Saturday, December 19, 2015

Tucson Homeskillet's Top 5 Cookbooks of 2015

Well, 2015 is almost coming to a close and for us here at the Tucson Homeskillet it has been a good year. After taking an unexpected hiatus due to many circumstances beyond our or anyone's control, we came back with a new focus, new look, a new energy and, most importantly, an honest to goodness real web address.

Being an avid reader of cookbooks and having my day job working for the library, I was lucky enough to come across a bunch of amazing and not-so-great cookbooks this year. Seeing as there is still a little time to shop for Xmas, I thought I might list my top five cookbooks of 2015 and perhaps inspire some gift giving for that chef or home cook you think has it all.

It took a while to nail down the top cookbooks from this year but after some re-reading and re-cooking some of the dishes we think we have the winners.

You ready?

Here we go...

5) "The Laws of Cooking *and how to break them" by Justin Warner

Justin Warner won season 6 of Food Network Star and now he has a cookbook. Because that's what you do when that happens. Unfortunately, this is our least favorite book on the list still made the list. For a hodge podge of various reasons, we really liked this book even if it kind of annoyed us at times.

The book is colorful and full of fun and frolic and for that we know this will go over well with the younger cooking enthusiasts. Plus his grilled cheese raviolis with tomato soup was amazing as was the ginger bruleed grapefruit and his brisket and oxtail pho. We have yet to try the Dr. Pepper beef braised tongue tacos but that is next on the list. There are lots of helpful charts, easy to follow tips and recipes and strewn throughout the over 300+ page book you are taken on a rollicking culinary journey by a spunky and curious young cook.

One of the many helpful hints you find throughout "The Laws of Cooking"

One of our biggest complaints is that this book can be a bit goofy at times and is kind of all over the place. Normally that isn't a bad thing since that tends to describe Metal Mark on a regular basis, but there is just this under current of pretentious and youthful over confidence that permeates these pages in an almost eye buckling manner. Sure the recipes, the charts, the list of "gear" that you will need to make the dish a success is great but it is quite obvious this kid wants to be Alton Brown.

Picture this, if Rachel Ray and Alton spawned a sub-hipster of a chef, Justin would be that kid. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. But once you glean the pages of this cookbook you'll see what I am going on about.

Again, more fun hints you can rely on

Plus there are a lot of pictures of him. Like, almost as much as the food. If not more so.

And the use of "dippin' sauce", "nuggs" and, of course, "Yolo" seem a little over done.

I'm sure it's tasty but...please

But I digress! We love this book. I just had to point out all of the shortcomings to emphasize that Justin Warner is talented and is on his way to a great culinary career, be it in front of the camera or in the back of the kitchen creating whimsical and not too lofty recipes. Some, though, were a bit of a challenge. One involving cooking with sardine skeletons seemed like a pain to create but overall the dishes here are hands on and very creative. Sometimes a bit too creative, if you know what I mean. Like, there are some ingredients and twists here and there that reek of culinary school valedictorian just waiting to show you what they are made of. Once the ego dust settles down though, you have a tight cookbook with flair and imagination.

"The Laws of Cooking" is a perfect gift for that quirky youth with a penchant for pissing you off because they are a better cook than you, and they don't even try. With this, they will find new ideas and gumptions in which to further your love/anger for them when they hit the griddle.

Justin's god...and yours too apparently

4) "Sea and Smoke: Flavors From The Untamed Pacific Northwest" by Blaine Wetzel

"Sea and Smoke" is a beautifully crafted and meticulous cookbook that is more memoir than recipe tome. The first half is the tale of the chef Blaine Wetzel and how he came to command the innards of the Willows Inn on Lummi Island off of the shore of Washington state. This is a glorious book to have out on display for like minded friends to page through and glamour at all of the impossibly fantastic notions of what food is and what it could be.

But as far as being a practical cookbook? Ehh...

When master chef Achatz gives you a nod, you know you doing good

As a lover of high end food; dishes that are thought about, rehearsed, refined and developed, "Sea and Smoke" had me drooling over food I know I will probably never get to eat (unless this blog takes off and I get an invite from Wetzel himself...) and, really, that's about it.

If you think you can obtain even a fraction of these ingredients that are mentioned here, then, well, you live on Lummi Island and work at the Willows Inn. Super specific sea life, herbs, oils, flowers and the like that are only found in that area of the globe is what goes into the dishes that are presented in this book. So, if you are that ambitious and that skillful then go ahead and have at it. Otherwise, the rest of us will just admire the care that goes into each plate that chef Wetzel creates and sit back and read the rest of it.

Oh, a certain micro green that sprouts for only three days out of the year? Yeah. Have fun with that...

This is an honest to goodness food lovers book, and by that I mean it is a good read. The first half of it is the tale of the rise of a young and ambitious chef (Wetzel) and his rise to power over the Willows Inn and the accolades that soon followed. But it wasn't an easy climb, oh no, this guy had suffered like no other and definitely put his time in to get where he is now.

This is solid work, a real behind the scenes of what it takes to reach the heights that he has. Thing is, it is quite obvious that Blaine Wetzel is just hitting his stride. It's going to be fun to see where this talented chef will be in the years to come. For now, I think he is quite content of owning his own island.

Simple, delicious but...much too tricky

This book is a must have for any haute cuisine fan or even for someone that hails from that region of Washington. It comes off as more of a coffee table book than a utilitarian recipe folder. The images of the landscape is breathtaking, the shots of the food are mind numbing yet divine in their dance play of colors and textures.

But to actually cook this stuff? Yeah right.

Incredible colors and textures but at a cost

"Sea and Smoke" may be a bit pretentious (ok, it's kind of a lot of pretentious) but I just couldn't get over the style, craft and semblance of it all. I've been to Seattle and all but this thing makes me want to explore even further beyond the oaky beer bars and burger stands of that drizzly city and hopefully it'll inspire you to do the same.

But stinging nettles as a primary ingredient? C'mon man.

So tasty I'm sure, but will never know

3) "The Southerners Cookbook" by The Editors of Garden & Gun Magazine

Now we're talking.

Garden & Gun is basically the pulse of the South and now they have a cookbook and all I can say about it is that it is glorious. "The Southerners Cookbook" is a fundamental for any fan of Southern cuisine or for anyone that wants to step up their down home cooking skills.

You just can't fake it when you start with the basics

This cookbook beams with old timey techniques with a modern approach to the Southern kitchen. It lists when you need to properly stock up your pantry, what tools, gadgets and appliances are required and then, blam, it goes right into the recipes.

The ingredients and steps for their dishes are easy to follow and don't discriminate against those who may not be that attuned to the ways of the kitchen. In fact, this book will make any one who loves good honest food to put on an old apron, dig out that forgotten cast iron skillet, toss some lard in and just let things happen. No pretension here, just real food for real folks.

For real.

Yes, they actually have a recipe for aspic

One thing to be aware of: This is a down home Southern cookbook so it's pretty meat-centric. There's also a whole section on just the art of hunting so vegans and squeamish vegetarians beware.

There are a decent amount of vegetable options but....not enough. Plus most of it is cooked in animal fat so...there you go.

Yes please

Again, like all of the cookbooks I mentioned here, there is always a good story to be had, anecdote to learn or essay to read. Sure, the recipes are the main focus here but the tales peppered within are also a twist on the modern cookbook. Like an old Southern grandparent, this book too has some yarns to spin and for that we are most gracious.

Did I mention the pictures for this book? Yeah, awesome. Artfully done but with a cozy honest feel which will make you even hungrier just glancing at the glazed hams, bacon, Hoppin' John and...oh man.

I think I just drooled a little.

"The Southerners Cookbook" is the essential gift for any level home cook and those that believe that Paula Deen was the poofy haired butter demon to what is tried and true about real Southern cooking.

Plus they make good use of okra in several dishes, including a Bloody Mary and I really hate okra. So there you go.

2) "Olympia Provisions: Cured Meats and Tales from an American Charcuterie" by Elias Cairo and Meredith Erickson

We here at the Tucson Homeskillet are HUGE fans of charcuterie, what is also known as a meat and cheese board in some places. Little bites of cured meat, artisan cheese, seasonal fruit, nuts and olives...oh, wait. No, we hate olives. Scratch that, we'll just have more toast points please instead.

Well, the sorcerers over at Olympia Provisions in Portland, Oregon have published a grand book about what they do, how they do it and how you can do it too. With chef Elias Cairo at the helm, this meat bible should be a staple for gastro-carnivores in your immediate circle of holiday gift giving.

(insert drool face here)

Again, this book falls into the trap of having really precise and very challenging recipes with equipment that would take up a large showroom. If you have the gumption to attack these arduous processes of sausage making, smoking, curing and all that then my Metal horns are pointing in your general direction.

Thing is, you don't have to make the items in this book, you can just order them online and throw together your own board to impress the gourmands in your life. Or just sit alone in the dark, eating a charcuterie board while marathoning your favorite show. It's what we do on a regular basis.

Don't hate.

Sopressata is a thing of beauty

This book is definitely not for the vegan in your life. "Olympia Provisions" is really pork heavy and they have little or no time to mess around with frilly plant based dishes. Pork belly is everywhere, as are images of butchered animal. If you are not into that then avoid this one at all costs. For the rest of us, you need this.

The photos are deliciously crisp and are want to inspire you to create such near unattainable greatness. The steps are there, their helping hand is extended, but divinity such as this takes a bit of time and practice.

With this book in your possession you are well on your way to being the next sausage king/queen in your town.

Ha! I see what you did there...

Beyond charcuterie they do offer brunch, lunch and dinner recipes that are a bit more approachable. I mean, they have to. Unless this was a textbook for sausage making and meat butchering, the inclusion of dishes you can actually create without the use of pretentiously specific tools or ingredients is a nice addition.

Plus there is  a great "intermission" in this book, one where the chef and others from the shop take a life changing trek through the Swiss Alps and eventually end up in a small village where they learn the cooking and curing techniques from that region. Eventually they wind up in an almost fairy tale chateau on the sheer cliffs of the Swiss mountainside where they enjoy the fruits and gristle of their efforts and that story alone could be a book unto itself. But it's in this one's got that going for it.

The masters in their domain

Tempting recipes, delectable photos and mouth watering ingredients all go into making this a delightful gift for the serious fooder or just to keep in your collection to spark motivation when the charcuterie yearning comes a calling. And it will call. Oh yes.

I can hear it now. Oh, wait...that's just my stomach grumbling.

Same thing.

Seems easy but...yeah. No.

1) "Mark Bittman's Kitchen Matrix" by...well...Mark Bittman, obviously

We love Mark Bittman. So do you. Of course you do. Who doesn't?

This guy has been breaking it up and laying it down for years and for that we kitchen salute him. His books have transcended most other food books due to his straight to the point approach and the notion that everyone can cook. Be it a rank amateur or a starred chef, Bittman is all like 'we all need to eat, you should know how to cook, let's go!"

Okay, that's not a direct quote see where I am getting at here.

Charts. Ingredients. Pictures. Go!

His newest one for 2015, his "Kitchen Matrix" literally and figuratively blew us away. Each chapter or section or, whatever, features an ingredient, say, eggplant, then jams out a slew of different recipes and ideas on how to treat it and what to do with it then relays those designs into wholly separate devises to bring about a never ending journey with food and flavor. It's really quite brilliant because it is really quite simple.

These recipe generator charts are amazing

Chock full of useful charts, graphs and variations, this cookbook will become the serious home chef's new favorite go to for suggestions on what to do with what you have on hand.

This book goes way beyond any Food Network publication or celebrity chef ego piece. The Kitchen Matrix is useful, really useful, and I highly suggest getting a copy for your hash slinging friends and definitely one for you. Because you will be using this one on a fairly regular basis.

I know we did.

Simple yet exquisite recipes abound

Some food snobs out there may poo poo the straightforward and colorful approach to cooking here but for those that need an extra push in the right culinary direction you just can't go wrong. Mark Bittman covers everything and I do mean...everything. I can almost see this as a near textbook for first year cooking school students. And as a gift for those that just graduated.

Very approachable, extremely reliant and definitely overtly creative when it comes to kitchen mastery. Really good stuff here.

So I've been doing it wrong this whole you tell me!

We hope you enjoy this book as much as we did and have as much fun cooking with it as we have. It not only makes a great gift but it also makes a perfect nook in that already growing cookbook section on your shelves. Heck, this would even be the best first thing to start your cookbook collection.

When you have the food universe at your fingertips, all you can do is get to work and start making worlds of your own.

Have fun!

Donuts make us go, uh...crazy!

I want to thank the Pima County Public Library for providing us with all of these titles and so much more. It was a tough decision making process but with your help our tongues and bellies had a great year and a great food ride because of you.


Camera and Typing
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Mid-December, 2015

Metal Influence

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