Sunday, November 17, 2013

Best Cookbooks of 2013

What a year for cookbooks! I struggled to whittle my favorites down to a list of just five books. My Best of 2013 contains both eagerly awaited offerings and serendipitous discoveries. In alphabetical order, I offer up my choices for the top five cookbooks of the year.

I Love New York: Ingredients and recipes by David Humm and Will Guidara. Ten Speed Press.

Ivan Ramen: Love, obsession, and recipes from Toyko’s most unlikely noodle joint by Ivan Orkin. Ten Speed Press.

Pizza: Seasonal recipes from Rome’s legendary Pizzarium by Gabriele Bonci with Elisia Menduni; translated by Natalie Danford. Rizzoli International Publications.

Roberta’s Cookbook by Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, Chris Parachini and Katherine Wheelock. Clarkson Potter/Publications.

Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian way by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

So, why did I pick these books?

In I Love New York, Humm and Guidara explore the idea of a regional New York cuisine by showcasing the state’s farmers, fishermen, ranchers and craft food purveyors. The authors organize their book alphabetically by ingredient with each foodstuff section featuring a different New York State food artisan and dishes built around the ingredient. Fabulous recipes beautifully presented make this outstanding book from the chef and general manager of Eleven Madison Park one of the best cookbooks of recent memory.

For years I searched for a decent ramen recipe, especially information—any information—on making fresh ramen noodles. Nothing!  Then came David Chang’s Momofuku [2009], the first cookbook I found that seriously explores the different components that make up a great bowl of ramen. Now we have a worthy ramen-centric successor to Momofuku, Orkin’s Ivan Ramen. Talk about an amazing (and, as the book’s subtitle states, unlikely) story: New York-born kid travels to Japan and, long story short, opens up a wildly successful ramen shop by applying his stateside-taught culinary skills to his beloved Japanese noodle soup. And talk about generous! I now quote from page 96 of Ivan Ramen: “So this book includes the entire recipe for Ivan Ramen shio ramen, exactly as it’s made at the shop in Rokakoen.” What a rarity: a ramen chef that shares his techniques and secrets with all! But perhaps the best part of Ivan Ramen lies in Orkin’s story of loss and purpose. Orkin has penned a great read, whether you love noodles or not.

What Ivan Ramen is to shio ramen, Pizza by Gabriele Bonci is to Roman-style pizza. Here’s another example of a successful, micro-focused chef sharing his beloved craft. Bonci classically trained as an Italian chef, but decided to apply his cooking skills to his passion, baking. Bonci makes Roman-style pizzas—think long, rectangular pies—that he slices up and sells out of his tiny pizzeria in Rome. Although Neapolitan-style pizza needs a very hot oven temperature that is difficult to approximate at home, Bonci’s Roman-style pizza works great in a home oven set to 475°F. If you buy Bonci’s book, make sure you watch Elizabeth Minchilli’s YouTube video entitled Pizza Dough with Bonci – January 20, 2011 Rome (here). This video makes the process of shaping Roman-style pizza clear and easy.

And speaking of pizza, the folks behind Roberta’s in Brooklyn wanted to open a small pizza place, but they had almost zero money and the same amount of restaurant experience. How can you not love a book that contains the following sentence: “We arrived in the northern Italian town of Fossano early on a summer afternoon, a journey we’d made because we were about to open a pizzeria and—small detail—we’d never actually made pizza before.” All’s well that ends well: Roberta’s the restaurant succeeded beyond their wildest dreams and now we have the playful Roberta’s Cookbook. The book covers more than just pizza; you’ll find an array of simple recipes—most feel Italian in spirit—that focus on dishes that contain only a few carefully chosen ingredients. Highly recommended.

Last, and by no means least, I encourage everyone to buy Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant’s outstanding Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian way. I wrote about this cookbook last month (here). Sauces & Shapes was my most eagerly anticipated 2013 cookbook, and it lived up to my high expectations. It gets my vote as the best Italian cookbook of the year.

Here’s hoping that 2014 turns out as many excellent cookbooks as 2013!