A Cookbook a Day Keeps the Munchies at Bay
Texas Book Festival showcases seven food books from around the world
Reviewed by Emily Beyda, Fri., Oct. 25, 2019
With the Texas Book Festival rolling into town, there's just one thing on our mind: cookbooks! We dove in fork first to find the tastiest titles on this year's roster, exploring everything from Israeli market cuisine to Texas barbecue.
Shukby Einat Admony and Janna Gur
Artisan, 368 pp., $35
Israeli food is having a moment, and this gorgeously designed cookbook from co-writers Einat Admony and Janna Gur makes for an excellent introduction to the cuisine. Part cookbook, part photo essay, part travelogue, Admony and Gur pay homage to the shuks – free-form marketplaces – where they find culinary inspiration. Charming little essays highlighting the authors' favorite vendors and markets are strewn throughout its pages, telling the reader best practices for their visit and highlighting each market's particular charms.
Shuk is organized into chapters highlighting a particular Israeli culinary passion. There's even a section devoted to the humble chickpea (which Admony and Gur call "our national obsession"), with a text-dense three-page spread devoted to explaining how to create perfect hummus at home. For all its superficial beauty, Shuk is heavy with facts – expect detailed pocket histories of the Israeli restaurant and market stall scene, and in-depth discussions of ingredients and techniques, with a little etymology sprinkled in for good measure.
The recipes highlight the culinary diversity of Israel, with dishes like crispy-bottomed Persian tahdig rice, Yemeni malawach flatbread topped with ground beef, spinach, and an oozing poached egg, and Iraqi fried herb and potato patties, all of them lovingly photographed, soft light glowing from every delectable surface. For all their beauty, many of the dishes in Shuk are surprisingly simple, highlighting the fresh flavors of vegetables and herbs. It's a book that insists on its own usefulness, despite the glossy look that might tempt you to keep it safely tucked away on a coffee table.
Franklin Steakby Aaron Franklin and Jordan Mackay
Ten Speed Press, 224 pp., $29.99
Aaron Franklin is widely known for his obsessive approach to barbecue, and here he takes that carnivorous and live-fired worship to the extreme. This book is all about the beef. Franklin is so obsessively devoted to instructing readers in the art of steaksmanship that the closing chapter on sides, sauces, and drinks is both brief and breathtaking in its simplicity – with recipes for raw tomato salad and mushrooms tossed with parsley and garlic. The message here is clear: Franklin is interested in steak, and nothing but.
There's a lot to learn here, about the origins of steak eating (did you know Julius Caesar wrote one of the earliest descriptions of a wild cow?), the science behind steak appreciation, cattle genetics, a discussion of butchery techniques, and how the brain processes the chemical components of grilled meat. There are even little capsule reviews of Franklin's favorite places to eat steak around the world scattered throughout the book. He doesn't even begin to discuss how to actually cook all this well-researched beef until two-thirds of the way through – and even then, the recipes are more like debates, listing the pros and cons of each approach before the technical breakdown.
It's not the most traditional cookbook, but even for a reader who doesn't make steak part of their regular culinary repertoire, Franklin's enthusiastic obsession charms. And for someone who does regularly think about/dream of/cook steak, this book would make a perfect gift.
My Drunk Kitchen: Holidaysby Hannah Hart
Plume, 224 pp., $28
Somewhat curiously for a cookbook author, YouTube celebrity Hannah Hart built her audience by not knowing how to cook. Hart's gimmick, as the title of this book suggests, is getting sloshed and attempting fairly simple recipes like grilled cheese or pizza with a store-bought crust. A gourmet she was – and is – not. But her charm, chattiness, and willingness to get seriously silly with a little chemical assistance quickly grew her audience.
The book's tone reflects Hart's chirpy onscreen persona, pithily positive, full of parentheses, exclamation points, and jokey asides. Each narrow little section is organized around a particular holiday and its attendant recipe and, more to the point with this book, a chipper miniature holiday-themed self-help essay full of encouraging admonitions to save money, be kind to yourself, and be wary of judging others.
It's not a cookbook, not really. January's New Year's Eve recipe is a page-long description of Hart's favorite carbs paired with instructions for finding your bliss via self reflection and persistence, while September's Labor Day recipe is instructions for duct-taping a watermelon to your abdomen (get it? labor?). There is a smattering of actual recipes tucked throughout the book, for things like black olive stuffing made from boxed breadcrumbs, canned olives, and canned chicken broth, but the food is clearly beside the point. This is a book for Hart's fans, a tactile representation of her playful persona. Just don't try to use it as the inspiration for any dinner parties.
Cook Once, Eat All Weekby Cassy Joy Garcia
Victory Belt Publishing Inc., 400 pp., $34.95
Cassy Joy Garcia's book is a guide for the culinary pragmatist: a six-month schedule of adaptable, healthy meal prep plans that can be scaled up or down for families of two to six. Her concept is simple: a week of recipe variations built around three main components – a meat, a starch, and a vegetable – to be prepped ahead of time before being recombined into three different meals. Week one features chicken (cooked and shredded), pre-cooked white rice, and three heads of broccoli (one of which you cut into florets, the other two ground into broccoli rice), and results in dinners of barbecue chicken and rice casserole, white chicken chili, and chicken and broccoli fried rice.
To any reader who's not buried under a mountain of responsibilities, the idea of eating the same three ingredients three nights in a row is a bit stultifying, but then again, we're not Garcia's audience. For the overworked and hungry (and for those who don't mind eating meat three days a week), it's a useful toolbox, and Garcia's ruthlessly organized approach is reassuringly complete. There are opening sections on food storage and substitutions, and addable bonus meals to tack on for weeks when you need more dining-in time. Or plan out variations between those three same starch and protein-based meals with precise estimated cooking times and technical variations for every recipe. Gourmet perfection it is not, but it'll get you through the week fed, full, and hopefully a little less stressed than you were before.
Bread on the Tableby David Norman
Ten Speed Press, 256 pp., $35
The first cookbook from Easy Tiger owner David Norman, Bread on the Table is a compendium of four classic European bread styles (French, Scandinavian, German, and Italian), plus a chapter on bread in Central Texas cheekily entitled "Baking Bread in a Tortilla Town." Sprinkled throughout are recipes for bread accompaniments from the Easy Tiger kitchen, things like French baker's stew, Swedish Christmas ham, German beer cheese, Italian chicken liver crostini, and even migas. Norman seems as invested in teaching readers about the history and culture of bread as he is in teaching them how to make it. Every recipe has its own introduction orienting us in the bread's history, flavor profile, and place in Norman's own culinary memory.
Although it's two-thirds of the way through the book, the Italian chapter is probably the best place to start. It's the only one with recipes primarily based on packaged yeast. The rest revolve around Norman's sourdough starter recipes, to which he devotes nine pages of highly detailed instruction. Norman's approach is highly technical, with multi-step recipes, some of which require up to a week to execute. He's careful about quantities and measurements, and, uncharacteristically for a book written by a restaurant chef, even suggests uses for leftover specialty ingredients so you don't find yourself, say, with five gallons of wort hanging around the back of your fridge. A beautiful artifact of a book, oriented toward the casual baker who is interested in taking a more serious approach to their craft.
We Are La Cocinaby Caleb Zigas and Leticia Landa
Chronicle Books, 288 pp., $29.95
Since the 1990s, culinary incubator La Cocina has been working out of San Francisco's Mission District, helping low- income aspiring food entrepreneurs with affordable commercial kitchen space in which to formalize and grow their businesses. They seek out people who are doing informal food sales in their communities – going door to door with homemade tamales, say, or selling jars of kimchi out of a cooler – and help them "graduate" into official businesses.
This book represents the collaborative spirit of the organization, with recipes built into interviews with La Cocina members and graduates. You can read about Fernay McPherson's mother being welcomed to San Francisco with fried chicken before making her own rosemary fried chicken recipe (developed while she was working as a full-time bus driver). Or Nite Yun's memory of the snacks served in her family's informal Stockton gambling parlor, before discovering her recipe for bai sach chrouk, aka Cambodian grilled pork and rice. Here you understand how the recipes you're discovering are intimately tied to these women's experience of the world.
There's a cheerful, celebratory atmosphere to this book that feels intimately aligned with the incubator's role as a community organization and the role of food as an essential ingredient in binding a community together. Full-page portraits of the chefs are given as much space as recipe photos. There are instructions for throwing food-related parties, gathering your neighbors together to eat tacos or roll tamales. A spirit of tasty joy prevails, inspiring this reader to throw a few parties of her own.
Cook Like a Localby Chris Shepherd and Kaitlyn Goalen
Clarkson Potter, 290 pp., $35
Cook Like a Local is a species of book that it's slightly surprising to discover alive and well in 2019: a white male chef teaching you how to, well, cook like a local in various cultures around the world. Of course, for a Houston-based chef, many of the flavors he celebrates are, indeed, local, and Shepherd describes developing an appreciation for the ingredients he highlights as an adult, working on the line and eating his way through Houston's diverse food scene. Old-school approach aside, this is clearly an author who is passionate about learning about culinary ingredients and techniques from around the world, in a highly glossed, design-heavy presentation reminiscent of the late great food magazine Lucky Peach.
Each chapter of the book is devoted to exploring a different ingredient – fish sauce, chiles, soy, rice, spices, and corn – with an introductory section on where to buy it with tidbits on its history and traditional uses. Then there are the recipes, which range from the ultra-traditional like fried egg bánh mì and eggplant with spicy bean paste, to contemporary riffs on classic flavors like Thai style oysters Rockefeller or Korean-style sloppy joes. For the most part, Shepherd's approach to cooking is beguiling and relatively simple (once your pantry is stocked) and full of surprising flavor combinations that balance the familiar with the exotic (see, for example, his vinegar pie, which re-creates a classic Appalachian dessert using Korean apple vinegar). A delicious, and consummately American, approach to cooking.
South: Essential Recipes and New Explorationsby Sean Brock
Artisan, 376 pp., $40
Following in the footsteps of Southern cooking experts like Edna Lewis and John Egerton, Sean Brock's South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations asks us to reconsider the popular American conception of Southern cuisine as something limited to moon pies and fried chicken. From the introduction on, Brock is as interested in defending and defining the importance of Southern culinary foodways as he is in teaching the reader how to re-create his own approach to Southern cookery. He argues that the heirloom traditions of the South are a quintessential part of the socioculinary history of America and should be taken as seriously as the culinary patrimony of more widely recognized regional cuisines.
Southern cooking, as Brock defines it here, is closely tied to the rhythms of the earth. Even dishes that outsiders might consider as standardly Southern Brock breaks down by regional particularities to fascinating effect. Consider shrimp and grits, which, as Brock shows us in one memorable graphic, vary in their preparations from the low country's cheesy grits accessorized with okra and andouille to Appalachia's boat-frozen shrimp with ramps or salt pork. Brock's detailed approach makes for fascinating, immersive reading.
Much like the research that accompanies them, the recipes in South are detailed and well reasoned, if a bit too complexly cheffy for casual use. Still, there's an appealing simplicity to his flavors, and it's pretty fascinating to trace the correspondences between the history Brock presents and the way he builds a recipe, giving the reader delicious insight into America's culinary history.