readable feast: The Winter List

EDIBLE READS: THE WINTER LIST: BOOKS FOR LEARNING NEW SKILLS, FEEDING FRIENDS AND ENJOYING A QUIET DAY AT HOME READING

Our advice to everyone who has been dining out on the demise of the printed page: Get yourself another topic! This season our bookshelf is overflowing. New cookbooks, food memoirs, histories, and undiluted food porn. Just in time for gift giving, or for hunkering down this winter with a new food obsession, here are some of our current favorites penned by authors with a local connection.

Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books

By Cara Nicoletti

Oh, how I loved this book. It is the first “cookbook” I’ve ever wanted to read under the covers with a flashlight. Every single thing about this beautifully written book is a treat. First of all, Nicoletti is a terrific writer. She’s also a lifelong terrific reader, as dedicated to Pippi Longstocking and the Nancy Drew books of her childhood as she is to The Odyssey, Emma, and Gone Girl. A local girl who grew up hanging out after school at her grandfather’s Italian butcher shop, food was bred in her bones. Nicoletti grew up in Newton, went to New York to study literature, and then became a butcher, a baker, and a food blogger. Her book is the sum of all her experiences.

If there is a trend away from cookbooks that are more than step-by-step how-tos with four-color, envy-inducing photographs, Voracious should crest the wave. Cara Nicoletti makes you want to cook and to read. She’s interlaced her favorite “what-I-read” books, age zone by age zone, and created a signature recipe for each book on her list, riffing on a dish mentioned in the book, or just a recipe that transports her back in time. She braids her recollections and her love of each book with her personal stories, her life as a chef, and as a writer. So for Charlotte’s Web, (a book she read in the third grade), the recipe is a Pea and Bacon Soup. Why? After a third grade flirtation with vegetarianism (if you loved Charlotte and her friends truly, how could you eat meat?), Nicoletti returned to bacon. And picked up the peas because E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, had a fascination with ethical farming— and he also loved fresh peas. For Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which she read during a Christmas break at home en route to a brutal New Year’s Eve working in Manhattan, we have Blinis with Caviar, conjuring up a sumptuous meal described in the book where caviar was simply one of the treats on a long list. For Gone Girl, there are Brown Butter Crepes, recalling a breakfast Amy made for Nick before it all went so very wrong. Please, Cara Nicoletti, keep reading! Keep channeling your twin loves of book and stove and make me happy forever.

The Turnip

By Jan Brett

Want to grow a foodie? Buy this book for the picture book crowd in your life. Read and chuckle along with the kiddies. Sure to be a new bedtime story staple, The Turnip tells the story of Badger Girl, and her band of eight adorable animals struggling together to pull up a 900-pound turnip. The story is taken from a Russian folktale and the illustrations are pure, colorful whimsy. Mother Badger is the hero of the tale: “Time for turnip pancakes browned in butter for all!” she cries at the end, wielding her frying pan in victory. Who could resist?

Fresh Made Simple: A Naturally Delicious Way to Eat

By Lauren K. Stein

Somewhere in between a coffee table book and an inspirational cookbook is Fresh Made Simple. It’s cheerfully illustrated, full of wonderful images and handwritten prompts, written to remind us that when food is fresh, simplicity trumps complexity every time. There aren’t really recipes here, and that’s the book’s strength. Lauren Stein wanted to create a rule-breaker, a cookbook that was more about the ingredients than the technique, about what to combine rather than how to do it. It’s a cheerful, adorable book that reminds you that the best meals often come from assembling a few excellent ingredients and helping them learn to love each other.

The New England Open House Cookbook

By Sarah Leah Chase

I have been a Sarah Leah Chase fan ever since I first made the mustardy bluefish recipe from her Nantucket Open House Cookbook. I’ve been cooking it since 1987. It’s the only bluefish recipe I’ve ever used. It was that good. As were all her recipes in the book. Simple, gutsy, artful recipes that brought out the bounty without being too rustic to delight sophisticated palates. But Chase’s new book might be even better. In the years since, Chase has moved with her family off-island to the mainland, from Nantucket to Cape Cod. Her new book, brimming with 300 recipes, casts a wider net for New England food than her earlier book, culling from elegant inns and dumpy diners from Maine to Rhode Island. Reading through the recipes, I just had to try Moxie Braised Short Rib Stew. Yes, that kind of Moxie. Straight from the bottle. A ripping success in my house, not a shred left. From Maine breakfast scrambles to smoked-salt rimmed Bloody Marys, she’s got me hooked all over again. I might even give her “new” bluefish recipe with garlicky-herb butter a try. Even an old sea dog can learn new tricks.

Food Gift Love: More than 100 Recipes to Make, Wrap & Share

By Maggie Battista

Spoiler alert. Buy this book now and use it to make a holiday gift for just about everyone on your list that isn’t pining for a technology gadget. Maggie Battista, the author, is the founder of Eat Boutique, a retail company that sources unique food gifts from small batch producers all over the world. In this book, her first, she has put together a remarkable array of edible gifts that you’ll enjoy making and your loved ones will be helplessly and happily impressed. Part of the secret is in the recipes. Another key is the presentation. Maggie Battista helps you excel at both. There are Fresh Gifts, like a spunky pico de gallo (you make it, put it in a nice glass jar with a label and keep in the fridge until the gifting occasion). There are Pantry Gifts like homemade extracts, infused sea salts, and citrus sugars. You mix them up, transfer the goodies to a beautiful container tied up with a velvet ribbon, and let them mature. Candied gifts like homemade barks and a dark caramel sauce; Baked gifts like brown butter madeleine’s and pizza rolls; Preserved Gifts like pear-pineapple-ginger jam and fig-rosemary jam; and Spirited Gifts, like a back-to-the future sparkling elderflower punch and homemade grenadine. Sprinkled through the book are spiffy ideas on how to turn a humble homemade gift into an elegant offering. You’ll like this book. And rest assured your friends will adore it. Who needed another scarf when you can get a bowl of bourbon cherries instead?

American Wine: A Coming of Age Story

By Tom Acitelli

Back in the dark days of our memory, American wine makers were little round men with funny accents. American wine was American Swiss Colony flasks or twist-off Italian mega jugs. They made “sweet” or fortified wine and you drank them on the sly, reserving the “good” wine, European wine, for celebratory dinners. In 1965, there were barely 400 American wineries in the country. How that has changed! The American wine industry today, centered in California, has become an international superstar, often transcending the quality of centuries-old European vineyards. How did that happen, and how did it happen so quickly?

Tom Acitelli has written a first-of-its-kind, joyously readable, almost novelistic history of the rise of American wine, from the Thunderbird days of the 60s through the full-blown Napa infused wine culture of today. A gifted journalist, he casts American winemakers as the “underdogs.” He brings the seminal figures to life through careful primary research and personal interviews. Acitelli takes us with him on the personal journeys of the winemakers who “invented” fine American wine and with it, jump started a billion-dollar industry that is a standard bearer for the world.

Apples to Cider: How to Make Cider At Home

By April White with Stephen Wood of Farnum Hill Ciders

Every once in a while you pick up a book and say, “Gee, I never thought about how to do that.” Making cider at home is one of those things. There are people who make wine at home, and tons of home brewers who make beer, but I am convinced that cider is the coming thing for New Englanders. In my yard alone, I have a very fecund apple tree. I’ve been overwhelmed with what to do with all the apples. But next season I might be down in my basement, in my cider room, perfecting my cider nose.

This is an easy-to-take manual that will transform you from a cider novice to someone with a trained cider nose. Cider science to cider equipment, the book takes you from your first batch of cider to your third batch and beyond, clueing you in on what to expect from your first effort to how to learn from your mistakes. Unintended malolactofermentation? I love it. A whole new hobby for me. And it’s gluten free!

The Food Activist Handbook: Big & Small Things You Can Do to Help Provide Fresh, Healthy Food for Your Community

By Ali Berlow

Please write to Ali Berlow and thank her. She has done you and everyone you know a huge service. In this inspirational and informational paperback, Berlow has outlined all the actions that are within your control to keep the good food revolution steamrolling ahead. The Food Activist’s Handbook is both overwhelming and unintimidating. Designed to engage and motivate. Care about food waste? Here are the tools and strategies to do something about it your community. Want to get junk food out of your kid’s schools? Here’s how to organize the effort. Turned off by large scale farming operations? Here’s how to support humane slaughter. The amount of research and compilation required to write this book is astounding. Berlow found all the organizations, sussed out the websites, and identified steps both simple and sophisticated that address each significant food issue. It’s a tremendous and highly accessible accomplishment, written in a spirit of optimism and personal agency. Buy it for everyone you know that cares about good food.

Do Beekeeping: The Secret to Happy Honeybees

By Orren Fox

Some people want chickens in the backyard. I have a hankering for bees. And each spring I flirt with the idea and let the idea pass, quietly. But this small, simple pocket-sized guide from an 18-year-old beekeeper in flip-flops may be the gem that gets me over the hump and into the hives. Crunchy, rustic, matter-of-fact, with lovely soft-focus photos by our own creative director, Michael Piazza. Part memoir, part how-to, and packed with information, it reads like a good friend encouraging you to give it a try. And this time, I just might.

Barnyard Kids: A Family Guide for Raising Animals

By Dina Rudnick

This is an excellent and fun book on raising farm animals written by the folks at The Farm School who operate Maggie’s Farm. Aimed at parents and kids who are interested in raising healthy farm animals, this book doubles as a biology guide for almost any curious middle schooler on up. The guide makes the connection between animals and where we get our food in a warm but very informative, accessible way. It doesn’t shirk from the fact that animals we raise also become food we eat.

Animal by animal, breed by breed, there are chickens and pigs, sheep and goats, cows, horses and rabbits. And each very kid-friendly chapter addresses everything from why people raise them (for sport, for food, for fun), to the daily chore of taking care of each kind of animal, what they eat, how they poop, what makes them sick and how to keep them well.

The Dairy Goat Handbook: For Backyard, Homestead, and Small Farm

By Ann Starbard

We are told that goats are the “starter mammal,” those adorable easy animals with soulful eyes and a soft, supplicating bleat. Goats, we hear, are the animals that a nice suburban family with a vision of rusticated life should adopt first to see if living with another species works for them. If you are tempted to farm, considering a side career (or a full-time career) as a dairy farmer or cheese maker, or just plain curious about how to get started with goats for pleasure or for profit, this is your book. In simple, plain language, Ann Starbard walks you through the steps you will need to travel if goats are in your future. She covers everything from how to buy them to how to birth them. If anything, the tone of the book is too reassuring. It makes even a confirmed city person think twice.

Baking with The Brass Sisters

By Marilyn and Sheila Brass

I was weeping by the last paragraph of the introduction, overcome by the genuine love of baking and the authenticity of these two sisters who have compiled and curated these recipes. And they live in my town! I immediately wondered if I had stood next to them at the market and didn’t know it, and if I did run into them at some point, would I wrap my arms around them offering undying friendship? And that’s even before I started reading the recipes!

The recipes are inviting, not a hint of snooty. There’s even a paean to canned pumpkin for the pumpkin recipes. In this book the sisters share home bakers’ recipes they have gathered over the years, some written on scraps of paper, passed from one generation to another, another one salvaged from the 1940s, tucked into a handmade oilskin book written by a young man for his mother. As a remarkably anxious baker, I was so emboldened by my success with Aunt Eller’s Apple Nut Bread, (the secret is in how you chop the nuts!) that I tried my hand at the Pink Velvet Cake (a girly riff on Red Velvet), and followed every encouraging syllable in the two-page description of how to make a perfect piecrust. They did not lie. After a lifetime of crust disappointments, my crust was all it should be. This is a delicious book, meant to get tattered and grease-stained in your kitchen where you’ll turn to it every time someone says, “Would you bring a little something for dessert?”

In Cod We Trust: From Sea to Shore, The Celebrated Cuisine of Coastal Massachusetts

By Heather Atwood / Photographs by Allan Penn

It pays to remember that the Massachusetts coast has been the first stop for seafaring immigrants for hundreds of years. This book reminds us of the culinary contributions of all the ethnic heritages that still flavor the coastal towns of the Bay State. From the Portuguese, Azorean, Cape Verdean of the South Coast of New Bedford and Fall River, to the French Canadians and old European stock of the North Shore to the Italians of Gloucester. Each wave of newcomers had a talent to make what is local into something that seems to come from far away. This book has terrific recipes that teach us a little more about how Massachusetts has fed its residents for centuries. We love the codfish cakes and the kale soup, the Bacalhau com Molho de Tomate of the Portuguese cuisine. Finnish Rice Pudding and Finnish Blueberry stew from the Finnish enclave in West Barnstable. Pancetta-Wrapped Dogfish and Pan Roasted Skate wing with a French Canadian and Italian history. “1630” Salem Chicken, a braised chicken dish with pears and raisins that dates from earliest colonial times. Thank you to Heather Atwood for a loving, respectful tribute to our coastal cuisine and the communities that keep it fresh.

The New New England Cookbook: 125 Recipes that Celebrate the Rustic Flavors of the Northeast

By Stacy Cogswell with Taissa Rebroff

A slick take on New England cooking from Top Chef contestant Stacy Cogswell. Just hip enough to satisfy someone who teethed on the classics, and edgy enough to suggest calling your friends for a dinner party. Almost every dish spoke to me. I especially like the way the book is organized: 125 gorgeously photographed recipes, divided into two menus for each season, each with five or six dishes. And the whole concept is low on fussy, high on yummy. It’s as if the chef is overseeing your party, curating a menu just for you. Dishes I had to make right away: Braised Veal Osso Buco with Creamy Polenta and Caramelized Oyster Mushrooms; Orange Braised Carrots. And did I mention the desserts? Pumpkin Panna Cotta and Cider Donuts?

The Food Lab: Better Cooking Through Science

By J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Kenji Lopez-Alt has written a new classic. It’s a science cookbook for the home cook. Not an abstruse tome that requires a space-age kitchen, but a book for curious average nerds with average kitchens. It’s fun to read—not a cover-to-cover read, but a dip in, chapter-by-chapter kind of read. It’s a chunky investment and it will claim significant real estate on your counter or bookshelf, but I suspect that if you are reading this magazine, it’s a book you’ll want to own. I asked Kenji why he wrote this book. “I was sick of the ‘science books’ that made the science of cooking something about high-end professionals,” he said. “I wanted to do this for the home cook, your basic cooking nerd.”

The author writes the enormously entertaining Food Lab blog, which you can follow for free, but this book will be much more satisfying. The science is as accessible as it can be but never dumbed-down, and it’s clearly and cleanly written by a very accomplished writer who has science and the scientific method in his DNA. An MIT graduate, an alumna of Cooks’ Illustrated and The Test Kitchen, he is the son and grandson of scientists. He’s also a great test cook and his recipes sing.

Why does it take so much longer to bake a potato than to boil it? How come I can put my hand into a 300° oven and not blister it while I’d never (deliberately) dunk my fist into a pot of boiling water? Is searing a steak worth the effort and how does it relate to the Maillard equation? (Hint: it’s also why toasting dried spices works so well.) Why is it so hard to “brown” ground beef? (Answer: the pooling of the meat juices in the pan self-regulates to 212° “far too low for flavorful browning to take place.”) What one vegetable takes equally well to steaming, sautéing, braising, glazing and roasting? (10 points if you guessed Brussels sprouts!) Of course, the real question is “why?” and Kenji answers that, along with why you need to blanch even tiny amounts of vegetables in very large pots of water, in his Science of Vegetables chapter. All this and more, plus terrific recipes and lovely, helpful pictures that explain what’s going on in the cooking process.

The Food Lab is an investment to be sure at $49.95, but a worthy one. Make space for it on your counter and know that you’ve invested in an answer-giving reference work that I think will be right up there with Julia’s iconic and ever-lasting classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Louisa Kasdon is the author of more than 500 published articles about food, restaurants, health, and business. She was the food editor for the Boston Phoenix/Stuff Magazine and a regular contributor to ZesterDaily.com. She is the founder/CEO of Let’s Talk About Food, letstalkaboutfood.com, an events-based organization that brings the public together around issues in our food system. She can be reached at Louisa@letstalkaboutfood.com.