Armchair Adventures

Lushly photographed on coated stock, ruinously priced, and as heavy as a KitchenAid mixer–you know what I’m talking about: coffee-table cookbooks.  You tell yourself this will be the last one, truly, and yet there you are again, plunking down $50 and change for a cookbook that will never see the inside of your kitchen.

Why is that?  It’s because they’re irresistible, that’s why.  Sometimes we forget that food is, among other things, a dream and a memory. It’s inspiration, not just fuel.  We may not be able to wander the streets of Phnom Penh any time we feel like it, but we can visit in our imaginations.  As a cookbook reviewer, I rarely get to test these exotic, impractical confections–the ingredients are too hard to get, or the techniques too demanding (light a charcoal fire topped with green ash twigs!), or the price too stratospheric.  But this year has brought in a few remarkable samples of the genre, and I wanted to give them their moment in the sun.


Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi

A remarkable, almost silent slideshow.  Hundreds of full-sized photographs, bled off the page, of austere, pristine Nordic ingredients.  Noma is just one upscale Copenhagen restaurant, but its chef has penned a tribute to an often underappreciated part of the culinary world.
Ethnicity: pan-Nordic (Icelandic, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish). Recipe style: back-to-nature with high artifice (maltodextrin! Pacojet! xanthan gum!)  with European measurements (weights, in grams). Hardest-to-find ingredients: reindeer loin, Hay Ash, rose hip vinegar, rowan shoots, buckthorn juice. Sample recipe: White currants and gelled cucumber juice, sweet cicely and hazelnut milk.


Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy by Diana Kennedy.

Grande dame of Mexican cooking Diana Kennedy continues to keep it real with a book entirely devoted to the cooking of Oaxaca.  Kennedy has a terse recipe style, which makes the meticulous and uncompromising recipes seem more doable but demands the hand of a confident and experienced cook.
Ethnicity: regional Mexican. Recipe style: very authentic, lots of ingredients in each recipe, American standard measurement (volumes, in oz./c./tbsp.).  Fairly accessible, all things considered. Hardest-to-find ingredients: yerbasanta leaf, avocado leaves, pulque (a sort of milky tequila), palm buds. Sample recipe: Wild Greens in Pumpkin-Seed sauce.


Thai Street Food by David Thompson
David Thompson’s books are labors of love.  He genuinely wants to share the complex, storied depths of Thai cuisine, and his recipes are among the most carefully translated I have seen in ethnic cookbooks.  While his earlier, authoritative Thai Food was dauntingly dense, Thai Street Food is colorful, riotous, and approachable.
Ethnicity: Thai.Recipe style: Discursive and detailed with lots of sensory signposts, European (weights, in grams) and American (volumes, in oz./c./tbsp.) measurements. Hardest-to-find ingredients: jasmine flowers, lime paste (made from cockleshells), betel leaves. Sample recipe: Sour orange curry of fish.


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