It’s the time of year where I’m asked what I want (nothing) and I ponder what to give friends and family (not nothing). When in doubt, books are a good bet. Andy might disagree but I’d say you can never be surrounded by too many good books. This is true of my ever-swelling cookbook collection as well as the leisure reads that pile up on my nightstand. I’ve also taken to filling my children’s bookshelves with my old favorites (Corduroy, The Giving Tree, Blueberries for Sal) and new classics we are growing to love together. As you contemplate your own holiday lists, consider some of my latest finds…
Canal House Cooks Every Day: You could buy this book for the photographs alone and be a satisfied customer. But then you’d be missing out on the beautiful, simple recipes for every day. Divided my month, this practical book has ideas for every day of the year with a focus on seasonal ingredients. I have made a version of their Cleansing Ginger-Chicken Soup using the old slow cooker (yes, I got that damn thing out again. I will make peace with it and this is the winter it will happen!). It’s a great base for Asian soups like this one or this one. I’ve also made the Chicken Roasted Over Potatoes & Lemon (page 184), which is now in our Sunday supper rotation. You may also recognize a wee bit of inspiration on page 156, the Tomato Tart. Looks a little like a summer version of this recipe, right?
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook: If you read my little blog, you are most certainly familiar with the Grande Dame of Food Blogs, Deb Perelman. I’ve drawn inspiration from her occasionally (remember these cute little pies?) and have enjoyed following her meteoric rise to gargantuan fame. And I mean true celebrity status. I missed her book signing in DC, but apparently books sold out before the event even began and people were waiting outside with their faces plastered to the glass to get a look at Ms. Perelman herself. One flip through her long-awaited book indicates evidence of her success. The writing is hilarious and real, the photos are pretty and the concepts original. I recently served her Mushroom Bourguignon (page 151) to a group of friends (with a steak on the side – get it?) and a few days later her Heart-Stuffed Shells in Lemon Ricotta Bechamel (page 125) to another crowd of hungry pals. Groans of delight all around. Any cook that makes me look good is a friend of mine. Thanks, Deb!
The Sprouted Kitchen: A Tastier Take on Whole Foods: I mentioned this little gem of a book earlier this fall, when I made these delicious mushroom and brown rice burgers from page 107. I have also since tried her Soba Bowls with Tea-Poached Salmon on page 120. Also a hit. The recipes are all pretty easy and include basic ingredients I keep on hand. You won’t be surprised to know that the photos, taken by author Sara Forte’s husband Hugh, are also gorgeous. Of course. Who buys a cookbook without great pictures anymore?
These are the books that have taken up real estate on my nightstand over the course of this year. These days, I read very slowly.
Cutting for Stone: Simply the most eloquently written work of fiction I’ve read in years. If you know me personally, you’ve already heard me drone on about this book (and I may have even lent you my copy or if you are Andy, forced you to read it on an anniversary trip to Italy). In short, Abraham Verghese spins an intricate tale of twin boys born of the union between a famed surgeon and a nun in Ethiopia. The boys are raised by adoptive parents in the hospital community in which they were born and go on to become surgeons themselves, through distinctly different paths. This is one of those books where the characters grip you and you can’t help but to feel they’ve become your fast friends. I cried and cried.
Gone Girl: I read very little in the way of fiction this year and this book couldn’t be any different from the one above. I was so quickly sucked into this tale of marriage gone desperately wrong that I lost sleep and ticked off Andy, who got tired of finding me in a corner with my nose buried in this book. On her fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing. Her husband is an immediate suspect. As the book unfolds and surprises begin to appear, the web becomes rather tangled. I love to be truly surprised and this book did it for me. Perfect beach or airplane read.
Unbroken: I didn’t read Seabiscuit (nor did I see the movie), so I had no idea of Laura Hillenbrand’s gift for reporting true stories in a painstakingly brilliant narrative. Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, a trouble-maker of a boy who went on to become an Olympic sprinter before becoming an World War II. The story of his survival through a plane crash, days in the open ocean with nothing but a life raft, a couple squares of chocolate and two fellow airmen, then years of abuse in Japanese POW camps is nothing short of amazing. It’s a tale of hope, faith and survival that is like no other I’ve heard. I listened to this one as an audiobook while taking walks or riding on long car trips. It took me months to get through it in this manner, but not for lack of interest.
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef: Pretty clever title, right? I don’t typically like to read chef memoirs. I’ve never been to Gabrielle Hamilton (younger sister of Canal House Cooks Every Day co-author Melissa Hamilton)’s famed New York restaurant Prune. And unlike some of the reviews on the jacket, this book did not make me hungry. However, it kept my attention with Ms. Hamilton’s colorful prose and wicked sense of humor. So much is left unexplained. Why did she sever relationships with nearly every person in her immediate family? Why did she ultimately marry a man after years of long-term relationships with women – only to be disappointed by him and their marriage? And why in hell would she decide to open a restaurant after years of trying to get out of the food business altogether? It’s a good read but you leave with more questions than answers. Most interesting to me was her obsession with her husband’s mother and her desire to please this lovely old Italian woman. That was the real love story in the book.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: This nonfiction account of the woman from whom HeLa cells originate (think polio vaccine, gene mapping, cloning, IVF – HeLa cells made all these medical advances possible) took a decade to write. It’s clear why. The level of detail and the diversity of sources needed to piece together this mystery are no joke. I found this book to be a real page turner. Most heart wrenching is the tale of what Henrietta’s family – particularly her children – endured in the decades following her death. Fascinating and upsetting.
Though my little guy is still happily entertained by picture books, my big boy has moved onto chapter books. I’m including a couple of each here.
Skippyjon Jones Cirque de Ole: We continue to be crazy about this series. This is the latest, in which our favorite Siamese cat who thinks he’s a “chi-wu-lu” visits the circus. The originality in the writing and storyline, including some pretty funny plays on words, can’t be beat. Most of all, we love to listen to the CD while riding to school in the morning. Hearing the author tell the story in her own voice never gets old. I’ve listened to this book every day (sometimes twice a day) for the last month and I swear I’m not sick of it. We laugh every time.
Spoon: This super cute picture book introduces us to a family of utensils. The adorable spoon has very special skills the others don’t have and through the book, we come to appreciate his individuality. This sweet book for little ones is a reminder to celebrate that which makes us who we are. Can’t we all use a refresher on that point?
Clementine Books: My first grader has a lot of girlfriends. In fact, he’s been invited to a number of all-girl parties this year where he is the token male. He’s not complaining. Needless to say, we’ve had to do a lot of gift shopping for girls. I wanted to find a book series that didn’t portray a brat or a naughty girl. I wanted a nice, smart girl. Clementine’s the one! We’ve now given books from this series to everyone from our niece to our neighbors to our classmates.
Anna Hibiscus and The No. 1 Car Spotter: These books are written by the same author, Atinuke. Anna is for the girls and No. 1 is for the boys. These characters are pure and original. The stories are entertaining and colorful as well. There are more books in the Anna Hibiscus series and she’s yet another lovely role model for little girls. Both characters live in Africa and enjoy adventures with their large families.
Okay, your turn now. What did you read this year that you just can’t stop talking about? And what cookbooks are getting the most grease splatters?