A cookbook serves so many functions. Many are eye-candy, suitable for perusing casually at any time. A good one will kick-start a renaissance in home cooking (and if you give one to the right person, you yourself will reap the rewards). And there are plenty of specialty titles for the already seasoned cook. This year's worth of cookbook reviews is excerpted from "Cookbook Cues," a column that runs twice monthly on TheDailyPage.com/eats.
Books for beginners
America's Test Kitchen, $35
The good folks at America's Test Kitchen must know our nostalgia for the five-ring binder, tabbed compendium of foundational cooking. Their Healthy Family Cookbook falls squarely into that category. It even has that plastic doohickey you can pop out and use to hold your place.
Nostalgia aside, Healthy Family Cookbook is far more than a Betty Crocker knockoff. Rather than pithy, outdated instructions for housewives, the cookbook shares lots of "hard data" from the Test Kitchen. I'm not the sort who religiously sticks to healthy cooking, but I do appreciate having a cookbook that's full of recipes I don't have to question on that count.
by Rachael Ray, Clarkson Potter, $20
Each recipe is introduced with a brief bit of text that functions as a kind of cheer or sales pitch for that dish. The stuffed cabbage stoup, a cross between a stew and a soup, was a hit with the family, and I liked it too, with its discernible notes of allspice and little bursts of coriander. The family's verdict was "You can make this again any time." I was less fond of a chorizo-cod-potato stew, but this one was again a fair hit. I will try more of these recipes, because they are generally easy to make, even after coming home from a full day at work, and because Ray encourages use of fresh ingredients and good spices.
Just one ingredient
by Lori Longbotham, Chronicle Books, $20
Start with a classic coconut cream pie, here with a custard made with coconut milk. Ambrosia, a mid-America picnic standard usually made with canned fruits, shredded coconut and marshmallow, is here transformed into a salad with fresh oranges and ribbons of fresh coconut with a trace of allspice. More spice variations come in an easy and rewarding coconut and curry butter cookie. Nothing is too complex (except possibly a baklava).
by Lawrence Davis-Hollander, Storey, $17
Heritage-variety champion Davis-Hollander celebrates tomatoes in everything from salsas to desserts, and if you love cooking with them, the book is a useful addition to your cookbook shelf. Tomatoes are given rock-star status...and when you're biting into a perfect caprese salad, it's easy to concede that they deserve it.
From the blogs
by Cathy Erway, Gotham Books, $24
Brooklynite Erway has something right. Americans do not cook their own dinners often enough, and when we do, it's too often an indifferent, hurried effort. No wonder eating out seems like a better idea. Erway's book sprang from a project she called Not Eating Out in New York, a blog that chronicled her vow not to eat in a restaurant (in New York) for two years. The Art of Eating In is a memoir of that project; 30 recipes are included. The goal is to entice twenty-somethings into believing that cooking could be fun, as full of adventure as eating out, somewhat subversive and a positive political act.
by Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern, Wiley, $30
The memoir-cum-cookbook is not a new genre, but Shauna and Daniel Ahern keep it fresh. Shauna - the Gluten-Free Girl - started her eponymous blog after being diagnosed with celiac disease. Danny - he'd be the chef - made his restaurant gluten-free after he fell in love with Shauna. Now married with a young daughter, they write to educate people about gluten-free cooking, but more than that sensual, seasonal, creative cooking
Those who do not eat gluten (and those who wish to cook for them) will surely appreciate recipes that have been fine-tuned to provide satisfaction without it. Even if you can eat gluten, you'll be better educated about the science of baking after reading this.
by Peg Bracken, Grand Central, $23
Warning - not for use as a cookbook. Originally published in 1960, TIHTCB had frustrated housewives like Mad Men's Betty Draper in mind as an audience. It eventually sold over 3 million copies. Author Bracken has a kind of dry, self-deprecating tone throughout, supposedly groundbreaking in her assertion that not all women like to cook. Somehow the book is supposed to convey the message that these shortcuts will make cooking fun, but viewed from 2010, that idea doesn't compute. TIHTCB is best perused as a time capsule, and, like watching Mad Men, that's fun, appalling and instructive.
by Michael Symon, Clarkson Potter, $35
Food Network Iron Chef Symon's first cookbook packs a lot into a book that isn't coffee-table or doorstop size. It emphasizes "do at home" restaurant-quality food, but personality, technique and great-looking photos are given equal time.
Live to Cook is heavy on fish and meat recipes, which you might expect from a guy who sports a tattoo of flying pigs and the phrase "Got pork?" Symon favors flavorful, lower-cost cuts of meat and shares advice on how to cook them successfully. However, vegetarians will still find much to enjoy.
by Rick Bayless with Deann Groen Bayless, Norton, $35
For those who get intimidated by the thought of managing details, the book walks you through each step of preparation for the hours (or days) leading up to a party, ensuring that you can relax and enjoy your hard work when fiesta time arrives. But here's a secret: Even if you have no intention of ever hosting a gigantic fiesta, the book is worth it for the guacamole recipes alone.
by Alice Waters, Clarkson Potter, $28
Waters wrote her newest book with the primal relationship between humans and their food in mind. She envisions the "green kitchen" not just as an eco- and economy-friendly space, but one in which simple, time-tested kitchen tools (think mortar and pestle, not Cuisinart) and basic techniques learned by heart make for heartfelt cooking and eating.
In the Green Kitchen accomplishes a rare feat in offering a pantheon of cooking techniques and philosophy that can appeal to all cooks. Those who love and are skillful with food can nod their heads in agreement, while a college student in his first apartment would do well to make these skills - and the "green kitchen" ethos - the foundation of his cuisine. And if, as Waters wishes, you do commit these techniques to memory, you'll be quite welcome in any kitchen you happen to land in.
by Fuchsia Dunlop, W.W. Norton, $17
Dunlop describes the amazing food available in Sichuan province, largely unavailable here. There is much about the sorts of foods that Americans shun. Chicken's feet. Goose intestine. Bear's paw. But Dunlop's primary feeling is that Westerners need total immersion in Chinese culture to perceive these foods not as novelties that you manage to eat but as delicacies to be savored and even wished for. She writes this matter-of-factly, expecting neither censure nor congratulations. She argues for Chinese "head to toe" eating as a cultural habit that makes sense in a country with such a large population. On the other hand, it was a relief to meet her friend Liu Wei, a vegetarian.
by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin, Gibbs Smith, $25
Cookbooks are so often about the ideal we have of food. Then there's the reality. If you're solo - if you live alone or if you find yourself single while your usual living and dining partner is away on a business trip - and the kitchen is suddenly yours alone, what do you cook? That's the question posed here. The book's full of simple meals that often feature good ingredients, useful shortcuts and welcome indulgences that aren't a descent into junk food. Moreover, the recipes are inspirations in terms of throwing something simple together when you're not alone in the kitchen, but rushed. They're alternatives to heading for the frozen pizza or a can of soup.
by Bill Yosses, W.W. Norton, $35
Yosses' extensive experience is evident on every page. I liked the book's organization into useful sections like "Come to Brunch," which features simple but delicious recipes like blueberry angel food muffins; "I'll Bring Dessert," portable but impressive goodies; and "Restaurant Desserts You Can Make at Home," which gives the formula for Yosses' famous warm molten vanilla cakes (an ivory version of chocolate lava cake).
by David Lebovitz, Ten Speed Press, $35
Lebovitz is formerly of Chez Panisse, but you can envy his life in Paris daily by reading his blog. Ready for Dessert has mouthwatering photographs with a focus on close-ups and texture, so that when you stare at an icy, velvety raspberry sorbet, it feels like you can stick out your tongue and taste it.
by Warren Brown, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $30
This compendium of cakes has a lot to offer, especially for adventurous bakers who want to broaden their repertoire and flex their technique muscles. Though there are easy recipes in the book (cupcakes and pancakes to name a few), Brown takes his cakes seriously, and many of these cakes require a lot of steps and patience. If you're willing to take the time and effort, you will be well rewarded.