I don't think anyone can outdo "A Day at El Bulli" for coffee-table display, and many people are using the Internet to get immediate gratification when looking for recipes to actually make. The books chosen represent some tried-and-true authors, a book about the history of tea, a small book for the male chef, and a broad selection of types of food: vegetarian, Indian and some iconic California recipes.
There is something to be said for books written by experienced chefs, which include more information than a recipe obtained online, and of course, there is comfort in actually having the book to refer to again and again.
"Recipes Every Man Should Know" by Susan Russo and Brett Cohen, Quirk Books, 143 pp., 2010, $9.95
This book is a great idea: a small, fit-in-your-pocket guide to what a man (adult, since it includes recipes for cocktails) should be able to cook. Alas, it doesn't live up to expectations.
It starts out with the assumption that women find men who cook sexy, which, by and large, is true (and these days more likely necessary). It then goes on to define all the tools that a man should have in his kitchen.
More than 50 items are included — most of which are either redundant (as in four or five pots that can be used for the same things) making it simultaneously too inclusive, and not basic enough. Apparently, silverware is assumed, but two wire cooling racks are indispensable.
The recipes range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some require three ingredients and some require 15. There are no chicken recipes (sexy men don't eat chicken?)
There is a section on carving a turkey, but no recipe for making a turkey — it seems that someone else is supposed to make the turkey. Wonder who that would be?
There is a large section on "Hearty Breakfast Classics" (maybe for the morning after?), some other basics (sandwiches, burgers, meat-and-potato dinners) followed by a dessert section that includes "Six Classic Cocktails."
I made the "Sexy Strawberries Zabaglione" (p. 136), which was in fact delicious. Alas, this would not be a cookbook I would give to a man to learn how and what to cook for women. The recipes are for very heavy foods. Some may appreciate this little book, but I would have preferred some recipes for salads and lighter foods.
"The Sunset Cookbook" edited by Margo True, Oxmoor House, 816 pp., 2010, $34.95
The Sunset Cookbook includes "over 1,000" recipes that clearly reflect the philosophy of the Sunset organization.
There are some classics, as well as some very contemporary recipes. It includes 24 "iconic" Western dishes: guacamole, fish tacos, barbecued oysters, plank-roasted salmon and others.
The book has all the main sections that one would expect — from soup to puddings, preserves and even cocktails. There are vegetarian dishes, pastas, poultry and meats included.
Since I think a true test of a cook book is a nice, simple but delicious chicken recipe, I made Dijon Chicken with Panko Crust and a Dijon Sauce (p. 363). It was easy to put together and tasted wonderful.
I also made " Spicy Baked Penne with Sausage and Chard (p. 221), which was uncomplicated and a good hearty winter dish.
The directions are easy to follow, there are some mouth-watering photos, and useful nutritional information after each recipe (calories, fat, proteins and carbs) for people who need to watch what they eat.
This is a good all-around cookbook, comprehensive, using fresh ingredients where possible. It reflects the experience of the Sunset people in presenting creative recipes in a way that is easily understood while reflecting the shift to fresh, local ingredients wherever possible.
"Quick and Easy Indian Cooking" by Madhur Jaffrey, Chronicle Books, 155 pp., 2007, $19.95
Madhur Jaffrey is the doyenne of Indian Cooking. This book, containing "more than 70 recipes which can be cooked in 30 minutes or less," doesn't shy away from using the Indian spices necessary to create the complex flavors of Indian food. By and large, the spices are the traditional Indian selection, including cardamom pods, cumin, cayenne, garam masala, turmeric, hot peppers, ginger, ground coriander, fresh cilantro and mustard seeds, most of which are now available at the local grocery store.
I made Caramelized Cardamom Apples with Pistachio Cream (p. 126), which was a good seasonal recipe. Not only did this recipe surpass the usual baked apple, but it was a visual treat.
Instead of making the pistachio cream, one could easily buy pistachio ice cream, thereby saving a bit of time.
The Spicy Grilled Tomatoes (p.99) took seconds to put together, and instead of the usual Italian spices and bread crumbs, uses garam masala, cumin, cayenne, lemon juice, salt and pepper. This is an excellent book for people who want to venture gently into the realm of Indian cooking.
"Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen" by Deborah Madison, Broadway Books, 228 pp., 2005, $19.95
Deborah Madison is well-known in the vegetarian food world, having written five cookbooks about vegetarian food.
This is a good, comprehensive vegetarian cookbook, which is easy to use. I made the Cabbage and Leek Gratin with Mustard Cream (p.18), which was easy to put together, but somewhat bland in taste, even with the mustard sauce.
The picture next to the recipe made it look mouthwatering, and it looked very good when it came out of the oven, but it lacked any distinctive taste.
The Yellow Peppers Stuffed with Quinoa, Corn and Feta Cheese (p. 177), however, were both attractive to look at and delicious to eat. The mixture of the grain and feta cheese with added scallions, chiles and cilantro add a zing that made it much more interesting and could constitute an entire meal.
"The Empire of Tea" by Alan Macfarlane and Iris Macfarlane, The Overlook Press, 308 pp., 2009, $14.95
This 308-page book is a good history of tea, written by the widow and son of a tea planter.
The initial section, "memoirs of a memsahib," is a glimpse into the life of a rebel colonial wife who tries to improve the life of the workers on her husband's tea plantation in Assam, but is thwarted at every turn.
Her sweet, somewhat na´ve view of the British system is nicely written and evocative of the time. Her son then takes over and writes an occasionally dry, but comprehensive history of the development of tea as an industry in India, China and the world beyond. It is a story full of violence, social change — and a testament to drink that conquers the world. Recommended for tea aficionados.