11 titles that comforted, encouraged and inspired us in the kitchen
By Washington Post Staff
December 10, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. EST
For us and many of our readers, 2021 was another year spent largely at home — working, cooking and eating. And yet the world marched on, slowly, haltingly. The cookbook business was no exception. While publishing was hit with delays just like many other industries, there was still a vast array of informative, fascinating and fun cookbooks that hit our inboxes and home office shelves.
Some books took us places we couldn’t travel to. Others taught us new skills and introduced us to different ingredients. We were also grateful to see cookbooks with greater representation from authors and cultures that had previously not been given sufficient attention in mainstream publishing, though still more work remains to be done.
Of all those wonderful entries into the cookbook canon, here are 11 of our top picks, each selected by a Voraciously staffer.
“Cook Real Hawai‘i”
By Sheldon Simeon with Garrett Snyder (Clarkson Potter, 304 pages, $35)
I need a vacation.
I’m unlikely to get on a plane to Hawaii anytime soon, but one thing I’ve always been able to do — even before getting grounded almost two years ago — was find a way to travel on the plate. I would rather eat the food of another region or culture at its point of origin, but making it myself is often a good alternative, especially when it’s the only alternative.
So when I got my hands on Sheldon Simeon’s “Cook Real Hawai‘i,” it was like getting a plane ticket. I’m only somewhat familiar with Hawaiian cuisine, but every recipe has flavor combinations that I knew I liked or was immediately intrigued by.
Simeon, who has been voted fan favorite on “Top Chef” twice, does a great job of presenting the cuisine as you would experience it if you went there to visit friends, and not at an orchid-draped beach resort. There are no tiki drinks or recipes for kalua pork or poi. There’s coconut shrimp, but it’s prepared unlike anything a tourist would expect.
What you do find are Musubi, the Spam-topped rice dish that kind of looks like sushi and is a satisfying all-day snack. Huli huli chicken that has me looking forward to grilling season. Saimin, which will remind you of ramen but is its own thing. Simeon explains in short asides how so many cultures influenced the cuisine, starting with the natives, of course, and others that are obvious (Japanese, Chinese), less obvious (Filipino, Korean) and surprising (Portuguese?!).
Ingredient lists include few items that aren’t easily attained, and alternatives are offered for any that might present a challenge. Some recipes are done in minutes and some are more like projects, but none of them are likely to take as long as a flight to Maui. But they may have you shopping for plane tickets.
Any book ostensibly about baking is bound to get my attention, but credit to Roxana Jullapat and her “Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution.” This enlightening, creative and of-the-moment volume pulled me in from the start. Jullapat, of Friends & Family bakery in Los Angeles, focuses on eight grains — barley, buckwheat, corn, oats, rice, rye, sorghum and wheat (whole, heirloom) — and makes a compelling case that they are better for your diet, the environment and your cooking.
Jullapat’s journalism education is apparent in the well-researched introductions to the chapters devoted to each grain, in which she discusses their various forms and includes tips on buying, storing and using. Some of the sweet and savory recipes, such as Vegan Pozole Verde and Freekeh With Shiitake Mushrooms, Leeks and Snap Peas, pull inspiration from her bakery and what she and her husband make at home. Plenty of others are recipes you may be familiar with that Jullapat has updated to include flavor-packed grains. Examples include elegant Corn Linzer Cookies, barley pumpkin bread and rye bagels. Experimental types will appreciate the variations offered in recipes, especially a chocolate chip cookie that can be made with various flours.
In addition to interesting context and recipes, “Mother Grains” is a very cook-friendly book. Jullapat shares several features I wish were more standard in baking books: reference charts for weight and volume equivalencies, timelines for bread baking, a list of trusted ingredient sources, and a cheat sheet that tells you which recipes are vegan and gluten-free. Now that’s my kind of revolution, grain or otherwise.
Laperruque’s column features clearly written, tight recipes with pertinent mini how-tos. So does her first cookbook, with fresh takes on some of my favorites. I love sesame chicken. For her six-ingredient (that includes the salt and oil) Sesame Chicken With Artichokes and Arugula, the seeds are ground to near powder and used to thinly coat chicken cutlets, which are then lightly pan-fried to golden crispness. No egg wash. No flour. To dress the arugula, a bit of the brine from the jarred artichoke hearts that are also featured.
Every recipe isn’t ready in 20 or 30 minutes like that one, but many of them are well-suited for weeknight-cooking. She’s cleverly efficient, explaining how to peel a soft-boiled egg, break down brassicas and make two-ingredient stocks — at least eight of them.
She gets big flavor from so few ingredients because she’s not afraid to use a heavy hand when it comes to the bolder foods, and she leans into pickled and fermented add-ins, too. Her rib-eye gets a two-hour dry brine of salt and minced capers. If you’re going to include a recipe for braised brisket with 40 cloves of garlic, you’d better include a tip on how to peel the alliums, right? She does.
As the cookbook’s foreword notes, “there are no new recipes, just new perspectives.” Laperruque provides that fresh angle on a well-trod topic, and it’s delicious.
By Rodney Scott and Lolis Eric Elie (Clarkson Potter, 224 pages, $29.99)
The first instructions you’ll find in “Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ” have nothing to do with a recipe. They’re procedures for building your own backyard pit. “You can’t really cook a whole hog without one,” writes Scott, an acknowledged master of the whole hog tradition from South Carolina’s Pee Dee region.
Scott is not the first author to tell you how to build a smoker, but he may be the first Black pitmaster to do so for a major publishing house, which gives you a clue about the role that Black men and women have historically played in American regional barbecue. They’ve been the pioneers and the specialists whom Whites often entrusted to prepare smoked meats for parties. But their contributions, arguably their very invention of American barbecue, have been largely delegated to the margins of the cookbook industry.
“Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ" is part of our country’s ongoing course correction, and the James Beard Award-winning pitmaster makes the most of his chance to shine a light on rural Carolina culture and the role whole hog barbecue plays in it. Scott devotes much of his debut cookbook to his own biography, which, you slowly realize, is invaluable first-person documentation of Pee Dee barbecue, much of which could have been lost to history without his efforts to write it down.
Like one of those molecular gastronomy volumes from a decade or so ago, you may never cook from Scott’s book, at least cook a whole hog with your own custom-built pit and burn barrel. But the pitmaster understands this and provides plenty of backyard barbecue-friendly recipes, including Rodney’s spare ribs, his grilled vegetable salad and his Lemon and Herb Chicken, the latter of which I adapted to good effect this year. Just don’t look for a recipe for Coco’s pigtail perloo. Scott still hasn’t persuaded his wife to share it with him.
I’ve been itching to return to Mexico for several years. “Treasures of the Mexican Table” by Pati Jinich lets me preview some of what I hope to taste on a future trip to the author’s birth country.
Preparing the chipotle oyster soup from the cookbook whets my appetite for the port city of Altata in Sinaloa, where the waters of the Pacific Ocean yield what Jinich thinks are some of the meatiest oysters anywhere. Topping chicken thighs with a rough red paste of ancho and chipotle chiles, plus toasted cumin seeds and a fistful of garlic cloves, suggests I need to make a detour to the state of Hidalgo in central Mexico, where the dish goes by the name pollo ajocomino.
Jinich is a bridge-builder. Readers eager to dip their toes into the basics will welcome instructions for chicken soup, carne asada and flan. But there’s plenty for the experienced cook to explore, too. Until this handsome new reference came along, I hadn’t thought of air-drying my beef, as they do throughout Mexico, for tacos or tortas, or adding to my pantry epazote, the astringent herb that adds mysterious depth to beans, soups and sauces. One of the speediest dishes to make is a creamy and zesty salsa that stars raw peanuts — my new choice dip for chips.
Jinich writes the way she performs on her popular PBS show, “Pati’s Mexican Table.” Her smarts, warmth and enthusiasm season her recipes as surely as any of the chiles she’s asking you to use. The preface to her smoky, throat-tickling recipe for Chipotle Oyster Soup teaches us to cook the oysters gently and quickly, “so they taste and feel like a seafood version of foie gras.” Recognizing that some readers might be turned off by tongue tacos, she starts its recipe with a plea — “Don’t turn the page!" — and goes on to share how to simmer the beef with herbs and garlic to achieve “a soft, luxuriant texture and a majestically subtle flavor.”
Some of the cookbook’s handsome photographs are so evocative, they practically pull you into the shoot. I defy you to look at the lush image of sopa de chicharron and not smell tomatoes and chiles, or hear the crunch of fried pork rinds.
By Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky (Rodale Books, 288 pages, $26)
Running has kept me grounded during the pandemic. When everything else seemed to grind to a halt, the simple routine of getting up with the sun to run a few miles felt more vital and restorative than ever. Breakfast is also part of my morning routine, but too often it was a piece of buttered toast or a bowl of cold cereal or a mug of tea. I rarely ate before my runs, and rarely had time for a nourishing breakfast afterward, before starting my workday.
Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky know all about morning routines. Flanagan is the 2017 New York City Marathon champion and an Olympic silver medalist, and Kopecky is a food writer, nutrition coach and fellow marathoner. “Rise & Run,” their fourth co-authored cookbook, is changing the way I approach weekday breakfasts.
Like their 2016 debut (“Run Fast. Eat Slow.”), this book is filled with recipes packed with whole grains, healthy fats, vegetables and fruit. And luckily for me, many are of the grab-and-go variety. The apple butter oatmeal bake is hearty and warm with cinnamon and cardamom. Marathon peanut butter is an upgrade to my usual prerace breakfast condiment, with dates, chia seeds, hemp hearts and dark chocolate. There’s a chapter devoted to smoothies and drinks, and there are more substantial breakfast and brunch recipes that lean into Flanagan and Kopecky’s belief that “there is something special and sacred about mornings ... when we slow down long enough to enjoy them.”
The slowing down part is something I’m still working on. For now, I’m incorporating Flanagan’s stretching routine into my day, dabbling in the training and meal plans that make up the first few chapters of the book, and trying many of the sweet and savory variations on superhero muffins (there are 24 in the book, to be exact). The Apple Cheddar Muffins are my current go-to, with a mix of sweet fruit, salty cheese and hearty spelt flour to fuel or refuel me for whatever the day may bring.
To me, the best cookbooks are more than instructions for making dishes. I love reading them like I would novels, taking in the author’s prose, or like art books, admiring sumptuous photos and styling. Bryant Terry’s category-defying “Black Food” takes this concept to the extreme, bending our ideas about what such a tome can be. Terry, the author of “Vegetable Kingdom” and “Afro-Vegan,” assembled the compendium of essays, poetry, art and recipes exploring the African diaspora through the lens of food, and it’s the debut work of his new imprint with Ten Speed Press.
“Black Food” occupies a different space than most cookbooks — in one sense, quite literally: It’s as likely to rest on my bedside or coffee table as on my kitchen counter. Its scope is broader, too. Within its pages, one moment I’m savoring a poem by Renee Wilson and the next a lesson by culinary historian Michael W. Twitty. A collage of images of Black women by the fine artist Deborah Roberts might stop my page-turning, or a playlist curated by Terry might send me to Spotify. Just as varied as its format is its emotional range. The pages encompass both joy — as in writer Klancy Miller’s delightful essay about her strolls through Paris — and trauma.
There are, of course, recipes, which often include storytelling components. I enjoyed Cook’s Country editor in chief Toni Tipton-Martin’s orange-infused whiskey sour as much for its citrusy brightness as its backstory. I’ve been drizzling Terry’s own smoky, piquant pili pili oil on everything — and I learned that its name comes from the Swahili name for chiles. I’ve found chef Nina Compton’s silky lentil, okra and coconut stew the perfect companion on a cold night.
Whatever the season, “Black Food” is the rare cookbook to engage one’s mind as well as one’s appetite.
By Vallery Lomas (Clarkson Potter, 288 pages, $29.99)
A lawyer with a love for baking, Vallery Lomas chose to follow her dream when she tried out for “The Great American Baking Show,” the stateside version of the British favorite. Though she ended up winning the season, only two episodes made it to the airwaves after allegations of sexual misconduct by one of the show’s judges came to light, and with that, her dream of a big break started to deflate. But Lomas continued along her new career path despite the setback.
It’s this tale of perseverance and resilience that she weaves among recipes for souffle, doughnuts, cakes and cookies, sharing life lessons along with tips for how to handle biscuit dough. The book is also peppered with fond family stories and childhood memories that let the reader get to know Lomas on a personal level. It’s these aspects of a cookbook that I am often drawn to more than the recipes themselves, but a great cookbook still must deliver in that department — and “Life Is What You Bake It” does not disappoint.
Lomas’s recipes “bring together her love of French pastry, Louisiana heritage, her Black roots, and her urban sensibilities,” according to the book’s introduction.
There are canelés and crawfish hand pies alongside peach cobbler and New York City-style bagels, showcasing her range, with something for everyone contained within the book’s pages. I’ve added dozens of recipes to my “I should make this sometime” list, but if you’re looking for a place to start, I’d suggest her Pecan Bundt Cake, which shows that simple recipes can still surprise and delight.
By Freddie Bitsoie and James O. Fraioli (Abrams, 288 pages, $40)
For the past however many centuries, the techniques and tastes of Indigenous North American foodways have been left out of mainstream media. But with a degree in cultural anthropology, a Diné (Navajo) heritage and a lifelong love for cooking, chef Freddie Bitsoie has devoted his career to pushing Indigenous foods to the forefront. “New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian,” written with James O. Fraioli, with insightful illustrations by Gabriella Trujillo and gorgeous photographs by Quentin Bacon, is not just a cookbook of adaptable, original and historically relevant recipes — it also represents a big jump forward in Bitsoie’s mission.
“North America is not, and has never been, a monolith,” Bitsoie and Fraioli write. “Just like Europe, it’s an expansive continent that’s incredibly diverse in terms of language, geography, culture and more. But European countries like France and Spain are praised for their food traditions, which are taught in elite culinary schools; Indigenous cuisines, with similarly sourced ingredients and finessed preparations, unfortunately don’t get the same attention. My aim is to change that.”
Rather than stick strictly to tradition, the recipes are inspired by original Indigenous formulas, include ancient ingredients and ancestral traditions, and are adapted with a modern cook in mind. Most call for basic ingredients that can be found anywhere. But the Native American Pantry section outlines a few dozen traditional ingredients, from acorn meal and banana leaves to sumac and walleye, and offers guidance on where to find and how to use them.
Bitsoie says the idea for this compilation of recipes he developed over decades began 10 years ago, well before he was executive chef at the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe in Washington’s Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. He wanted to document regional Indigenous cuisines even as they were evolving, showing the resilience of Indigenous nations and peoples, who are still creating with the foods they’ve long used — alongside new ingredients and techniques, too. Recipes such as acorn squash and tepary bean soup, Dungeness crab and apple salad, mashed cranberry beans with coconut milk, chocolate bison chili, stewed chicken with golden tomatoes, Sumac Leg of Lamb With Onion Sauce and Alaskan king salmon with crushed pecans demonstrate both how timeless Indigenous recipes are, and how naturally they’d fit into any home kitchen.
“New Native Kitchen” is an essential resource, and proof that every living cuisine’s evolution is worth celebrating.
I’ve long suspected that done properly, gluten-free baking can be just as delicious and exalted as its glutenous counterpart, but there’s a dearth of books that offer the tools to learn the art of it properly. That has changed with Aran Goyoaga’s latest book.
Last winter, when Goyoaga shared with The Post her recipe for Black Olive and Honey Gluten-Free Bread, I tested the recipe at home and couldn’t believe the bread was gluten-free. Neither could my family, who devoured it within hours. (It has since become a favorite in our home.)
Goyoaga, a self-taught photographer and food stylist, comes from generations of Basque bakers and approaches her recipes with surgical precision, while at the same time providing the reader with clear instructions that soothe instead of overwhelm. Each recipe has a blend of ingredients calibrated to ensure that your end result isn’t a great gluten-free baked good, it’s a great baked good, period. This book doesn’t just tell you to find your favorite gluten-free flour mix and toss it in — instead, it guides you to blend ingredients precisely for the best result of a specific recipe.
Goyoaga shares her recipes for gluten-free sourdough starter and bread, baguettes and layer cakes, as well as simpler cakes you can throw together last-minute. Many of the recipes are also dairy-free or provide dairy-free options, without sacrificing flavor.
But the recipe that truly captured my heart is a Pear and Toasted Miso Upside-Down Cake. Made with plums in the book, it beckoned me with promise of a marriage of sweet and savory, and since plums are woefully out of season here this time of year, I swapped in pears. I don’t regret the decision in the slightest, though I do look forward to next summer, when I can make the cake as originally intended, featuring jammy plums mingling with savory miso.
Hetty McKinnon’s love letter to Asian cooking is so personal that when you make one of her recipes, you imagine her standing next to you in the kitchen, laughing and joking as you chop and stir together, then sitting across the table from you as you slurp noodles or bite into mochi.
Maybe it’s just me, and maybe it’s because I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to McKinnon on multiple occasions, but I’ve got her voice in my head. So when I read “To Asia, With Love,” I hear her delightful Australian accent telling me not to worry if my renditions of those mochi are “a little wonky.” They’ll still be delicious.
McKinnon grew up eating her mother’s Cantonese cooking, and she fills this vegetarian book with beautiful memories of her upbringing. But her book is not tradition-bound; instead, as she writes, the recipes “represent my exploration of my personal culinary roots as a Chinese girl born in Australia, and as an adult living between disparate cultures.” That means you’ll see cacio e pepe udon noodles, black pepper Brussels sprouts, ketchup fried rice arancini, and a “shakshuka” that reimagines the classic Chinese tomato and egg.
Still, McKinnon has plenty to teach about Asian ingredients, and how anyone can use them to create more flavorful meals. She also offers countless substitution ideas, so you can turn things gluten-free and/or vegan if they’re not already. Her recipes for dumpling wrappers and a year’s worth of fillings to wrap them around — three ideas per season — might justify the price of the book in and of themselves.
The upshot: Everything I’ve made has been stellar. My beloved Japanese sweet potatoes and French green lentils get dolloped with maple butter and scattered with scallions. White miso adds depth to savory oats, a shortcut version of the rice porridge jook that her mother taught her to make as a teenager. But the recipe that made me really fall in love with the book is one for udon noodles in a very simple soy broth enriched with butter.
She titles it “life-changing,” and when I hear her voice in my head saying those words as I slurp and sip, it feels true.