A great book should take you somewhere, and a great cookbook is no exception.
It was a tough job, but I whittled down my 2015 cookbook collection (OK, hoarder’s pile) to five favorites. If you’ve got a foodie on your Christmas list, or you’re looking for your own escape from the festivities, this list may come in handy.
The Nordic Cookbook, by Magnus Nilsson. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland don’t actually enjoy being lumped together as the “Nordic countries,” Nilsson says. Each has its own food and traditions—Icelandic rotten shark, anyone? How about Finnish beetroot soup? But there are some striking similarities. For example, Icelanders, Finns, Danes, and Swedes all claim ownership of the cinnamon bun.
Nilsson suggests up front that a lot of people will think the 767-page book is incomplete “simply because that very recipe or piece of information with which they identify themselves, the one that they feel is absolutely key for telling the story of their specific food culture, is not in there.” But the important thing, he says, is exposure to “a food culture that you wanted to know more about.”
But the Swedish chef doesn’t just leave it at that. He includes a brief regional history with simple black-and-white maps, pen-and-ink recipe illustrations—such as the eight basic shapes for forming Swedish saffron buns—and deliberate use of full-page photographs showing the hearty, pink-cheeked people and chilled landscape of your imagination.
Nilsson’s recent Mind of a Chef fame doesn’t seem to have gone to his head. The recipes are straightforward, dissecting classic preserved meats and fresh cheeses pressed into molds, as well as more modern soups and stews.
NOPI, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully. There’s no denying that Israeli-born, London-based Ottolenghi has struck a cultural nerve with his fresh takes on Middle Eastern food in Jerusalem: A Cookbook and Ottolenghi and with his veg-forward focus in Plenty and Plenty More, all published in the last few years. Their stunning, full-page photographs are odes to the healthy, modern style of cooking many of us aspire to. And I know food porn when I see it.
But NOPI, which relies on some of the same types of photos, feels very different. It’s not even pretending to be a guide for newbies. Instead it’s a window inside the minds of Ottolenghi and NOPI head chef Scully. It’s where hummus meets lime leaves in a Middle Eastern-Asian mash-up. “This is a restaurant cookbook,” the press release blares, and it’s not for the faint-hearted.
For example, I’m probably not going to tackle Twice-Cooked Baby Chicken With Chile Sauce and Kaffir Lime Leaf Salt anytime soon, but this is a cookbook worth reading late at night under the covers if you want to immerse yourself in the pure intensity of how hyper-talented chefs develop ideas for new dishes.
The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, by Dan Buettner. OK, so it’s not technically a cookbook but more like a life book with recipes. Buettner, a National Geographic fellow, has spent years researching longevity. He’s discovered that a lot of it comes down to what we eat, how much we eat, and how often we physically exert ourselves.
Sounds simple, right? But lecturing doesn’t usually get us anywhere. More than 75 percent of American men and 67 percent of women over 25 are overweight or obese, according to a recent analysis in the Journal of American Medicine—and we’re spreading our way of eating to the rest of the world.
But the message of Buettner’s book, which introduces the reader to real people in Japan, Italy, and even Loma Linda, California, feels less like diet advice and more like happiness advice: Eat more beans, bring back Grandma’s hand-cranked can opener, walk to work. Dig in the earth when you can, talk to friends a lot, stop eating when you’re 80 percent full. (For more on this book, see “Geography May Be Key to a Long, Healthy Life.”)
Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes From the Source to the Bowl, by Pierre Thiam with Jennifer Sit. I admit I knew nothing about Senegalese cuisine when I picked up this book. But it turns out that the okra, peanuts, and rice that slaves brought with them to America can be traced back to this country, which occupies Africa’s westernmost point.
As a native son of Dakar with two Senegalese restaurants in Brooklyn, Thiam takes his interpreter role very seriously. He notes the different foodways of the semiarid north—known for its millet and yela, a musical style inspired by the sound of women pounding grain—and the west coast towns of Mbour and Joal, known for fermenting, smoking, and drying fish. And the photos by Evan Sung capture a vibrant, multifaceted people and landscape.
Senegal’s national dish—thiebou jenn—is a thick fish and rice stew, but each region has its own variations. Hospitality and kindness toward friends and neighbors, specifically toward those of another religion, is the norm in this relatively peaceful country.
Of course, Senegal, like much of Africa, has had its share of colonization and European influence—in this case by the Portuguese and French—which included encouraging natives to adopt European foodstuffs. It’s only recently that we’re finding out that many of the foods native to this land, like the supergrain fonio and the leaves of the moringa tree, are actually very nutritious. That could be a boon in places where people growing up with suboptimal diets (see “Why Micronutrient Deficiency Is a Macro Problem“).
Chesapeake Bay Cooking With Jon Shields, 25th Anniversary Edition. Long before it was trendy to serve sustainable, local, and organic food, Maryland native Shields was doing it at Gertrude’s, a modest modern restaurant tucked inside the Baltimore Museum of Art.
This fall he reissued his prescient chronicle of the waterman’s way of life and traditional cooking on the mid-Atlantic coast. It includes how to “pick” steamed crabs (seasoned with Old Bay, natch), prepare country sides like Green Beans With Country Ham and Sautéed Peanuts, and make the quirky relish known as chow-chow. In this edition, he throws in a chapter on “libations,” which wasn’t such a big thing back in 1987.
But it’s not as if drinking in Maryland and Virginia is a foreign concept. Rye whiskey evolved in colonial times as a Chesapeake specialty because tobacco farming is hard on the soil and planting rye cover crops in winter replenished it. “They had bumper crops with not enough of a market for the rye itself, hence a regional whiskey was born,” Shields writes. (See “Our Historic Relationship With Alcohol: It’s Complicated.”)