Cookbooks - Yummer reading

Six newly published books for the foodies on your gift list

The right book for the right person always makes an understated but long-appreciated gift. If you're casting about for something to give your culinary-minded friend or family member, you're in luck (and so are they): The food publishing world produced some spicy, absorbing works this year.

Of the six titles presented below, four of them explore distinctly disparate aspects of eating in the South — a delicious reminder of how gastronomically vast our region is. Looking beyond corn bread and gumbo? The roundup also includes the most astute all-purpose cookbook released this year, as well as a feisty tome that explores the hottest trendsetting cuisine on the planet.

Crook's Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., is considered one of the key hotbeds where New Southern cuisine developed in the '80s — largely due to the efforts of renowned chef and founder Bill Neal, who died in 1991. His successor, Bill Smith, has continued the Crook's philosophy of seasonal, unfussy fare with eloquence. Smith translates his humble and humorous style to words in his first book, Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook's Corner and from Home (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $19.95). The list of recipes in the front tells you right away that the book is meant for home cooks: Chicken Pot Pie; Quick Jambalaya; Big Biscuit Pudding with Raspberry Sauce and Whipped Cream; Cashew Cake with Maple Frosting. Nothing scary here. His gentle, milky oyster stew is one of the simplest yet most rewarding recipes I've ever tried. And Smith has a nudging wit that ripples throughout the text. In the intro to his recipe for cold fried chicken, he notes, "Self-rising flour and buttermilk combine to make a thick, fluffy crust. I have no use for people who whine about breading on fried foods." Amen, brother.

When was the last time you heard affirming attributes assigned to someone identified as a hillbilly? In 2003, the Southern Foodways Alliance dedicated its annual symposium to taking the negative out of the H-word and the Appalachian Mountains culture. "How do you hold to assumptions of ignorance when you see a list of dozens of native greens, berries, barks and seeds that were turned into food and/or medicine? Or believe in clannishness and hostility when you hear the catechism of a Loaves and Fishes ethic that made friends and strangers alike welcome at mountain tables?" asks editor Ronni Lundy in her introduction to Cornbread Nation 3: Foods of the Mountain South (University of North Carolina Press, $17.95), the resulting collection of essays from the SFA symposium. The compilation doesn't seek to convert misguided attitudes through strident preaching. It draws us in with tales of families and remembered meals: pole beans, mutton, fried pies, beaten biscuits with homemade apple jelly, pawpaws (also known as custard apples), wild greens in the spring and syrup-boiling festivals in the fall. OK, the delicacies of possum may be a stretch for some, though Joel Davis tells us it "doesn't taste like chicken — no, sir. ... To my undereducated palate, it resembles pot roast."

Damon Lee Fowler's cookbooks are never just compendiums of Southern-themed dishes. His introductions and headnotes link recipes with history, reminding us of crops that were once the pride of a state or common phrases that have been warped by time into quirky nicknames. His latest, Damon Lee Fowler's New Southern Baking (Simon & Schuster, $26) tackles the sweet stuff with his signature precision and sense of place. This is a guy whose recipes you can trust. I made his piecrust and Kentucky Chocolate Chip Bourbon Pie for Thanksgiving for the first time, with zero concerns that it would be anything less than scrumptious. (Each slice tasted like a warm, boozy chocolate chip cookie; everyone purred.) Part of the charm in Fowler's books is the, um, steadfastness of his opinions. In his instructions for Bourbon Vanilla, he notes, "I prefer the flavor that bourbon lends to the extract, but if you prefer, you may use vodka or brandy. Mind, I don't know why you'd want to, but you may." His voice is that of a persnickety but wholly welcome friend in the kitchen.

Christianity may be the infamously dominant religion of the South, but Marcie Cohen Ferris spent several years researching a heretofore under-explored subject: the gastronomic heritage of Jewish Southerners. Of course, as Ferris addresses right up front in Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South (University of Chapel Hill Press, $29.95), Jews striving to keep kosher face constant challenges in the region's seafood- and pork-centric diet. Jewish Southerners, who have been here since Colonial times, came to define themselves by what was accepted and what was rejected both inside and outside their households. (Hint: The invention of Crisco made kosher baking a much easier task.) The book stemmed from a dissertation Ferris was working on, and she tackles her material with an academic's thoroughness — there are pages of footnotes in tiny type. But that doesn't mean it's a dry read. Weaving through centuries and cities, the book is rooted by dozens of interviews that shed light on community, race relations and the question of identity. If your appetite is piqued by the descriptions of challah, brisket, tsimmes and kugel, try the recipe for Barbecued Black Pepper Beef Ribs on page 249.

Any beginning cooks or newlyweds on your gift-giving list this year? Here's the choice: The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook (America's Test Kitchen, $34.95). The publishers of Cook's Illustrated magazine and producers of the "America's Test Kitchen" cooking series on PBS have compiled more than 1,200 recipes into a deceptively Middle American-appearing assemblage. But don't be fooled by the Betty Crocker binder look. This is a sophisticated tome of A-to-Z modern cooking, with genuinely helpful tips on nearly every page — from shucking oysters and selecting hams to identifying salad greens and what brand of nonstick skillet to invest in. These folks are known for their maniacal testing of recipes, and the directions are succinct yet easy to understand. Their roast leg of lamb? Not intimidating. I'm a fool for fruit crisp, and their crisp topping is the absolute best I've ever found. (For that matter, try the rhubarb-blueberry fool with ginger as well.) Seriously, if I had to pair down my prodigious collection of cookbooks to 10, this helpmate would be among them. Spain. It's what's for dinner. Those tapas we consume on mass in Atlanta's eateries? That coffee foam concocted by the wacky chef to grace his beef tenderloin? Those affordable Rioja wines we like to guzzle? Spain, Spain, Spain. Yet most of the culinary revelations pouring forth from that country have largely been creations that Americans enjoy while dining out, not eating in. Enter Anya von Bremzen, a food writer who fell in love with Spain two decades ago and has been reporting on the influential scene happening there since. Her hefty tome, The New Spanish Table (Workman Publishing, $22.95), samples the complete range of Spanish cuisine: easy, three-ingredient tapas suggestions. Thorough techniques for classic Valencian Paella. Do-it-home nueva cocina dishes like Roasted Squash Soup with Saffron Ice Cream and Potato "Lasagna" with Chorizo and Dates. But of equal importance is the passionate depth with which von Bremzen details the history of Spain's food, region by region. I would recommend this book as much as pure reading material for first-time travelers to Spain as for curious cooks who want to move the tapas party from the restaurants to their own kitchens.

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