“An Onion In My Pocket”
You might think a memoir by the founding chef of San Francisco’s pioneering vegetarian restaurant, Greens, might be too didactic or preachy to take if you’re an avowed meat eater.
The surprise is that it’s not in the least. “An Onion in My Pocket: My Life with Vegetables” (Alfred A. Knopf) by Deborah Madison is a delightful read with evocative prose that envelopes all the senses.
When it comes to what you eat and cook, Madison is far from rigid. In fact, she has eaten meat — and still does — occasionally. It’s just that she most often finds vegetables more interesting.
She came to develop a vegetable-centric palate after becoming enthralled listening to a radio program on Buddhism while growing up. It led to her fascinating journey in becoming an ordained Buddhist priest, and to forming the foundation for arguably the first significant vegetarian restaurant in the country. She set the bar early, eschewing the drab and flavorless vegetarian cooking of the time such as lentil loaves in favor of bold and beautiful dishes of her own creation. In the process, she introduced the world to what vegetarian cooking could and ought to be.
“The French Laundry, Per Se”
Let me just state from the get-go: It’s good bet that I’ll never cook anything from the new “The French Laundry, Per Se” (Artisan). Not when the forward in this book even states that the recipes are even more challenging and complex than those in “The French Laundry Cookbook,” which came out in 1999.
But just because you won’t necessarily be tempted to recreate one of the more than 70 recipes doesn’t mean you won’t find this latest book by chef-proprietor Thomas Keller deeply fascinating.
Photographer Deborah Jones’ images are simply stunning of the intricately composed dishes, the glorious garden, and the rarefied world of cooking these chefs and cooks inhabit. Along with recipes, there are stories about the chefs, purveyors and thought-provoking asides about technique and philosophy.
Yes, The French Laundry has received flack lately for being the setting of parties dubiously attended by Gov. Gavin Newsom and San Francisco Mayor London Breed. But there’s no denying the reverence it’s earned over the years in its quest to reach perfection.
“The Man Who Ate Too Much”
If all you know of the legendary James Beard is the culinary awards that carry his name or his long-ago published cookbooks, then you will have your eyes opened — wide — with “The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard” (W.W. Norton).
Two-time James Beard Award-winner John Birdsall has created a portrait of America’s “dean of cookery” that’s deep, all-encompassing, and mesmerizing.
With meticulous research, Birdsall writes movingly about this larger-than-life figure who had a lust for good food and men. The passion for the former would catapult him into culinary acclaim, as he hosted one of the first cooking shows in the 1940s and went on to write some of the most seminal cookbooks of the modern age, establishing the very real existence of American cuisine. All the while, his passion for the latter would haunt him, as the times being what they were, precluded him from truly living his life in the open as he would.
Get to know a man who very much deserves to be remembered not only for what he did, but for whom he was.
“Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells”
It’s a good bet that most professional cooks — and home cooks — have a copy of Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” (Scribner) on their shelf. Originally printed in 1984, it remains a mainstay on technical food science that’s written in understandable terms easily digestible for the layperson.
McGee’s newest tome, “Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells” (Penguin Press), is destined to become an indispensable classic, as well. After all, without the ability to smell, one can’t fully taste.
Did you know that many of the molecules we smell today existed long before our planet did? How mind-boggling is that?
Or that the yeasts on our scalp smell of peach and coconut? Or that the herb volatiles in cilantro are often also encountered in soaps and cosmetics? No wonder some people who hate cilantro often associate with it with a soapy taste.
This science-y book is sure to make you appreciate all that your nose knows.
If you adored the novel, “Like Water for Chocolate” (Anchor), you’ll be glad to know that 30 years after its debut, author Laura Esquivel continues the saga of her main character Tita’s life of hardship, love, and cooking.
The self-published “Tita’s Diary” covers 20 years in Tita’s life, when she falls in love, but is told she can never marry since as the youngest daughter she is destined to take care of her mother. As with the original, recipes also are included, such as “Chiles in Nogada Sauce” and “Turkey Mole with Almonds and Sesame.”
The book, which I plan on tearing into this Christmas season, has the look of an actual diary that survived a fire, with cursive writing filling lined pages that look charred on the edges,
Intended as a trilogy, the third and final book, “The Colors of My Past” follows an older Tita as she’s reunited with her grandmother who leads her to her diary.
“East Bay Cooks”
As you consider books to give yourself, and friends and family this year, I hope you’ll remember my “East Bay Cooks: Signature Recipes from the Best Restaurants, Bars, and Bakeries” (Figure 1), too.
Yes, forgive me the shameless plug for my own cookbook. But it was a labor of love to put together this compilation of stories and recipes from 41 top restaurants in the East Bay.
At at time when restaurants are struggling mightily, this cookbook is a salute to their resolute spirit. They truly make our neighborhood and region not only more delicious but a warmer, more wonderful place to live.