Cookbooks experience growth spurt

This time of year can be a rainy, awkward transitional period, one that comes months after winter holidays and months before the sunny, beach-filled days of summer. No distinct feature or holiday elicits universal happiness and celebration.

But for whatever reason, now is a popular time for cookbook releases.

A few weeks ago, this column made note of pizza guru Jim Lahey’s simply titled My Pizza. Now released, a look into the cookbook reveals just-ambitious-enough recipes that eliminate any need for delivery pizza.

To start, there are instructions on shaping the dough to achieve the ideal super-thin yet bubbly crust.

What follows are amplified versions of old pizza favorites. A charcuterie pie, Lahey’s version of a “meat lover’s” pizza pairs various types of sausage atop sauerkraut and creamy béchamel sauce. A honshimeji and guanciale pizza might frighten some with its name, but in reality is simply an umami-rich combination of mushrooms and bacon, here made from pork cheeks instead of belly.

The overlap between recipes — roasted squash and pumpkin seeds are featured in the salad and the pizza — is a smart way of pleasing all types of eaters and of suggesting additional ways to use leftover toppings, though Lahey doesn’t say so explicitly.

My Pizza doesn’t limit itself to the title dish, however, and includes sides that accompany the pies well. There’s a section for salads and for desserts too, such as an olive-olive oil cake that requires “fruity and not salty” black olives as well as a standard chocolate chip cookie recipe that blissfully calls for lots of chocolate chips.

Mark Bittman, “The Minimalist” of The New York Times’ dining section, has released the not-so-minimally titled How to Cook Everything: The Basics: All You Need to Make Great Food. This is not to be confused with his 2003 book How to Cook Everything: The Basics or his 1998 How to Cook Everything. This book is an update on both of those.

Yet you can’t help but hope for a bit more personality from a man who writes opinion columns for a living. And with a layout that’s sterile and calculated — ingredients are often shot merely as solitary components of a larger equation — nothing looks flavorful or inspiring.

As a sort of learn-to-cook encyclopedia, How to Cook nails that clear, informative style. This book really does teach you how to cook everything. It’s just a matter of how much of that everything one will feel motivated to make. For a beginner, though, How to Cook is nothing if not thorough.

Then there’s the more specific Preservation Kitchen, a cookbook from Chicago chef Paul Virant that focuses on pickling, canning and preserving.

“This isn’t a complicated menu, but it benefits from forethought,” Virant writes in a preface for a series of springtime recipes.

It’s a beautiful way of describing the book’s approach.

Salted-caramel ice cream with brandied figs can be time-consuming to make from scratch, but the recipe is considerate to home cooks and requires few ingredients.

Though the recipe breakdowns for jams, jellies and marmalades — ingredient, volume, ounce, grams, percent — is perhaps more information than necessary, it also signals an inclusive chef who’s eager to please with his first book. And in its best sections, Preservation Kitchen straddles the line between “I’ve always wanted to make that” (pickled vegetables) and “I wish I had thought of that first” (milk jam to stir into iced coffee).

The most anticipated cookbook of the season, however, is April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig. The cover alone, which flaunts an image of Bloomfield with a dead pig slung around her shoulders, has sparked considerable controversy.

But the illustrations inside are messy and adorable, like something out of a Roald Dahl book, and the photos highlight Bloomfield’s rustic yet refined sensibility. Best of all, she inspires detractors of British food — myself included — to give dishes like meat pies and bubble and squeak another shot.

And when that meat pie is a Beef-and-Bayley Hazen pie, depicted as a broken, golden crust with bits of meat and melted blue cheese flowing out, it’s hard to resist.

Unlike almost all others out this month, A Girl and Her Pig is not an “easy” book. Many recipes are fond of what Bloomfield calls the “not so nasty bits,” such as kidneys and sweetbreads. And toast with ramp butter and fried quail eggs isn’t the first thing you’ll be tempted to make each morning. But this is a special book, with recipes that reward effort, and Bloomfield’s funny, often touching childhood anecdotes alone make it worthy of a place on the bookshelf.

Of all the new releases, A Girl and Her Pig is the one that speaks the least to my diet but the most to my heart. It’s the one I most wish I had purchased.

Cookbooks, as useful as they can be, are best when they also lend insight into the ways and reasons we eat what we eat.

A Girl and Her Pig won’t speak to everyone — to each their own. Fortunately, there’s plenty of good texts to choose from this unofficial cookbook season.


Bernard Leed is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column “Amuse-Bouche” runs Wednesdays.

1 reply

Comments are closed.