If you're hanging around the right people, there's one in every crowd: the take-charge cook, the one who makes sure everyone gets fed, and fed well; the one who takes pleasure in serving up, whether it's filets and mimosas or slow-cooked beans and rice. The best of this year's cookbook crop all seem to follow that theme, proffering foods that sustain family and friends or just one very special loved one—serving up dishes that make hearts glad. Each has its own recipes for a sense of belonging.
Ruby's Juke Joint Americana Cookbook
by Ruby Dee (Bando Press)
Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers traverse America playing some wicked Americana tunes, and she takes her nurturing style on the road with her—as well as bringing back recipes from most anywhere for dinner and drinks on her Texas porch. The book reminds me of the way local bands cook, say the Black Lilies or Grand Torino of old, with lots of dishes that can be stretched to feed hungry hordes, like Kickstart Hash; post-show concoctions like a jalapeño-laden Breakfast Pie; and recipes that take a whole off-day in a campground to come about, like Wild Game Sweet Chili. She's also a whiz with the super-special occasion fare, like quail or Mama's Day Steak with chocolate balsamic sauce, and the pickles, salad dressings, and chow-chows. Another nice touch: a CD of the band playing music to concoct by.
Favorite recipe tried so far: Cheese Baked Fish
by Betty Rosbottom (Chronicle Books)
I'm not sure what's nicer here: the fresh (and even trendy) brunch recipes corralled for this book by an author who splits her time between Massachusetts and Paris, or her painstaking breakdown of each recipe so that any fairly ambitious cook can duplicate it. It's leisurely fun just to plan some future gathering with such fare as Baked Eggnog French Toast with Cranberries and Apples or Caramelized Shallot and Ham Tartlets. She's also liberal with the market notes and cooking tips, and takes old favorites to new highs: Lemon-Ricotta Pancakes, Sausage-Studded Cornbread, or Espresso-Scented Coffee Cake. The lavish photos are practically food porn: yes, they say, this can be done.
Favorite recipe tried so far (by my daughter Frances, if you want to quibble): Grape Tomato and Blue Cheese Tart
The Gardener & The Grill
by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig (Running Press)
Oh, this collection puts us all so much closer to several cooking fantasies: using only fresh, seasonal produce; supplying our own gourmet sauces and marinades at a fraction of the cost; gathering friends around a sizzling grill, summer or winter, for tasty TLC. This is a comprehensive introduction to grilling veggies and herbs, and meats and breads that involve the same. One page might have complete instructions for grilling flatbreads, a few later tips for container gardening, later still a brief treatise on a leaner burger employing tandoori turkey and grilled red onions. It's hard to choose even a few representative recipe samples: Planked Peaches and Blueberries with Amaretto Sauce? Brussels Sprouts and Feta Garlic Butter? Grilled Gazpacho? It's all good.
Favorite recipe tried so far: Smoked Summer Tomato Basil Butter
The Foothills Cuisine of Blackberry Farm
by Sam Beall (Clarkson Potter)
Blackberry Farm, a resort and damn fine restaurant right in Walland, Tenn., is at it again: They've collected even more seasonal recipes (and menus) from their files—and their fine chefs and artisans who keep it real—for a second standout cookbook (the first, self-named, came out in 2010). The photos merit a purchase on their own; They're loving and fanciful, whether featuring cheese, barns, or game dishes. But it's the recipes that make it so welcoming, step by steps for fried catfish, for example, or Fresh Pork Sausage Links with Roasted Rutabagas, Apples, and Sauerkraut. The celebration is simply for the best of best foods in the mountain tradition, and while they're serving to the posh set, the overwhelming message is, "You can do this, too, for your people." And then there are the behind-the-scenes "artisanal craft lessons," like cheese-making, canning and preserving, and curing meats. This one will keep us busy, but never harried—and never bored.
Favorite recipe tried so far: Pumpkin Seed Brittle