemerov) others are long, lingering entrées (Seamus Heaney) that invite us to “eat the day”. So quotable! So indulgent! Every poem must be recited in this voice.
A pocket-sized collection of mediations on the connection between food and farming, and an extrapolation of their relationship to what we eat every day. Shards of wisdom from such luminaries in the food writing community as Michael Pollan, and (what!?) Prince Charles. An incendiary little book filled with essays on food, agriculture, and modern world trade.
If you want the whole story on Anthony Bourdain’s food-related comic book check out my post, but if you just want a blurb, buckle up… This bastard comic book love-child of gore-heavy Yakuza flicks and cynical, food trend-crazy blogging is pure entertainment! Blade runner meets Food Network with neo-punk-hippie foodies wielding chain woks decapitating apron’d gasto-mathematicians armed with Japanese Sujihikis. Drunken mind-bending fun!
Check all these books out on Amazon, or at your local bookstore. Let me know if you’ve got any more suggestions for the list! I’m always excited to leaf through a new cookbook! Merry almost Christmas.