Favorite Cookbooks of 2013: the writer’s edition

It’s 2014. Have you started writing the correct year on your checks yet?

(Wait, does anyone still write checks?)

Since the new year began, we’ve had brunch with 2 dozen of our closest friends, swam with our daughter, made dinner for more friends, played, laughed, and waited for our daughter to go to sleep. (She’s such a night owl.) And then I flew to San Francisco for three days by myself, to attend book launch parties and hang out with friends in Dolores Park in nearly 70-degree weather.

(Midwest and East Coast readers, I apologize for that sentence.)

2013? That feels like soooo long ago.

Still, I’ve had this post in draft form for at least two weeks, and I’m determined to share it before it’s 2015.

(Can we talk about how wonderful it is to have the kiddo home for 2 full weeks without any school or childcare? Long, slow mornings. Family game night. Afternoons at the pool. Dance parties. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. Can we talk about how wonderful it is to have school start again? I can actually finish a post!)

* * *

There were so many wonderful cookbooks published this year. In fact, it feels like every year means more cookbooks. Not all of them are good. Some of them are atrocious. (Nope, I’m not naming names.) But some of them are wonderful. And some of them will stay on our shelves forever.

You know it’s a good year when Mollie Katzen finally comes out with a new cookbook. So many of us learned to cook from Mollie, including me in my vegetarian days. But what I love most about her new book, The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation, is that you don’t have to be a vegetarian to love these recipes. When the vegetables are the heart of the plate, everything tastes better. (And it certainly is easier to plan a healthy meal that’s entirely delicious when vegetables are at the heart of the plate.) Mollie’s book is a gift.

I don’t actually have to tell you about The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, do I? Hasn’t everyone in the US bought this book by now? If not, you should buy it for yourself. So good.

When I went to retrieve the url for Vietnamese Home Cooking, I discovered it was published in 2012. Oops! Well, this one lasts. I’m looking forward to the halibut vermicelli with dill and pineapple-anchovy sauce soon.

For years, I’ve been so focused on baked goods that I’ve forgotten all those delightful desserts that don’t require combining flours. I’m not eating that much sugar right now, so I’m going to be a disappointment in the dessert department for most readers right now. But there’s no need for me to make you custards, puddings, and whipped fluffs when Faith Durand did such a great job of it in Bakeless Sweets: Pudding, Panna Cotta, Fluff, Icebox Cake, and More No-Bake Desserts. I blurbed this book, so I had a chance to play with the recipes early. So much of it is naturally gluten-free!

A poached egg on top of braised dark greens? Well, that’s my breakfast nearly every day these days, with a bit of variation. How could I not love Put an Egg on It: 70 Delicious Dishes That Deserve a Sunny Topping, especially when it’s written by our friend Lara Ferroni, who photographed our first cookbook? Sure, there are plenty of breakfast ideas here, but there are wonderful savory dishes too, like pan-fried catfish with creamed mushrooms and poached eggs.

The first meal I ever cooked by myself was macaroni and cheese. Sure, my process involved folding American-cheese-type food into squares and melting them with skim milk and a block of bright-orange cheese, but I was so proud of myself. These days, my daughter has a more refined palate than I did at 8. She loves the luscious photographs of macaroni and cheese she sees in Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese. I pretty much want one of everything in here. There are plenty of gluten-free options in this one as well.

Sarah Copeland is one of the loveliest people I have ever met, and her book, Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, is just as lovely. There’s no deprivation in these recipes. I’m crazy about the tomato, red pepper, and feta cazuela. In fact, you could just block out the word vegetarian in the title and please your friends with any dish in this stunning book.

I’m not vegan but I love Plum: Gratifying Vegan Dishes from Seattle’s Plum Bistro. Somehow, I still haven’t visited Plum in person, but we’ll be taking care of that soon. This book is filled with vibrant vegetable dishes and interesting takes on traditional dishes, such as basil soy ricotta. I can’t wait for summer so I can have grilled plum and jicama salad with radicchio. There’s a great technique for making egg replacer in this book that might be worth the price alone. And, much of the book is naturally gluten-free.

Our friend Melissa Lanz created something great with The Fresh20, a meal plan that helps families cook healthy meals every week, without much fuss. (We have an affiliate program with The Fresh20, since they feature a gluten-free meal plan too.) Melissa’s book, The Fresh 20: 20-Ingredient Meal Plans for Health and Happiness 5 Nights a Week is just what you need if you want to eat real food and don’t know where to start.

Finally, I’m pretty much obsessed with every fermented foods these days. Kombucha! Sauerkraut! Kimchi! Sourdough starter! (I’m a geek!) Mastering Fermentation: Recipes for Making and Cooking with Fermented Foods is a great start for those of us who want to start making foods that feed our guts, deliciously.

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I really did enjoy and cook out of all the above cookbooks. But these are the ones that will still be on our shelves years from now.

Joe Yonan’s Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook is more than a vegetarian book. Joe’s flavor combinations always astound me. He’s funny, smart as a whip, and clearly interested in eating well every single meal. He’s eating chicken-fried cauliflower steaks with a miso-onion gravy, kale and caramelized onion quesadillas, and kimchi deviled eggs. And he’s offering them to you. I’m aware of new vinaigrettes and dressings these days; I think they’re the key to making simple preparations interesting. Joe’s sour plum vinaigrette drizzled over fresh radishes is one of my favorite snacks. Seriously, you cannot go wrong with this book.

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We all know we should eat healthy food in order to live well. But finding “healthy” cookbooks that are filled with delicious recipes is hard to do. Somehow, we’ve come to believe that healthy has to be devoid of taste. Rebecca Katz’s The Longevity Kitchen: Satisfying, Big-Flavor Recipes Featuring the Top 16 Age-Busting Power Foods [120 Recipes for Vitality and Optimal Health] makes utterly delicious dishes while featuring foods that feel healthy at the same time. I love the braised chicken with anchovies and olives, the sweet potato bars, the yogurt berry brulee with maple-almond brittle, the sweet and sour Asian cabbage and kale, and the swiss chard and roasted butternut squash tart. It’s all quite easy to make gluten-free, if it isn’t already free of gluten. This book is vibrant.

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Someday, I’ll get back to Paris, bringing Danny and Lu with me this time. But until then, I’ll just cook from Clotilde Dusoulier’s The French Market Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes from My Parisian Kitchen. I’ve known Clotilde for many years now, from this crazy blogging connection. And I’ve always loved her understated nature, her clear joy, and her indefatigable passion for discovering new foods. Her latest book is by far her best. Even though Clotilde is not a vegetarian, like Danny and I, she’s driven by her desire to eat seasonal vegetables in interesting ways. (Vegetables really are the heart of our meals.) This is such a cheerful, fascinating book that I feel like I’ll be cooking out of it for years. Clotilde’s seaweed tartare, mushroom broth with Parisian gnocchi, and and eggplant and black olive caviar are drawing me to the kitchen these days. 

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Oh, Nigel Slater.

What can I say about him that hasn’t been said already? He’s the quiet magician of everyday food, managing to make my daily kale intake new by offering me kale with chorizo and almonds. Honestly, every time I open Notes from the Larder: A Kitchen Diary with Recipes, I get new ideas for cooking. Sometimes, I grow a little dizzy. I want to make every single recipe in this book. I’ve started reading a page a day, geek that I am, on the day that Slater recorded. Tomorrow, on January 9th, is ham with artichoke and parsley sauce. That might just be lunch tomorrow.

Everything about this book speaks to be deeply, in its humble way. This one will always be with me.

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Right away, I have to tell you that I am terribly, terribly biased about this book. Melissa Joulwan, who wrote Well Fed 2: More Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat with her equally talented husband, Dave, has become one of my favorite people in the world this year. My brother and sister-in law have Melissa’s first book, Well Fed: Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat, and I looked at it many times at their house. But I’ll admit to my first bias, that word: paleo. Yeah, whatever, I used to think. I don’t want to be a caveman. Folks, the paleo community needs a new PR rep. As Melissa explains — and talks about often on her website, The Clothes Make the Girl — this way of living and eating isn’t about replicating the foods and movements of Paleolithic man. (Guess what? That’s not possible.) Instead, it’s about eating real food, food without preservatives and weird food dyes and food groups that might be inflammatory for some folks. It’s about knowing where your food comes, cooking it all, and having a darned fine time doing it. I believe in all of that.

Well, that’s Melissa’s food at least. It doesn’t matter if you live paleo or eat grains every day. This is damned fine food.

Melissa sent me a copy of Well Fed 2: More Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat and we started writing. And writing. And writing. She’s my favorite daily penpal now. (I’ve never met anyone else who loves Jane Eyre as much as I do.) We’re kindred spirits. And in San Francisco this last weekend, we spent about 14 straight hours in a row talking fast and laughing.

What does this have to do with her cookbook? Because Mel is in love with good food. She loves jicama home fries, lizard sauce, Reuben rollups, crispy chicken livers, thyme-braised beef short ribs, stuffed grape leaves, and west African chicken stew. She adores Japanese sweet potatoes, cumin, and cauliflower. Her father was a chef and she learned to play with her food early on. So she’s entirely comfortable in the kitchen and she wants you to be there too. This is a book meant to march you right into the kitchen, start laughing and feed yourself and the people you love.

You don’t have to be on the paleo diet for this book to become quickly food-stained. Everything, everything in this book is gluten-free. Start cooking.

Damn you, Mel. I think I need another round of those Thai chicken cakes now.

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I hate the phrase Nom Nom. Right? And as I said above, I had my grave doubts about the word paleo before I started looking at it more closely for myself. So how could I love a cookbook called Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans? Because it might be the best cookbook I’ve ever seen.

I’m not kidding. This is a cookbook for people who truly love food, who aren’t afraid of liver or making siracha sauce from scratch or playing with macadamia nuts to make them into ricotta. This is a cookbook for moms and dads who want to feed their kids well without ever dumbing down that food. This is a cookbook with recipes for foods like plantain fritters, spicy coconut shrimp, curried cream of broccoli soup, king oyster mushroom chips, carrot and ginger soup, and prosciutto-wrapped frittata muffins. Not only do I want to make everything in this book (and I will), but Danny does too. So does Lucy. It’s the first cookbook we’ve owned that equally pleases all three of us.

Also, the beef-bacon-cremini mushroom burgers served on top of roasted portobello mushrooms. Would it be wrong to make them every night? Well, yes. But I do think about them, often.

Finally, this is possibly the cutest cookbook ever created. And the most clever. Michelle and Henry have the best look for a website — have you seen the cartoons they have for themselves? — and they designed the book themselves, page by page. This cookbook is an act of love from two uber-smart food geeks who want to feed their kids as best they can.

Again, I’m biased. I eat more paleo than not these days, in my own way, without calling it that. (I just eat real food, folks.) Michelle has been an enormous help to me as I have figured out my own path more clearly. This past weekend, I flew down to San Francisco just to attend Michelle and Henry’s book party. (And hang out with Mel.) I wanted to help celebrate them and this huge accomplishment.

Seriously, buy this book.

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So I can’t eat gluten. I’m not eating many baked goods this day. I gave up sugar this summer. And I feel better without a lot of rich treats like French buttercream. So how in the world could Robicelli’s: A Love Story, with Cupcakes: With 50 Decidedly Grown-Up Recipes be my absolutely favorite book of 2013?

That’s easy. It’s the funniest damned book I have ever read.

Poor Danny. Every night, in bed, I read, then laugh until I snort, then elbow him in the side, and then make him stop reading whatever he is reading, so I can read him something like this headnote for apple-maple crisp cupcakes instead:

“Every apple-picking day we return with roughly one hundred pounds of apples to be eaten by two adults and two small children. Truthfully, I end up eating about six apples a year, so I don’t know who I’m kidding bringing home all these g-d-n apples. I tell myself, ‘I’m going to make a bunch of my famous apple pies,’ but even if I do find the time between being a mom, keeping up with the house, running a business, and screwing around on the internet, at best I’m going to use up a small fraction of those apples. Plus, for every time I’ve promised it, I’ve never actually gotten around to making a single pie.(next year, though! For real!). We could make a giant pot of applesauce before the entire lot of it rots, but no one likes applesauce that much. When was the last time you watched someone eat a giant bowl of applesauce?”

And Danny closes his eyes hard, and I wait for the noise to arrive, after he snaps his head back into place, and finally starts to laugh. I wait a moment, read another paragraph, and elbow him in the side again. The other night, I kept him up until 1 am doing this.

Look, I’m not sure I’ll ever make a single recipe out of this book. Maybe? I could play with the black coffee chocolate cake, make it with maple syrup and my favorite grain-free flour mix, and make some variation on the Bea Arthur cupcake. (I love that Robicelli is so obsessed with The Golden Girls. I understand.) But I’m not sure I will.

But I’m never letting go of this book. Robicelli and her husband Matt are indelible characters, confident and hilarious, full of love for each other, Brooklyn, and the chaos of running a small business together. Every time I open a page of this book, I start laughing. Who is going to give up that?

Oh, by the way, I’ve landed myself in hot water with a clutch of people who were mortally offended that I used the f-word in one of our books and one post on this site. You folks? You’re probably not reading this anyway. But you definitely don’t want to buy Robicelli’s: A Love Story, with Cupcakes: With 50 Decidedly Grown-Up Recipes. Robicelli swears like a drunken sailor on a late-night desperate binge. And I love her for it.

“Yes, there will be plenty of foul language in this book. Four-letter words, seven-letter word — we’re also planning to make up some brand-spanking new ones just for this book because this is kinda a big deal for us. While there are people out there who may take issue with the cursing, I need to remind you that this is pretty much a cornerstone of our native tongue. I could argue that I find it just as offensive when people butcher the English language by saying things like ‘y’all,” ‘arsle,’ ‘hella,’ or ‘Kardashian.’ If it wasn’t for curse words and grandiose hand gestures, I don’t know if Brooklynites would even be able to communicate.”

So you’ve been warned. If you cannot tolerate a swear word (or 4300 of them), you don’t want to buy Robicelli’s: A Love Story, with Cupcakes: With 50 Decidedly Grown-Up Recipes. If you have a sense of humor and you don’t mind looking at some kick-ass cupcakes you might not be able to eat, join me in putting this book by your bed and laugh yourself to sleep every night.


We love the last three books on this list of our favorite cookbooks so much that we want to give away a copy of Well Fed 2: More Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat, or Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans, or Robicelli’s: A Love Story, with Cupcakes: With 50 Decidedly Grown-Up Recipes to three readers here. Just leave a comment as to why you are interested in these books and we’ll get a copy of one of them out to you. (Winners will be chosen at random on Wednesday, January 15th, at which time comments will be closed.) Thanks!

175 comments on “Favorite Cookbooks of 2013: the writer’s edition

    1. Stacey

      I love learning about new ways to prepare food. These cookbooks sound fantastic. I spend my time reading cookbooks and food blogs and then cooking fresh food from the organic markets in California. I am always on the lookout for new cookbooks that make me think outside the box. These cookbooks seem to hit on all levels.

  1. --anu

    I too struggle with the paleo. I don’t like the cavemanness that goes with it. Yet for years we have been working towards eating less and less processed and more and more local and pure. I have been browsing paleo books from the library and if I skip the introductions/whys then the food seems pretty awesome. I would love to expand my horizons with your favorites. And the cupcake book? I think I will look it up in the bookstore, I still haven’t picked up a wall calendar so a visit is in order :)

  2. Ada

    I’d love either of the paleo cookbooks because like you, I’ve been moving more towards the “paleo” lifestyle without calling it that. In fact, I was elated to notice the recipes on your site shifting in that direction a while ago! Anyway, when I made the change at the beginning of last year, I didn’t seek out any new cookbooks because I didn’t feel I needed to learn any new skills or techniques (unlike learning gluten-free baking, for example), but since then, I’ve started looking at paleo cookbooks for inspiration because I know I won’t have to modify the recipes or skip any of the ingredients.

  3. Jenn

    Great list, Shauna – I would love to get Nom Nom Paleo for my mother – she recently had to become grain free and has been looking for recipe inspiration :)

  4. laura in sp

    Any book that you call “the best cookbook I’ve ever seen.” piques my interest. Plus my daughter often says nom nom. It is fate.

  5. Kristy

    I really want to fuckin win these awesome cookbooks! I too gave up sugar (1 year anniversary coming up) but not laughing or joy of food : )

  6. Kami

    Tough decision but Well Fed wins out. It calls to my practical side. Loved this series about your favorite cook books!

  7. Linda

    I’m not into Paleo but I love cookbooks and often sit down and read one like a novel. I’d love a cookbook. Trying to give up sugar.

  8. Brooke

    As both the paleo cookbooks are on my ‘buy when I actually have space for anymore cookbooks in my tiny, tiny London flat’, I’d love either of those two! :)

  9. cory

    I have Well Fed as an e book, and it has occurred to me several times as I’m trying not to get my laptop greasy that maybe a print version might be slightly more practical (I haven’t graduated to an ipad yet, I’m still nursing along my old macbook). I’d love to get a copy of Well Fed 2!

  10. Naomi

    Like you, I have an unfounded bias of the the word Paleo or any kind of diets in general, but with such an amazing review of the book/author I’m going to check it out. I also can’t deny my sweet massive sweet tooth (plus I’m pregnant so why should I) so I’ll most likely be checking out the decidedly adult desserts in Robicelli’s book.

  11. Kathryn

    I’ve just read Farmacology by Daphne Miller, MD and am now reading her earlier book, The Jungle Effect. Maybe paleo is somewhat like what she calls indigenous diets – without a lot of the current processed foods too many of us eat.

  12. Kelly Marino

    I have heard so many good things about Nom Nom Paleo that I am dying to get my hands on it! A whole cookbook devoted to real food that is also GF makes me very happy

  13. Laura

    Hi! I am vegetarian, but find I have been going to paleo blogs much more these days than veggie ones for new ideas and inspiration on how to prepare food. I agree, a PR rep is needed for them. Perhaps the term “real foodies” would not garner such strong judgements!

  14. Natalie Gibbs

    Loved this post. I would love to have Nom nom. As a mother to a picky toddler, I would love a resource to provide tasty unprocessed foods.

  15. Sarah

    Oh all the books sound fabulous – thanks for leading me to them. Any of your last three would be an awesome addition to our cookbook library.

  16. Jen

    These all sound wonderful! I’ve been eyeing both Well Fed and Nom Nom, and would love them both. The cupcake sounds like a great read – hilarious!! Thanks for the recommendations!!!!

  17. Marisa Miller

    Robicelli’s is in my Amazon cart. She’s so funny on Twitter that even though I don’t really dig cupcakes, I want to read it for the writing. Knocking that off the list would mean I could afford Growing a Feast…….

  18. Karen

    My Amazon wish list just got longer again, and now I have to move out some more cookbooks to make room. I will wait until after the drawing before I order, just in case. I so appreciate your books, and also these introductions to books I may never have given a second glance before.

  19. Denise M

    Oh my gosh, Nom Nom Paleo is on my next to buy list on Amazon. I love Well Fed 1 and 2, they are easy recipes and great ideas. I am not entirely Paleo yet but heading that way. Thanks for the other great recommendations

  20. Chelsea

    I’d love the Robicelli book in part because I do like a good cupcake, but because I love humor in food writing. It just fits! Food, and what we do with it, and the situations it appears in, are funny. It is refreshing to see cookbook headnotes taking form as anecdotes and conversations, as opposed to the straight-forward “this is what this dish is and what you should serve it with.”
    And I’d love the paleo books, too, because they would help me understand this lifestyle I don’t have a firm grip on.

  21. Jeannine