On the opening page of Primal Cuts: Cooking With America's Best Butchers by Marissa Guggiana is a photo of Belmont Butchery's sign explaining how the owner, Richmonder Tanya Cauthen, cuts her meat — by thickness, not by weight. Primal Cuts i s a book that celebrates butchers, from Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant in Westchester County, N.Y., to Tia Harrison of Avedano's Holly Park Market in San Francisco. Cauthen ranks among Guggiana's top 50 butchers in America, and in her profile in the book, Cauthen explains how she went from watching butchers in Switzerland as an apprentice to picking up a knife and starting her own business here in Richmond.
Guggiana features two of Cauthen's recipes, one for roasted squab and another for pan-seared hanger steak. The rest of the book is full of straightforward, meat-focused dishes, each accompanied by a story about a member of the new, unexpected generation of American butchers — young, focused on quality and unwilling to compromise.
Amy Hicks of Amy's Garden, one of the first certified-organic farms to bring produce to the farmers' markets in and around Richmond, is featured in Eating Local: The Cookbook Inspired by America's Farmers , by Sur La Table with Janet Fletcher. Instead of organizing the recipes by courses, as most cookbooks do, these recipes focus on particular ingredients. Don't know what to do with all of that eggplant? You have five recipes to choose from, including an aromatic Smoky Eggplant and Pepper Spread with Pita Crisps.
Mark Bittman thinks we should eat less meat. Last year, he wrote a book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating , telling us just that and espousing a more plant-centric culinary philosophy that can be summed up very simply: Before 6 p.m., eat a vegan diet; after that, meat can make a guest appearance at dinnertime. This year, as a follow-up to that bestseller, Bittman has come out with a companion cookbook titled, logically enough, The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living . It's not a vegetarian cookbook. Recipes such as Spicy Fried Rice with Bean Sprouts, Chicken and Peanuts and Potato Chowder with Dried Tomatoes and Clams contain meat, but unlike most cookbooks, meat isn't the foundation of the dishes.
One of the most anticipated cookbooks of the season (at least by me — you might have seen me hanging around the door to our offices waiting for my copy to be delivered) is Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook . A fat 932 pages, this book is a curated collection of readers' favorite recipes from the last 150 years. Some of the older recipes in their original form, like the one for New Jersey Blancmange from 1876, were "noncommittal about measurements and ingredients," as Hesser says. She's tested and fine-tuned the measurements in these old recipes to conform to what modern cooks know and expect. The result is a collection of old favorites, forgotten classics and unexpected surprises.
Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef by blogger Shauna James Ahern and her husband, Daniel Ahern, is more than just a cookbook: It's the story of how two people met, fell in love and learned to cook in a whole new way. The photos are lovely, and recipes such as Risotto with English Peas, Fava Beans and Prosciutto make you quickly forget that this is a cookbook designed to work around ingredients that contain gluten. In addition, it's chock-full of information both about how to cook gluten-free and how to cook well.
Everyone needs advice — even the most experienced of us. Harold McGee doesn't write cookbooks; he writes about the science behind cooking. His invaluable new book, Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes , is a manual to have on the counter beside you every time you pick up a spoon. The book can be opened as needed to figure out things like the best temperature to ensure juicy meat (low and slow until your thermometer reads just 150 degrees in the center) or to learn the futility of searing (it doesn't actually seal in the meat's juices). Some of McGee's advice is less surprising (while roasting, turn vegetables periodically to even out browning), but to have all of the information compiled in one rigorously researched, comprehensive reference guide makes navigating the shoals of daily meals much less intimidating.
You don't want to forget about dessert, and you've got three tempting choices in the cookbook arena: The Gourmet Cookie Book: The Single Best Recipe From Each Year 1941-2009 (from the late, great Gourmet magazine), Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy: Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich and Ready for Dessert: My Best Recipes by David Lebovitz. All are wonderful, but Lebovitz is a rock when it comes to desserts. Every recipe he writes works the first time you try it, and every one is absolutely mouthwatering. He can go from an unexpected Lime-Marshmallow Pie to intense Chocolate Pots de Crème without batting an eye.
Even if the cook in your life is really just an armchair page-flipper, each of these books is full of interesting stories, helpful advice and/or glorious photographs. Each would look fine all wrapped up in fancy paper, but perhaps the place that would show these cookbooks to their best advantage would be your very own kitchen counter.