Winter in central New Mexico is a time of spectacular, and early, sunsets. Once I’ve enjoyed the light show, I’m ready for a long evening of cooking and reading. I don’t do any posts about “best books of the year” because many of the most useful and interesting books that I read are old, and some of the best are things that I’ve read before and have returned to this year because they are good and useful. So this list is personal, opinionated, and idiosyncratic. With that in mind, here are some of the books that I used most this year.
An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler
I didn’t expect to like this book, based on preliminary information that it was a book of culinary essays. Over the years I’ve become dubious about culinary essays because there are too many of them, many of them sound just like one another, most of them elevate the obvious, and nearly all of them lust a little too obviously after M. F. K. Fisher. THis one, however, has a genuinely original voice and was one of the most interesting books on food that I read in 2011. Ms. Adler’s organizing principle is thrift, and her musings offer a system of thought in which every product created in the kitchen can lead to future, equally delicious, products of the kitchen. Follow the flow of her thoughts about avoiding waste of food or effort and, whether you are a beginning home cook or an old hand, you will learn things about how to make your efforts pay future interest. In addition, you’ll enjoy yourself a lot.
Simple French Food, by Richard Olney
This is a real oldie, but in my opinion everyone with a real interest in cooking should reread it every couple of years. At a time when Julia Child was laying down rules of French cooking for anxious Americans, Olney was capturing the spirit of day-to-day Provencal cuisine, where thoughtful improvisation is informed by classic principles, and rational frugality is made delicious. The chapter on improvisational cooking is a culinary classic, and should be read by all cooks who try to improvise without really thinking about their potential ingredients first. On second thought, it should be read by all cooks.
New Moroccan, by Mourad Lahlou.
This one is new this year, and may be my favorite of the current crop of new cookbooks. The “memoir with recipes” is a very overdone genre, but this one is the real deal, where memories and personal history genuinely inform the author’s thoughtful musings about food and cooking. It doesn’t really matter if you make the recipes or not; you will be a better, more thoughtful cook after exposing yourself to the way that Mourad thinks about food. I should add that, as would be expected, the recipes are very complex. You may never make a single one of them precisely as written, but they are lovely to read and give insight into a culture where many people spent a lot of time thinking about food. I have never been to Morocco, but my childhood in food-obsessed Louisiana wasn’t much different in spirit, so this volume was oddly nostalgic for me.
Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, by Diana Henry
This one is subtitled “Enchanting Dishes from the Middle East, Mediterranean, and North Africa” and this is certainly accurate, but like all my favorite cookbooks, there are gems of description here that help a cook use ingredients really well. Here is Ms. Henry on cumin: “A real workhorse, its coarse ridged seeds smell like earth and life: fresh sweat, sex, dust, maleness.” In one sentence, you have the germ of a mindset about how to use cumin intelligently in cooking, and a clear visceral sense of where it doesn’t belong. I have had this book for a few years, and come back to it regularly.
Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, by Jennifer Reese.
Ms. Reese lost her job, a common story these days. She began to experiment with doing more food production at home, and wrote a book about which things are worth doing and which things are not. I disagree with her about many specifics; just for starters, she is vehement about not raising meat birds at home, while I think it’s one of the most valuable of my home food production systems. Nonetheless, her experiments and conclusions are always worth thinking about. I should point out that there was still an income in the family, and the financial freedom to spend $1600 on goats and goat necessities that she admits will never pencil out, so this is not a poverty-level view, but it contains valuable information for the frugal middle class and for people who like to do things for themselves, even if they cost a bit more that way. In one vignette that I especially like, she describes her husband saying about one of her proposed projects “it’s like we wanted to go for a drive, so you decided to build a car.” If you have self-sufficient leanings, keep it reasonable, for others in the household as well as for yourself. This book is a fun read with a good perspective, and while your own decisions about what’s worth doing may be different from the author’s, you are likely to have a good time.
The Weekend Homesteader, by Anna Hess
This one is not a book but a monthly newsletter available electronically. It’s based on the premise of doing one major homesteading task and a number of minor ones each weekend for a year. The projects are intelligent and well-described, the writing is good, the slant is practical rather than wild-eyed, and it is clearly the work of someone who has actually done the work. Highly recommended.
Mini Farming, by Brett Markham, and The New food Garden, by Frank Tozer
I have referred to both these books over and over since I bought them, and I wouldn’t want to be without either one of them. Right now, I’m thinking of incorporating more aesthetic elements into my back yard and so I’m consulting Tozer’s book more. When I’m on an efficiency kick, I use Markham’s volume more. Get them both, and skip the many pile-on-the-trend books out there by authors who clearly haven’t walked the walk.
The Vegetable Book and The Fruit Book, both by Jane Grigson
I can’t imagine being without these fine older books, and when I finally use my well-thumbed current copies to death I’ll buy new ones. You can’t do better for the products of your garden than to get these books, read them, and use them.