I started pulling this together back in October, on a Friday afternoon when I was feeling optimistic and hopeful, but then I shelved it because I didn’t want to write anything too optimistic ahead of the midterm elections, were they to turn out to be not what was expected. Once that was settled, I wanted to figure out a proper theme and realized how many cooking projects have helped me enormously this year, so cooking as self-care it became.
(As always, there are no affiliate links here; though I do encourage you to sign up for Amazon Smile and send a portion of your orders to a cause you find personally meaningful.)
First up, here are some cookbooks that have yielded some excellent cooking projects over the course of the year:
- Bringing it Home by Gail Simmons
- I was seriously bummed last year that this came out after my birthday because it would have been the perfect birthday present. (Granted, I could have bought it for myself, but I prefer to save these for gifts because it makes it really easy for my family.) I’ve mentioned in prior posts that I feel like this is the book I would write if I had a cookbook because it reflects her approach to eating—she’s so inspired by not only her upbringing but all of her travels and experiences from working for Food & Wine and being on Top Chef. When Gail asked for everyone’s favorite recipes from the book on Instagram…I ended up listing about seven I enjoyed and I realized that list was still incomplete. Among those favorites? Shrimp and grapefruit salad, crispy chickpeas with pistachio dukkah, and of course beet-cured salmon. I also finally tried her Bloody Mary Eggs for a homemade brunch recently, and you’ll be shocked to learn that I really enjoyed them.
- The Basque Book by Alex Raij
- This book is only a recent addition to my collection, but I’m absolutely loving it. This is Basque food as translated for those of us who are not so fortunate as to live in Basque Country. You’re going to learn so much from this book, whether it’s that you can scrape the reconstituted flesh of a dried pepper with a spoon to turn into a delicious pepper paste, or how to make a simple and delicious mussel and white bean stew. I’ve only cracked the beginning of this book, and I’m so excited to learn more.
- Girl in the Kitchen by Stephanie Izard
- I’ve written about this book and its many awesome recipes over the course of this blog, but this year I’ve been using it more frequently than ever these days. This is the book to get if you want to stretch your culinary prowess but don’t know where to start; you’ll get great ideas that you can take out of other recipes to make into your own, and others that are just too good to not make, and you’ll seriously learn a lot about food. Stephanie Izard deserved her title of Top Chef no matter what Richard Blais says (for the record, he says in his All-Stars opener that ‘You might remember my season as the one where I choked” as if we would forget it’s the first one where a FUCKING WOMAN WON.) Personal favorites of mine include the mango gazpacho, the heirloom tomato and stone fruit salad with pistachio vinaigrette, and her sambal-marinated shrimp.
- Smoke and Pickles by Ed Lee
- I added this to Michael’s list of presents last year, mainly because he was such a fan of Chef Lee’s during his half of the third season of The Mind of a Chef. The food he makes is creative without being precious, largely drawing both on his childhood growing up in Queens as the child of immigrants as well as his current surroundings in Kentucky. I’m eagerly waiting for my favorite butcher to come back to Cross Street so we can make Lee’s steak tartare with strawberry ketchup again, and I have a feeling this winter we’ll be making his miso-smothered chicken more than once now that we have a good source for quality miso in the form of Hmart.
- Appetites: A Cookbook by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever
- I always wished that Bourdain wrote more cookbooks because few writers can make you feel like they are in your kitchen barking orders at you like he could. But if all we have is the cookbook from Les Halles and this one, we’re still the better for it. Appetites is meant to be a personal log of what he made for his family, and like Gail Simmons’ book, is a reflection of all of the places he’s been and how they have influenced how he cooks. There’s a nice balance of more intense cooking projects as well as relatively quick dishes that are perfect for an easy weeknight dinner, all presented in his singular voice.
- EveryDayCook by Alton Brown
- I find it kind of hilarious that both Alton Brown and Bourdain released cookbooks that reflected they food they would make for themselves around the same time since they even share some dishes (as both include recipes for roast chicken and tomato soup). Despite those few similarities, though, these books are very different on the whole. Brown breaks his recipes up by daypart, and among the recipes that have emerged as favorites for us are his crispy chickpeas, his spiced yogurt dip, and his cacao-nib vinaigrette which he pairs with an arugula, strawberry, and goat cheese salad. His Bitter Day Martini is another favorite as well.
Few things scream “comfort” to me like a plate of pasta, and Marc Vetri’s Mastering Pasta has been one of my favorite books to use all year long. Not only would I recommend the book, but if you really want to send someone on their way to fresh pasta heaven, you could include a whole bunch of pasta-making accessories:
- A fresh pasta machine: Could you roll out pasta without this? Of course—the dough I use to make tortellini is rolled out by hand because it’s a reasonable enough size to work with. But if you want to roll out a pound or more at a time, that’s when employing a machine is the way to go. Vetri’s signature nine-yolk dough rolls out beautifully in any machine, but I had a particularly awesome experience with my mother-in-law’s new machine that she received last year for Christmas. I liked it so much that I’m asking for it for Christmas this year, and we’ll be passing down our current machine to my brother-in-law (a bridal shower gift also from my mother-in-law) in order to keep it in the family. I’m intrigued that the machine has the option to add on various cutting attachments—something to explore a little later down the road next year, perhaps.
- A fluted cutter: Sometimes it’s more fun to cut pasta by hand and make it a little janky on purpose, especially on a weeknight. This fluted cutter is similar to my personal favorite that I bought years ago from Williams Sonoma and it has held up really well ever since. It’s also really great for cutting up more custom stuffed pasta shapes and giving them a refined, interesting air.
- A grooved board for gnocchi and garagnelli: One of the first tools I got for myself after getting Mastering Pasta was this board, as I was really excited to try garagnelli. It’s been a really interesting experience so far—the pasta that comes out does have great grooves in which to hold more sauce, and can make for fast pasta production if you have someone else to help you cut the squares of pasta that you need.
- A bench knife: This is perfect to help bring pasta dough together as well as cutting dough, and frankly it’s the ideal tool to use when moving diced vegetables into a bowl for cooking rather than your regular knife, as it helps to save your knife’s sharper edge.
- A ravioli stamper: Of the various stampers I’ve used, this one has given me the best results time and time again. I got my mother-in-law one of these at Thanksgiving so that we’d have two to stamp out our butternut squash ravioli a little faster, and it worked out really, really well once we got into our groove.
- A pasta drying rack: For years, I would use various apparatus around my home to dry my pasta, and then last year I decided to look into a proper device and the one I found collapses and stores nicely and holds a solid pound of pasta. There is nothing as awesome as toting a tree of pasta to the boiling vat of water as effortlessly as this allows from wherever you rolled out your dough.
And because the second I found out that Vetri was working on Mastering Pizza which came out at the end of this past August, I treated myself to the book on Prime Day and started making pizzas from it as soon as the weather justified turning on the oven. (I’ll have more to say about this soon.) Unlike the pasta book, this cookbook does not require too many accessories, but the one that would be most critical to those who already don’t have a pizza stone: a Baking Steel. Instead of a stone, it’s a solid steel block that isn’t as delicate and can withstand the blazing-hot temperatures you need to make pizza and other baked goods. The bottoms of your pizzas come out golden brown and delicious, and the tops take on a nice char with the help of the broiler. Every pizza we’ve made so far with the Steel has come out beautifully, and I’m kind of mad that we hadn’t gotten one earlier. (By the way, the bench knife I mentioned earlier? It’s also really helpful for forming pizza dough balls so there’s another use for it!) The only other tool that would be helpful is a kitchen scale; I haven’t searched for one since ours works pretty well, so I can’t offer a recommendation, but I’d go with Serious Eats’ recommendation anyway.
And there you go—hopefully, this gives you some inspiration as you do your holiday shopping!