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Vietnam is obviously not a country with many Christians, although we did pass through some Catholic villages in the Mekong that were prettily decked out with bunting and sparkly stars. But these few religious observances aside, Christmas is a huge sparkly secular party here. And in Saigon the party is epic – everything is decorated, and absolutely everyone is on the streets. It’s like New Year’s Eve in Times Square or Hogmanay on Princes Street – multiplied by massive motorcycle madness!
Books on food are one of my favourite things: lots of food lovers read cookbooks for pleasure as much as instruction, and food writing ranges from scholarly to literary, from travel writing to restaurant reviews. Lemur friends D&J gave me a fantastic New Yorker book of food writing last year and I spent happy hours immersed in decades of toothsome prose. And yet, so often food books are where well-meaning gift givers go wrong. I think I understand the psychology. The gifter thinks, ‘oh I know, Ms Lemur likes food and books. I shall buy her a food book!’ And then they buy something that is either the food book of the year and I have it already or something for beginners that I don’t have much use for. Don’t get my wrong, I totally appreciate any and all gifts and it is, ultimately the thought that counts. But as both a gift giver and receiver, I would prefer the money to be well-spent, the present actually cherished and not just what it symbolises. So my suggestions here are books published this year that I think foodies might find intriguing: not so obvious that the recipient will be getting three copies for Christmas and with enough real novelty that your picky eating reader might find something to surprise her jaded palate.
Maria Speck, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press, 2011) £18.90
This handsome book would appeal to health-conscious cooks, but also to anyone interested in sustainable living or just widening their repertoire. It sets out to rescue whole grains from the clichés of stodgy hippie cooking, creating lighter dishes that will appeal to a modern tastes. But for foodies who don’t need to be persuaded of the deliciousness of barley, farro, and millet, there is a wealth of ideas for cooking with these store-cupboard staples. Recipes include salad with kamut, carrot and pomegranate and main dishes such as artichoke and polenta tart. It’s not vegetarian but it has very little meat, and offers suggestions for how to make veggie versions of meat dishes. The photography is gorgeous but it’s not just a coffee-table book. I can imagine loads of my friends cooking from this book.
Luke Nguyen, Indochine. Baguettes and báhn mì: finding France in Vietnam (Murdoch Books, 2011) £17.13
If you’re buying for Asian food lovers (hmm, who might those be?), Luke Nguyen’s new book could be a winner. I haven’t yet caught up with his TV show, in which I’m reliably informed he’s a bit of a twat, but this successful Australian chef undeniably knows his Viet food. I have his one of his previous books, Songs of Sapa, and I’ve found it full of great ideas. I don’t make his exact recipes all that often but I often find myself looking to his techniques and combinations for inspiration. This new book looks to be sumptiously illustrated and maybe a bit food-porny but he’s really passionate about regional Vietnamese cooking. This new book explores the intertwining of French and Vietnamese culinary histories: a politically delicate topic that has produced some of the transnational glories of the Vietnamese kitchen.
Anita Lo, Cooking Without Borders (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2011) £19.13
So you’re thinking of buying a cheffy book. Don’t go with the obvious options of Jamie or Nigella or Gordon – why not try the long-awaited book from the chef of Annisa in New York, Anita Lo. Annisa has a reputation for serving top quality fine dining at a slightly more affordable price, as well as for mixing chef Lo’s Chinese and Malaysian background with classical French techniques and new American simplicity. It’s a mix that gives fresh integrity to the oft-abused concept of fusion. As Lo explains, with her background all food is fusion to her and, in fact, culinary histories are stories of cultural mixing. This approach translates into an appealing mixture of recipes, generally on the fancy end, such as Salmon with Smoked Paprika and Savoy Cabbage, or, on the more Asian end, Softshell Crab with Sweetcorn Custard, Chinese Sausage and Garlic Chives. It’s also noteworthy that Lo is not just a woman in a male-dominated field but an out lesbian, so if you support more LGBT representation in the food world, check her book out!
Brad Thomas Parsons, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas (Ten Speed Press, 2011) £13.52
Although I have a degree in Mixology (yes I do! really – I even have a diploma), I don’t make a lot of cocktails these days. However, I know some people who would love this odd little book, packed full of recipes for home-made bitters and things to do with them. Parsons is clearly an enthusiast and this book is the perfect guide either for the beginner who wants to move beyond Angostura or the seasoned cocktail maker on the lookout for more elaborate potions. He starts with recipes such as grapefruit bitters, pear bitters and, weirdly, coffee-pecan bitters. I really want to try that one. Next are a range of old-school cocktails from the famous (Dark and Stormy) to the obscure (Horse’s Neck, anyone?), and another section of new-look drinks. A final section addresses bitters in the kitchen, with recipes from ham glaze to bitters ice cream. It’s a book that probably appeals best to real cocktail enthusiasts, but if you know someone who takes their liquor seriously, it might hit the spot.
Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat £15. 34
Food memoirs are a burgeoning genre these days and some of them are insanely cheesy. I’m not mentioning any names, but when you cross Sex and the City with Italian recipes, you can come out with some hilarious literary results. Grant Achatz’s memoir is a whole other ball game. As most foodie readers will know, Achatz was just emerging as one of the top chefs in the USA, his Chicago restaurant Alinea announced as the number one in the country by Gourmet magazine, when he was diagnosed with late-stage tongue cancer. He was told he’d need to have his tongue cut out, and that the treatment would destroy his sense of taste altogether. It’s a tough story and potentially an inspiring one. The book might be more for the hard-core foodie, since you probably need to care a bit about the restaurant business to enjoy it, but the story of his illness, determination, and luck gives it a real depth.
Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones and Butter: The inadvertent education of a reluctant chef (Chatto and Windus, 2011) £6.62
Ok, maybe two memoirs by chefs are too many for this list, but I can’t resist pointing out Gabrielle Hamilton’s book because it’s just so different from Achatz’s. Hamilton is the chef and owner of Prune, a tiny place in the East Village that became pretty fashionable in the last decade. (Hilariously, although I have eaten there, my strongest memory of the place is a misbegotten attempt to blag my way in with the divine Ms P not long after it opened. We claimed to have a reservation that the hostess had clearly lost. She was not having any of it, sadly, and I didn’t get to eat there for another few months. Anyway.) What’s appealing about this book is that it’s not really about the restaurant business or cutting edge cuisine: it’s an earthy memoir of one woman’s messy and interesting life. By turns funny and emotionally intense, it charts Hamilton’s tomboy youth, illegal adventures, and culinary education. Anthony Bourdain calls it “simply the best memoir by a chef ever. EVER.” For that chef to be both self-trained and a woman only makes the story more engaging.
It’s the time of year when we all start panicking about buying holiday gifts – unless you’re my mother, in which case you finished your holiday shopping weeks ago and have already presented wrapped gifts to your incompetent daughter. There’s something about getting Christmas presents from your Jewish mother in early November that delivers that extra measure of guilt with the festive spirit. Also, I should say that really, this isn’t actually the time of year that I start panicking about present buying. That time is called mid-December. (This is why my mother thinks I’m incompetent. Surprise: she’s right!) However, as Thrifty Gal reminded me, people with blogs have to think about these things early, or early-ish. So I have roused myself from the state of complete denial with which I like to approach the festive season and investigated the delicious world of giftage for the food lover in your life. Read the rest of this entry »