The Best Books of 2003

















The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen by Eric Gower (Kodansha)

A bit like fusion approached from the other side, Eric Gower's The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen has its foundation on the classic tastes and presentations of Japan. However, Gower has given himself permission to play. Gower writes that, "it should be recalled that French cuisine, marvelous as it is, was stuck in a traditional rut before a whole new generation of chefs started borrowing and incorporating and fusing, often with exhilarating results." While it should also be pointed out that some of those same young chefs made an awful mess on their way to fusion that actually worked, Gower's instinct and research hasn't steered him wrong. And so he leads us to dishes like Spicy Pot Roast with Orange and Soy, Baked Tonkatsu (and Japanese food enthusiasts will know this is a revelation: tonkatsu -- pork cutlet -- is traditionally deep fried), Shiso Tofu, and Soy-Brined Roasted Turkey with Ruby Grapefruit and Fennel Grapefruit. Also in classic Japanese style: Gowers dishes are almost all exceedingly simple, his instructions direct and concise. The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen is Eric Gower's first English-language cookbook, though he's written several in Japanese. -- Linda Richards

Bride & Groom: First and Forever Cookbook by Mary Corpening Barber and Sara Corpening Whiteford (Chronicle Books)

If Bride & Groom: First and Forever Cookbook was merely intended to be a lovely wedding present, it would have succeeded, though it wouldn't have made this list. The fact is, however, it's so much more than that. Bride & Groom succeeds on all fronts. The book manages to be simultaneously elegant and casual, and is filled with recipes to meet very many needs: from elegant dinners au deux, to hurried work-night meals on the run to party food for a crowd. Throughout Bride & Groom sister authors Barber and Whiteford manage to combine small town warmth with a very schooled and international knowledge of food. The result is splendid, a book that is beautiful and accessible, with recipes that are simple and sophisticated, that reflect the whole culinary world and keep home close at hand. Bride & Groom is a beautiful and useful book. It might, however, be a difficult gift: I can't imagine wanting to give it away. -- Linda Richards

I Want Chocolate! by Trish Deseine (Laurel Glen)

Like its topic, the name of Trish Deseine's book is irresistible. I Want Chocolate! And, fortunately, the book not only exceeds the expectations raised by that enthusiastic moniker, it exceeds them. It is, first of all, a beautiful book with design as dark and rich as its topic. The cover alone is enough to bring a shiver of anticipation to the true chocoholic: a chocolate tart is pictured, four silver spoons imbedded, breaking the surface of the tart's chocolatey flesh, ready -- right this instant! -- to be quickly consumed. Though this topic -- chocolate -- has been done repeatedly in cookbooks, Deseine's take is especially good. Her instructions are clear, the photos lovely, the desserts themselves tempting and her touch bouncy and straightforward. The chapter titles tell the story: Chocolate Tool Kit, Chocolate Nibbles, Classic Chocolate, Chocotherapy, Chocolate for kids, Chic Chocolate, Tricks of the Trade. Approachable, fun and -- best of all -- possible for mortals, I Want Chocolate! seems destined to become a classic. -- Adrian Marks

Meze: Small Plates to Savor and Share From the Mediterranean Table by Diane Kochilas (William Morrow)

I'm not Greek, but I know I probably was in at least one other life: the whole meze culture just makes so much sense to me. Or maybe it's just because I love to talk and I love to eat and I love a glass of wine but, if I can do all three of these at once, I'm the happiest of campers. In her introduction to Meze, author Diane Kochilas (The Glorious Foods of Greece) writes: "The most important aspect of meze is that it is a cuisine meant not to sate but to tease. The whole point of snacking this way is to make the experience at table last as long as possible. The main reason for being around the meze table is to talk, share thoughts with a few friends over a glass or two of wine or liqueur or something to eat." I would add that, while North American portions can make us cry: "So much food! So little time!" Meze culture invites you to partake of all of it, at once: in teensy, little portions. Meze works on so many levels. Kochilas offers some background on the tradition, offers advice on "putting together a meze spread," suggests beverages to accompany various choices and even offers up a few menus. In the recipe portion of the book -- by far the largest -- each section begins with some text that helps put the foods you're about to think about into meze perspective. And then the food. Oh yes, the food! While classic versions of many of Kochilas' recipes can be found in almost any good Greek cookbook, Kochilas combines her very real knowledge of Greek food (in addition to writing award-winning Greek-influenced cookbooks, she runs a cooking school and a restaurant in Greece, where she is also a respected food writer and critic) with her understanding of the American kitchen. And the results are sublime. In Meze, for example, there is no recipe for the classic tzatziki: you can find that anywhere, Kochilas tell us. However, she offers some related but very different alternatives like Tangy Yogurt with Sautéed Carrots and Mint or Garlicky Yogurt Dip with Apricots. From dishes so simple they require little more than a wipe and a cut, to more complicated recipes requiring many steps, Meze satisfies on so many levels. -- Linda Richards

The Monastery Cookbook by Cheri Huber (Keep It Simple Books)

It's not as flashy as a lot of books: not as sexy or colorful or well-photographed. In fact, there isn't even one food photo included in The Monastery Cookbook. And despite this, and though some thoughts and meditations are included, Cheri Huber's new classic is definitely seriously about food. In particular, vegetarian food of a type that should be of interest to everyone. What's super here is that Huber unapologetically includes pure ingredient recipes for vegetarian versions of the sort of North American favorites that generally make foodies boke: mashed potatoes and gravy; sloppy joes, lasagna; macaroni and cheese. Plus there are lots of easy-to-prepare vegetarian staples including soysage, yellow dal and so many tofu-based recipes -- everything from tofu loaf, tofu croquettes, tofu stew and even tofu cheesecake -- your eyes will pop. With so many people concerned about eating more healthfully these days, a good vegetarian primer is a must for the cookbook shelf. The Monastery Cookbook fills that place wonderfully. -- Adrian Marks


Taste Pure and Simple by Michel Nischan with Mary Goodbody (Chronicle Books)

Taste Pure and Simple is an astonishing cookbook. Though beautifully illustrated and sensibly laid-out, its greatest innovations come in the food itself. Michel Nischan, the original executive chef of Heartbeat in New York City, has, in some very real ways, reinvented haute cuisine. In Taste Pure and Simple he brings us luscious no-fat sauces and rich normally cream and cheesy concoctions completely devoid of either. Imagine roast turkey with stuffing and gravy with all of the flavor but practically none of the fat. A vegetable lasagna with only goat cheese participating, and a sweet potato brûlée that has all of the richness of a classic creme brûlée, yet with a lot less fat. Add to all of this the fact that Nischan's instructions are clear and the recipes, for the most part, easy-to-follow and you have a package that, in my opinion, is -- simply -- the top cookbook of the year. -- Adrian Marks

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