Saturday, January 03, 2009

2008: A Year In Books

On at least one evening during most weeks, you'll find me at the local Border's Books perusing the aisles of typically overpriced (compared to books to add to my ever-growing collection. In the early part of the decade, these were dominated by books on business and business thought. For the past year or so, the focus has been on food and cookbooks as I attempt to explore further into the blending of coffee and cuisine.

Years ago, the tomes available to the home cook were rather tepid, with the highlights from my college-era days being Craig Claiborne's The New New York Times Cookbook and Jeff Smith's The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines. Other notable works in my old collection are: California Cooking by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Wayne Gisslen's Professional Cooking, Second Edition, and Beth Hensperger's Bread - a book who's recipes hold fond memories of me mixing dough and then taking long, hair-raising rides through country roads in my 1986 Volkswagen GTI with the dough proofing and rising in the GTI's boot.

A couple of years ago, I broke down and bought Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook, a seminal work that presented his dishes as they were prepared and served at the famed French Laundry. The recipes were tough and not so easy to make at home but really represented what I desired to learn: how to do what the pros do as they do it.

But 2008 was the year that the cookbook world really changed. They got serious. Chefs started to present their recipes without the compromises of the home kitchen. What? You don't have a Polyscience Immersion Circulator, Thermomix or induction range? Tough, you're screwed. Man up and go buy them. Don't complain and don't be a wuss.

For those of us who were waiting for the arrival of these Dead Sea Scrolls, the difficult part was that many of the larger works arrived in the fall, making it nearly impossible to digest the newly acquired information in a short period of time. Where once the chefs were content to offer the recipes, techniques and some information about their purveyors, this new breed of cookbook delves into philosophy, history, context and art, creating massive works that amaze and confound. This is a short list of some of my favored acquisitions in 2008:

Alinea - Grant Achatz
Probably the most anticipated work of the year. I dined at Alinea in February 2007 and came away amazed. Amazed at the technical brilliance of it all. How does one do this level of work? It's all contained here. It's certainly not easy, and you will need specialized equipment to recreate the dishes. And if you decide to procure the equipment, it will be quite expensive - you might as well open a restaurant (or a wannabe cutting edge coffee house...).

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook - Heston Blumenthal
When I first read the title listing on Amazon, com, I thought they were using a euphemism for "big." Boy, was I wrong. This book isn't "big", it's absolutely massive. The only book that rivals its' girth is A Day at El Bulli - and that's mostly pictures. In this work, Blumenthal lets it all hang out. It's filled with recipes, techniques and art. There's so much to savor, to read and to learn - it's overwhelming. So overwhelming that one is tempted to run away in fear upon opening the book for the fortieth time.

Under Pressure - Thomas Keller
Joan Roca's Sous Vide Cuisine really set the standard for works on this old but now new method of cooking, so what makes Keller's book a "must own"? Number One: it's in English, which makes it far easier to use than having to translate everything (actually, I know there's some printed in English, but I've never seen one yet). Keller and company have been using sous vide for several years now and have accumulated a wealth of knowledge on the subject. Happily, they share most of it in this book. Unfortunately, as of this writing, it's one of those books that I haven't delved into too deeply because of all the other books that came out in the fall.

*** Chef - Gordon Ramsay
Some people dislike his brash and angry ways, but I like Gordon Ramsay. He's a man I can respect. Quite possibly because he's so brash and angry. Whatever the case, this book is vastly different than the other works you see on the shelf. This is a serious book demonstrating exactly what he's doing on Royal Hospital Road in London.

A Day at El Bulli - Ferran Adria
Time to face facts: I've been denied a reservation in 2009. I must accept it. I must acknowledge that I can only fantasize about the drive to Roses and being welcomed by his staff and dazzled by his latest creations. Meanwhile, I can use this book as the ultimate Fantasy Food Porn, flip through the pages imagining myself and Eliza Dushku stealing suggestive glances across the table while savoring each luscious bite and then dancing all night in the privacy of our Spanish cottage. My life is shattered.

And while to the casual observer it may seem like just another picture book, it is so much more. There's actual recipes in the book - and considering that the standard El Bulli Cookbooks cost about US$400, this one is an absolute steal at 1/10th the price.

On The Line - Eric Ripert
If you've ever wanted to know how a restaurant like Le Bernardin is run, all you need is this book. It's filled with stories on how they do things, their philosophies and their recipes. I just got it and ended up pouring through it in a couple of days.

While those are the most notable acquisitions, I thought I would also provide a list of other recent acquisitions that I particularly am fond of:

Beyond The Great Wall - Jeffrey Alford
Refined American Cuisine - Patrick O'Connell
Au Pied de Cochon - The Album - Martin Picard
The Whole Beast - Fergus Henderson
The Balthazar Cookbook - Keith McNally
The Green Chile Bible - Albuquerque Tribune
Cooking with Cafe Pascual's - Katharine Kagel

Here's looking to more reading in 2009!