2012 Gift Guides: Recommended Reading (and some truffles)

Michael Natkin's HerbivoraciousWhen I’m nestled all snug in my bed visions of, well, it depends on what I’m reading, dance in my head. I, like many of you out there, read cookbooks like novels, carefully looking over every page and detail like a major plot point or character development, deciding what’s worthy of making and hopefully finding something new to try. I’ve got six books here for you to throw on a kerchief or cap and read while waiting for St. Nick, or any other time of year. I’m also a little late in the game for Amazon ordering, so I hope you make your way to your favorite local bookstore and find them all.

First up, two vegetarian books that I’ve fallen in love with. Anyone who knows me or reads this site regularly knows that it’d be a pretty mean feat for me love a book not about meat (and there are two below that are almost all meat). If you’re looking to get a little healthier in the coming year, and maybe help the planet too, I highly recommend Michael Natkin’s Herbivoracious and Kim O’Donnel’s The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations.

The subtitle on Herbivoracious is “a flavor revolution” and that’s no understatement. Natkin’s book came out earlier this year and I’ve cooked many items out of it, especially during the summer and fall, but that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of year-round vegetarian dishes in it. Even if you’re already a regular reader of his Herbivoracious site the book has many dishes not on the site. Natkin does one of the best jobs of giving the home cook vegetarian dishes that aren’t elaborate, but definitely step up the game from sides to entrées.

Kim O'Donnel's The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations

Speaking of sides and entrées, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations has the best of both worlds when putting together full-on vegetarian dinner parties for holidays, special events and just plain big meals with family and friends.  When I got the book I tried O’Donnel’s Eggplant Timpano and while mine didn’t look quite as beautiful as hers (it’s almost a pie in it’s appearance), it was fantastic. Pairing that up with the rest of the meal dishes would be a great feast.

Many of the dishes in both these vegetarian books are gluten-free and vegan too and are labelled as such. I had the pleasure of meeting both these authors recently and of course they’re both very passionate about their subject. I got to sample a couple of O’Donnel’s dishes including a Quinoa-Walnut Brownie that you would’ve never known was gluten-free. Natkin and I met over a cup of coffee and we recorded a brief interview.

The Fisherman's Table by Laura Blackwell

While we’re talking vegetarian and big, bold flavors I want to share some news that my friend at the local Whole Foods Market passed along. It’s not a local product, but it supposed to be available only in the New England area: fresh truffles. Whole Foods Market “is now offering fresh Italian truffles (black, burgundy and white), by special order only. These rare, highly prized fresh seasonal truffles are flown in overnight from Italy, by request only. This offer is valid in New England area stores only. Customers will have the option to order White Alba Truffles, Black Perigord, or Black Burgundy.” If you’re looking for something extra special for that holiday meal, truffles definitely fit that bill.

Before we get to meat (and one of my favorite books of the year, if not of all time—I mean it!) I want to make sure Rhode Islanders know about a very cool locally produced book The Fisherman’s Table by Laura Blackwell. Blackwell has put together a book revolving around seafood caught in the waters around Newport and has contributions from the Fisherman of Newport in her book. It’s a great general seafood manual as well as a book of recipes and if you’re buying local seafood—as you should definitely be doing—it’s a wonderful resource, drawing on some Rhode Island seafood traditions as well as exploring some out-of-area flavors. Make sure you check out www.FishermansTable.com where you can buy the book if you can’t find it in a store.

Fire In My Belly by Kevin Gillespie with David JoachimAlso near and dear to my heart is southern cooking, it’s some of the first food that I learned to make when I became interested in cooking and it’s where I learned a lot of what I do today. I have a lot of southern cookbooks, probably more than any other general topic and I love to just grab one every now and then to remind me of something I’m missing. Fire In My Belly by Kevin Gillespie with David Joachim has become one of those books on my shelf. Any book that gives me a new idea for grits, a mainstay and staple of our home, will be a beloved book by me. So here’s to Gillespie’s Overnight Grits and so many of my other favorite things to eat. I look forward to trying his One-Pot Hog Supper that caught my eye as I flipped through. Buy the book and see what I’m talking about.

On to the meat and first up is a book from last year that I didn’t get a copy of until this summer after I met Joshua and Jessica Applestone, owners of Fleisher’s Grass-Fed & Organic Meats in Kingston, New York. Their book, The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat by the Applestones and Alexandra Zissu, is an excellent resource guide, memoir and reference book. It’s very to-the-point while at the same time taking some space to explain what it is they do at Fleisher’s butcher shop and, more importantly, why.

The Butcher's Guide to Well-Raised Meat by Joshua and Jessica Applestone and Alexandra ZissuThe great majority of the meat I eat, if not all of it in the case of beef, comes from Blackbird Farm in Smithfield, R.I., a farm that perfectly matches the list in the book of what the Applestones expect from their farmers. So naturally I agree with their writing. The book is a great educational tool and it’s written in a very consumer friendly, approachable style. I’ll be recommending it in my cooking classes to people who want to learn more. Also, while the black+white photos are very nice to make it a concise and price-friendly book, the color inserts of Jennifer May’s photographs are beautiful.

Finally, my favorite book this year and I was serious when I said one of my favorites of all time, Wicked Good Barbecue by Andy Husbands and Chris Hart with Andrea Pyenson. I’ve got a lot of barbecue books, almost as many as southern cuisine books–they overlap a lot as well. When I got this book my first reaction was not dissimilar from the press release that came with it, how good can a barbecue book by two guys from Boston be? Then I started to read through it and almost every page piqued my curiosity. Everything sounded amazing. But, unlike a lot of other more forgiving cooking methods, barbecue recipes and technique may sound good on paper, but fall apart in practice. That may sound odd, isn’t a slow cooking, heavy seasoning cooking method pretty forgiving? Not if you want to achieve perfect barbecue.

Wicked Good Barbecue by Andy Husbands and Chris Hart with Andrea PyensonI’ve now cooked my way through a good chunk of Wicked Good Barbecue. This book contains some darn perfect barbecue. Some of these recipes and processes are challenging. Not impossible at home by any means, but very time-consuming and having multiple-components. They’re all worth it. There are techniques in here that mirror some of my own that I know took me years to perfect. Husbands and Hart lay it all out for you. A recipe may take four days, but it’s worth it and I can only imagine the number of days it took them to get it there. Husbands and Hart were the 2009 Grand Champions of the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue, along with winners of many other barbecue competition awards, and they’ve included that pork spare rib recipe here.

I love my cookbooks. I keep them in relatively great condition, especially considering how often I read through many of them. Wicked Good Barbecue is one of the few books that is completely beat up, and I’ve only had it for about eight months. There’s even sauce and spice rub on some of the pages, which kind of bums me out because some of it is on Ken Goodman’s gorgeous photography. But that’s my testimony. This book is not for the casual weekend barbecue, though there are certainly quick and easy recipes in it. This book is deep and wonderful and I may never find another barbecue book I love as much. Get this book and you may feel the same.

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