The right cookbook, at the right time, can change lives. An author’s stories, recipes and worldview can give someone the courage to try new things, or pick up old threads and weave them into something new. There are certainly more expensive gifts. But if you can help change for the better the way someone feeds themselves and those they love, you might expand your definition of value.
Here’s some of the outstanding cookbooks of 2014, fit for avid cooks, helpless kitchen rookies, and everyone in between.
Plenty More, by Yotam Ottolenghi, Ten Speed Press, 340 pages, $35
In “Plenty,” Yotam Ottolenghi thrilled people who wanted to eat more vegetables with inventive vegetarian meals drawing on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean spices and ingredients. Usually sequel cookbooks are blander, but “Plenty More” transcends the genre. Its 150 dishes widen his boundaries even further, using flavor palettes from African, Caribbean and Asian cuisines to reinforce the notion that vegetables belong at the center of your plate, not just around the edges.
The New Family Cookbook, America’s Test Kitchen, 878 pages, $40
Do you know someone who has never cooked, but needs to start? This would be a terrific cookbook to start them on their way. It starts with how to hold a knife, proceeds to illustrate step-by-step guides for the best way to cut common vegetables, assuming the reader knows absolutely nothing. Then it lays out the edible world in 1,100 recipes, from cooking dried pasta to making iced layer cakes from scratch. Its comprehensive index is actually faster to use than Google. That is a gift indeed.
Heritage, by Sean Brock, Artisan Books, 336 pages, $40
Sean Brock’s exploration of the roots of Southern and Lowcountry cuisine, celebrating influences from Senegal to Appalachia, has made him one of the most celebrated chefs in America. He didn’t do it with a Food Network show. He built restaurants in Charleston, S.C., and Nashville that retold the story of Southern cooking, one plate at a time, to thrilling effect. His first cookbook delivers recipes, and the tale of his culinary evolution, but also stories of cooks, farmers, distillers and others who shaped his kitchen ethos.
Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes, by Dominique Ansel, Simon & Schuster, 260 pages, $35
Dominique Ansel is best known in the non-baking world as inventor of the cronut, the croissant-doughnut hybrid so devilishly delicious that it inspired both hours-long waits at his Manhattan bakery, and wholesale knockoffs by major corporations. Yet his greatest contribution to the bakery arts might be his sheer creativity, which blends an almost childish playfulness with a neurosurgeon’s precision to elevate patisserie standards and invent new delights. The book’s first third is brief essays illuminating the thinking behind some of his inventions. The rest is recipes, divided into beginner, intermediate and advanced categories, so that any inspired baker might find a toehold.
Bread Revolution, by Peter Reinhart, Ten Speed Press, 256 pages, $30
Lots of veteran bread bakers have their favorite recipes down to muscle memory. But baking guru Peter Reinhart has been tinkering in his bread kitchen, hammering out the most bulletproof recipes yet for people who want more from their bread. Those in search of better nutrition and digestibility may appreciate his primer on sprouted flours, whole grains and ancient grains. Allergy sufferers may appreciate his uses of alternative flours, including gluten-free blends. The fact-packed process discussions read like a textbook at times, but recipes are anything but abstemious, stretching from basic bread to sprouted wheat cinnamon rolls and croissants.
Olives, Lemons & Za’atar, by Rawia Bishara, Kyle Books, 224 pages, $29.95
Rawia Bishara is a Palestinian Arab chef from Nazareth, Israel, who runs a Brooklyn restaurant called Tanoreen. Her place has been awarded a Michelin star despite its downmarket focus: Middle Eastern home cooking. Her recipes are relatively simple and focus on building flavor from humble ingredients. Legumes like chickpeas and lentils get plenty of play, useful for building meatless suppers. Lamb, chicken and fish are presented in both traditional and innovative forms. Israel is far away, but Bishara’s cuisine, shaped in Brooklyn, uses ingredients Americans should be able to find.
Saveur: The New Classics Cookbook, Weldon Owen, 624 pages, $40
As a magazine for cooks, Saveur’s strength is its vivid, accessible reports from kitchens around the world, like National Geographic with recipes. That is this cookbook’s strength, as well. Turn to asparagus and you’ll get versions from a Massachusetts church supper and the Chinese province of Shangdong. Classic sea salt caramels and Nigerian coconut milk caramels are on the same page. That organization, with diverse cuisines sorted by ingredient, makes cultural cross-pollination as easy as pie, whether Concord grape or crayfish.
Vegan Without Borders, by Robin Robertson, Andrews McMeel, 304 pages, $40
One of the hardest hurdles for people newly devoted to a vegan diet is boredom. Robin Robertson has been vegan since 1987, and has written the Global Vegan column for Vegetarian Times for a decade. In this cookbook, the veteran author shares recipes that she has cherry-picked, so to speak, from cuisines around the world. Seitan and nut milks make appearances, but most are naturally vegan – that is, not relying on manufactured substitutes for meat or cheese. The variety of cuisines and relative simplicity of its recipes make it a helpful volume for anyone struggling with tofu burnout.
How to Cook Everything Fast, by Mark Bittman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1,056 pages, $35
This book sounds like a terrible gimmick until you realize that Mark Bittman has been writing for the home cook for 20 years, including 13 years of a New York Times column called “The Minimalist.” This volume is a distillation of his experience in refining techniques and rewriting recipes to make the best use of a busy home cook’s most precious ingredient: time.