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Cookbooks with Heart

Fine Cooking Issue 69

With topics ranging from birthday cakes to braising, the best cookbooks of 2004 glow with their authors’ love. Pick up any one of these titles and the genuine enthusiasm in the author’s voice will tempt you to explore new culinary terrain: to try a new tool, taste a new ingredient, or master a new technique.

Lifelong pursuits

Part memoir, part travelogue, The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young and Alan Richardson (Simon & Schuster, $35) details the fundamentals of buying, seasoning, and caring for a wok, and provides 125 appealing recipes that inspired me to clean up and reseason my rusted carbon-steel wok so that I could start stir-frying my way to wok hay, the “elusive, seared taste that comes only from cooking in a wok.” I don’t think my stove gets hot enough for me to achieve Chinese-restaurant-quality results, but everything I made was amazing nonetheless. Auntie Yi’s Stir-Fried Garlic Lettuce was a crunchy, sweet, garlicky treat (and took me about two minutes to make, including prep). And Lee Wan Ching’s Sizzling Pepper & Salt Shrimp hit all the right notes: spicy, crunchy, salty, sweet.  

At age 15, bread-baking authority Maggie Glezer realized she needed to learn her great-grandmother’s recipes or lose them forever. Years later, that same spirit of preservation spurred Glezer (who also wrote Artisan Baking Across America) to start baking with people from every background she could find, from Guatemala to Italy to Russia to Iraq. The result is A Blessing of Bread: Jewish Bread Baking Around the World (Artisan, $35), a breathtaking collection of stories and 60 recipes. Glezer notes every ingredient, gesture, and motion needed to make each loaf. And if my experience is any indication, her impeccably written recipes ensure success: I pulled off a beautiful braided challah and a stunning Azerbaijani Spiral Bread on my very first try.  

Fans of chef Frank Stitt’s food at the Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham may feel like they’ve waited a lifetime for his first book, and they won’t be disappointed with Frank Stitt’s Southern Table (Artisan, $40). The book is a feast for the eyes, peppered with loving profiles of the people, places, and events that have influenced Stitt’s unique culinary voice. But this is no coffee-table book in cookbook disguise. Stitt’s Provençal-influenced Southern recipes sent me running for the kitchen to try low-country classics like pickled shrimp and herbed cottage-cheese dip, as well as restaurant-style dishes like poached egg salad with red wine sauce and sirloin strip with grilled red onions, cornbread, and salsa verde. Everything was totally doable at home and no less artful for being so.  

In a single weekend, I turned my copy of Lidia’s Family Table (Knopf, $35), by Lidia Bastianich, into a dog-eared, sauce-splattered, Post-it–ruffled mess. And what a delicious weekend it was…pasta sauces that cooked faster than the time it took to boil water, gratinéed and skillet-cooked vegetables, slow-cooked summer tomato sauce, no-cook summer tomato sauce. But this book is so much more than a collection of great-sounding recipes. Helpful sidebars, tip boxes, and process photographs make you feel as if Lidia is standing beside you at the stove. As Lidia walks you through cooking processes, you internalize fundamental ideas—“undercook the pasta slightly, transfer it to the skillet dripping wet, and finish cooking it with the sauce”—and, before long, her recipes feel like they’re your very own.  

If you like the idea of cooking recipes of your own design, you’ll love Cooking One on One (Clarkson Potter, $37.50), by John Ash. He believes the best way to become a confident, creative cook is to dive in and explore, and this unique collection of cooking lessons provides ample opportunity. Ash divides his lessons into three categories: Flavor Maker Lessons (such as salsas, pestos, marinades, sauces); Technique Lessons (soup, oven-drying, pot-roasting, soufflés, pasta); Main Ingredient Lessons (chicken, beans, mushrooms, shrimp, soy). Within each lesson, Ash provides several flawless recipes, ranging from simple to complex, to illustrate that every dish, no matter how complicated, is built on a few simple techniques. Master them and you won’t need a recipe to throw together something delicious to eat.

The food we love to eat

Speaking of delicious, what ever happened to good ol’ fatty pork? You’ll find the answer, along with advice on making the most of today’s svelte little piggies, in Bruce Aidells’s Complete Book of Pork (Harper Collins, $29.95). In addition to fascinating lore, pig history, and 150 recipes, Aidells offers something yummy for everyone, whether you’re hankering for a juicy pork chop, the perfect BLT, or homemade breakfast sausage. (Yes, you can make sausage at home, and who better to teach you than the founder of the Aidells Sausage Company?)  

The charms of this pretty little book are hard to resist: Birthday Cakes (Chronicle Books, $24.95), by Karen Kleinman, presents our best cooks’ and bakers’ favorite cake recipes, together in one sweet volume. There’s Maida Heatter’s Orange Chiffon Cake, Marion Cunningham’s Heavenly Angel Cake, Alice Water’s 1-2-3-4 Cake, Alice Medrich’s Fastest Fudge Cake, Emily Luchetti’s Grandmother’s Chocolate Cake, and Flo Braker’s Baby Cakes. Sweetness and happiness on every page, plus decorating tips and templates, and an elephant-shaped pattern in case you find yourself in the mood for Pink Elephant Cut-Out Cake.

From our contributing editors

All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking, by Molly Stevens (Norton, $35). Don’t make another stew or pot roast until you read the first few pages of this book, where Molly reveals the secrets to great technique, intense flavor, and perfect results. “At its most basic,” she writes, “braising refers to tucking a few ingredients into a heavy pot with a bit of liquid, covering the pot tightly, and letting everything simmer peacefully until tender and intensely flavored.” Had Molly offered nothing more than that enchanting sentence and well-written recipes for such classics as Osso Bucco alla Milanese, Yankee Pot Roast, Country-Style Pork Ribs, and Coq au Vin, I certainly would have liked this book. But Molly doesn’t stop there, and that’s why I love this book. Her thorough investigation of the art of braising carries her from all manner of braised vegetables to ethnic treats like Vietnamese Braised Scallops and Moroccan Chicken with Olives & Preserved Lemons. She even includes lots of quick stovetop braises, which give huge payback for very little time and effort.  

The Weekend Baker, by Abigail Johnson Dodge (Norton, $30). If your life is active—or, as Abby would say, “hectic with occasional insanity”— lament no longer. Prescription-Strength Fudge Brownies, Emergency Blender Cupcakes, and One-Pot Chocolate-Chip Cookies are here to sweeten the day. They take an hour or less to make, and they’re the sorts of goodies everyone wants to bake…if only you had the time. Well, none of the yummy failproof recipes in this book requires vast stretches of free time because Abby breaks down the baking processes into discreet parts that slip easily into busy schedules. Her strategies make even involved recipes—such as moist Honey Oatmeal Bread and a glorious Strawberries-and-Cream Layer Cake—feel easy. And her meticulously written recipes never leave you guessing about what to do.

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