Everyone knows that classic cookbooks like The Joy of Cookingand How To Cook Everything make great gifts for aspiring chefs. But what if you want to give a cookbook to an adventurous baker with a passion for popovers? Or to your cookbook-fanatic cousin who already seems to own every title known to man? Slate asked notable food writers, chefs, cookbook bookstore owners, and food editors to share their current favorites—offbeat cookbooks they've loved for ages, or gems they've discovered among the hundreds published more recently. Dan Barber, Barbara Fairchild, Ming Tsai, Mimi Sheraton, Ethan Becker, and many more offer their thoughts on inspiring cookbooks and reference books that can be relied upon for great recipes and clearly explained techniques. Their responses are printed below.
Ethan Becker, co-author, 75th anniversary edition of Joy of Cooking Shirley Corriher's Cookwise is one of the great cookbooks of all time. Not only is Shirley one of the most knowledgeable and respected food scientists around, she provides great recipes! Cookwise is loaded with information on the hows and whys of cooking, presented in a friendly, straightforward, precise, and accessible style. The book is that rare animal—a treasure trove for both amateur enthusiast and professional chef. The treatment of flour, eggs, butter, and milk are worth the price of admission, as, by the way, is her famous Touch of Grace Biscuit recipe—you do not have to be Southern to want to chomp your way through a dozen. Cookwise cheerily tells you how to change recipes to fit your tastes. You want a particular chocolate chip cookie to be chewier or crisper? How about lighter dinner rolls? Shirley shows the way and provides a troubleshooting checklist for most problems.
Before I teach a cooking class, I always peruse the appropriate sections of Cookwise to ensure I cover all the bases. There is a reason why whenever I spot Shirley at professional gatherings there is a constantly changing but reverential knot of cognoscenti asking, "Why?" Shirley knows!
Dan Barber, chef, Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns I often recommend The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall by saying grandiose things like, "This is a cookbook for our time," or "This is less a cookbook than a carnivore's manifesto."
What's not grandiose is to suggest that this book describes a new role for the chef, which is not just to prepare great food, but, to the extent possible, to affect and participate in the process of its creation, conveying the entire history behind a meal. And that's what The River Cottage Meat Book aims to do: provide a faithful, at times unsettling portrait of the animals on your plate, from feed, to slaughter, to storage.
This in itself is a kind of recipe, at once philosophical, gastronomical, and environmental—but ultimately a recipe for flavor. What Hugh understands, like no other chef, is that you can't talk about one without examining the others. An impossibly juicy and delicious leg of lamb? It turns out that it was not so much the workings of a great chef but of a great farmer taking advantage of great pasture.
Its take-home message is utterly simple: to enjoy great meat, know more about what the animal was eating and where it was coming from.
Melissa Clark, food writer and author of The Skinny: How To Fit Into Your Little Black Dress Forever I have to admit that being from Brooklyn, it annoys me that the author of my favorite Jewish cookbook isn't from New York. Not even the tri-state area. Mitchell Davis, author of The Mensch Chef, grew up in Toronto. But given that Davis' latkes and yeast-risen rugelach trump my Bubbe's, I'm managing to get over it.
And slowly, his recipes are taking over my repertoire when the Ashkenazi Jewish classics are called for. Need a recipe for beef brisket? Davis provides three—one basic minimalist affair, one spicy, chili-laced version, and an oddball but delectable pear rendition that I could just see my wacky Aunt Sandy from Midwood whipping up in an effort to impress. Naturally, you'll find matzo ball soup, but not many cookbooks give the recipe for the matzo, too. And for the seriously hard core DIY-ers, Davis offers homemade red beet horseradish to adorn your seder table, and schmaltz (rendered onion-flavored chicken fat) and its gibenes (crispy chicken skin bits left over from rendering). It's about the best Hanukkah gift you could get for a serious cook who wants to delve into traditional Jewish food without sacrificing their foodie cred.
Sara Dickerman, Slate contributor I'd recommend Fuschia Dunlop's two cookbooks, Land of Plenty, about Sichuanese cuisine, and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, about Hunanese cuisine. Beyond the standard where-do-you-go-for-dim-sum debates, Chinese food has been vastly underexplored in this country. Maybe the subject feels tired, since Chinese restaurants are a longstanding part of the American landscape. No matter, Dunlop will snap you out of your torpor. For one, she's writing about two regional styles that have great big flavors: chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, and all that good stuff. And more importantly, she's really smart and well-connected to her subject. She lived in Chengdu for two years and trained at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine.
Land of Plenty is a technical masterpiece—it explains cooking and cutting techniques as well as I've seen in any cookbook, period. She also uses Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook as a vehicle to weigh in on food as a political instrument—Hunan is, after all, Mao's home state. Under his rule, fine-dining chefs suffered as symbols of the bourgeoisie, while Mao glorified peasant stews as the comradely way to eat. Dunlop gives us a taste of both cultures: A fantastically fussy recipe for egg whites put back in their shells and steamed to quivering firmness that epitomized 1930s haute cuisine, and Mao's favorite: red-braised pork and steamed smoked fish with black beans and chilies.
Barbara Fairchild, editor in chief, Bon Appétit One book I love to dip into again and again is the original River Cafe Cookbook by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. It's a marvel of ease of use—usually one recipe on each page—and everything I have tried has tasted authentically Italian and is so easy to make. The chapter on pasta and risotto is littered with food stains, which is about the highest compliment any cook can pay. And this book makes it simple to put together a terrific dinner party menu.
If I were looking for a great food book (as opposed to a cookbook) to give as a gift—for people who don't necessarily like to cook as much as I do—two spring to mind: Stand Facing the Stove, the fascinating story of Irma Rombauer's creation of the original Joy of Cooking, as well as her struggles to get it on the market; and How I Learned To Cook, which profiles some of today's most successful chefs and details the origins of their passion for food. If you have a friend who is hooked on food but never cooks, this is the book for them.
Nick Fauchald, Food & Wine
Cooking as Courtship by Susan Wiegand is not a manual for flambéing one's way into a prospective lover's heart, but it can be used as such, which is why I buy every copy of this manifesto I encounter, passing it on to friends and lovers (or prospective lovers) with the hope that someday they'll apply its advice when cooking for me.
Wiegand, a Kansas City-based clothing and underwear designer, channels equal parts Julia Child, Emily Post, and Alex Comfort while offering mores and decorum for cooking, eating, and entertaining that are at once provocative and soothing. Wiegand on essential equipment: "[Microwave ovens] make me question my own ethics, which is probably good except I am not wild about the answers." On choosing a table: "It should be large enough for the number of people who plan to crowd around it, sturdy enough to allow for passions, wide enough to encourage generosity of spirit, and it should be flat." And, lest we forget the title, on cooking to woo: "Feed your lovers with disingenuous abundance and with food which provokes their senses and you will probably be happy. Feed them with studied and measured delicacy or in a fashion which reeks of penury, and you might find their affections match your table."