Cookbooks the perfect, useful holiday gifts

Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2002

From practical to extravagant, cookbooks make great gifts. With the holiday shopping season in full swing, I thought I'd make a few recommendations for cookbooks that are fun to read, well-organized and simple to follow. To accomplished cooks these books will offer much to explore. To novices they will offer confidence. To both, they will offer inspiration.

Ben Bohen is a local chef and food writer.

If I were forced to choose one contemporary cookbook to have on my shelf it would have to be "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman. Truly comprehensive and written in a straightforward style, this book never intimidates no matter what your experience level. I have given away a number of copies of this book as gifts over the past few years and have gotten nothing but rave reviews in return. A guaranteed favorite.

For lovers of traditional Italian cuisine, Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" is a must-have. In the 1970s, when the average American equated Italian food with the ubiquitous spaghetti and meatballs, Hazan was instrumental in introducing home cooks to the world of Italian regional cooking. This book is an encyclopedic compendium of her best recipes ranging from fresh pastas to meat, seafood, vegetables, breads and desserts, rounded out by chapters devoted to ingredients and techniques. Marcella's instructions are clear, her opinions firm and her standards high.

Vegetable enthusiasts will be thrilled with "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" by Deborah Madison. There is no aspect of vegetarian cooking left unexplored by this passionate tome that stretches to 742 pages. Madison offers a multitude of excellent options for diners of all stripesand includes soups, sandwiches, salads, casseroles, pastas, grains, pizzas and breads.

For bakers, whether beginners or avid enthusiasts, "Baking with Julia" based on the PBS series hosted by Julia Child, and written by Dorie Greenspan, is a collection of recipes contributed by some of America's best pastry chefs and bread makers. The recipes here, complemented by excellent photography, cover breads and rolls of all sorts, cakes, pastries, muffins, cookies, pies and tarts. True to Child's standing as one of the foremost culinary educators of the 20th century this book is so easy to use that the recipes are practically foolproof.

For the more adventurous dessert maker, "The Last Course - The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern" by acclaimed pastry chef Claudia Fleming will challenge expectations and excite the palate. Organized around central ingredients such as berries, citrus fruits, spices, nuts and chocolate, each chapter includes tarts, cakes, cookies, ice creams and sorbets that can be mixed and matched to create ever more elaborate combinations. There is even a chapter on desserts that incorporate vegetables, including a wonderful chilled rhubarb soup that is the perfect antidote to a Juneau summer too full of strawberry rhubarb pies.

Lastly, for true foodies - those who can think of no better day than one spent in the kitchen - I recommend recent releases from two of today's best American restaurateurs. "The Babbo Cookbook" by Mario Batali captures all of the passion for adventurous Italian food and knockout flavors served up every day at Babbo in New York City. Delightful recipes such as halibut with artichokes and tomato anchovy vinaigrette, and grilled venison with squash caponata and Turiga Wine Sauce take ingredients native to Alaska in wonderfully unexpected directions. Others, including goat cheese tortelloni with dried orange and fennel pollen, and warm testa (pig's "head cheese") with waxy potatoes play successfully with more exotic ingredients.

"The French Laundry Cookbook" by Thomas Keller is as precise as "Babbo," and as focused and intelligent as the cuisine at Keller's Napa Valley restaurant which consists of daily tasting menus made up of multiple small courses that distill the essence of fresh seasonal ingredients down to a few bites each. "The French Laundry Cookbook" balances eloquent essays on the art and philosophy of cooking with practical everyday tips that enable the home cook to riff on its complex recipes. Dinner party guests will definitely be impressed.

Ben Bohen is a local chef and food writer. He can be reached through reporter Julia O'Malley at

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