Three things I know: it’s the new year, food is good, and books about food are always a good idea. In an ongoing quest to make home cooking more fun, I decided to spice up my somewhat limited recipes with help from some tasty new cookbooks. I was fortunate to get the inside scoop on the very latest in cookbook magic from a true authority, Sharon Tani, librarian at Le Cordon Bleu culinary arts school in Southern California. Not only is Sharon a foodie by heart, but a librarian by trade, and at one of the most prestigious schools of culinary arts around. She knows of what she speaks, and eats, and shared some with me.
Eat Ink: Recipes, Stories, Tattoos by Birk O’Halloran and Daniel Luke Holton
Tattoos are the new black. Last year there was War Ink, a virtual exhibit produced by a librarian, telling the stories of war veterans through their tattoos. Now there’s Eat Ink, a book in the same vein, except now cooks share the stories of how the battle scars got in the kitchen, and the tattoos and artists who commemorated those stories through ink.
Artfully arranged by dish (Hoofed, Finned, Rooted, Sugared), each chef tells their tattoo tale, and then shares one of their own favorite recipes, to give you some insight into their take on life through their take on food. My favorite, because I’ve been reading too much Game of Thrones and it sounds like a blessing (or curse) from Westeros, is from chef Zak Walters, whose motto “May your name spread like oil,” is tattooed on his arm in Latin with an olive branch. This is the kind of cookbook I enjoy, and not just for the fantastic art: the authors have stories to tell, and it makes the cooking part that much more fun.
Dirt Candy: A Cookbook by Amanda Cohen & Ryan Dunlavey
Graphic novels are making headway in the cookbook world, and this one illustrates Amanda Cohen’s veggie-only recipes and the story of her New York restaurant’s meteoric rise to wait list status. Cohen starts things off with a winning cartoon version of herself, navigating us through her tiny restaurant, also called Dirt Candy – she wanted the name to really stick in your head – and a sage explanation, to her annoyed younger self, of why she only cooks vegetables: “Cooking vegetables is like the wild west: there are no rules, so ANYTHING goes.”
Sure, there are recipes, and even better, graphically illustrated tips and tricks (picture GRAB! CHOP! WASH! as classic comic book fighting words, and a section on Legendary Weapons of Vegetables) to help you better understand the the cooking process. But read this one to discover the inside world of a celebrity chef, and what really makes her tick (hint: don’t ask her why corn isn’t on the menu). Cohen loves vegetables, and wants to let the world in on the beauty of slicing, dicing, and cooking them up in delicious recipies. She even went on Iron Chef to champion her cause, taking up the fight against the All Powerful Chef Morimoto. (I’m not providing spoiler alerts – read the book!) Come for the recipes, stay for the story.
And if you want more like Dirt Candy, try Anthony Bourdain’s Get Jiro!, the story of future Los Angeles and the bloody master chef wars, or, for a more off-the-beaten-path manga styled cookbook, check out the series Oishinbo: Japanese Cuisine: A la Carte, the tale of journalist Yamaoka Shiro on an adventure to find the “ultimate menu” for his newspaper before the rival paper beats him to it. Each novel, or course, is a best-of version of the original Japanese series, which includes 100+ volumes: the American versions each feature a graphic look at one aspect of Japanese culture and cuisine, like Volume 6: The Joy of Rice, or Volume 3: Ramen and Gyoza. YUM.
Picture Cook: See. Make. Eat. by Katie Shelley
Katie Shelley takes things one step further and eschews words in favor of pictures in this cookbook, even starting with an awesomely simple illustrated legend, showing how to preheat the oven, where to start on the blending scale, and basic techniques for slicing avocado or dicing garlic. It’s so simple, it’s genius! The illustrations are bare minimum – all the better to really see what you’re supposed to be doing – but will allow you to whip up magic oatmeal or get some tasty thoughts on omelettes. There’s simply not much to say, but lots of ways to express your feelings through food.
Books For the Foodie Who Dabbles in Science
Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson and How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics
Librarian Sharon turned me on to two books released in 2015 that take the traditional cookbook up a notch by adding a scientific slant. In Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson, the legendary IBM Jeopardy-contestant-defeating cognitive computer, Watson, gets into the cooking game, taking everything it’s been programmed it to know about food and super-computing crazy combinations to come up with truly out-of-the-box new recipes. (Don’t worry – they were all taste tested and approved by chefs at The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE)).
The idea is that, even knowing all of the ingredients that exist, humans are limited by what we know works and what we’ve worked with before – Watson has no such limitations. Programmed to suggest recipes that haven’t already been tasted, Watson came up with its first recipe in 2013, for a Spanish Almond Pastry crescent. And things just got more interesting from there, as Watson proposed crazy new combinations, the chefs tempered them to be palatable, and they’re all presented here, with really beautiful pictures to go along iwth them, and rated by Surprise, Pleasantness, and Synergy. It’s cooking 2.0.
How to Bake Pi isn’t quite a cookbook: author Eugenia Cheng uses examples, including recipes, to make understanding math more palatable. The prologue features a recipe for making clotted cream, which Cheng uses to describe Category Theory, which is all about relationships, contexts, processes, structures – key components to cooking and coming up with new recipes.
Cheng wants everyone to understand that math isn’t difficult; it, like recipes, includes ingredients and method. So each chapter features a recipe, and you’re wondering – what the heck does this have to do with math? But at the same time, by just combining the two, math and recipes, the idea is already becoming more clear. So the concept of Abstraction is illustrated by a recipe for mayo or hollandaise sauce, and puff pastries are a way to understand precise processes. It’s all very zen, and will get you thinking about math, and food, in fun new ways.
And here’s the final thing I know: the recipes in these cookbooks sound really, really good and, with pictures, diagrams and stories included, are definitely worth a try. Or at least a read. Check them out!