The heaviest presence on the table has to be "Modernist Bread: The Art and Science " (The Cooking Lab), Nathan Myhrvold's and Francisco Migoya's five-volume set that goes where few single-subject cookbooks have dared to stir. Full props for their stunning work. Priced at $625 and served up at such breadth, though, it is in a league all its own.
Standing out from the pack for different reasons is "wd-50: The Cookbook " (Ecco/Anthony Bourdain imprint), an homage to the now-closed New York palace of experimental, expensive edible art headed by Wylie Dufresne. The shrink-wrapped (no peeking!) $75 volume is touted as culinary memorabilia yet structured like a cookbook. The era of such molecular gastronomy was experienced by a privileged subset of food lovers, and the public's fascination with it has faded. Are these recipes for them to re-create at home? Or for the pros in three-star kitchens with a wd-crush and lots of time on their hands? They do not seem to be for you and me.
Back to the good stuff. Here are 13 cookbooks, compelling in their own ways. They make good reading. You will learn things. They hold the promise of a long and happy shelf life — as long as you crack them open now and then.
WaPoFood readers may remember Emily Thelin's poignant 2013 story about cookbook author Paula Wolfert, who is pushing back against her dementia with memories rekindled through pots, pans and tagines. From those women's efforts comes "Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life," (Grand Central Life and Style/Hachette Book Group, $35), an equally compelling work relayed through more than 50 of Wolfert's pioneering Mediterranean recipes.
Recipe to try: Eggplant Zaalouk.
"Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking," by Samin Nosrat (Simon & Schuster, $35), sets itself apart in three ways: style (an illustrative vs. pictorial approach), structure (some recipes presented in "non-recipe" formats) and tone (expert advice, yet playful; the chef-author is a pistol in person). This book is for folks who love food and freely geek out about it.
Recipe to try: Bittersweet Chocolate Cardamom Pudding.
When it comes to growing and preparing food, few people are more qualified than Ireland's Darina Allen. Her "Grow Cook Nourish: A Kitchen Garden Companion in 500 Recipes" (Kyle, $45), is a practical and often wondrous compendium of ingredients, including those foraged in the wild. Its recipes are globally inspired and many are on the simpler end of the spectrum. The more time I spend with it, the more I am in awe — and I don't even have a garden.
In this day and age, how can you not admire a cookbook that directly addresses food waste? "Bread Is Gold: Extraordinary Meals With Ordinary Ingredients," by Massimo Bottura and Friends (Phaidon, $40), puts policy into practice at the hands of accomplished chefs. The story of how this effort to repurpose restaurant leftovers began, how it continues (in a community restaurant in Milan) and how each kitchen professional formed a plan of attack is a heartening bonus to ideas about how we can all incorporate the food we make today into what we can eat the day after.
Recipe to try: Pasta, Potato and Parm.
WaPoFood's July review of "BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts," by Stella Parks (W.W. Norton, $35) got it right. The book is smart and leavened with the expertise of a talented pastry chef. You get a heaping helping of sweet U.S. history, too.
Recipe to try: No-Stress All-Butter Pastry Crust.
Part of the allure in perusing "The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine" (Clarkson Potter, $32.50), I admit, is that I won't be scoring a reservation to Erin French's boutique restaurant anytime soon. So re-creating her food is as close as I'll get to understanding why the Lost Kitchen has become such a dining destination. Bordering on precious, some might say, but the cookbook is both aspirational and attainable. And it could be the only one I read this year that offered directions for concocting a milk-and-honey body scrub.
Recipe to try: Skillet Mussels With Rosemary, Lavender and Lime.
"Kitchen Creativity: Unlocking Culinary Genius — With Wisdom, Inspiration and Ideas From the World's Most Creative Chefs" (Little, Brown and Co., $40) registers with me as book about cooking and not quite a cookbook — an outlier on this list. Yet it deserves a berth because author Karen Page, who co-wrote "The Flavor Bible" and "What to Drink With What You Eat," among other books, achieves a substantial feat in condensing what motivates dozens of America's greatest chefs, including José Andrés, Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington and Rasika's Vikram Sunderam. It is perhaps best consumed in chunks — at least, that's working for me.
At almost the opposite end of the spectrum is "Harvest: 180 Recipes Through the Seasons" ($20), a thin paperback collection of Hardie Grant-published recipes curated by designer and food blogger Emilie Guelpa. It has more one-paragraph dishes than fully written, ingredients-and-steps ones and more whimsical illustrations than photos. Yet I tagged more pages in this book than in most others piled on my desk.
Once you have opted into the practice of nightly cooking, "Dinner: Changing the Game" (Penguin/Random House, $35) can expand your repertoire. Prolific cookbook author and New York Times Food columnist Melissa Clark makes a convincing case for meals that aren't centered on a cut of meat.
Here are the words just about any vegan would be happy to read: "Why This Recipe Works." Fans of America's Test Kitchen are used to seeing the phrase, and now it applies to the growing collection of plant-based creations in "Vegan for Everybody: Foolproof Plant-Based Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and In-Between" (ATK, $30). Aquafaba, the chickpea liquid that stands in for eggs, is thoroughly vetted. Baking with dairy substitutes, covered.
Celebrating the success and sharing secrets of Washington's most acclaimed Indian restaurant, "Rasika: Flavors of India," by Ashok Bajaj, executive chef Vikram Sunderam and David Hagedorn (Ecco, $35), manages to present recipes that home cooks can make. Revealing a doable crispy spinach palak chaat recipe — at last! — is worth the cover price alone.
Recipe to try: Korma Sauce.
"King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking From Around the World" (Knopf, $35) is Joan Nathan's 11th book, and it might be her best — a culmination of decades' worth of following promising leads, digging deep into research and chronicling her cooking adventures in lands of the Diaspora.
"On Vegetables: Modern Recipes for the Home Kitchen," by Jeremy Fox (Phaidon, $50) is an investment in time and technique that is not for the casual cook. (There's a sub-recipe for "powdered Dried Pickle Powder.") Even the chef's ratatouille is made fancy by long hours of cooking and an accompanying zucchini bread. That said, his three-ingredient braise of daikon and his no-cook dessert of bananas, creme fraiche, honey and curried cashews are dishes anyone can do.
Recipe to try: Roasted Broccoli Rabe With Miso Bagna Cauda.
I'll wager that these titles, as gifts for yourself or cooking friends, will each yield more than the typical one, two or three must-make recipes:
"Christopher Kimball's Milk Street: The New Home Cooking" (Little, Brown and Co., $40).
"The Pho Cookbook: Easy to Adventurous Recipes for Vietnam's Favorite Soup and Noodles," by Andrea Nguyen (Ten Speed Press, $22).
"Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen," by Gonzalo Guzman with Stacy Adimando (Ten Speed Press, $30).
"One Pan and Done: Hassle-Free Meals From the Oven to Your Table," by Molly Gilbert (Penguin/Random House, $18).
"Joy the Baker — Over Easy: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Leisurely Days," by Joy Wilson (Penguin/Random House, $27.50).
"Queso! Regional Recipes for the World's Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip," by Lisa Fain (Ten Speed Press, $15).