More Holiday Books 2014

During the next few weeks, I will be cooking from and reviewing some of the year's best books for gift-giving. They mostly are personal selections from chefs whose work I know well plus a few I don't know at all. I always am enamored of cookbooks from Phaidon, Artisan, Chronicle and Ten Speed Press, but am impressed this year with the quality and variety of cookbooks published by smaller presses; Monkfish and Interlink among them. In addition to their more obvious purpose, cookbooks are great sources of inspiration and bedtime reading. They are often the gifts we don't give ourselves but, like a good box of chocolates, we're thrilled to be the recipient. Happy Holidays!

2014-12-10-FreshCookingfrontcover.png Fresh Cooking by Shelley Boris Monkfish Book Publishing, New York , 2014, ISBN: 978-1-939681-15-7

The subtitle of this compelling book - a year of recipes from the Garrison Institute Kitchen -- tells the tale of a talented chef cooking for hundreds of guests in a beautiful monastery on the Hudson. Garrison Institute, created by inspired thinkers, Jonathan and Diana Rose, has served as a beacon for the world's great spiritual and educational leaders, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama who has dined there on several occasions. Shelley Boris, the chef at Garrison for more than ten years, has wowed me with her intelligent, countrified sensibility since my first visit a decade ago. There have been many visits since and I was honored when asked to write the foreword to her book. Shelley's compassionate approach to cooking, deeply rooted in the seasons, is always mindful of the communal table - which is literally how one eats in the Institute's massive sun-lit dining room. From her large gracious kitchen, Shelley delights in the daily planning of her menus, each a short story revealing something immediate in nature. January brings her comforting Onion Soup with Sprout Creek Cheese and Sour Rye Toast, baked white beans, and crimson quince blanketed in phyllo. May is more spontaneous and carefree - braised lamb and rhubarb chutney, rice with sorrel, garlic chives and mustard greens, and strawberry shortcakes. The book's recipes range from simple creations - pan-quiche with cauliflower and cheddar, savory chickpea cakes with tahini sauce; winter root vegetable salad with sherry-hazelnut dressing - to dishes that require slow seduction to coalesce their flavors -- Thai-style eggplant curry with coconut milk, lemongrass and shiitakes, and braised spicy lamb with apples. Other standouts are Shelley's breakfast scones - the best I've ever had -- and her dizzying array of addictive vinaigrettes -- carrot-lime, ginger-grapefruit, pear-beet, creamy shallot.

Personal and idealistic, she calls her repertoire friendly-to-meat eaters: rich in vegetables, yet not strictly vegetarian. "We flip the typical equation," she purports. "Rather than cutting back on meat, these recipes help you think about where you want to add meat and fish to your diet." Nice. Family-style and deeply practical, she rids her recipes of extra steps and superfluous ingredients in order to focus on the essence of each dish. Working within a limited budget became a driving force of creativity and resulted in recipes that are inexpensive to produce. This is exactly what a home cook desires and why she decided to write the book in the first place. Perhaps it will sit nestled next to like-minded tomes such as the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, Perla Meyers' The Seasonal Kitchen, and Moosewood cookbooks - older iconic examples serving as game-changers in the way that people think about, and connect to food and cooking in a larger context - where taste and ethics need not be at odds.

2014-12-10-5748539_311781.jpg Mexico, The Cookbook by Margarita Carrillo Arronte Phaidon Press, New York, 2014, ISBN: 978-07148-6752-6

When authors such as Arronte compile cookbooks about a national cuisine as vast as Mexico's, the goal is to produce a well-rounded exploration that evokes and authenticates, the inherent spirit of a nation's cultural foodways. Margarita Carrillo Arronte, Mexico's global ambassador for all things culinary, has certainly accomplished this along with the remarkable design team at Phaidon Press, headquartered in London with offices in New York City. This massive tome, feeling like a work of art or runway fashion statement, is undoubtedly among the most beautiful books this year. Replete with 650 recipes and 200 photos, the book draws inspiration from various sources, some from which have been altered to the author's own taste by adjusting ingredients, measurements or methods. Ms. Arronte wants the dishes of her homeland, and its many regions, to be cooked and experienced by audiences who have not yet plunged into the depths of mole (mole-lay) making - including an intriguing beet mole - to the more familiar tamales, enchiladas, and fresh fish Veracruz-style, to the less familiar rabbit with prunes and chili, ox tongue in pecan sauce, and birria, a fragrant lamb soup from Jalisco. Much admired in Mexico for the last 35 years, Ms. Arronte has owned restaurants and food companies, hosted television food shows, researched and taught all over the world. She is a formally trained teacher, turned chef and activist, involved in the decade-long effort to have traditional Mexican cuisine recognized with a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation.

Although I wish that head notes were included with each recipe, I understand how daunting a task this would be. The recipes, both classic and traditional, with a swath of contemporary recipes from restaurant chefs, feel mostly accessible - but some ingredients - specific chilies, epazote, avocado leaves -- may be hard to find. This does not diminish the book's pleasures. Part of Ms. Arronte's research is to delve into other references and oral traditions for inspiration and to re-create recipes that are considered seminal in the development of the cuisine. This is the true nature of recipe transmission and the way that dishes evolve and national cuisines are created. There is an extensive bibliography that includes the important work of Mexican culinary guru, Diana Kennedy. It is a great gift to go hand in hand with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate, in bed if not in your kitchen.

Two Great Cookbooks for Hanukkah 2014

My private cookbook collection can't compare to that of many of my colleagues -- my 500 or so seem paltry next to collections in the thousands. But at this stage of life, I carefully curate the books I want around forever. Here are two of them -- both recently published and perfect gifts for Hanukkah. 2014-12-01-61er1osP9gL.jpg Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh by Janna Gur Schocken Books, New York NY 2014 $35.00 ISBN 978-0- 8052-4308-6

This is a rave. With striking photos and vibrant spirit, here is a cookbook that reads like a luscious travelogue built around the culinary narrative of the Jewish diaspora. The book's author, Janna Gur, is among the most knowledgeable representatives of Israeli cuisine (her first book, The Book of New Israeli Food, 2007 is already a classic) and of Jewish food and identity around the globe. Her new book, Jewish Soul Food: from Minsk to Marrakesh, is both prequel and sequel to Jerusalem by Ottolenghi. In a world cluttered with cookbooks, hers is a standout, a poignant journey of enforced migration and authenticity cast in a contemporary light. There is much to learn. I have never seen, eaten, or made many of these dishes: Her sabich (an egg and eggplant sandwich often eaten for breakfast) is gorgeous, as is hamim macaroni, mafroum (meat and potato "sandwiches"), Bulgarian feta-stuffed pepper "cutlets," and tantalizing fluden, made with poppy seeds, walnuts and apples, for dessert. Its diverse recipes paint much of Israel's culinary landscape, where Ms. Gur resides and publishes, with her husband, Israel's most prominent food and wine magazine called Al Hashulchan (At the Table). Born in the former Soviet Union, Ms. Gur emigrated to Israel in 1974 and since that time has scholarly untangled the global threads woven into the Israeli kitchen.

Some of my favorite dishes include sabzi polo, rice pilaf made with equal amounts of basmati rice and fragrant fresh herbs, and addictive ijeh b'lahmeh which are herb and meat latkes perfect for Hanukkah. Also appropriate for the holiday are bimuelos, a Sephardic dessert of fried dough, drizzled with cinnamon-scented honey syrup and garnished with walnuts. I look forward to making her orange flower butter cookies studded with almonds for gift-giving this season.

This book is important because of Janna's strongly held belief: The only way to preserve traditional cuisine for future generations is to cook it. Without her careful attention to this repertoire of priceless artifacts -- recipes from vanquished times and cultures -- these hand-me-downs would be all but lost. Jewish cuisine is unique because it reflects the histories of so many nationalities, wars and displacements. How Ms. Gur captures its essence in 100 recipes is the magic of this book.

2014-12-01-Delancey.jpg Eating Delancey: A Celebration of Jewish Food by Aaron Rezny and Jordan Schaps powerHouse Books, Brooklyn, NY 2014 $35.00 ISBN 978-1-57687-722-7

I don't know exactly where my grandparents lived as Hungarian immigrants in the early part of the last century, but they certainly climbed tenement steps and shopped on Delancey Street, as depicted in this sumptuous book with lovely essays by famous fressers (eaters) -- Calvin Trillin, Paul Goldberger (architecture critic of the New York Times), food maven Arthur Schwartz, legendary graphic designer, Milton Glaser -- and mouth-watering recipes. There are spectacular images of food, people, storefronts, and culinary ephemera, and an unexpected black-and-white photo of Janis Joplin smoking a cigarette at Ratner's, which is fabulous.

Eating Delancey, is Mr. Rezny's personal homage to the vanishing flavors of his youth. Similarly, Mr. Schaps waxes nostalgic about his bubbe Ethel Raben and the meals he consumed in her Russian-Yiddish-American kitchen. Mr. Rezny photographs the semaphores of their combined history -- bagels, halvah, knishes, seltzer bottles -- with the same intention. The photographs of iconic quaffs -- a bottle of Cherry Heering, Slivovitz, a bottle top of Cel-ray soda, tea in a glass are stunning in their simplicity. And the luster of the finished dishes -- a slice of creamy cheesecake, Schwartz's sweet and sour flanken, even matzo brei, a monochrome dish if there ever was one, here looks sensuous.

Joan Rivers would have kvelled from this book. Her poignant introduction, which in itself is poignant, is brilliantly alive with affection for Jewish food. She describes her mother, "a chic woman, very well read, a great hostess, and a horrible cook" and goes on to confess her love of singed chicken feet and gefilte fish with freshly grated horseradish.

Many books have delved into the psyche of Jewish people through their food -- but this book succeeds as a true work of art. I, for one, regret not knowing more about my grandparents' path, that of Joseph and Louise (Goldstein) Gold, who walked and ate with the best of them. More nostalgia: My best friend threw me a surprise wedding shower at Sammy's Roumanian on Chrystie Street -- imagine how classy that was -- a place where chicken fat is poured from a pitcher, garlic fills the air, and where time, for a moment, stands still.

Ten Radically Simple Days of Christmas

photo 2(2)Recipe countdown:  For the next 10 days I will share a main course recipe from Radically Simple: Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease. After all, it is the time of year where we all crave abundance without the burden. A nice holiday gift? A copy of the book from Amazon. For me, I'd love a fruitcake. Salmon & Mint in Crispy Grape Leaves This is an unusual fish dish for this time of the year but it's one of my favorites. Serve it on a mound of couscous mixed with orzo -- a new combo for me.  I invented it this morning!  Add a side dish of tiny roasted Brussels sprouts with a drizzle of walnut oil, sea salt and lemon zest.  What to drink?  Open a great bottle of pinot noir from Oregon or France, depending on your mood. This recipe is easily doubled, or tripled, and so is quite desirable for a holiday menu.

1/2 cup crème fraîche (I love the one from Vermont Creamery) 1 small garlic clove 4 thick salmon fillets, 7 ounces each, skin removed 2 medium bunches fresh mint 8 large grape leaves in brine, rinsed and dried 3 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Mix the crème fraîche with the garlic, pushed through a press. Add salt to taste. Season the fish with salt and pepper. Top each fillet with 6 mint leaves. Wrap each piece of fish tightly in 2 overlapping grape leaves, tucking in the ends as you go. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet. Add the packets and cook over high heat until crispy, 2 minutes on each side. Transfer the fish to a rimmed baking sheet and scatter with mint sprigs. Bake 8 minutes, until the fish is just firm. Serve with the crème fraîche and crispy mint. Drizzle with additional oil, if desired. Serves 4

No Longer a Rookie Cookie

I love to get gifts of food, and every now and again someone sends me something. There is the yearly arrival of luscious honeybell oranges from Florida sent by a close friend; around the holidays, a large tin of Middle Eastern pastries arrive from a bakery in Dearborn, Michigan, (a tradition started by my father and continued by my husband), and recently I received a fabulous package of artisan food products from Spain -- including an unusual semi-soft chorizo known as sobrasada Mallorquina from my sister-in-law when she finally exhausted her gift ideas. And just the other day, a box of delectable cookies and one-bite mignardises, arrived safely from Culver City, Calif. Not only was I impressed with the originality and quality of the brown butter, dark chocolate & smoked salt cookies, the delicacy of the lemon pieters, made with a bit of lemon oil and lemon sugar, and the addictive platino -- an elegant version of an Oreo, I wondered how a business that deals with high-cost ingredients and lots of labor, manages to thrive. Especially when much of its business is coast-to-coast. Many people have fantasies about food and opening food businesses. Some succeed; but most of them fail, with dashed bank accounts and broken dreams as the payoff. But Jamie Cantor, the owner of Platine Cookies, in Culver City, Calif., located east of Santa Monica and south of Beverly Hills, has been in business for more than 10 years and had her largest order -- 3,500 dozen... that's 42,000 cookies to roll out, bake, and package, in a rather small space -- just last month. Whether it's "Android" cookies for Google, "engagement ring" cookies and miniature Ho-Ho's for the local Bloomingdales, or gift boxes for corporate clients, Ms. Cantor has beat the odds in an industry where small entrepreneurs are notorious for abruptly disappearing.

Lucky for her, Jamie Cantor chose to make sweet things, which, despite our national obsession with obesity, are today all the rage. Just think of the cupcake madness around the country, with endless lines for Magnolia Bakery's products, and with Sprinkles, a California-based company, fitting out some of their stores with 24-hour cupcake ATMs for those clamoring for a sugar fix at midnight. Even McDonald's just last week announced that it would be selling baked goods all day long, hoping to snare some "treats" business from the likes of Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks. New business hopefuls are trying their hands at artisan gelato, which looks like a precarious trendlet to me. And chain restaurants are following the lead of Darden's Seasons 52 with socially-responsible mini-dessert options.

Jamie's dream of opening a cookie store (not unlike that of cookbook author Dorie Greenspan who opens "pop up" cookie stores all over New York), began when her father bought her a copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum's Christmas Cookie Book when she was a young girl. Combine that yearning with the creative precision of her mother who was an architect, and you have the stuff dreams are made of. Jamie enrolled in the CIA in Hyde Park, New York, and received the 1998 Women Chefs & Restaurateurs Scholarship to study in the Napa Valley campus where she earned a degree in Bakery & Pastry Arts. She landed an internship at Thomas Keller's French Laundry, and then, after graduating, worked as Chef de Partie in the pastry department under the tutelage of pastry chef Stephen Durfee and Keller, himself, who she describes as impressive, smart and fastidious. It was there that Jamie honed her perfectionism and her desire to infiltrate a world smitten by cupcakes with her own, more upscale, petit pastry and cookie offerings. More Francois Payard than Sandra Lee, Jamie headed south to Los Angeles, bought some flour, and started a company.

Her first items? Jamie created the platino (a cakey-chocolate cookie sandwich filled with voluptuous white "cream") and the camee -- which is an all-white vanilla version. These continue to be her best sellers among a comprehensive list of brownies, lemon meringue grahams, and more. What I find compelling is that her cookies have a home-made quality about them rather than appear like (well) cookie-cutter products from an industrial manufacturer. And for the last few years she has two dynamite offerings for Passover -- traditional coconut macaroons and the less-traditional chocolate flourless "baby cakes." Others swear by the caramel-topped brownie and the chocolate pots de creme with black lava salt: Return the little cup and you receive 10 cents -- Jamie's nod to ecology. I, for one, am enamored with Jamie's exquisite balance of salt and sugar in her recipes.

Discovered by the Food Network in 2004, Platine has also received raves from Japanese Vogue, People magazine and the Los Angeles Times. While her biggest issue continues to be delivering a hand-made high quality product at a reasonable price, her dream is to turn Platine into a nationwide brand. In the meantime, she just developed a new cookie in honor of her niece "the Cho-la-la" -- a chocolate thumbprint cookie filled with gianduja and sprinkled with Hawaiian pink salt. Next, will be an homage, no doubt, to her son Jackson, who is just one year old. Lucky kid.

And now that Thomas Keller has opened Bouchon Bakery in Beverly Hills, Jamie Cantor has become a friendly competitor to her beloved former boss.

Two Great Cooks, Two Great Cookbooks

'Tis the season to give and receive...and if you're lucky, this year's best cookbooks will be part of the exchange. I recently was given a gift of Ellie Krieger's new book "Comfort Food Fix" and later that week bought for myself Melissa Clark's "Cook This Now." There was something strikingly sympatico about both books -- each meant for a unique audience -- and I was eager to find the treasures within. Both titles are "calls to action," compelling the home cook to get into the kitchen immediately and do something! Their subtitles tell the rest of the story. Ms. Krieger's book is filled with "Feel-Good Favorites Made Healthy," while Ms. Clark offers "120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can't Wait to Make." As the author of twelve cookbooks, I know the vicissitudes of creating original dishes that satisfy home cooks' deepest wishes: Recipes that balance a sense of ease in both the time they take to prepare and the "stress factor" in making them. If the recipes "feel healthy," so much the better -- especially for weekday or family cooking. Add to that an interesting new ingredient, technique or combination of flavors, and you've got a book full of enticing new dishes to try.

While the food world is small and many of us know each other, I am only an acquaintance of the authors, meeting up for an occasional chat at a cookbook launch, a chance meeting in the farmer's market, or once an encounter at a very short lunch. But I have been a fan of both authors for years. Ellie is host of one of TV's more credible food shows --Healthy Appetite, shown weekday mornings on the Cooking Channel, and the author of "The Food You Crave" and "So Easy." Melissa is the triumphant food writer for The New York Times' column "A Good Appetite" and the author of 32 cookbooks.

I asked both authors which five recipes in their books were personal favorites. An unfair question, I know! Ellie selected her Blueberry Muffins, French Onion Soup, Shrimp and Grits, Scalloped Potatoes au Gratin, and Mini Cheesecakes, while Melissa highlighted her Roasted Cauliflower with Pomegranate and Salted Yogurt, Roast Chicken with Chickpeas, Lemons & Gremolata, Vietnamese-Style Steak with Cabbage. Pistachio Shortbread, and Maple Pecan Pie with Star Anise. Unknowingly they created little menus for you and me. Ellie's approach might seem the more familiar and homey to Melissa's more adventurous riffs -- the very embodiment of interesting ingredients and new flavor combos.

Each author has successfully carved out a special niche in the crowded marketplace of cooking and cookbooks. As a registered dietician with a master's degree in nutrition from Columbia University, Ellie brings formidable knowledge and expertise to her craft. Her goal in Comfort Food Fix was to re-formulate pleasurable recipes -- banana-walnut pancakes, oven-fried chicken, lasagna, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie -- so that you could include them in a healthier regime. Particularly useful, and insightful into her methodology, is her list of "The 15 Fix Factors" -- including ideas such as using low-fat milk thickened with a bit of flour or cornstarch to create a creamy mouthfeel; the concept of the "un-fry" -- achieving crispiness in a low-fat way; adding whole grains, cooking to keep nutrients, trimming portions, and sweetening smartly. I especially like the notion of keeping it real, and using a bit of butter to enrich foods. According to Ms. Krieger, only 1 tablespoon of sweet butter is needed to add supernal creaminess to her recipe for mashed potatoes. Another wave of her magic wand? A Mushroom, Onion & Gruyere Quiche with Oat Crust was 530 calories before her "fix" and only 290 calories afterward. It also looks delicious.

Melissa, on the other hand, in Cook This Now brings one of my favorite Japanese proverbs to life: "If you can capture the season on the plate, then you are the master." Her recipes feature organic, fresh ingredients that can be uniquely obtained during each month of the year and has us thinking about the procurement of ingredients and cooking as though there were 12 seasons in a year. I love that notion. December brings us Beet & Cabbage Borscht with Dill, Golden Parsnip Latkes, Braised Leg of Lamb with Garlicky Root Vegetable Puree, and lovely sounding Red Chard with Pine Nuts, Garlic, and Golden Rum Raisins. Know what, Melissa?  I am going to "Cook This Now!" Melissa's cooking style, as well as her writing style, is personal, knowing, and seasoned liberally with brilliance.

So there you have it. Two new books to curl up in bed with. Happy Holidays.

Melissa Clark's Pistachio Shortbread (from "Cook This Now") According to Melissa, if she had a signature dish, it would be shortbread.

2 cups all-purpose flour 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar 1/2 cup shelled pistachios 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt 1 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes 2 teaspoons orange blossom water

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Combine the flour, confectioners' sugar, pistachios, and salt in a food processor. Pulse until the nuts are coarsely to finely chopped. Pulse in the butter and orange blossom water until a moist ball forms. Press the dough evenly into an 8-inch-square baking pan.  Prick the shortbread all over with a fork. Bake the shortbread until barely golden, 45 to 50 minutes. Slice the shortbread while warm.

Edible Gifts & "Sugar Candy"

This is the weekend I begin to think of the edible gifts I can make to give with the usual bottle of bubbly we bring to friends.  These tidings of joy -- inexpensive, quick and festive -- are especially fun to prepare with any children who happen to be around.  And while it's better to give than receive, I always look forward to the cranberry-nut bread baked yearly by our business partner, Dennis Sweeney, the box of Pittman & Davis pears from Texas sent by Diana and Bryan; the world's best dry-roasted peanuts sent by our broker from North Carolina, the bittersweet chocolate bark made by my best friend Dale, and the Middle Eastern pastries from Dearborn, Michigan that my father used to send to everyone he knew.  These are the gifts we rarely give ourselves. Eight years ago I wrote a cookbook called Christmas 1-2-3.  Tiny and beautifully designed it looks like an edible gift itself!  (I think it may still be in print and would make a great stocking stuffer!)  Featured within are many ideas for edible presents.  My favorite is White Chocolate-Peppermint Crunch and you will find that recipe below.  Equally simple to make is Pignoli Brittle, Apricot Sweetmeats -- filled with almond paste and pistachios, Peppery spiced pecans, and Foie gras kisses.  These can all be made up to two weeks in advance and ready for holiday partying.  Equally compelling comestibles (from my other books) include Chocolate-Pecan Fudge, Chickpea Flour Cookies, and "Sugar Candy" -- a recipe I found in the Alice B. Toklas cookbook, published in 1954.  Alice, of course, was lover, confidante, and constant dining companion to the celebrated writer Gertrude Stein. "During the war there was a shortage of sugar, however this simple candy remained a staple of our household," commented Alice.  I found making this confection a bit like watching paint dry, but the results were worth it!  (recipe below)  Top each piece with a small candied violet and wrap in cellophane.

If there are edible gifts that you love to give, or receive, do let me know.  I will be sharing those, and other recipes, in the holiday countdown. White Chocolate-Peppermint Crunch 8 ounces white chocolate 2 tablespoons white creme de menthe 1/3 cup coarsely crushed candy canes

Melt white chocolate in top of a double boiler over simmering water.  Add creme de menthe, stirring until smooth.  Spray a 7-x-7 inch pan with cooking spray and pour in mixture so that it is smooth.  Press crushed candy canes into mixture, distributing evenly.  Chill and cut into squares.  Line a box with colorful tissue and fill with candy. Makes 16 pieces

Alice B. Toklas's Sugar Candy 1 cup heavy cream 1 cup granulated sugar 1 teaspoon brandy candied violets, optional

Put the first three ingredients and a pinch of salt in a heavy medium saucepan.  Heat the mixture until it just begins to bubble then reduce the heat to low.  Stir almost constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture is the color of coffee with cream.  This will take 45 to 50 minutes.  Remove from the flame and pour into a lightly oiled square pan so that the candy is 1/2-inch thick.  Cool and cut into small squares.  Place a small piece of a candied violet on each, if desired.  Makes 24 to 32 pieces.