Food books for giving

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 - 11:30 am

Digging into a new cookbook or culinary tome ranks as a favorite activity for the food-obsessed. There was no shortage of thoughtful food books released this year that would make perfect holiday gifts. Whether you're looking for a present to satiate your favorite oenophile, dedicated baker or home cook, we've got you covered.

Note that substantial discounts can usually be found on these list prices. Happy holidays, and happy reading:

"Bouchon Bakery" (Artisan, $50, 400 pages): Stop by Bouchon Bakery in Yountville on a given day, and chances are the line's going out the door. They're all clamoring for freshly baked goodies made under the auspices of Thomas Keller, such as macarons, loaves of brioche, cookies, muffins, even treats for your pooch. They're the kinds of foods that often harken back to childhood: easy on the sweet tooth and much softer on the wallet than, say, lunch at Bouchon Bistro.

Home bakers have a chance to re-create some of these signature pastries and breads with "Bouchon Bakery," written by Keller, Sebastien Rouxel (executive pastry chef for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group) and others. The recipes start out looking accessible enough, including oatmeal raisin cookies and chocolate chip cookies. Others read more like master lessons in baking, with extensive recipes and tips for creating various breads and pastries.

Like all of Keller's cookbooks, these recipes are detailed meticulously, and in this case the authors suggest using a kitchen scale and measuring ingredients in grams.

This cookbook, with its range of recipes and tips, is basically a must for bakers and budding pastry chefs. With its weighty 400 pages and photographs that look good enough to eat, "Bouchon Bakery" can also double as one yummy book for the coffee table.

Buy for: Your favorite baker, fans of Thomas Keller and anyone on your list who dreams of scoring a reservation at the French Laundry.

"How To Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto" by Eric Asimov (William Morrow, $24.99, 272 pages): Let's just say Eric Asimov, chief wine critic for the New York Times, didn't exactly win the hearts and minds of his fellow scribes at the 2009 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa. He presented a lecture titled "The Tyranny of the Tasting Note," which basically skewered the way critics traditionally describe wines through overwritten, purple prose. I was there, and Asimov was met with some awkward silence and a lot of defensive stares.

"The Tyranny of the Tasting Note" is not only one of the chapter titles in Asimov's excellent "How To Love Wine" but also one of the book's core themes. He blames overwrought wine writing for creating a sense of anxiety with the general public, who may fear they can't discern "a brooding core of mulled currant, warm fig sauce, and maduro tobacco" when drinking wine.

"At best, tasting notes are a waste of time," writes Asimov. "At worst, they are pernicious. … None of these esoteric aromas and flavors tell you anything important about the wine. … Would you buy this wine because it reminds one critic of fig sauce?"

Asimov could hardly be accused of trying to dumb down wine appreciation. He's among the most widely read wine writers, and nearly encyclopedic in his knowledge of vineyards from California's Central Coast to northwestern Italy. He's simply advocating ways to approach wine that are more useful to consumers, and chipping away at the elitism and snobbery that many see as barriers to enjoying and exploring wine.

"How To Love Wine" is an especially thoughtful read, with its musings on current issues in the wine world and his own career trajectory as a food and wine writer. (Fun fact: Asimov says he applied to newspapers in Sacramento in his early career). Like a crisp glass of Sancerre, "How To Love Wine" is an especially refreshing breeze through the hot air and pretension that's so prevalent in wine culture.

Buy for: Your favorite wine lover who subscribes to the New York Times, anyone who enjoys wine tastings, budding food and wine writers.

"Come In, We're Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World's Best Restaurants" by Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy (Running Press, $35, 320 pages): In the restaurant industry, they're known as "staff meal" or "family meal." It's typically the time before dinner service when a restaurant staff – chefs, dishwashers, servers, etc. – gets fed family-style so everyone can be fueled for the dinner rush. The staff meal might be a bunch of cobbled-together leftovers, or a hearty yet simple-to-prepare dish that can easily feed many.

"Come In, We're Closed" gives a taste of these pre-service feasts, with staff meal recipes from some of the world's leading restaurants, including Morimoto, wd-50 and France's Michel et Sebastien Bras. Need to whip up double cheeseburgers for 10? Check out the recipe from McCrady's of South Carolina. For an Asian twist, the Slanted Door of San Francisco offers stir-fried bok choy with shiitake mushrooms that feed four to six.

The book includes plenty of mouthwatering photos of these family style dishes, along with interviews with chefs and restaurateurs about the importance of staff meals and their own unique twists. Apart from some exotic ingredients, most of the recipes are fairly straightforward and don't require an excessive amount of fuss. After all, when the reservation books are showing a full house, there isn't much time to get too precious in the kitchen.

Buy for: Anyone who loves hosting dinner parties, foodies who want a taste from behind the scenes at wd-50 and Cochon in New Orleans.

Quick picks

"Japanese Farm Food" by Nancy Singleton Hachisu (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $35, 386 pages): Japanese cuisine meets the farm-to-table movement, with recipes including homemade ramen, a "country style" teriyaki chicken that uses no sugar, and sesame miso vinaigrette. Plan on sourcing these ingredients from the farmers market, Oto's Marketplace and other local Asian markets.

"The Juice: Vinous Veritas" by Jay McInerney (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 304 pages): The latest collection of essays from one of the wine world's most entertaining and eloquent writers. Pieces include, "Does Bordeaux Still Matter?", "The Rock Stars of Pinot Noir" and "Oh No! Not Pinot Grigio!" Highly recommended for your favorite literary-minded wine lover.

"To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion" by Philip Greene (Perigee Trade, $24, 320 pages): Learn to make cocktails associated with Ernest Hemingway's life and literary works, including dripped absinthe, plus writings about the boozier side of Hemingway's life.

"Fire in My Belly: Real Cooking" by Kevin Gillespie with David Joachim (Andrews McMeel, $40, 356 pages). The "Top Chef" finalist and James Beard nominee shares recipes for hearty Southern foods. His gut-busting dishes include spicy chorizo, baked hot wings and Savannah red rice.

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