Cookbooks have come a long way from the mere instruction manuals they once were. Though hundreds of how-to-cook primers are churned out yearly, the category of “cookbook” has expanded to include books that are not simply about cooking, but also about food: eating, growing, gathering and preserving it; looking at it; thinking about it. Food can serve as a lens through which to tell a story, demonstrate scientific principles, give a history lesson or showcase aesthetics. And books make excellent gifts: They’re readily available and so easily wrapped! (This is a real consideration for butterfingered gift-givers.)
Local bookstores pad their cookbook sections this time of year, so you have a good chance of locating most of these titles at a store near you; if you can’t find them at Ye Olde Barns-and-Boarders, even the more obscure titles can be delivered in time for Christmas Day, if you’re willing to plump for the shipping. Both Borders and Barnes & Noble offer store inventory information on their websites – enter your ZIP code, and if it’s available locally, you can reserve a copy. If the book you want is not in stock in your area, Amazon can ship some titles by Dec. 24 so long as you order before 6 p.m. on Dec. 23. If you see something on this list that appeals, order now and you’ll still be a magical holiday elf hero.
Noma , René Redzepi: Like Alinea or A Day at El Bulli, for most people the point of Noma isn’t cooking … it’s looking. Redzepi’s Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, is a temple to pure local ingredients, many foraged from the Danish countryside. Perfect for cooks who like to dream that they might someday serve “vegetable field with malt soil and herbs” or “salsify and milk skin, truffle puree.”
The Geometry of Pasta , Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy: As much a graphic design tour de force as a cookbook, this black-and-white knockout combines history, kitchen science and easy-to-pull-off pasta recipes.
Jelly With Bompas and Parr , Sam Bompas and Harry Parr: Yeah, yeah, cake pops are the new cupcakes: I say let’s move away from cake altogether and start a jello movement. This book is an artful guide to all things jiggly and tasty.
Heston’s Fantastical Feasts , Heston Blumenthal: This is not a cookbook, but a chronicle of the artistry of a mad genius. Blumenthal describes such feats as baking an actual “pie of four-and-twenty blackbirds” and creating a “lobster cappuccino” with a drip coffeemaker … after the microwave lobster Thermidor failed.
The Essential New York Times Cookbook , edited by Amanda Hesser: A compendium of recipes published in the New York Times spans 150 years and functions as a culinary history of America, as well as a great resource for meal planning.
Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions , Elizabeth Andoh: Written by an American who has lived in Japan for 40 years, this book demystifies Japanese techniques and ingredients; recipes focus on using the entire vegetable. A good buy for anyone looking to eat green.
The French Menu Cookbook , Richard Olney: Among American food writers, Olney’s depth of knowledge and identification with French cookery is second only to Julia Child’s. This book, which arranges recipes in 32 well-thought-out menus, makes a perfect gift for those who weren’t sated by 2009’s Julia-fest.
Appetite for Reduction , Isa Chandra Moskowitz: A book of lower-calorie dishes from the punk-rock princess of vegan cooking.
Sandwich: A Global History , Bee Wilson: Reaktion Books’ Edible series is devoted to exploring the history of one foodstuff per book – soup, curry, hamburgers and a dozen more. They’re small (5 inches by 8 inches) and fairly inexpensive ($11 on Amazon), and a stack of them would please any food nerd. I chose Sandwich because that’s my particular white whale, but Caviar and Whiskey would be a festive combination, especially if accompanied by a bottle or jar of either substance.
Keys to Good Cooking , Harold McGee: McGee, like a kitchen Einstein, explains the chemical processes behind browning, rising and other practical magic. He’s where Alton Brown gets all of his material, so any fan of Good Eats will enjoy this mind-blower.
Ratio , Michael Ruhlman: Known to food-TV viewers chiefly as Tony Bourdain’s running buddy, Ruhlman is actually a thoughtful and meticulous chef. Here he lays out a system that abolishes the need for recipes, arming the home cook with a series of equations that unlock the proportions in which to combine basic ingredients for an infinite number of dishes. Understanding these basic ratios – how much liquid to fat to flour for bread dough as opposed to biscuit dough, for instance – is a freeing experience.
Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger , Nigel Slater: A memoir of childhood remembered through food: his mother’s burnt toast, the Cadbury and CaraMacs bought with pocket money, his stepmother’s dinner-party casseroles. The author’s awakening to food as more than sustenance is familiar ground to anyone for whom eating and cooking nourish the soul as much as the body.
Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days , James and Kay Salter: James Salter and his wife Kay share the fruits of 30 years of living well in this volume of recipes, anecdotes, historical notes and advice. Topics covered range from how to recognize a good waiter to descriptions of great meals in literature to recollections of picnics with minor royalty.
Oranges , John McPhee: I recommended it last year; I’m recommending it this year; I recommend it every year. The defining masterpiece of literary journalism, nominally a history of oranges. You live in Florida, right? Buy it.