Now that temperatures have finally cooled down and we’re hurtling towards the holidays and peak home cooking season, it’s a good time to flag some appealing new cookbooks likely to entice you back to the kitchen. With the notable exception of wd-50 – a lavish, gawkable coffee table tome that pulls back the curtain to reveal the insane wizardry behind Wylie Dufresne’s culinary innovations – the books I’ve selected all feature accessible, fresh ideas for your next meal, none of which will take all day. Besides deliciousness, what they share is a global melting pot mentality that reflects a trend toward increasingly porous culinary borders. Forget about mastering the art of French cooking; blended, cross-cultural fusion cuisine is what’s hot.
America: The Cookbook, Gabrielle Langholtz’s encyclopedic Baedeker of some 800 recipes from all 50 states, is like a Joy of Cooking for the 21st century. This hefty, well-indexed reference book explicitly highlights the origins of various regional specialties. Salt Water Taffy and Bluefish with Tomatoes are both prevalent in New Jersey, but so are Palak Paneer and Korean Barbecued Short Ribs, thanks to the state’s large populations of Indian-Americans and Korean-Americans. Similarly, the strong Puerto Rican and Dominican presence in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood have made Pernil, a Puerto Rican slow-roasted pork shoulder, and Avena Caliente, a warm milky oatmeal breakfast drink, local mainstays. And a community of refugees from South Sudan have brought Sudanese dishes like Greens Cooked with Peanut Butter to the Nebraskan prairie.
Unusual facts and intriguing local dishes – like Fried Alligator Bites from Florida, Coca-Cola Glazed Ham from Georgia, Son-of-a-Gun Stew from Texas (made with unloved beef cuts like offal, neck, and marrow gut), Appalachian Leather Britches from West Virginia (dried green beans), and Wild Pawpaw Ice Cream from Ohio – make "America" as much fun to browse as to cook from. State-by-state recipes from celebrated chefs offer more sophisticated fare than the iconic, more basic classics, though they unfortunately lack illustrations. And if you’re baffled by the distinctions between Kansas City, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas barbecue sauce, this book can set you straight.
Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, which has nothing to do with lactose-laden foods and everything to do with sprightly flavors, takes its name from the address of his latest enterprise in downtown Boston following his split with America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated. Kimball’s new cooking focuses on simplifying preparations while amping up both the flavors and the healthfulness of food with an international bazaar of bold spices, seasonings, and multi-cultural mashups. Favorite flavorings include freshly grated ginger, horseradish, and lemon juice and zest.
"Milk Street" is filled with keepers. A Quinoa Pilaf simmered in carrot juice is brightened by fresh ginger, lemon, and medjool dates. Spanish Spice-Crusted Pork Tenderloin Bites, quick and easy enough for weeknights, gets a lift from cumin, coriander, and smoked paprika. Chicken Tagine with Apricots, Butternut Squash, and Spinach could be a worthy replacement for Chicken Marbella, that ubiquitous 1980s hit from The Silver Palate. French Spice Bread, mildly sweetened entirely with honey, is delicious plain or toasted with marmalade.
Deb Perelman’s second cookbook, Smitten Kitchen Every Day, also delivers on its promise for unfussy offerings, none of which require exotic ingredients. Her kid-friendly recipes tend to run more buttery and cheesy than my tastes, though her down-to-earth comments can sell us on just about any combination. In her introduction to Wild Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie she writes, “around here, we consider the intersection of mushrooms and potatoes our comfort-food happy place.” Another appealing vegetarian option – Broccoli, Cheddar and Wild Rice Fritters – makes good use of leftover takeout rice and vegetables.
But Perelman’s greatest strength is her deep understanding of the dual cravings for novelty and sweets. One clever standout: a Chocolate Peanut Butter Icebox Cake that simplifies the process by rolling a quickly mixed chocolate cookie dough between parchment into six large disks, sparing you from having to roll and cut dozens of small wafers. Once baked, these are stacked in layers alternating with whipped cream that’s been flavored with peanut butter (or, if you prefer, espresso or cocoa) before chilling overnight. Yum.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s popular Middle-Eastern inflected cookbooks, "Plenty" and "Jerusalem,"" emphasized savory dishes over desserts. Sweet, written with his longtime collaborator and pastry chef Helen Goh, features many of the gorgeous cookies and pastries long sold in his London takeout shops. Best to hit this mouthwatering collection of temptations before New Year’s resolutions take hold.
"Sweet" heightens its IQ – Irresistibility Quotient – with sumptuous, larger-than-life photographs flecked with powdered sugar, glistening chocolate, and vibrant fruit so enticing you want to swipe a fingerful. The dilemma is what to bake first. Many recipes feature some of the same ingredients found in Ottolenghi’s savory dishes – coconut, tahini, pistachios, orange blossom water. A Middle Eastern twist on Millionaire’s Shortbread adds halva and tahini paste to the usual rich layered bars. I started with the relatively healthful Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Frosting before moving on to the rich and easy Take-home Chocolate Cake, which is destined to become a birthday mainstay despite its relatively drab name and photos. Next up, though awaiting the proper occasion: Frozen Espresso Parfait – or maybe the Pistachio Roulade with Raspberries and White Chocolate.
While both "Sweet" and "America" flag nut free and gluten free recipes, such user-friendliness is far beyond the purview of Wylie Dufresne’s wd-50. This glossy coffee table volume displays food as lab project and art – precious, groundbreaking, fascinating, and as far removed from the practical as an Andy Warhol soup can. Have fun ogling the carrot and coconut transformed beyond recognition into a sunny-side up “egg,” the savory streusel “pea soil” made with almond flour, sugar, and “blitzed” freeze-dried peas, the foie gras aerated to resemble broken bread, and the crème brulée tubes and pearls. But if you want to find answers to the ever-pressing question “What’s for dinner?,” better to check out the other books on this list.
In addition to the Monitor, Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR, Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications.