In this zinger of a year, food’s role in our lives felt like it shifted every day. Cooking at home became more of an oasis than ever, a meal with friends somehow more important. Some nights, though, punting and ordering takeout was not a copout but a necessity. This year’s best books reflect this whipsawing, whether it’s about saving the world (or just a part of it), understanding it a little better, encouraging us to take a load off and pour a nice drink, or just tell us what to do because one more decision was one too many. We’re still hungry, though—more than ever!—and these are the books that reflect our appetites.
We Fed An Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at A Time
By José Andrés with Richard Wolffe (Anthony Bourdain Books/Ecco)
The most important food book of 2018 doesn’t contain a single recipe or talk about technique. Instead, it talks about saving lives and keeping people fed in the wake of a disaster. Chef José Andrés is well known for his high-end restaurants in and around Washington, DC, but when Hurricane Maria barreled through Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing an estimated 2,975 people, Andrés made his way to the island just a few days later, fighting through the rubble to hand out sandwiches and bowls of sancocho.
Feeding a localized group of people is noble, but Andrés and his assembled team of local chefs had greater ambitions, eventually going on to serve three million meals, a monster feat on a flattened, demoralized island. We Fed an Island is a first-hand look at what it took to do it.
While Washington politicians struggled to help and shifted their focus to Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston, Andrés created a de facto emergency agency in Puerto Rico, forever changing what it means to be a chef. People are still into awards like the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, but for many reasons, those are starting to feel incredibly out of touch with reality. In Puerto Rico and several other disaster zones since, Andrés showed that there’s more important work to do, and in my book at least, he became the indisputable chef of the decade. $28, Buy now.
Prosecco Made Me Do It: 60 Seriously Sparkling Cocktails
By Amy Zavatto (Andrews McMeel Publishing)
It is holiday feast time, and all that reveling requires bubbly and cocktails. For those, food and drink writer extraordinaire Amy Zavatto has us covered. Zavatto’s new book focuses on Italy’s famous fizz, giving some history on the country’s many different proseccos and focusing on its most important grape: the glera. Zavatto gives 60 sparkling cocktail recipes and tells the backstory for each, like the classic Bellini (white peach purée and brut-style Prosecco), the Venetian Spritz she first had at NYC’s Fort Defiance (Aperol, brut-style Prosecco, club soda, and an olive), and the Dance Party (does it matter?), each with Ruby Taylor’s poster-worthy illustrations setting the vibe.
You’ll learn and make some fine cocktails as you go, but Zavatto’s true gift is her take-you-along-for-the-ride charm. Are we learning? Yes! Are we laughing! Hell yes! Do we have a lovely drink in our hand, to boot? Yep! That too. Cheers! $17, Buy now.
Feast: Food of The Islamic World
By Anissa Helou (Ecco)
Art dealer, chef, and author of several cookbooks, Anissa Helou employs most of the skill sets involved in these jobs, and adds a healthy glug of anthropology in this beautiful and important work. For dumpukht/dumpokht biryani, she describes watching a noblewoman in Hyderabad cover goat marinated in papaya, cardamom, cumin, cloves and saffron with long-grain rice and cook it in a tight-lidded pot. When it came off the heat, the noblewoman heated a lump of charcoal over a flame, and dropped it right on the rice for a few minutes, giving the whole dish a smoky flavor.
When Helou finds room for improvement in an established recipe, or finds a way to make something more easily, she trusts herself enough to suggest a change. For complex multilayer breads like Pakistani paratha or Turkish tahinli katmer, where the classic technique can be difficult to master, she suggests a different dough-folding pattern that saves time and still yields excellent results. $60, Buy now.
Food & Drink Infographics: A Visual Guide to Culinary Pleasures
By Simone Klabin and edited by Julius Wiedemann (Taschen)
I may be biased, but while this whopper of a book might be difficult to pick up, it’s surprisingly hard to put down. Infographics are a great way to take a new look at food, and your first impulse with this beautiful tome might be to get out a razor and turn each page into a poster. Resist! At least hold off for a little while and learn visually.
Flip through the pages and certain aspects of food will begin to crystallize in ways they hadn’t before. Meat cut charts reveal the differences between regional and national styles of butchery, maps of cheese production detail mastery, diversity and depth. Conversion charts illustrate volume conversions like the ten tablespoons and two teaspoons in two-thirds of a cup, and if you ponder that for a moment, you might discover the vast superiority of going metric in the kitchen like the rest of the world.
There’s also hidden humor in Heather Jones’ “Correct Plating: And How to Get Through That (Sometimes Awkward) Holiday Dinner,” where she positions three tabs of Xanax just to the right of the soup spoon and not far from the Cognac. There’s also a bit of cross-cultural learning with Pop Chart Labs’ cocktail diagrams labeled “The Poison” across the page from “The Remedy—Hangover Cures From Around The World,” where your interest may be piqued by the Germanic take: mustard berries, juniper berries, and pickled herring. $70, Buy now.
36 Bottles: Less Is More with 3 Recommended Wines Per Month
By Paul Zitarelli (Sasquatch Books)
A confession: I lived in Paris for a decade, where I wrote about food and drank a lot of wine. While I can speak knowledgeably about the latter, my knowledge of individual styles of wine probably isn’t what it should be. In France alone, never mind the rest of the world, there are hundreds of options.
Paul Zitarelli offers a simple, global solution. Focus on just three wines a month: a red, a white and a wildcard like rosé or a sparkler. In November, just drink French Chablis, or Italian Langhe Rosso, and say “oui” to a Thanksgiving-friendly Tavel rosé from the Rhône Valley. Next May, limit your purchases to Austrian grüner veltliners, Oregon pinot noirs, and try a sweet, divine Tokaji or two from Hungary. Each month’s suggestions are accompanied by a couple recipes that quietly affirm that Zitarelli’s good taste extends beyond the bottle.
As someone who’s been overwhelmed by choice, this monthly trifecta strikes me as a great idea. Where 36 Bottles really clinches it is in the writing—both funny and smart—with lines like this: “Ultimately [using sherry in cocktails] reminds me too much of mixing liquid Tylenol into applesauce to get my daughter to take her medicine. If it tastes good in the first place, why do we need to hide it?” $20, Buy now.
Cooking With Scraps: Turn Your Peels, Cores, Rinds, Stems, and Other Odds & Ends into Delicious Meals
By Lindsay-Jean Hard (Workman)
We all do it. After a big trip to the produce stand and a nice dinner or two, we end up with a few pounds of wilty bedfellows in the icebox, and a stale bread heel on the counter, all destined for the compost heap, or worse, the trash.
A whopping 40 percent of food in the United States suffers a similar fate, says the Natural Resources Defense Council, a staggering $165 billion worth, but Lindsay-Jean Hard’s new book is an effort to chip away at that number. Hard breaks it all down by key ingredient, giving recipes for each thing you might have too much of: pestos made from asparagus ends or carrot top greens, or an ingenionus mushroom-stem compound butter. I was immediately attracted to the catch-all dishes throughout the book like frittatas, stratas, and stocks. Got extra cauliflower or okra or half a shallot? You can (quick) pickle that! Have some leftover pickle brine? Use it to turbocharge your potato salad.
Hand’s book isn’t the kind of thing you buy just for the recipes, but if you put it on the kitchen reference shelf, you’ll be happy it’s there the next time you have something that needs to be put to use in a hurry. $20, Buy now.
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