Slow boil, jumbo shrimp, boneless ribs, non-dairy creamer, etc. I'm going to counter the many food oxymorons with a redundant phrase: cookbooks intended for people who wish to cook at home. Those are my favorites among cookbooks published in 2008, and they're nothing like a lot of the volumes targeted to foodies this time of year—the celebrations of an extremely specific cuisine (Cooking the Norwegian Way), the health-craze tomes (The Biggest Loser Cookbook), the adoring fan fodder never intended for people who cook with saucepans on four-burner stoves, (Top Chef: The Cookbook, with its recipes like Braised Pork Shoulder in Sour Orange Mojo With Yucca/Pickled Onions).
Maybe the slowing-like-molasses-in-winter economy inspired the "make it yourself for more value, more comfort, more bonding" attitude I prefer. In any case, these books are a good value. You can use them once a week or more, to make food that's homey but up-to-date, fresh but not overly fancy, healthy (mostly) but never stingy. May I heartily recommend:
Big Night In by Domenica Marchetti
(Chronicle Books, 224 pages)
The title says it all—invite friends and family for a Big Night In, doing lots of the prep while everyone hangs out in the kitchen, says Marchetti, an exemplar of contemporary Italian cooking. She provides all the tips and recipes for very special meals, well seasoned with tales of her Italian mother and other kitchen escapades (like the days spent making a Pasta Timballo in stages with a two-day old baby for company). Some dishes, like Gabriella's Lasagne Verde Alla Bolognese, are labor-intensive marvels, others, like Sauteed Spinach With Garlic, take mere minutes. I like to revel in the unabridged recipes, then actually make them with heretical short-cuts—store-bought marina sauce and pie crust, for example.
The Old Farmer's Almanac Everyday Cookbook
Forgotten how to cook dinner on a regular basis? This book swoops in to the rescue, with simple and straightforward recipes for dishes like Seaside Lasagna and corn-and-pepper pancakes that are anything but ordinary—the Almanac runs all manner of reader cooking contests, with winning entries printed here. My favorites include some of the occasional ethnic dishes, like cardamom-scented carrot rice pudding (Gajan Ki Kheer) and Caledonia Beef Stew, but they've got old reliables like refrigerator muffins, zucchini with dill sauce, and The World's Best Cheesecake, too. This very week I'm looking forward to trying the irresistibly-named Dartmoor Fidget Pie.
Martha Stewart's Cookies
(Clarkson Potter, 342 pages)
Stop stopping by the boutique bakery and get out the butter—the folks who produce Martha's magazine are going to show you the step-by-step of making high-end, handcrafted cookies. Organized by texture, some simpler, some complex, a few downright unusual, 175 recipes include Rum Raisin Shortbread, Cappuccino-Chocolate Bites, Lemon Madeleines, and 175 full-color photos. m
The Story of Tea by Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss
(Ten Speed Press 417 pages)
Others may say they're "in" to tea, but the Heisses trek to global locales to purchase the world's best for their Cooks Shop Here store in Western Massachusetts—they're such zealots they even give explicit instructions on the best way to boil water. This love song to tea leaves is part coffee table book, part manual, part cookbook, with the lowdown on varietals, health benefits, customs, culture, and recipes that have tea as an ingredient, like Pineapple Jewel Rice with Spicy Shrimp.