Food & Wine

Cookbook gifts that inspire

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Giving books to foodie friends can present a conundrum. It requires commitment on your part, as hulking tomes weigh down holiday travel. But it also demands commitment on their part – will they really use them?

Opt for foodie books that inspire without daunting. The selection below, all penned by young authors, broadens horizons while keeping things simple. The books’ slim size and comparatively trim price tags make them attractive for everyone involved. They’ll launch the new year with energy and gusto – and inspire at least a year’s worth of adventurous cooking and eating.

“This Is a Cookbook: Recipes for Real Life” (Olive Press, 2012) is the first cookbook by brothers Max and Eli Sussman. Wunderkinder of the food scene, they swept 2012 – Max made Forbes magazine’s list of “30 Under 30” and was nominated James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year. Together they made Zagat’s “30 Under 30” list for New York.

The cover shows them scrawling their bald statement on a chalkboard: “This Is a Cookbook.” The book playfully presents like a remedial class for the average dude, the guy who relies on fast food and frozen dinners. Illustrations and diagrams recall comic books. The font evokes hand-scrawled grocery lists, all caps.

Recipes are bold and straightforward with few ingredients. If this is a class, it’s the one where you have so much fun, you forget you’re learning. Their slightly sophisticated twists on classics are inviting and approachable – buttermilk biscuits with chorizo gravy, beet and yogurt salad, beer-braised pulled pork, a farmer’s market frittata. The grilled peach salad boasts a manly-looking char.

Dude or not, this book will make you want to get in the kitchen and stay there until you’ve run through the chapters, from “Lazy Brunch” to “Midnight Snack.”

Blame the irresistible photography, in part. (“Lick it. I won’t tell,” writes Rob Delaney in the foreword, reading your mind.) The opening shot of an arugula pesto-slathered meatball sandwich makes you weak in the knees. Later, a sauté pan of disheveled pasta (linguine with anchovies, parsley and walnuts) never looked so sexy.

There’s some kind of mojo operating here. It’s partly the book’s gusto. (Forget the frozen pizza. “Stop being so boring,” the Sussmans command.) Everything is vigorous, immediate. The aesthetic of sloppy-chic deliciousness seduces.

Ultimately, the chapter titles are another clue to the book’s appeal. They center on everyday occasions. If these are Recipes for Real Life, we want the lifestyle the Sussmans are selling. Photos show relaxed, casual get-togethers: people laughing; hands reaching; forks raised; platters outstretched, presenting whole grilled fish. This book makes sharing good, un-fussy food with friends feel utterly within reach.

• If “This Is a Cookbook” is for the guys, then Molly Moon’s “Homemade Ice Cream” (Sasquatch, 2012) is for the girls. Another young rising star, Molly Moon Nietzel is ice cream queen of the Pacific Northwest. Her Seattle shops have become neighborhood hot spots, where your canine companion can indulge in a dog biscuit while you queue for a scoop of the famous salted caramel ice cream.

Nietzel’s book captures the stores’ fresh, shop-around-the-corner aesthetic and their focus on simple recipes that showcase quality ingredients.

You’ll find no garish photos of ice cream floats in crystal goblets with glittering long-handled spoons; no golden filigree or sugar pearls. The look is down-to-earth and artisanal: worn wooden tables, mason jars and pewter spoons, a girl hugging a bandy-legged goat kid (Molly’s blueberry goat’s milk frozen yogurt uses milk from a local farm).

The images speak to an underlying commitment to sustainability, to buying local and organic. But at the heart is just good ice cream. The recipes are organized by season. Strawberry-rhubarb and baby-beet sorbets trumpet spring, while in winter, Mexican hot chocolate ice cream or mulled-wine sorbet sound as comforting as a cozy fireside.

The flavors sing. In part, that’s because the ice cream is Philadelphia-style, made without the egg yolks that add richness but can also mask subtler flavors. For the home cook, Philadelphia-style also means fewer steps – no stirring a custard base over the stove.

The recipes are clear and accessible, most featuring only four or five ingredients. The results are simple and pure. For frills, the book offers recipes for homemade lemon curd, berry compotes, pepita brittle and spiced honey. There are tips for making milkshakes and ice-cream cakes. The suggestion to serve cardamom ice cream over oatmeal on a frosty winter morning may not make you dream, like me (Molly is a girl after my own heart). Regardless, this book will make you see ice cream differently.

“Try This: Traveling the Globe Without Leaving the Table” (Ecco, 2011), whose cover boasts flags whimsically composed of food (Italy: stripes of tomato, mozzarella, basil), is not a book for cooking at all. Danyelle Freeman, food journalist and editor of the blog, provides a tour of the world’s major cuisines (she covers 14 in all).

Tucking napkins into our collars, we become tableside food tourists. Freeman makes it effortless – no studying dry lists in the backs of travel books. This is virtual cultural-culinary immersion at its best.

While the book is resolutely restaurant-centric, based on first-person narratives of memorable dining excursions, the descriptions are not mere reviews – instead, they function as case studies. Freeman alternates fluidly between lived particulars and more general points about a country’s cuisine. When sensory detail conjures the tender meat of an osso buco, falling off the bone, you don’t just grasp ingredients, you commune in braised-dish bliss.

Meanwhile, Freeman feeds useful information, artfully slipping in descriptions, distinctions (between Indian biryani and pilau, for example) and comparisons. Her voice and energy animate the prose as she coaxes and seduces as well as informs. Her enthusiasm is contagious (“Magical things happen in the tandoor clay oven”), and her knowledge base, tantalizingly transmitted, promises to turn menu items into familiar friends.

“Try This” offers a model for how to get the most out of dining out. She trains the palate, but also the eye, for the appreciation for ambience. Most importantly, she models how to be hungry. “Try new things!” she urges. Luckily, it’s the right time for resolutions.

Eve Hill-Agnus is a teacher and freelance writer.

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