A hardcore New Englander, I don’t hate winter. It gets dark! I can stay home in my PJs! Winter gives me permission to plan elaborate marathon cooking sessions, attack the stack of non-beach-read nonfiction books and generally indulge and improve myself indoors without feeling I should be outside absorbing every last ray of sunshine.
It’s also a season full of holiday cooking and gift giving occasions and our current crop of new books checks all my boxes: great new cookbooks, good winter reads and coffee-table delights.
Vibrant Middle Eastern Recipes from Sofra Bakery and Café
Author: Ana Sortun and Maura Fitzpatrick
Photographs: Kristin Teig
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Besotted by Sofra? You are not alone, given the long lines at the Cambridge location. The new collaborative cookbook, Soframiz, by Pastry Chef Maura Fitzpatrick and Chef Ana Sortun, is stuffed with well-written recipes for all the delectables you crave—from Shakshuka to Stuffed Simit to Sesame Cashew Bars. The recipes are a kitchen stool reader’s delight. Not only are they easy to follow (no small feat for recipes with complex preparation and unfamiliar, special-order ingredients), but they escort you to Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East where the concepts evolved, and to the chefs’ kitchens where they are prepared. The antithesis of minimalist cookbook writing, each section or recipe is amply explained with personal notes from each chef: sweets from Maura, savories from Ana. When I made the oven-roasted Chicken Shwarma, reading the overview from Ana before I began gave me the confidence to know that I would finish the dish with spectacular results. With Maura’s directions, I was able to coax a good version of the Earthquake Cookies, the gateway chocolate drug at Sofra, from my own oven. I love the food as much as the gorgeously illustrated, well-written book. If there’s any downside it is that many of the recipes require spices and seasonings you won’t have instantly on hand. But the results are so good you may well be delighted to invest in sujuk, sumac, mastic and nigella seeds. Move over, Mr. Ottolenghi. This year’s dinner party theme is Sofra!
A Chef’s Journey Through Eight New England Seasons
Author: Evan Mallett
Photographs: Anna Grazier
Publisher: Chelsea Green
A gorgeous first cookbook by one of New England’s most accomplished chefs and culinary thinkers. You may not have visited the Black Trumpet Restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but once you open this book you will be scrambling for your car keys. Chef-owner Evan Mallett insists he was not formally trained as a chef. If that is true, he is an autodidact of the first order. His technique—and ingredient list for many of the dishes—reads like a master class in seasonality, sustainability and depth of flavor.
Black Trumpet is a very personal book, full of food lore and philosophy, with short digressions on the history of corn, a tribute to a beloved Portsmouth friend and a paean to “The Incomparable Joys of Braised Meat.” The recipes are challenging, possibly more suited to a professional audience than to someone trying to come up with a relatively foolproof plan for a Saturday night dinner party, but some are completely within our grasp. I particularly liked one of his concluding sections, “Best Supporting Roles,” a DIY guide to making condiments like smoked almond and arugula pesto, rhubarb catsup and a cherry tapenade, and tippling syrups for outstanding cocktails! Mallett is also a deeply committed and nationally recognized force in the conversation about food and sustainability and uses his platform as a top-tier chef and Chefs Collaborative board member to educate about how we use our food choices to change the world. This book is a tribute to his mastery and his conscience.
Great Italian American Food in New England
History Traditions & Memories
Author: John F. Carafoli
Photographs: Francine Zaslow
Publisher: Globe Pequot
This is the kind of book that reminds you why you read and eat locally. It’s a love letter to the vibrant Italian American community that the author grew up in on Cape Cod with recipes from his family, from the past, from today’s local haunts and from Italian eateries and businesses throughout New England, covering the coastline from the Sagamore Bridge to the very edges of Manhattan. Did I know that 500 Italians dug the Cape Cod Canal in the late 1800s? I did not. But once the work was done, they stayed put and their culture and community flavored the Cape and beyond. This is a recipe book, standardly organized from antipasti to dolci. But in between these fun, accessible recipes are treasures of information about how Italians conquered our palates and made Italian American food truly American.
The Essential Oyster
A Salty Appreciation of Taste and Temptation
Author: Rowan Jacobsen
Photographs: David Malosh
We must live in the Golden Age of the oyster. And as New Englanders, we are in the eye of the oyster boom with our farms, our varieties and our elegiac oyster bards, like Rowan Jacobsen. Who else could start a fantastically beautiful and fact-filled book like so: “A good oyster smells like the sea breeze skipping over the shore. A bad oyster smells like a murder victim. I prefer the former.” Jacobsen’s earlier book, A Geography of Oysters, won the 2007 James Beard Award and played no small part in creating today’s oyster mania. This is a worthy sibling, a definitive guide that takes you to over 100 nooks and harbor crannies around the world where oysters are an everyday business. From the North Havens in Heidi’s Pond in Maine to the Kiwas of the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand, Jacobsen deconstructs each oyster in an organized format: Species; Cultivation; Presence; Flavor; and Obtainability— which translates into where and which time of year you can find it. I love his very funny—but not worshipful—sidebar essays on each oyster variety, which introduce you to the place and the people who cultivate the briny gems and give you smart hints on what to taste for. In many ways this is a wine book for oysters. Here’s an excerpt of Jacobsen’s notes on the Belon oyster from Brittany, France, describing Anne de Belon, a third-generation oyster farmer. “... you will take them from her hand, and tilt the wild brine into your mouth, and then you will lie down at her feet on the cold, wet cement floor of her packinghouse, and your quest will be at an end.”
A Celebration in the Raw
Author: Jeremy Sewall and Marion Lear Swaybill
Photographs: Scott Snider
Publisher: Abbeville Press
There’s no one who know his oysters better than iconic local chef Jeremy Sewall of Island Creek and Row 34. Writer Marion Lear Swaybill was lucky and well-advised to team up with Sewall for this coffee-table book on America’s old and new favorite shellfish. For the last decade or so, oysters and their “meroir” (like terroir, only wet) have become an obsession for many. This entertaining book is a celebration of oyster history, oyster lore, oyster factoids and oyster labeling. There are historical photos from the Fulton Market in New York in 1870, an aside on pearls and oysters, and why months without “R” in them were considered no-no’s for oyster eating. (Hint: Think refrigeration and train travel.) Scott Snider’s photography is splendid. The best part of the book is a two-page spread of photos of each variety of oyster for those of who have trouble telling a Pemmaquid from a Hama Hama two seconds after the server has told us how to read the oyster plate. (Did he say clockwise or counter-clockwise?) I loved the portraits of today’s oysters and oystermen, from Island Creeks in Duxbury, Massachusetts; to Murder Points in Bayou Le Batre, Alabama; to Hog Islands in Tomales Bay, California. It’s full of snippets that, if memorized, will amaze and delight your oyster-eating friends for years.
In Julia’s Kitchen
Practical and Convivial Kitchen Design
Inspired by Julia Child
Author: Pamela Heyne and Jim Scherer
Publisher: Fore Edge
This is a book that either furthers or deconstructs “Julia worship” by taking apart her Cambridge home kitchen. The kitchen is preserved behind glass and on display in the Smithsonian for all of us to gape at, down to the perfect hand of bananas. And gape at it in DC, I have. But to me it’s an amusing conundrum that Julia Child, the most celebrated of TV chefs, worked her magic in such a humdrum and homely kitchen space. To be invited to Julia’s for lunch or dinner was a great delight and honor when I was her neighbor, but it also made me a little abashed that I lusted after so much kitchen perfection in my own house, and here she was, working her marvels in a small space with a minimum of bells and whistles. But I had to admit that her home kitchen was a lovely, welcoming and obviously efficient place to eat and to work. Pamela Heyne is an architect who designs many residential kitchens and she teamed up with Boston’s best-known food studio photographer, Jim Scherer, who had photographed Julia and her kitchen for her later books. The goal was to figure out why Julia’s kitchen “worked” and what lessons are to be learned when designing a convivial new kitchen. The book is as unconventional as its heroine, a fan-page translated into architectural designs and kitchen photographs, but there are some very insightful takeaways. For instance, Julia’s kitchen was low on counter space and high on tables where prep happened when seated, face-to-face with helpers, rather than standing hip to hip. Did this encourage more communication? More conviviality? More skill? It’s an interesting thought. The question leads Heyne to ponder whether the idea of stools in the kitchen, and especially children seated on stools at the counter for meals, has contributed to the demise of the family dinner. In Julia’s kitchen, everyone would have been seated at the table. Provocative to ponder, but then Julia didn’t have children. It’s a worthy read if you are in the process of re-thinking your kitchen and want some thoughtful guidance on function over form and gadgetry.
Home for Dinner
Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids
Author: Anne K. Fishel, PhD
When we write about food in this journal, we usually focus on how to make it and where to find it. This book is different. It is about how we share food, specifically around the family dinner table. Anne Fishel is a highly respected clinical psychology professor and practitioner at Harvard Medical School and one of the founders of the Family Dinner Project at Harvard. A working mother herself, channeling her own experiences raising her family, and through her relationships with her family therapy patients, she came to realize that “food is to family what sex is to couples.” She learned that one of the best interventions she could offer her patients—and to her own family—was to get them to focus on talking to each other around the table. “Dinner conversation, rich in nutrients, is a place to seed important values.” I couldn’t agree more. This book is directed at parents and is refreshingly non-finger-wagging. She concedes that even in her own family getting good food on the table for her two nowgrown sons had its challenges and rebellions. Unlike many books by academics, Home for Dinner is full of specifics, easy do-able ideas to make sharing the nightly meal with your kids fun (and stealth-healthy too). I loved the idea of a scavenger hunt in the supermarket. Such a terrific antidote to the embarrassing tantrum in the cereal aisle. Recipes, strategies, encouragement. Give this book this holiday season to anyone who is struggling to transform dinnertime into the best part of their day.
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.