The 2012 holiday season brings a bumper crop of cookbooks for home cooks and the shoppers who love them.
There's still nothing like a cookbook to inspire a cook to create. But there's no denying that the Internet is changing the lives of home cooks by allowing crowds to work on recipes together. Popular recipes – made, refined and vouched for by hundreds of readers – have become the new gold standard of recipe searches.
With avid fans posting high-resolution color photographs and videos along with their recipes, people can see exactly what the Joneses are up to and learn from their mistakes. Then they can try to duplicate those acts of deliciousness – or try to top them.
That dynamic is celebrated at Epicurious.com, which starts with recipes published in top old-school food publications such as Bon Appetit and the late, lamented Gourmet. "The Epicurious Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter, softcover, $27.99, 399 pages) collects "more than 250 of our best-loved four-fork recipes," from fancy entrees to weeknight dishes. The book presents recipes that earned the most positive responses on the website, each annotated with a specific suggestion from a reader for improvements or accompanying dishes.
Food blogger Deb Perelman has moved from the amateur ranks to pro status by welcoming readers into her world through SmittenKitchen.com, where she shares how she cooks up a storm in a small apartment kitchen. "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook" (Knopf, $35, 321 pages) is a collection of smart recipes honed by Perelman's near-obsessive drive to answer her readers' questions. Its evocative photographs are by Perelman, too, a testament to her do-it-yourself ethos.
A co-author of Veganomicon, one of the best-selling vegan cookbooks of the modern era, has turned her focus to broadening the repertoires of vegan cooks with international flavors. Terry Hope Romero's "Vegan Eats World" (Da Capo Press, $35, 376 pages) draws on inspirations and everyday recipes from at least five continents, including Greek and Turkish, Afghani and Jamaican, Belgian and Sri Lankan. As it turns out, billions of people eat vegan food every day – they just call it "food."
If you know someone who marveled at "Modernist Cuisine's" eye-popping reinventions of dishes but balked at the collection's $450 price tag, consider another cookbook destined to be savored and pored over, but hardly ever cooked from. "Marque: A Culinary Adventure" (Hardie Grant Books, $49.95, 303 pages) shares some of the creations of Mark Best at what many say is Sydney's best restaurant. The dishes are by turns captivating, simple and intriguingly odd, and the recipes, written in old-fashioned narrative form, almost seem designed to discourage dabblers. But the words and pictures make it at home on any curious cook's coffee table.
Allison Vines-Rushing and her husband, Slade, grew up in the South, and they made names for themselves in Manhattan at Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar, with a menu focused on Southern classics reinterpreted through modern sensibilities. Many of their most celebrated dishes, along with favorites from their childhoods in Mississippi and Louisiana, are presented in "Southern Comfort" (Ten Speed Press, $35, 232 pages). Now cooking at MiLa in New Orleans, they share recipes that offer readers a chance to rethink time-honored dishes while advancing the cause of modern Cajun, Creole and Southern cuisine.
In another exploration of American terroir, "The Foothills Cuisine of Blackberry Farm" (Potter Clarkson, $60, 288 pages) offers a lushly photographed exploration of the Tennessee resort's utterly local cuisine. Proprietor and author Sam Beall grew up on the farm before getting his culinary education and transforming it into a high-functioning sustainable food experiment, with its own beekeeper, butcher and cheesemaker. This reads like the cookbook you'd get from Thomas Keller if French Laundry was a working farm that grew most of its vegetables, raised its own meat and served more homemade pickles than caviar.
The chef-owner of San Francisco's Slanted Door, honored as the best Vietnamese restaurant in the United States, has given readers a chance to share the flavors, recipes and techniques that Vietnamese people enjoy at home. Charles Pham's "Vietnamese Home Cooking" (Ten Speed Press, $35, 226 pages) is straightforward enough to bring Vietnamese to practically any American dinner table. Packed with tofu dishes and grilled meats, two-day soups and quick pickles, it's engaging enough to do for Vietnamese what "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and Julia Child did for French cuisine.
"Michael Symon's Carnivore" (Clarkson Potter, $35, 255 pages) brings the gutsy flavors of the Cleveland Iron Chef's cuisine to the masses. From beef to game, from celebration centerpieces to after-work dinners, Symon's straightforward recipes will encourage home cooks to break out of their comfort zones. Besides beef, pork and chicken, there's pheasant, goat and rabbit afoot. In Symon's hands, offal can be wonderful.
Defender of American regional cooking, the proto-foodie whose celebration of all that is fine in the home kitchens of the United States, James Beard's influence on the American table endures. If your cookbook shelf is Beardless, "The Essential James Beard: 450 Recipes That Shaped the Tradition of American Cooking" (St. Martin's Press, $35, 380 pages) is the place to start.
Given the cultures that have mingled there for millennia, Jerusalem ought to be as celebrated for its cuisine as Istanbul. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, a Jew and a Palestinian, were raised on separate sides of Jerusalem but met in London. Their Ottolenghi food shops and "Plenty," a vegetarian cookbook, have garnered attention in the United Kingdom, but their new cookbook, "Jerusalem" (Ten Speed Press, $35, 319 pages), is a signature achievement. Understanding their dishes' origins in the melting pot of Jerusalem's kitchens requires a deeper understanding of its peoples. Besides compelling recipes and vibrant photography, this book delivers the sort of lasting insights that news headlines can never provide.
Lebanon, another land of plenty whose conflicts seem to get more attention than its food, gets a definitive exploration in "The Lebanese Kitchen" (Phaidon, $49.95, 512 pages). Salma Hage, who grew up in the Lebanese countryside before joining the Lebanese diaspora in London, starts with the basics like Lebanese "seven spice" mixtures and eight kinds of hummus, and journeys through salads, breads, meats, seafood, vegetables and more, ending with sweets and homemade staples like strawberry rosewater jam.
Thomas Keller's first cake was a Duncan Hines mix, and he grew up grooving on Pillsbury Crescent Rolls. But even as his culinary prowess grew to widespread acclaim as America's top chef, Keller never lost his love for down-home baked goods. His "Bouchon Bakery" (Artisan, $50, 400 pages) with Sebastien Rouxel, offers insights and recipes from the bakery operation associated with Bouchon, Keller's version of a French bistro. Many of its recipes are exacting, like the three-page croissant dough recipe, or the creampuffs topped with a thin layer of cookie dough to ensure crunch. But a master's class in baking, preserved between covers, is cheap at the price.
By contrast, beginning bakers would feel reassured by "Nick Malgieri's Bread" (Kyle Books, $29.95, 240 pages). The veteran cookbook author doesn't assume you have much time, patience or cooking equipment, but he wants to prove that good bread is within the grasp of practically everyone. With step-by-step photographs of kneading, loaf shaping and finished baked goods, Malgieri's latest book takes the fear out of facing a shapeless lump of dough.
The best meals, dollar for dollar, at many fine restaurants aren't available to customers. In "Come In, We're Closed" (Running Press, $35, 320 pages), Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy explore the world of the staff meal, where cooks try to impress each other without fancy ingredients. The book explores the tradition at some of the world's best restaurants, in Iceland, France, Spain, England and the United States. Readers get a peek inside the culture that drives great kitchens – and recipes in the bargain.
For an armchair vacation that'll make you hungry, consider "Japanese Farm Food" (Andrews McMeel, $35, 386 pages), a vicarious immersion in the foodways of rural Japan. Nancy Singleton Hachisu married a Japanese organic farmer and spent 23 years living, cooking and farming in northern Saitama Prefecture. Her recipes are a reminder that knowing ingredients well allows cooks to make them shine without much fuss.
So much cooking is focused on special occasions that occasional cooks try to make sure they have at least one cookbook that's organized by reasons one might be moved to cook. "Cookfight" (Ecco, $29.99, 300 pages) fits the bill admirably. It's the result of an ongoing competition between Julia Moskin and Kim Severson, two talented home cooks who happen to be food writers for the New York Times. They develop dueling meals along a theme and share the recipes and lessons with their readers. The book includes challenges for budget dinners, comfort food, kid food, fancy stuff, Mother's Day, vegetarians, picnics, Thanksgiving and more.
The street food of Mexico has left many gringo tourists pining after returning to their cold, horchata-free lives. With "Tacos, Tortas and Tamales" (Wiley, $19.99, 220 pages), Roberto Santibañez has given them a tasty reprieve. The recipes in his small book pack huge flavors, accessible to anyone with access to a decently stocked supermarket. With his help, those tacos al pastor could finally be within reach.
When cooks make something they love, they want it to be around forever. With "Salt Sugar Smoke" (Mitchell Beazley, $29.99, 272 pages), British food writer Diana Henry teaches readers how to adopt the time-honored methods of food preservation. Her entry-level course on canning, curing and smoking food offers relatively simple ways to keep the best fruit, vegetables, seafood and meat around for the rest of the year.
There aren't many authors who could make good on the title for "The Great Meat Cookbook" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40, 632 pages), but Bruce Aidells is qualified. A decade ago his "Complete Meat Cookbook" earned him a following for clear, easy-to-use recipes with big flavors. His new book updates his readers with more international flavors and information on all the topics that worry people about meat besides cooking it, including sourcing it, safe storage and whether particular dishes are good for leftovers.
Drawn from the author's 30 years of traveling and research in the kitchens of Latin America, "Gran Cocina Latina" (Norton, $45, 901 pages) is an encyclopedic exploration of what Latin Americans eat, and why. Its details, like fundamental differences between Cuban and Paraguayan fresh corn polenta, would interest a scholarly food lover. But its recipes, sharing the pride and joys of a thousand villages with the reader, are their own reward.