Now that we’re eating leftovers, happy about getting over one holiday hump, the next one looms. Officially today, everyone starts thinking about gift giving. Let me make the case for cookbooks as presents.
If there were ever a reason to give someone an artifact of the last century — an actual printed manuscript — cookbooks are it. To my mind, cookbooks simply don’t work electronically. They lose their sensual power. The best ones are basted with authorial voice and larded with images that let you imagine what something will taste like.
A great cookbook takes you on an armchair journey to exotic locales, a grandmother’s apartment kitchen, the inner sanctum of a 21st century cooking laboratory. They enable you, and even cheer you on, to re-create a cultural experience.
Here are my favorite books of this season, all from local authors.
The Food of Morocco
By Paula Wolfert
HarperCollins, $45, 529 pages
Like Diana Kennedy on Mexico and Marcella Hazan on Italy, Paula Wolfert is the reigning English-language expert on the cooking of Morocco. She lived there with her two young children in the 1960s and ’70s and published the first ever American volume on Moroccan cooking in 1973. Thirty-seven years later, “The Food of Morocco” enfolds that first revolutionary book and adds a hundred previously uncollected recipes, plus evocative color photographs on every page. The photos — of ingredients, preparations, the setting — bring the material to life. You can practically smell the spices as you thumb through the pages.
Wolfert is one of the most rigorous and honest recipe writers in the field. She hold nothing back. If you follow her directions, you will end up with a dish that tastes like Morocco. I’d buy the book just for her charmoula, the miraculous, aromatic marinade for fish and whatever else you want to bathe in it. Pretty soon you’ll be traveling to Bram, the one-of-a-kind clay pot shop on Sonoma’s main plaza (www.bramcookware.com), to buy traditional cooking vessels, which also make great presents. At Bram and Omnivore Books, you will find signed copies of this transporting work.
Kokkari: Contemporary Greek Flavors
By Erik Cosselmon and Janet Fletcher
Chronicle Books, $40, 224 pages
Cookbooks generated by restaurants often disappoint because the recipes don’t really work in the home kitchen. The Kokkari cookbook, a collaboration between Kokkari’s chef Erik Cosselmon and Janet Fletcher — the eminent Bay Area food writer, chef and gardener, who truly understands how to write recipes — extends the pleasures of this elegantly rustic Greek restaurant. You can make most of your favorite dishes at home: dips with warm house-made flat breads, moussaka, meatballs in tomato sauce, zucchini cakes, warm gigante beans. They’re easy.
The recipe for grilled octopus, however, one of my favorite dishes in The City, is more challenging. You may not have the will to locate a 6-pound octopus, poach it at the barest simmer for 2½ hours, let it cool in its liquor and finally grill it over a hot charcoal fire, but thank goodness we have the restaurant for that. And, anyone who has ever tried to cook octopus and failed will now know the secret. Cosselmon’s technique works. I watched him do it. The Kokkari octopus melts in your mouth. I’d give this book to any beginning cook, along with a visit to the restaurant, to show him or her where they are headed. I love the way the book and the restaurant reflect each other.
Bi-Rite Market’s Eat Good Food
By Sam Mogannam and Dabney Gough
Random House, $32.50, 297 pages
The compact Bi-Rite Market, located on a block of 18th Street that locals now call “the gastro,” grosses four times per square foot more than Whole Foods. It’s a phenom. Every single item in the store — produce, dairy, cheese, meat, fish, bread, dry goods — has been rigorously vetted by owner Sam Mogannam. He keeps the fresh stuff as local as he can, but his real mission is to personalize the food chain. He wants his customers to know who produced the food, where it comes from, and how it was raised. Detailed signs are everywhere at Bi-Rite.
This manual completes the story by telling how to buy, store and use the food he sells, information that you can apply to food buying anywhere.
Quantified recipes are scattered throughout, but the best cooking ideas are suggestions in the text. This is an indispensable book for people awakening to the intimate relationship between shopping and cooking.
Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.