2014 was a year for faraway cuisines to take up residence in U.S. kitchens — cookbook authors cast their nets for flavors from Paris, the Middle East and Southeast Asia; from the ancient spice routes and every point in between.
Meanwhile, the food world's leaders struck out in unconventional directions, and some of the year's most interesting books stray far from the glossy, aspirational approach we've come to expect from the big names. A food editor who claims she's "not a great cook" goes to chefs for advice, while another starts a farm. One chef raids the pantry for its most common ingredients, while another swoons for mushrooms alone. And apples, glorious in their variety, spill from between the covers of a cookbook with hardly any recipes at all.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Just over two weeks before Christmas, we have gift suggestions for the person who has everything.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Everything that is, except a cookbook.
INSKEEP: We're going to offer many holiday gift suggestions in the coming days, starting with cookbooks. Reviewer Suzy Chang made some suggestions. And if the person you're shopping for is not much of a cook, that's just fine. Neither is Dana Cowin, who wrote one of the recommended books.
SUSAN CHANG: What's really charming about this book is that she starts out by confessing that she's not naturally good cook herself.
INSKEEP: She's editor of Food and Wine magazine. In Cowin's book, "Mastering My Mistakes In The Kitchen," she gets help from big-name chefs.
CHANG: Ming Tsai, April Bloomfield, Yotam Ottolenghi.
MONTAGNE: All of whom turn up in the author's kitchen to offer this kind of advice...
CHANG: If you want to blanch your beans and shock them, take them out of the ice bath quickly so they don't get waterlogged, or you can add some lemon juice to your caramel when you're making it so that the sugar melts more evenly. Or you can add a piece of pork belly skin to your stew and that'll give it body.
INSKEEP: So that's one cookbook recommendation. Another is "The Banh Mi Handbook." Banh Mi is a style of Vietnamese sandwich and the one subject of this whole book.
CHANG: But in fact Banh Mi is not one, but many things. There are many different condiments, many different pickles, many different proteins. And this book tells you how to make them all, even the bread.
MONTAGNE: The simple-looking sandwiches are actually complex creations with many fillings and spices.
INSKEEP: And if you like to experiment with spices or simply want to learn about seasoning, Chang recommends "World Spice At Home."
CHANG: There's a cornbread that's brought to life with a huge dose of cumin, and there is a glazed and broiled eggplant that's anointed with honey and ras el hanout, which has rose petals and grains of paradise in it that's just some of the most romantic food.
MONTAGNE: Now if you have friends who don't necessarily cook but do love pros, Chang says "Apples Of Uncommon Character" is for them. It's not really a cookbook.
CHANG: It's more a gorgeous series of portraits of what Rowan Jacobsen, the author, calls the fruit most likely to be taken for granted.
MONTAGNE: There are just a few recipes featured in this one.
CHANG: Chicken curry with apples and onions, or apple pakoras with mint chutney. I think Rowan Jacobsen has a really good sense about how apples can play a role on the dinner table, and not just as a snack you eat out of your hand.
INSKEEP: Oh, great, now I'm hungry.
MONTAGNE: Well, go ahead, get something to eat, Steve. Listen, I can say this - you, listeners, can find a complete list of Suzy Chang's cookbook gift ideas at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.