The best cookbooks of 2013? Make that the best cookbooks by Los Angeles-area authors. And no, we don't mean those with television deals.
In years past, two, maybe three, notable titles typically made our local “best of” cut. But this year, an impressive number of thoughtful recipe testing notes have been written in nearby restaurant galleys, cramped apartment kitchenettes and farmhouse nooks. This year there were not only enough, but another half dozen fun titles that deserve a list of their own. (Among them, Lust for Leaf from Hot Knives' duo Alex Brown and Evan George and Randy Clemens' latest vegetarian Sriracha release.)
One caveat: How do you compare a cookbook that is more memoir, dusted with powdered ramen seasoning, to one that is filled with gorgeous French pastries? Right. So think of this not as a ranking, more as a list of notable titles worth flipping through. Have your own local gem to add? By all means, do share. And please do invite us to the table.
When you get that “can you make a croquembouche?” call for a friend's wedding, you want to turn to a culinary professional like Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of the French Pastry School in Chicago. Especially when he teams up with Martha Rose Shulman, a longtime local cookbook author who has years of croissant folding precision to her credit.
If you have ever written a chef's cookbook, you know why we included a cookbook with Schulman on this list even if yes, Pfeiffer is from Chicago (fine, a compromise: we listed it as number 9). The book is filled with 400 pages of French pastry essentials- not exactly a quick weeknight recipe testing and writing gig.
The book, more a pastry bible reference guide, starts with the fundamentals of French pastry, complete with illustrations showing how to pipe that éclair filling, and classic pastries like croissants, creme-filled Paris Brest and a mille-feuille (otherwise known as a Napoleon). Everything you want right now, in other words. Chapters on cookies (tuiles!), tarts and cakes follow, but our favorite chapter is the one filled with “Sweet and Savory Alsatian Specialties,” as it is called. We love the idea of Shulman, who also writes the healthy cooking column for The New York Times, making bee sting cake (brioche sliced and filled with pastry cream and dusted with almonds and honey), chinois (Alsatian cinnamon rolls), beignets and holiday stollen in sunny 80 degree L.A. weather. A sweet, sweet antidote to the latest kale salad.
Not so long ago, we were awash in Napa and Sonoma wine country cookbooks; more recently, we've seen Oregon on the Publisher's Weekly list. But our Central Coast neighbors have gotten far less love. Enter this great book by Brigit Binns. A longtime L.A. cookbook author with dozens of titles to her name, Binns now spends much of her time in the area, where she has a home and a pretty fabulous looking new cooking school retreat.
Many of the dishes are inspired by time Binns has spent with area winemakers, a dinner here, a tasting room experience there, with profiles of some of our favorite farmers who make appearances at local markets (Bill and Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farm among them). There are a hundred-plus dishes with wine-pairing in mind. But also creative wine-based cooking, like smashed avocado toasts with sun-dried tomato jam and feta-stuffed chicken with green olives, white wine, and grilled lobster with syrah butter and orange sea salt that will now be making an appearance on our New Year's Eve table. Followed, come midnight, but that late-harvest Moscato panna cotta with candied kumquats.
Susie Norris, lucky for us, is a former baking and pastry instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena specializing in chocolate. Susan Heeger, a local journalist and cookbook author. Yeah, time to bookmark some serious weekend candy making time.
That's not to say the recipes here are complicated. Refreshingly, quite the opposite. This is a tidy little book, the sort of thing you might slip into a stocking as an appetizer to a behemoth like The Art of French Pastry. It includes all of the basics you need to make you own candy bars, including recipes for soft nougat (get the recipe for chocolate nougat here), marzipan, fondant, four versions of caramel, toffee, fudge and a vanilla cookie dough that doubles as a candy bar base.
Some of the recipes are inspired by classic commercial candies (peanut butter-chocolate cups, dark-chocolate dipped almond coconut bars); others are classics in the homemade sense like chocolate taffy. In other words, enough secret stash to sneak into the movie theater to please everyone.
If you don't know Jennie Cook, a longtime community activist, local chef and caterer known, as the subtitle attests, for her Sociable Suppers for Vegans, Omnivores & Everyone in Between, by the end of her new hyper-local cookbook, you will. The publisher, Prospect Park Books, is based in Pasadena (disclosure: this writer has worked with both on projects). The illustrations throughout the book were also done by Cook.
But what's great about this book is not the Made-in-L.A. stamp. The notable difference between this book and so many vegetarian/vegan-focused titles we've seen recently is everyone is welcome at Cook's table. Recipes like lamb tangine are right at home amidst the curried cauliflower and arugula-winter squash-meyer lemon salads (her infamous sweet potato lasagna recipe has been known to convert Bolognese diehards).
The recipes are all similarly “real” in that down-home, California farmers market-driven sense without being fussy. The sort of comforting miso-mushroom barley soups you might simmer for your family on a weeknight or the Spanish-style red pepper and paprika roasted chicken dish that sounds pretty great for a casual Sunday just-come-over-and-hang-out night. Seconds, indeed.
5. L.A. Son
Memoir, cookbook or something in between? At this point, we're too knee-deep in pork fried rice and Roy Choi's grit-filled tale of his personal kitchen journey to care.
As you likely are well aware by now, this isn't a book for the under-aged or Rachael Ray crowd. The book is laced with drugs, alcohol, gambling addictions, and a hell of a lot of cursing. All equally addicting as a late night read, incidentally.
There are recipes, around 80 or so, but not in the traditional chef cookbook restaurant sense. Instead, the book rides on a backbone of kimchi and Korean fried chicken, as Choi did growing up. Cross-cultural kitchen experiments like spam bahn mi and deep-fried Pillsbury biscuits sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar and sesame seeds line the pages, as does a recipe for “perfect” instant ramen, as Choi calls it.
Sure, the book stops just when you want to hear more about those first Kogi days, about Choi's mini restaurant empire today. But as Choi says, that's precisely the point. And besides, there's still plenty of ketchup fried rice to share.
If you follow the local blog White on Rice Couple by Costa Mesa-based photographers Todd Porter & Diane Cu, you probably expected great things from their first cookbook. Bountiful is driven, as their blog, by seasonal produce largely from their own backyard and the couple's infectious storytelling and gorgeous photography (where they particularly excel). It does not disappoint.
You could make a visual meal just flipping through the photos, actually. A pomegranate-grapefruit gin cocktail to start, “pillows” of fig and gorgonzola (savory puff pastry tartlets), a wilted mizuna shrimp salad and blood orange bars. That the recipes aren't overly complicated, more like “modern everyday” backyard cooking, if you will, are a bonus when food looks this beautiful.
It leaves you with more time to dig around in your own garden oasis like Porter & Cu (or fine, close enough: hit the farmers market). By the end of the book, tonight's dinner menu will have changed countless times. Who knows, maybe even to sesame-sriracha roasted cauliflower and roasted spaghetti squash with parmesan and sausage.
3. Saving the Season
The last thing we thought we needed this year was another canning and preserving book. That is, until we picked up a copy of Kevin West's version.
The book reads in part like a Master Food Preservers curriculum; West is a graduate of the local UC Davis-affiliated program. And so if you're looking to perfect your marmalade technique or learn how to make “canned” salmon (in the classic sense, packed in olive oil in jars), West will show you how.
More interested in scavenging for pyrachantha berries on common L.A. sidewalk ground to make a jelly? You'll find useful tips here, too. Once you master those basic recipes like one for apple jelly, West will send you in various Chardonnay-cloves, apple-mint, Southern hot pepper, and “thrifty applesauce” directions (using the leftover cooked fruit from making the jelly).
Regardless of your homemade cornichon and peach jam making experience, it's the stories here that will make you want to try West's versions. Tales of road trips to a small Appalachian town (to tag along on a family's annual ramp dig) and sidebars peppered with quotes through the ages of sugar discovery.
Round two on the cookbook shelf for Suzanne Goin loosely mirrors A.O.C.'s menu, with chapters on Cheese, Charcuterie, Salads, Fish, Meat, Vegetables, Form the Wood-Burning Oven, Desserts. As in her first book, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, each is then sub-divided by season.
If you know Goin's cooking, you already know what to expect: thoughtful, market-driven recipes with subtle variances that make you wonder why you didn't think to simply dress your spring peas with saffron butter or make a kale stuffing for that duck you splurged on at the market. Right.
Every recipe includes wine notes from Caroline Styne, Goin's business partner and wine director. Read her wine entries, like one for the grilled leek and artichoke salad with burrata and salbitxada (a tomato-almond-chile salad from Catalonia), and you'll soon be wishing you had a Garnacha from the Montsant region in your wine fridge.
This cookbook rendition is also more personal than her first, with the recipe headers offering up tales that offer a glimpse into Goin's life beyond the stove. And yet this is hardly a cookbook-as-memoir– a good thing, as far as we're concerned, as that means a slice of persimmon cake with crème fraîche and maple pecans still awaits.
Finally, we get to Valerie Gordon's first pastry book, Sweet. Sure, some of the recipes are somewhat time consuming to make. But if you are a fan of Gordon's pastries, you expected nothing less.
Inside you will find many of the sweets that Gordon sells in her bakeshop, like Blum's coffee crunch cake, her version of the retro chiffon cake with coffee whipped cream covered in homemade honeycomb coffee crunch, and petits fours filled with rose petal-passion fruit ganache, dipped in white chocolate and topped with a candied rose petal. Nestled among the candy pages are sea salt caramels and peppermint bark topped with homemade peppermint candy. And yes, the recipe for her flagship chocolate toffee sprinkled with fleur de sel (!!) is most definitely here.
There are more “everyday” sweets, too, at least in terms of the candy thermometer commitment time. Jasmine panna cotta, Blenheim apricot ice cream, mini apricot-basil cream galettes and cookies in every essential gingersnap, coconut-finger lime and salted pecan brownie form — even an apple-caramel crostata with an aged Gouda-cornmeal crust. Many of the building blocks of the recipes come from the Larder chapter, filled with jams and marmalades that we wish were in our pantry right now (fig-Fuji apple-vanilla bean, strawberry-rhubarb, white nectarine-lemon verbena).
The tips scattered throughout the book include a create-your-own pies and tarts page with crust and filling suggestions that inspires more than most (each is accompanied by a photo) and a section with “helpful hints for cake baking” (lay four strips of parchment under the edges of the first cake layer; slide them out when you are finished decorating so your serving platter stays clean). Gordon also devotes quality time to proper packaging. If you have ever met her, this will come as no surprise; she is as meticulous in packaging her sweets as in their construction. A fitting beginning to a hand-crafted single-malt Scotch truffle or pumpkin seed toffee.
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