Our four favorite cookbooks of the year are full of tasty recipes that work, excellent writing, and beautiful photographs. But more than that, each is written from a unique and exciting point of view. One reports on the regional food of the author’s youth with fresh eyes, another aims to take amateur home cooks to the next level with style. A third captures the essence of the foods we loved to eat in 2016, by the woman who created them, while the fourth captures a new take on beloved cuisines from an immigrant’s point of view. Happy cooking.
Recipes by Ronni Lundy
Because we need more reported cookbooks.
You may think you know Southern food, but Ronni Lundy’s Victuals is not your typical biscuits-and-fried-chicken cookbook. Instead, it’s a journey through the author’s native Appalachia—she literally gets in her car to discover what’s going on out there. The result is a book that not only captures the region’s often-overlooked diversity, but does so with kindness and warmth. It’s also full of craveable recipes like nutmeg and buttermilk cookies, ginger bean chowchow, and pork with hominy and wilted greens.
Seeking to discover “present-day people and places across the southern Appalachian Mountains and the ways their stories link to the past,” Lundy avoids assuming everyone experiences what she calls the Mountain South in the same way. No easy feat, considering these are her own foodways, the traditions of her own family. Instead, she lets the region reveal itself to her anew, and is rewarded with a breadth of voices from high-end chefs to farmers trying to bring back the old ways.
It’s both literary culinary journalism that will leave you wondering why reported cookbooks aren’t written more often and a collection of delicious recipes. I dare you to open this book to any page and not be immediately seduced by this world of beans drying by the hearth and apple butter bubbling away on the stove.
by Naomi Pomeroy, with Jamie Feldmar
Because you want to be a great cook, not just a good one.
There are dozens, hundreds, of cookbooks out there for beginners. Everyone has to start somewhere, and Betty Crocker’s The Joy of Cooking Everything Easily at Home is a necessary genre of cookbook. But what’s an ambitious home cook to do once they can boil pasta, make vinaigrette, and roast a chicken?
That next step—call it grad school for home cooks—is a weak spot in the cookbook world. Thankfully, Naomi Pomeroy’s Taste & Technique picks up the slack with recipes for Pacific Northwest food with French technique. Pomeroy taught herself to cook via cookbooks, and one gets the sense she wrote the book she wished she’d had back then.
The book is built around the concept of building blocks: a vibrant parsley sauce to keep in the fridge and brighten up everything from grilled meats to eggs, a crème fraîche tart to top with whatever vegetables look good at the market, a basic quiche to make any time of day. The recipes are more complicated than those you’d find in a beginner cookbook, but just as foundational and endlessly customizable. If you’re looking to advance to the next level, Pomeroy’s got you.
by Jessica Koslow, with Maria Zizka
Jessica Koslow’s Los Angeles restaurant Sqirl has been making the case that California is once again the center of American food for some time now. Every day, customers wait in long lines for the vibrantly flavored rice bowls and thickly jammed slabs of toast that made Koslow famous. In a culture of increasingly specific dietary restrictions, Sqirl is a restaurant where “modifications [are] politely accepted,” a reversal from the trendsetting New York restaurants of years past. Koslow’s food is brightly colored, flavored, and appears kind of healthy even when it’s topped with bacon.
And now Koslow has published a cookbook, Everything I Want to Eat, that captures the essence of Sqirl. The design of the book feels as on trend as the restaurant, from the fashion photos of famous and famous-ish Sqirl regulars (producer Lynda Obst, actress Busy Phillips, actor Dave Franco) to the sparsely laid out typography, to shots of tonics and smoothies set among vintage tea kettles.
The overall effect is simultaneously minimalist and layered, much like the food itself. A seemingly simple dish like beet salad calls for cooked and fermented beets; potatoes for a hash are baked, torn by hand, then seared alongside beets that are cooked separately.
“I don’t know whether or not to be proud of this,” Koslow writes, “but I’ve become known for making dishes that appear simple at first glance but actually involve a lot of steps to get there.” This sort of studied simplicity is the basis of much of what Koslow’s many imitators reach for but never grasp. Whether you’re making entire Sqirl menu items start to finish, stealing a variation on a classic (hello, sorrel pesto), or simply reading the Sqirl story, this is as close to the real thing as you’ll get without waiting on a Silver Lake sidewalk.
by Asha Gomez, with Martha Hall Foose
I’ve said this once already, but the food in My Two Souths is arrestingly good. Atlanta chef Asha Gomez artfully blends the cuisines of her childhood home of Kerala, India, with those of her adult home into dishes that are at once innovative and based in deep tradition.
I love this book because it masters a concept that seems to elude many cookbook authors: people want to cook food that’s balanced. They want vegetables, carbs, and protein, all in one dish—and they want them exploding with flavor. Gomez’s food manages this feat, and cooks looking for everything from easy suppers to impressive dinner-party fodder will find plenty of ideas here.
But the true magic of My Two Souths is the way Gomez weaves together cuisines from opposite ends of the earth. She combines the foods of the Southern United States and Southern India not as a fusion or mash-up, but by sensitively teasing out their natural similarities and emphasizing them. The result is foods that seem obvious even while they are genius, like they’ve been there all along.