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Best books for cooks

Chicago Tribune staff (TNS)

It’s the best time of the year: cookbook season. Oh, you thought we meant the holidays? Well, that’s a fun time of year too. And it cozies up to cookbook season, which means we’ve got the shopping list for you. Here are our favorite 10 cookbooks of the season, perfect for gift-giving, whether for the cook on your list or for yourself.

“The United States

of Pizza”

By Craig Priebe with Dianne Jacob (Rizzoli, $30)

Dough-making techniques. Baking tools. Recipes for dozens of picture-perfect pies. Sounds like a lot of pizza cookbooks, right? What separates this one from the pack: Each pizza is plucked from a restaurant in the U.S., with a paragraph telling its story — at once satisfying our innate love for familiarity (“I’ve been to Beau Jo’s in Denver!”) and discovery (say, a renowned pizza place in the middle of a tiny ranching town in Wyoming). The authors also pull particularly interesting recipes, with chapters on sourdough pizzas, corn flour pizzas and more.

“Tacos: Recipes and Provocations”

By Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman (Clarkson Potter, $32.50)

Stupak, the chef at sceney New York taqueria Empellon, starts this book with a nod to Old El Paso taco nights — but be clear, he’s come a long way since then and urges all taco lovers to follow. First step: Make your own shells. Recipes for corn, flour and what I’ll call funky (beet, pistachio) tortillas follow. Next: 23 salsas and moles, from simple to complex. Then, tacos familiar (chicken with salsa verde), fancy (arctic char with gooseberry) and fun (cheeseburger tacos, yes). This is a comprehensive look at how diverse the taco can be.

“The Food Lab”

By J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (W.W. Norton & Co., $49.95)

Lopez-Alt, an MIT-trained architect with a cook’s soul, approaches recipes with a scientific eye, that is, hypothesis-test-analysis-repeat until a recipe cannot be improved upon. His popular column on the website Serious Eats is equal parts method and madness, documenting in exhaustive detail the trials and mistakes required to achieve his desired result. Now, it’s been culled into a 958-page hardcover book. But you don’t need a scientific background to appreciate the research. Bottom line, it’s no pedantic textbook — Lopez-Alt’s goal is finding deliciousness through obsessive research.

“Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine”

By Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, $37.50)

This work sums up the 40-plus-year culinary career of Lidia Bastianich, restaurateur, star chef and cookbook author. It is, like her, informative, educational — and great fun. A detailed introduction to Italian ingredients and cooking techniques opens the book. At the back, there’s a definitive glossary of Italian culinary terms and notes on Italian food culture. These sections alone justify the buy; you’ll turn to them repeatedly. In between are some 400 recipes, clearly written. No wasted words here; Bastianich wants you to get cooking.

“Asian-American: Proudly Inauthentic Recipes From the Philippines to Brooklyn”

By Dale Talde with JJ Goode (Grand Central Life & Style, $32)

“Authenticity is a slippery concept. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, it’s gone,” writes Talde, who presents all sorts of “proudly inauthentic recipes” with great verve in this cookbook. Born in Chicago and now chef/owner of Talde in Brooklyn, Talde tells tales of growing up eating his family’s traditional Filipino fare and American fast food. Both influenced his culinary outlook. Among the recipes: a homemade version of the Hot Pockets brand sandwich and a Connecticut-style buttered lobster roll zipped with Asian flavors.

“Mark Bittman’s

Kitchen Matrix”

By Mark Bittman (Pam Krauss Books, $35)

Find inspiration among the photos and chart treatments that echo the “Eat” column Bittman wrote for The New York Times until last month. Improvisation is his mantra: “From simple recipes spring nearly endless possibilities.” So he offers grilled chicken wings with 12 variations (teriyaki, jerk, buffalo, etc.), for example, with another 12 options each for salmon, vegetable soup, corn, shortbread and more. Coach Bittman’s recipe generator is designed to kick-start creativity. Consider the “Kebab + Recipe Generator”: It starts with sausage, vegetables and flavorings, then gives alternatives for each element. He does the same with grain salads, spring rolls, paella, etc. Inspiration, indeed.

“Mastering Sauces”

By Susan Volland (W.W. Norton & Co., $39.95)

Don’t let the word “mastering” scare you off. Volland’s intent is to get you comfortable with the elements of a good sauce, then set you free in your kitchen. To get you there, she structures the lesson around these fundamentals: “Maximize flavor, manipulate texture and season confidently.” The book is not about the five French mother sauces; oh, they’re here, but much more ink in the 450-plus pages is spent on how we cook today, from updating those classics to her endlessly adaptable stir-fry sauce to smart things to do with canned tomatoes. And those tomatoes, you’ll learn from Volland, are “sauce magic.”

“The Violet Bakery Cookbook”

By Claire Ptak (Ten Speed Press, $29.99)

Hate over-frosted cupcakes, fondant-wrapped cakes? You’ll love the simplicity of the creations from this California-native who polished her pastry skills at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and now runs Violet, a bakery in East London. Flavors are balanced, helping the purest ingredients “taste more like themselves … coaxing out nuances in flavor by adding sugar, salt, acid and booze or extracts.” Ptak guides bakers with images and 200-plus recipes for cookies, jams, quiches and more, say, a lemon drizzle loaf, a hazelnut toffee cake or Grandma Ptak’s red velvet cake. Clear a day for baking with Ptak.

“A Real Southern Cook in Her Savannah Kitchen”

By Dora Charles (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25)

Charles cooked in Paula Deen’s restaurants for 22 years, until leaving as part of the fallout after Deen was accused of racism. Charles touches on that, then quickly moves on to tell her own tale. And we’re blessed for it because in her recipes and her stories — about learning to cook from her grandmother and the ways of the South — Charles delivers a well-seasoned look into Southern cooking. From down home country grits to pan fried chicken to sweet potato pie, her voice comes through warmly as she guides you to coax maximum flavor from humble ingredients.

“Made in India: Recipes From an Indian

Family Kitchen”

By Meera Sodha (Flatiron Books, $35)

This cookbook is the story of Sodha, her family and their journey over three generations from India to Africa to England. “An Indian kitchen can be anywhere in the world,” the London-based home cook and “occasional” chef writes in her introduction. Sodha shows you how to do it with enticing recipes, colorful photographs, travel memories and a healthy dose of humor.

Particularly useful are the detailed glossary of ingredients and spices, proposed menus and ideas for leftovers.

— Recommendations written by Chicago Tribune staff writers Marissa Conrad, Kevin Pang, Bill Daley, Joe Gray and Judy Hevrdejs.