The best cookbook is the one whose author seems to be speaking right to you as you stand in a bookstore, flipping through (or clicking around online) and looking for inspiration: Does it make you want to stop by a market on your way home and then pull on an apron as soon as you get there? Or maybe you’re already in your kitchen, cutting board out and not so sure just how a particular recipe might go, but you take comfort in instructions and tips that set you at ease.
Hundreds of cookbooks come through our office every year. Here are 11 of our favorites from 2019, each handpicked by a staff member.
“Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico”
By Bricia Lopez and the family behind L.A.’s Guelaguetza with Javier Cabral (Abrams, 320 pages, $40)
Before mezcal became the darling of craft-cocktail bartenders, before many Americans could even pronounce “Oaxaca,” let alone tell you a thing about its cuisine, there was the Lopez family, Mexican immigrants who trusted that Angelenos in the 1990s would find something to like about the food from their home state.
Twenty-five years ago, there was little evidence to suggest Los Angeles — preoccupied with Spago, Japanese sushi and French-California fusion — would embrace Oaxacan cooking. Few outside Oaxaca knew about the pleasures of tamales packed with chicken in black mole, chiles stuffed with picadillo or giant tlayuda tortillas topped with pork-rind paste, chorizo and fresh cheese. Fernando Lopez and Maria Monterrubio, the couple who uprooted their family just ahead of the Mexican peso crisis, would become evangelists for their state’s cooking. In 1994, they opened Guelaguetza in the Koreatown neighborhood.
On its silver anniversary, the family has released a gorgeous cookbook, concisely titled “Oaxaca,” which serves up recipes for beloved dishes and an in-depth history of the groundbreaking restaurant. Guided largely by Bricia Lopez (one of the siblings who now run the restaurant), writer Javier Cabral and photographer Quentin Bacon, “Oaxaca” tells the story of Guelaguetza’s rise, which parallels the rise of Oaxacan cuisine in America. It also lays out the conflicted feelings of the Lopez children, caught between America and Mexico, and their slow, sometimes reluctant embrace of the family business. The book even, movingly, pays tribute to the man who helped push Guelaguetza into the mainstream: the late critic Jonathan Gold.
“In my dad’s words, ‘Guelaguetza wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for that man,’ ” Lopez writes.
If the recipe for Coloradito mole is any indication, the family may struggle at times to explain how to prepare dishes they can make in their sleep. But still, with the Coloradito at least, you can intuit a step or two that may be missing and reach this sublime moment when you swirl a finger through the mole and luxuriate in its cocoa sweetness, its muted heat, its herbal fragrance and its grand sense of history that stretches back to the villages of Oaxaca. It’s then that you understand the Zapoteco term “guelaguetza,” which means “to give and receive.” The Lopez family has given us a gift, and it’s our duty to receive it with grace.
Make the recipe: Coloradito
“All About Dinner: Simple Meals, Expert Advice”
By Molly Stevens (W.W. Norton & Company, 400 pages, $34)
I think of Molly Stevens as the patron saint of my favorite method of cooking: Her 2004 “All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking” is one of the most spattered (i.e. loved and used) books on my shelves. Her new cookbook is more ecumenical in its techniques but still has everything I love about its predecessor. In an era where even cookbooks from reputable chefs are riddled with confusing or downright incorrect instructions, her recipes are crystal-clear, full of vivid visual cues and accounting for any variables a cook might encounter, whether it’s the freshness of a carrot or the heat of a pepper.
Stevens tucks little lessons into her recipes, often in the form of parentheticals: “(bacon cooks more evenly when you start it in a cold pan)” or “(This step, referred to as ‘blooming,’ will bring out more of the spice’s flavor.)”
And although her thorough approach and teacherly voice make her a friend to novices, even experienced cooks can pick up a trick or two. For me, her enthusiasm for sumac was contagious. Stand still in my kitchen long enough these days, and you might get sprinkled with it. And then there was a genius hack for taming often-unruly parchment paper, which alone was worth the book’s price. (Should I reveal it? Or maybe I’ll just let you find it out yourself — it’s on page 210!)
Her recipes might not be super-sexy, filled with quirky personality or ultra-bold flavors, but, like the good guy you eventually fall for after dating the dude in the traveling rock band, they’re dependable and trustworthy — and the kinds of dishes you won’t tire of.
Inspired by my love for her definitive braised cabbage recipe from her last book, I tried the Caesar-spiked roast savoy wedges, and they’ve quickly become a favorite. She has a way with veg: The roasted carrots with pistachios and sumac (yes!) were another winner, as was a pot of silky, slow-cooked peppers. I relearned how to make pouches to fill with fish filets, spinach, shallot and tomato, and marveled at the resulting dish’s simple elegance. I haven’t yet delved into the desserts, but I’m looking forward to spending some quality time over the holiday break trying them out (the Blueberry-Cream Cheese Tart with a walnut crust is dog-eared).
Even though I’m not the most confident baker, I’m feeling no anxiety. In fact, I’m so sure I’m in good hands that I might just boldly serve it to company without giving it my usual tryout. I know Stevens will coach me through it.
Make the recipe: Cod With Spinach, Tomatoes and Shallots
“Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors”
By Andrea Nguyen (Ten Speed Press, 240 pages, $25)
When you’re flipping through a new cookbook and hit on a page where the words and photos conspire to evoke a taste and memory, you know you’re on to something. For me, that happened on page 190 of “Vietnamese Food Any Day.”
The photo of the Sizzling Rice Crepe took me to the early 1990s. I was just out of college, and most of my dining involved ordering at a counter. But one fancy restaurant I got to frequent was La Truc, a Vietnamese place near the office where we took visitors to impress them and my bosses always picked up the bill. I was intimidated, though, because my cultural illiteracy was dramatically exposed as I read the menu.
In the middle of the menu was “Happy Pancake.” I didn’t really care what it was; it was easy to say in front of colleagues and strangers. It was a combination of pork, shrimp and mushrooms enveloped in a pancake that resembled an omelet. There was a dipping sauce that was so assertive I couldn’t decide whether I hated it or loved it, but I couldn’t stop eating it, so probably love? It was my go-to order.
Nguyen’s crepe perfectly matches that dish, technically banh xeo. She gives detailed instructions on how to make it — sometimes maybe too detailed — but after I tasted the dish, she had my complete trust, and I wanted to run the rest of the book through its paces.
Spicy Sweet Pomegranate Tofu and the Shaking Beef are both satisfying entrees easily pulled off on a weeknight, supporting the book’s title. Instructions for the delicious and delicate broths and soups — including a Smoked Turkey Pho — assume you have a pressure cooker. Alternate instructions produce a broth that’s just as good, though maybe optimistic for “any day.”
Nguyen’s previous books focused on demystifying her homeland’s cuisine and plotting a quest to re-create it here. This one updates that theme to acknowledge that a quest isn’t really necessary anymore; most of the ingredients that once required a trip to a specialty market are now available in well-stocked American supermarkets, even specific brands she prefers.
Even as I’m looking forward to trying more of the recipes, I’m mostly happy I can have that crepe whenever I want it now. Even though my boss isn’t picking up the bill.
Make the recipe: Sizzling Rice Crepes
“The Food of Sichuan”
By Fuchsia Dunlop (W.W. Norton & Company, 495 pages, $40)
The best cookbooks make me feel as if the authors have taken me under their wing in the kitchen. That’s why I’ve added “The Food of Sichuan” by Fuchsia Dunlop to my home library even as I’m trying to do a Marie Kondo and winnow my collection. Every recipe in the British food scribe’s significantly expanded update of her well-received “Land of Plenty” comes across as a friendly consultation weaving useful background on a dish with helpful cooking tips, often in poetic fashion.
Here’s Dunlop, the first foreigner to attend the prestigious Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Chengdu, on how to best cook chicken for the cold dishes that launch a proper Sichuan feast: “The crux is to poach the bird at a bare simmer, so the surface of the water only quietly murmurs,” she shows instead of tells. “If it boils, the flesh will toughen.” Dunlop’s lush page-turner gives step-by-step (by step) instructions for classic hot pot and delves into mapo tofu, named for “old mother Chen,” the smallpox-scarred, late-19th-century wife of a restaurateur. (“Ma” refers to pock marks, “po” to an old woman.)
You don’t need to love heat to enjoy the book, but it helps. Although Sichuan is famous for its liberal use of firecrackers in the kitchen, Dunlop says the primary takeaway is the “audacious” combination of flavors. The region’s culinary canon includes sweet and sour “lychee flavor” and “fish-fragrant flavor” — salty, sweet, sour and spicy notes thought to evoke the taste of fish.
If you’re new to the cuisine of southwest China, you’ll probably need to expand your larder. But then, Sichuan pepper, Chinkiang vinegar and chile bean paste are such seductive flavor bumps, one encounter begets another, and another. You may never attempt, say, tea-smoked duck, one of the more challenging dishes in the cookbook, but it’s laudable of Dunlop to break down the instructions for curing and cooking (over cypress clippings, she advises).
Many more of the recipes — stir-fried celery with ground pork, dry-fried chicken with peppers — are the sort you’re apt to find yourself making over and over. My current attraction is one of the easiest: green beans in ginger sauce, an example of a cold dish meant to “open the stomach” at the start of a Sichuan feast. In the 15 minutes or so it takes to chop and cook, I’ve got a delicate and delicious appetizer that underscores the old saying shared by Dunlop: “China is the place for food, but Sichuan is the place for flavor.”
Make the recipe: Green Beans in Ginger Sauce
“Milk & Cardamom: Spectacular Cakes, Custards and More, Inspired by the Flavors of India”
By Hetal Vasavada (Page Street Publishing, 176 pages, $22)
I’m an avid baker, which means any dessert cookbook that crosses our desks is apt to catch my eye. “Milk & Cardamom” captured my attention more than most.
Indian is far and away my favorite cuisine to eat and cook, and the desserts of the vast nation are criminally underappreciated in America. Sure, you can pick up a croissant in just about any bakery or grocery store. Gulab jamun? Kulfi? Hardly.
Hetal Vasavada, the founder of a blog that shares the name of her book, summarizes her approach as “not quite 100% American and not fully Indian.” She is upfront about her recipes not being “totally authentic,” surely an acknowledgment of the balance Vasavada has had to maintain as a first-generation American.
That cultural mash-up is what makes paging through her recipes such a delight. Her more traditional offerings include seero (semolina pudding), besan burfi (chickpea flour fudge) and a classic masala chai, the ubiquitous spiced tea. If fusion is more your thing, you’ll be tempted by mango lassi macarons, pomegranate curd brownies and jaggery puffed rice crispies.
I was immediately drawn to the gulab jamun cake, a cardamom-scented Bundt. Like the much fussier fried dough balls, the cake is soaked in a fragrant syrup that includes rosewater, cardamom and saffron. We gobbled up the cake, which alone was worth the price of admission, and if anything, a few days on the counter only improved the flavor and puddinglike texture.
The recipes are generally short and easy to follow, if not always precise. I followed a recipe for rice pudding (kheer) to the letter, and at the point the dessert was supposed to be done, I had a soupy dish with basically raw rice. Nothing a little more time on the stove top couldn’t fix, but mine never ended up as cohesive and thick as what was shown in the photo. It did taste great, especially when served with Vasavada’s honey-and-balsamic roasted grapes.
Even if you don’t make a single recipe, you’ll learn about desserts you’ve probably never heard of or tried. You may end up inspired to incorporate such featured ingredients as jaggery, cardamom and fennel seeds into your own recipes. Such is the power of Vasavada’s charming (exclamation-point-heavy) enthusiasm for the food of her family’s homeland and their adopted land. In a word: sweet.
Make the recipe: Gulab Jamun Cake
“Bazaar: Vibrant Vegetarian Recipes”
By Sabrina Ghayour (Mitchell Beazley, 238 pages, $35)
This story starts with dietary restrictions and a dinner party. The dinner party? My first upon moving back to the D.C. area earlier this year. The diets? Many, but the most common was a disinclination to eat meat.
I don’t eat much meat anyway, but I wanted to come up with a menu that was special, celebratory and cohesive. Enter “Bazaar,” a collection of Middle Eastern and Persian recipes focused on all things veggie, in brightly spiced ways, by Iranian British author Sabrina Ghayour. Perhaps unintentionally, all the recipes seem ordained to be shared. Vividly colored rices make sparkling beds for spiced and roasted vegetables. Salads glimmer with fruit and olive oil. Nothing is terribly difficult, few ingredients are hard to come by and most recipes can be easily tweaked for whatever you have on hand.
For a book written by someone who describes herself in the introduction as “Least Likely to Become Vegetarian,” it has a remarkable salad section. None of my dinner party guests were salad people, but all were in awe of Ghayour’s Blood Orange, Pecan & Cannellini Salad With Sauteed Fennel, a dazzling mix of ingredients with a warm, cinnamon-spiced red wine vinegar dressing that I kept on hand for weeks after the party.
Another star is the Za’atar-Rubbed Pitas, the easiest, fluffiest and tastiest pitas I’ve ever made. You don’t need to make your own za’atar, though Ghayour provides a formula. They’re a dead ringer in flavor and texture for the beloved pita served at Cafe Mogador in New York City. The dough is forgiving, and you can make them well in advance of any event — or in anticipation of cravings — and reheat them whenever you need them.
More important than the recipes themselves is how I’m so inspired by the flavors Ghayour describes, I can’t stop thinking about how to use them to make other recipes as vibrant as hers.
This is, more than anything, a light and breezy party book, whether the party is just you or a room full of people.
Make the recipe: Za’atar Rubbed Pitas
“Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables”
By Abra Berens (Chronicle Books, 464 pages, $35)
I’ve been collecting a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share from a Prince George’s County farm for three years. It’s a wonderful luxury, and it means that I’m well supplied with fresh, seasonal vegetables nearly year-round. It also means that I sometimes need to figure out what the heck to do with a pile of kohlrabi or scary black radishes. “Ruffage” arrived just in time for me.
Veggie by veggie, chef and former farmer Abra Berens explains how to buy, store and use everything from ramps to rutabaga, and then she provides a couple of base recipes for each using distinct preparations. Each recipe comes with multiple variations that employ the same cooking technique while incorporating wildly different flavors. And each vegetable is introduced with a vignette from Berens’s time on the farm, a touching memory from her childhood, or a friendly reminder that there’s nothing quite like chomping on a raw stalk of just-harvested asparagus to ring in spring. When particular seasonal vegetables arrive, she writes, “it feels as if I’m visiting with old friends who are in town for a long weekend.”
For occasionally obsessive organizers, like yours truly, Berens proposes a basic pantry of oils, herbs, spices, grains and homemade condiments that will round out several of her recipes or simply provide a pop of flavor in a thrown-together weeknight meal. (Lemon Parmesan butter, anyone?) As for her nod to personalized recipe jargon: I am officially a “glug” convert when it comes to measuring oil.
The recipes are simple, designed to let the flavors and textures of the vegetables shine. Six-ingredient poached radishes gave me a gorgeous jumble of bright, crisp-yet-tender, mellow goodness with a sauce so lovely I had to slurp it from the plate. In another recipe, humble turnips take a front seat in a roasted fall medley with apple, potato and rosemary. It’s a range of textures and flavors — funky, tangy and sweet all at once in a jumble of comfort.
And that kohlrabi, the alien-like bulb that Berens says epitomizes the perks of CSA membership? I can turn to an ultra-cheesy gratin and a salad with kale, delicata squash and an exceptional, citrusy brown butter vinaigrette the next time my farmer tosses a few into my share, knowing that Berens has my back.
Make the recipe: Roasted Turnips, Apples and Rosemary With Chicken Thighs and Greens
“Whole Food Cooking Every Day: Transform the Way You Eat with 250 Vegetarian Recipes Free of Gluten, Dairy, and Refined Sugar”
By Amy Chaplin (Artisan, 400 pages, $40)
I want to cook like Amy Chaplin.
I eat like her already: I’m vegetarian, and I try to avoid processed foods. But before I got her latest book, I was in a rut, testing interesting new recipes for work but slacking off too much at home. I used to make my own nut butter, I’d tell myself. What happened?
“Whole Food Cooking Every Day” has reinvigorated me.
This is no diet book. Chaplin is an Australia-born chef whose mission is to make healthy cooking delicious and easy — by providing such captivating base recipes you’ll want to try all her seasonal variations, and maybe some of your own. Mission accomplished.
I made her simple and lovely Almond-Coconut Milk a few times, then started blending in a few dates for a touch of sweetness. I’m a fan of dense German-style breads, thinly sliced, at breakfast, but why not bake her similar Fruit and Nut Bread (using buckwheat and millet) instead? Every summer, I help my sister and brother-in-law put up sauerkraut from their homegrown cabbage on their Maine homestead. Chaplin has me applying the same technique to grated carrots, spiking them with fresh turmeric and ginger, salting and squeezing them until there’s enough liquid to cover them in a packed jar. After two weeks, they are tangy and bright through the magic of fermentation, and I’m dreaming of the next round, with fennel and cabbage.
One of my failed resolutions every year is to cut down on my sugar intake, and Chaplin’s book is getting me closer. She relies on maple syrup, honey and other less-refined sweeteners, and even then, she doesn’t use much. There’s just ½ cup maple syrup in her wonderfully satisfying Cacao-Pear Hazelnut Cake.
Thanks to Chaplin, I’m regularly making my own nut butter again, and it’s the best I’ve ever had, because, as she explains, nothing beats the flavor when you start with freshly toasted nuts. The one I’m stuck on is Pecan-Rosemary Butter, a little savory thanks to the herb and a little sweet thanks to my off-script addition of a touch of maple syrup. (When it comes to taming my sweet tooth, baby steps.) The stuff is so creamy and good that my husband asked me to slow down because he is eating so much of it. Not a chance.
Make the recipe: Pecan-Rosemary Butter
By Alison Roman (Clarkson Potter, 320 pages, $32.50)
There’s nothing that riles me up quite like someone telling me to relax. But in Alison Roman’s sophomore cookbook, “Nothing Fancy,” she does so with abandon — and I listen.
When she implores me not to sweat the presentation of a cheese plate, my shoulders loosen up. When she suggests I go ahead and serve batched martinis out of a Chemex coffee pot, I let out a yoga-esque exhale. And when she tells me that really, it’s okay that the main event is two hours behind schedule, my tension headache dissipates.
Roman would like you to have people over for dinner, and she’d prefer you not make it such a thing. Go ahead and toss out the canapés with the rest of your preconceived notions of entertaining and make room for the anchovy-, lemon- and butter-rich recipes that have become signature to her cooking aesthetic.
Roman, a New York Times and Bon Appétit columnist and the author of the 2017 hit “Dining In,” could offer a master’s program in Approachable Recipe. The beauty of her recipes, in execution and presentation, is how they effortlessly straddle the low-brow-high-brow line. Does the Baked Potato Bar call for (optional) trout or salmon roe? Yes. Do Ritz crackers make an appearance in the Sweet and Salty Cream Cheese Tart? They sure do. And sandwiched in between apps and desserts are showstopping entrees that transform a handful of humble ingredients into bona fide Instagram bait.
“Nothing Fancy” is a cookbook. You will get your snacks, your salads, sides, mains and after-dinner treats, with pairing suggestions sprinkled throughout. But I prefer to treat it as a manual not just for dinner, but for life, and read it cover to cover. It is deeply funny (“Is creamy goat cheese ‘cool?’ No, but I can’t be bothered to care.”) as it dismantles the rather dated expectations of performative entertaining. Despite the myriad social incentives for putting on a show, Roman’s there, encouraging me to just drink white wine with red meat if that’s what I’m into, giving me permission to order pizzas when it doesn’t work out and reminding me why I’m here in the first place: to relax and have a good time.
Make the recipe: Roasted Radishes With Green Goddess Butter
“Midnight Chicken (& Other Recipes Worth Living For)”
By Ella Risbridger (Bloomsbury, 288 pages, $30)
Cooking cannot cure a mental or emotional disorder, and I am no fan of cookbooks rooted in magical thinking that spending time in a kitchen can change your already-stuffed-full life.
But reasonably lengthy and simple cooking projects can provide specific, achievable, short-term goals that provide a sense of accomplishment. The joy of making something — anything — is a research-backed way to alleviate some depression symptoms. For me, it’s about having a sense of control over something — anything — when everything else feels out of control.
Poet Ella Risbridger structured the recipes and stories in “Midnight Chicken” around her struggle with her mental health, and how cooking helped her want to live again. Final dishes are portrayed in small watercolor paintings rather than the stylized food-porn photographs we’ve all come to expect in the age of Instagram. It provides the context that so many cookbooks are missing: why her recipes are important and the benefits that cooking provides that have little to do with food.
Project cooking can provide connection with others, as Risbridger’s stories show. My 11-year-old son’s interests are appropriately different from mine and, as is the way of parents everywhere, I’ve learned about things that don’t intrinsically interest me (Fortnite, Magic: The Gathering) to connect with him.
So when two years ago, he discovered “Danny the Champion of the World” (a lesser-known novel by Roald Dahl), I was thrilled. It was his favorite book when he was 9; mine too, at that age. Dahl is my favorite food writer, even beyond descriptions of chocolate rivers. In “Danny the Champion of the World,” Dahl’s narration transforms a cold meat pie into something I never quite stopped thinking about once I read it; my son, somewhat miraculously, felt the same. He asked, “Could you make me a pie like Danny’s?”
Fortunately, Risbridger, too, is a fan, and includes a recipe for her version of Danny the Champion of the World Pie. It’s a project, but it takes no special skills. I made it for my son, and we ate it, cold, with our hands, just as Danny did. And it was marvelous.
Make the recipe: Pork Pie
“Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen”
By Adeena Sussman (Avery, 368 pages, $35)
Author Adeena Sussman — she of the Chrissy Teigen “Cravings” fame, among many other cookbooks — moved to Israel for love a few years ago. Along the way, Sussman also fell for the flavors of her adopted new home. “Sababa,” Hebrew slang for “everything is great,” is dedicated to her husband, and it is Sussman’s love letter to the many tastes of the shuk (in her case, Tel Aviv’s HaCarmel): tahini, za’atar, pomegranate, lemon, dates and more.
Make the cardamom-kissed schug and put it on a variety of dishes, including eggs and sandwiches; the turmeric-flavored gravlax will stop you in your tracks with its stunning look and incredible flavor. Want an Israeli spin on chilaquiles, with pita? Sussman has you covered. Thinking of a perfect snack to get the party started? Pecan-lime muhammara. Corn season is over where I live, but I’ll be making her Israeli street corn next summer. However, cabbage season is upon us, and Sussman’s melted cabbage has been going round the interwebs. I already extolled the virtues of her Salted Caramel Chocolate Tahini Tart (a.k.a. the Gal Gadot of tarts), but I am equally smitten with the Chicken Shawarma. For years, I’ve been trying to re-create this popular street food at home, and armed with this recipe, I’ve finally attained shawarma nirvana.
The vegetable-forward book is bright and inviting, and the flavors are bold, invigorating and irresistible. Of the recipes I made (and I’ve made many), all worked as written, which is no small feat — a well-tested cookbook is worth its weight in gold. (Full disclosure: I was one of the book’s many testers.) My one quibble is the paltry index, which lacks recipe names, such as the muhammara, but we can always hope for a more comprehensive one in the reprint. Until then, you’ll want to keep plenty of Post-it Notes handy, because these are recipes you’ll want to make over and over.
Make the recipe: Chicken Shawarma
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