Recipes for all seasons and reasons

2010’s high-quality cookbooks make great reads any time

By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / December 22, 2010

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There is not a publisher who isn’t wondering whether they ought to just bid farewell to the presses and put their titles out in digital format. But cookbooks — especially this year’s remarkably high-quality crop — offer one of the strongest arguments for maintaining print.

Cooks don’t swoon over leather bindings or the smell of new paper. Instead we use our books in the way a carpenter uses a level, tracing our place on the page with a finger as we shuttle between stove, counter, and fridge. And while there are ways to handle all these tasks on your iPad, laptop, or e-reader, none is really straightforward. And heaven forbid you spill something! As physical objects, cookbooks work.

Here’s a small sampling of this year’s gems.

Madhur Jaffrey’s streamlined style remains accessible and appealing in her newest title, At Home With Madhur Jaffrey (Knopf, $35). Jaffrey is a marvelous translator of cultures, sharing morsels of insight into South Asian foodways past and present. Her recipes offer a generous mix of proteins, vegetables, dals, and grains. You’ll want to spend time with the book in a leisurely fashion for the pleasure of her company. Not many photographs, but they are mouthwatering.

Simply Ming One-Pot Meals (Kyle Books, $29.95) is hardly the first one-pot book, but it’s distinctive. It’s organized by technique (“Braise,’’ “Wok,’’ “Saute,’’ “Roast,’’) so you always know what you’re getting into. Every recipe has a large color photograph so you can tell down to the last pixel whether you got it right. Every so often, you have the smiling face of restaurateur and TV chef Ming Tsai himself, in one or another of his immaculate Oxford shirts. Call me sentimental, but I think that’s a plus.

The size and heft of One Big Table, by Molly O’Neill (Simon & Schuster, $50) bespeak abundance. Here are riches from American food: vintage photographs of 19th-century stoves, portraits of present-day cooks, farmers, and bakers. At over 800 pages (and a matching high price tag), it’s a weighty yet lighthearted tribute to our foodways. Recipes have hundreds of sources, so they aren’t always consistent. This book is for your favorite experienced home cook, who will use common sense at the stove.

If you want to account for the phenomenal success of Dorie Greenspan’s first savory cookbook, Around My French Table (HMH $40), look no further than the lamb and dried apricot tagine on Page 284. There is an inescapable pleasure in her food. Like many of these dishes, the tagine arrived in France from somewhere else (Morocco), the recipe originated with a friend, and comes with an explanation as interesting as the dish and photograph.

Baking books are, if anything, more essential in paper format than other books. Bakers never wing it. They check three times to make sure they’re really using the right amounts, and they expect the same meticulous care from authors.

Meticulous could be the middle name of veteran teacher and writer Nick Malgieri, whose newest volume is a summation of techniques he has perfected. Bake! Essential Techniques for Perfect Baking (Kyle Books, $29.95) teems with the sort of tips only a longtime teacher knows: cutting dacquoise, whisking pastry cream, making corners on your puff pastry. Many recipes have been published elsewhere, but having them in one place with smart commentary is invaluable.

The cover of Alice Medrich’s new Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy (Artisan, $25.95) will reduce you to a gibbering Cookie Monster in 10 seconds flat. Recipes have all the rigor you’ve come to expect from this award-winning writer. You never have to wonder what went wrong, because she gives crucial signposts (“the batter will be very thick and sticky’’; “hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it’’). I spent a happy hour with the “Crispy’’ chapter, turning page after melt-in-your-mouth page and crunching away in my imagination.

When you’ve had your fill of cookies, spare some attention for Classic Home Desserts (HMH, $35), a glorious second edition of the 1994 book by the late Richard Sax. You can’t beat it for sheer custardy, cobbled, strudel-filled abundance.

Previously reviewed this year but worth revisiting: Grace Young’s Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, for a new wok repertoire, and Simon Hopkinson’s The Vegetarian Option, for luscious British kitchen-garden fare. And don’t forget local cafe owner Joanne Chang, whose Flour: Spectacular Recipes From Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe (Chronicle Books, $35) tells you how to make chocolate cupcakes, luscious tarts, and other goodies from her cases.

Slow food, whether in the form of homemade preserves, iron-skillet fried chicken, or sumptuous meatballs in tomato sauce, has gradually worked its way back into our kitchens. Slow cookbooks have every reason to do the same. Think about the alternatives. Online recipes are fine when your fondest dream is to hunt down a kumquat cocktail. But for the sensory explosion that accompanies the discovery of a great new recipe, only print will do.

T. Susan Chang can be reached at