There's this old movie, a cable perennial, called The Seduction of Joe Tynan. Alan Alda plays a politician who's already into illicit relationships and corruption, but is lured back from the dark side by his family and some simple revelations.
That's the same way this year's most appealing cookbooks seemed to strike me: Each is irresistible without being decadent or sultry. These temptresses employ photos of beautiful canning jars, sweet anecdotes of adopted countries and welcoming kitchens, the fresh scent of bread baking. "Say, I could do that," you're left thinking, even if French sautes or taming the garden's bounty had not featured heavily in your planning heretofore. There's nothing more seductive than the idea that a slice of the good life, or the sweet life, or the healthy life, could be yours, and these cookbooks will still be beautiful the morning after.
The ones I liked best, in no particular order:
Saving the Season: A Cook's Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving
by Kevin West
It's tantalizing to think of capturing nature's bounty, saving it up to consume in the frosty winter—warding off waste and hunger, sharing the homegrown wealth. West brings it all within range—jams and pickles, cordials and cocktails—in a book that bounces back recipes and discussions from his blog of the same name, begun in 2009. There are gorgeous photos for the browser (jars lined up in the pantry are the finest art), and he's also included poems and literary references in the hope that "you'll occasionally carry [the book] to a reading chair." For those who want to imitate, there is something even finer: West's almost textbook approach with nice little line drawings and explicit step-by-steps for, say, Apricot Jam or Pickled Asparagus with Tarragon and Green Garlic or Scotch Marmalade.
Favorite recipe tried so far: Green Tomato Chutney
The Batali Brothers Cookbook
by Leo and Benno Batali
Celeb chef Mario Batali's loving sons wrote this cookbook for their dad to prove they were paying attention during their kitchen times together, and the result is an easy-to-use guide that will have the most harried families feeling like maybe they could rely on Taco Bell a bit less. Each recipe is simple without being patronizing, broken down step by step with color photos and without a lot of verbiage—about as much conversation as your average preteen would tolerate. The boys' section includes the typical Father's Day and after-school supper ideas, like Cinnamon Swirl French Toast and Sloppy Sloppy Joes, but also the less expected Caprese Salad and Italian Corn recipe. "Mario's family favorites" like Chicken Cooked Under a Brick and Strawberry Gelato follow.
Favorite recipe tried so far: Blue Cheese Pocket Burgers
The Southern Slow Cooker: Big-Flavor, Low-Fuss Recipes for Comfort Food Classics
by Kendra Bailey
Is it just me, or is the ultimate home cooking fantasy the idea of a hot meal awaiting you and your loved ones as you cross the threshold, home from waging battle on a tough, disorganized world? This is a plain, beautiful rendition of what can be accomplished with a slow cooker: dragged out of the cast iron skillet, authentic Southern cooking at its savory, hearty, "ready when you are" best. And she's up to date: The book includes, for example, beverage suggestions like Abita Brewing Company products, and favors regional, seasonal ingredients. If one recipe sums the concept up, it's probably her smoked ham, potato, and rice soup, or maybe the sausage-stuffed acorn squash, or maybe even the porcupine meatballs, although you have to saute them in a pan first.
Favorite recipe tried so far: Aunt Barbara's Beef Stew
Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen
by Edward Lee
"We start with one family and then, magically, we are allowed to reinvent ourselves into whoever we want to be," writes Lee, and this philosophy is what makes his cookbook so appealing. He comes from a "sinewy, scrappy" family of Korean immigrants, but revels in his adopted hometown of Louisville, Ky.—and doesn't hesitate to beg, borrow, and steal from these two and many other cooking traditions. But this is no collection of fusion recipes: rather, Lee shows you how he cooks, and how you might cook, a panoply of rice bowls, beginning with a loving treatise on fixing the rice base. Who else might offer Chicken-Fried Pork Steak with Ramen Crust and Buttermilk Pepper Gravy, or Collards and Kimchi? His chapters have intriguing titles, like "Seafood and Scrutiny," and "Pickles and Matrimony," but it's his constant stream of anecdotes—the time he and his sister ran away in childhood, a lecture at Utah State, a dinner for Southern Foodways Alliance—that make you feel good reading. We're just fellow cooks, taming these ingredients into tasty bowls, he seems to say, and inspiration may strike at any time.
Favorite recipe tried so far: Hot Sauce, which involves fresh Thai and habanero peppers
The French Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Lessons from Paris and Provence
by Patricia Wells and Jeff Kauck
Ah, Paris. I myself have never been there, but renowned instructor Patricia Wells doesn't dwell on the city itself—instead she dives right into recipes and nice little techniques for cooking French right here in the U.S. of A. Known as Julia Child's heir to the title, "Our American Friend in France," she wants you to share in, say, "the pleasure of extracting a warm, fragrant golden brioche from the oven." Most meals assume a glass of wine at your elbow and there among the chicken fricassee and lamb dishes are her "instant pleasure recipes" for days when you don't have an instant to think about cooking. Cabbage, potato, and pea soup or spaghetti with zucchini blossoms—Bonjour, French cooking!
Favorite recipe tried so far: Onion and Gruyere Bites