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Top Ten Books for Cooks

Nordic haute cuisine, Indian street food, a history of punch, what Lemmy Kilmister makes for dessert, and more



Every year around this time I get lost in the forest's worth of food books released before the holidays, most of which would best serve as kindling. But often there are a handful of extraordinary ones I'd proudly give as presents. A resurrection of the lost art of punch making, a tombstone-size monument to Nordic haute cuisine, and a collection of kitchen atrocities from metalheads are among my ten favorites this year.

What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets

The couple behind Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (2006) profiles ordinary people (and some food celebrities) across the globe, with photo arrays of their typical daily diets. The authors climb the calorie ladder from a Masai tribeswoman and her 14 ounces of cornmeal porridge (800 calories) to a bingeing British housewife (12,300). Interspersed among sketches of a Devon Avenue cabbie, a urine-drinking Indian homeopath, a Yemeni qat merchant, and a Latvian beekeeper, are essays on food politics by Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, anthropologist Richard Wrangham, and others. This is a terrific resource for fans of the less-rigorously journalistic work of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, and those of us who enjoy spying on—and sometimes judging—the selections of others in grocery checkout lines. You may be surprised by the global reach of Knorr soup mix.

Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes

If anyone but Harold McGee said it was OK to disinfect water with household bleach I wouldn't believe it. But that's just one of the tips offered here, in the follow-up to McGee's indispensable food science reference, On Food and Cooking. His latest book is designed to help readers navigate recipes, even the best of which he calls "incomplete description of a procedure that has worked for the recipe writer." It contains not a single recipe, focusing instead on just-the-facts info on ingredients, tools, techniques, and food safety. Some of it is patently obvious but much more is not. This ought to become the source its owners consult to clarify butter, stabilize egg foam, or relieve anxiety about grain safety. Seems destined to be developed into an iPhone app.

Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl

Wondrich, the preeminent historian of the cocktail revolution and a former English professor, offers a dense and jocular examination of the classic cocktail's communal British ancestor. The book's first section details the history of punch. (Its progenitor was surely a sailor.) Later, Wondrich dives into technique, explaining, for example, how to keep punch at the right temperature and strength—not as simple as you might imagine. He also provides a bevy of old recipes. The one for punch jelly—which predates the jello shot by over a century—notes that "many persons, particularly of the softer sex, have been tempted to partake so plentifully of it as to render them somewhat unfit for waltzing or quadrilling after supper."

Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History

A business-card portrait of 18th-century punch proponent James Ashley is featured in this "book about rubbish," illustrated by 351 images from Weaver's collection of menus, matchbooks, postcards, calendars, and product labels serving as a "paper trail of food history." Through them Weaver examines bygone American health fads—a horseshoe-shaped ad card from 1882 touts the benefits of magnetized baby food. Outmoded mores are exemplified by a 1956 calendar for Rush Street's Adolph's Italian Restaurant featuring Marilyn Monroe barbecuing in nothing but a short apron and a pair of pumps. Weaver also showcases cultural specialties, such as a label for Singer's Celery Beverage. There's plenty more to learn in this densely written, deeply researched menagerie.

Thai Street Food

Street Food of India: The 50 Greatest Indian Snacks—Complete with Recipes

These two books by outsiders offer beautiful if complicated views of Asian street-food cultures. Australian-born chef Thompson is the author of the best-known Thai cookbook in the West. But in Thailand he's widely considered a provocateur for claiming that Thai cuisine is "decaying", then opening a Bangkok branch of his Michelin-starred London restaurant. That's worth keeping in mind when considering this magnificently photographed doorstop, with recipes for chicken and banana curry, crab noodles, deep fried fermented fish, and of course pad thai.

Israeli photographer Bergerson's book is also more photo essay than cookbook, but there are 50 recipes, including grilled cottage cheese cubes, fried breads, and curries eaten out of hand. There's an inherent contradiction in offering home cooks recipes for foods meant to be cooked and consumed on the street. But both books capture the energy of a foreign food culture without sanitizing it or portraying it as artificially exotic.

India: The Cookbook

Yet another elaborately designed (it looks like a rice bag), encyclopedic food book from Phaidon, this tome is almost too heavy to drag into the kitchen. It boasts 1,000 regional recipes—including a section from Indian chefs living around the world—gathered over 20 years by a former foreign policy professor. With lotus root curry, dal stuffed wax gourds, chicken stuffed quail, and a universe of breads, rice dishes, pickles, chutneys, and raitas, it's much more practical for the home cook, as big as it is, than Street Food of India.

The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook

Modeled after the spiral-bound community cookbooks of yore and filled by a host of contributors including chefs, food writers, and plenty of home cooks, this book manages to touch on most Southern food traditions and quite a few obscure ones. But it isn't ruled by orthodoxy; familiar dishes such as hoppin' John, pimiento cheese, spoon bread, and fried chicken share space with a few cross- cultural recipes that reflect the modern South, including osso buco of frog legs, sriracha remoulade, and refried black beans. Nor is it the sole dominion of Southerners—the mac and cheese recipe came from Ari Weinzweig of Ann Arbor's Zingerman's.

Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine

Some 800 restaurant industry professionals voted Rene Redzepi's Noma restaurant "Best in the World" last year, but I have to admit I'd never heard of it. This tome convinces me I need to get to Copenhagen. Redzepi's aggressively seasonal and local approach in northern climes makes some of the most disciplined U.S. students of the Alice Waters school look like slackers. You won't be executing most of these recipes—you'd have to chop down a tree for birch stock, forage your own sea buckthorn, or shoot your own musk ox. The chilly composed beauty of the photographs and obsessive technique in the recipes are a mindfuck.

Mosh Potatoes: Recipes, Anecdotes, and Mayhem From the Heavyweights of Heavy Metal

The antithesis of Redzepi's book, this collection of 147 recipes from noted metalheads is packed with culinary war crimes; weaponry includes melted cheese, hot sauce, pasta, potatoes, ground meat, and lots of jarred and packaged ingredients. Most are headbanger favorites for preventing or curing hangovers. Quite a few are simply metal as hell: GWAR's Balsac carves shrimp into vaginas, and Baptized in Blood's Brandon Eedy marinates lamb in Jagermeister. Lemmy Kilmister perpetrates the darkest evil of all: his Krakatoa Surprise is a sculpted cone of flour, refried beans, chocolate syrup, and curry powder, coated in strawberry syrup and brandy and set aflame. An intro by Kuma's Corner sous chef Luke Tobias provides a note of culinary sanity.   

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