Look for the book

A gift-giving guide for the culinary artist in your life

By Paula Johnson

Photo: “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombaur

’Tis the season when we’re all trying to figure out that perfect gift that’s useful, meaningful and memorable. You know, something instead of those socks that heat up, light up and recharge your phone. If you’re reading this article, chances are you are interested in food and cooking, so you might already be inclined to buy cookbook as a great gift. But how do you know which of the millions out there might be a good choice?

Recipe reconnaissance

How do I know which books I want? When I go into anyone’s house who I know likes to cook, I become what my husband refers to as “Gladys Kravitz-y.” (For those who don’t remember, Gladys Kravitz was the nosey neighbor from the TV show Bewitched who spent most of her time spying on everyone in the neighborhood.) When I come to your house, I won’t be opening your medicine cabinet, I will be looking for where you keep your cookbooks, looking for the least pristine ones. Those with cracked bindings, dog eared stained pages and bookmarks and post-its sticking out everywhere. Then I will make a note of the book’s name, so I can add it to my own collection.

So you could do what I do. Or you could just ask, my husband says. To save you from turning into Gladys Kravitz, I did just that. I asked several chefs and food writers for the one cookbook they can’t live without. As expected, most couldn’t limit themselves to just one, so the list of recommendations is quite extensive. The following books might help you wade through the myriad cookbook choices to find the perfect one for your holiday gift.

Jeff Besecker, chef at The Old Arcana, struggled to make a few selections from a library of over 100 cookbooks.

Here is a list of his favorites:

1. “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombaur

“‘The Joy of Cooking’ is the backbone of fundamental cooking,” Besecker says. “No decent cook should live without this tome in his or her arsenal. Everything you truly need to learn in order to cook is in this classic.”

2. “Maggie’s Harvest” by Maggie Beer

“When it comes to seasonal cooking,” he says, “this one offers a decidedly European bent. Breaking the monotony of stagnant, colonized American farm-to-table cooking.”

3. “Smoke & Pickles” by Edward Lee

“Ed Lee marries the East with American South in ways that defy logic yet make perfect sense,” Besecker says. “Somehow even hearing Lee explain how these two culinary traditions are parallel because they lay on the same geographical plane seems a perfect reason.”

4. “The Bread Bible” by Rose Levy Beranbaum

“Because baking bread is a goddamn art. One that is never truly perfect,” he says. “Bible is a title befitting. A must-study for any cook.”

5. “The Wild Chef” by Jonathan Miles

“There is something romantically pastoral about heading out into nature and slaying harmless critters to sate one’s hunger,” he reflects. “What man doesn’t like to kill stuff in the woods and make tasty vittles for the entire family out of it?”

Catherine Vodrey, chocolatier at Vodrey’s Chocolates and food writer, has a few of her own go-tos.

She says, “I can tell you right now off the top of my head, I adore Marcella Hazan’s ‘Marcella Cucina.’ She’s a very brisk, no-nonsense writer and her celery and tomato pasta—despite being vegetarian—is almost meaty in texture and hearty enough to satisfy even stoutest meat lover.”

Vodrey continues, “I’m also a huge Nick Malgieri fan and can’t recommend highly enough his wonderful ‘How to Bake.’ Nigella Lawson’s ‘Nigella Express’ is a very fine basic cookbook, especially for folks who like a little bit of hand-holding in the kitchen. And her breakfast bars—basically granola bars—are superb and very tasty, even if they’ve been sitting around for a week or more.

“Finally, I bow down before Rose Levy Beranbaum’s ‘The Cake Bible,’” she says, “which came out in 1988 and has never, ever been issued in paperback. It’s so superlative and reliable that people still willingly buy it in hardcover 27 years later. Beranbaum’s Buttermilk Country Cake is just about the only cake I’ve ever baked where the directions tell you, hey, no need for icing, and there truly is no need for icing—it’s that good. I learned from Beranbaum to weight my ingredients, as opposed to measuring by volume, and, overall, my baking got a lot more reliable because of that one simple change.”

There you have it: recommendations from the food pros. My own suggestions would include “The Silver Palate” by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso, “An Invitation to Indian Cooking” by Madhur Jaffrey, “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman, “The Way To Cook” by Julia Child and “The French Laundry” by Thomas Keller. Of course I love online sites like Epicurious and Food Network, which allow for printing and saving recipes. But I love my books. Each one contains special recipes that bring back memories of time spent with family and friends at the table.

These books offer a range of skill levels from the most basic to the more advanced. Depending upon your giftee, one of these suggestions will probably fit the bill. And if you’re lucky, you might just get invited to sample a culinary creation prepared from your gift! Happy holidays and bon appetite!

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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