Cookbooks of the Year

If you buy only two this year, let it be these

by Filip Verheyden
$29.95, Melville House Press

by Stephane Reynaud
$49.95, Phaidon

As much as I love the new hot dish, the new hot flavor, I tend to love them only in restaurants. When it comes to my own actual kitchen I am viciously minimalist. I have exactly four knives: an eight-inch chef's knife, a paring knife, a serrated bread knife, and another chef's knife that leaves the drawer whenever someone is helping me cut things, which isn't all that often. I wander through kitchen stores and cannot fathom why anyone would want a knife block as overstuffed with options as an Iowa caucus. Pick me! Pick me! At what point does choice become a tyranny of its own? I feel certain that if I had to spend 30 seconds selecting a knife every time I cut something, over the course of a year that would add up to never sending a thank-you note again. Or not washing my face. Something dire.

Run, bike, or drive to get Pork & Sons—everything you want to know about cooking a pig
From Pork & Sons, Stéphane Reynaud. Courtesy of Phaidon Press.
Run, bike, or drive to get Pork & Sons—everything you want to know about cooking a pig

I'm similarly ruthless about cookbooks: Scores, if not hundreds, pass through my house every year. (Publisher's Weekly informs me that some 3,000 books are published in America every day, though they fail to say whether that includes Groundhog Day. Either way, I think even groundhogs, with their ability to create free underground storage, would agree that's too many. Who has the room?) I admire many of the cookbooks, but the rubber hits the road at the end of the year when I see who has been admitted to my kitchen and who has been consigned to the basement. I keep a single two-foot shelf in my kitchen for the crème-de-la-crème, can't-live-without-them elite, so when I name my two best cookbooks of the year I am not just being nice. These are the books that this year banished Silver Palate and Martha Stewart to the basement. I guess the '80s really are dead.

Both my picks were originally French bestsellers, newly translated in 2007, and I don't know whether to make anything of that. There have been some interesting dustups in the world of food lately as to whether, with Spanish chefs and flavors ascendant, French cooking really matters anymore. Personally I don't see the controversy, as most of the Spanish cooking that people are loving so much looks to me like French cooking using Spanish ingredients. But perhaps this question has been reverberating more deeply in France than any American can really understand, causing the French to re-examine the basics of what, how, and why they're cooking.

Well, maybe not, as the author of The Basics is Belgian. Still, Filip Verheyden has penned a French cookbook that was a French bestseller and rocked my world. Why? Would you believe me if I told you he's managed to distill the purest elements of haute restaurant cooking into a pocket-sized photo book? He has. This thing is a peculiar little beast, like no cookbook I've ever seen. It's only six inches high, with a plain black cloth cover, gilt edges, and a red ribbon to keep your place with. It looks like a small Bible, not a cookbook. It's only about 300 pages long and consists of a mere 150 recipes or techniques, most only a sentence or two, and each illustrated by a gorgeous facing-page photograph by Tony Le Duc.

Many of the techniques aren't even that interesting to me. The book's weakest page is probably its first, which explains how to "bard" (to wrap meat in something else, like bacon or grape leaves.) But I've read hundreds of salad dressing recipes in my life, and the one here just struck me like a bolt of lightning. I'll reprint it in its entirety: "For 4: 1 cup heavy cream, juice of 1 lemon, sugar, salt, and pepper. Mix the cream and lemon juice, then season with sugar, salt, and pepper." That's it! That's all. That's the whole recipe. No exotic ingredients, no elaborate techniques, just the essence of a cream salad dressing presented in a way I've never seen. (A further "tip" adds that you can amend this with finely chopped herbs, paprika, and other flavorings, but fails to note you could also base most of haute cuisine on this combination.) Okay, some of you are thinking: Listen, crazy lady, I do not want a quarter cup of cream on my salad. Neither do I, but it's the basic-ness of the recipe that inspires me; it's like Verheyden took the last hundred years of cooking advice, embellishments, improvements, nutritional advice, and other useless rigamarole and stripped them away, leaving nothing but the basic ingredients and simplest techniques you would ever use to reach the desired end.

What I see when I look at that cream salad dressing recipe is freedom. If you're a sophisticated enough cook, you'll look at that and intuit a lifetime of variations. If you've never cooked a lick, well, I envy you—if this was your first cookbook, it would lead to such a nice and easy only-two-knives sort of life. If you don't want a nice and easy life, The Basics also distills the essence of the world's most au courant cooking techniques in 10 simple pages, explaining how to make a foie gras foam (using a nitrogen-charged whipped-cream maker), an agar-agar-based, Ferran Adria-style spinach jelly, and so on. The Basics has even changed the way I make pancakes, and I've been making pancakes since grade school. Is there any higher praise I could give a cookbook?

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