With the holiday gift-buying rush upon us, this is the perfect time to focus on the books that the food, wine, and cocktail lovers in your life would be more than happy to find under their tree, by their menorah...or anywhere else, for that matter. Here are five that I strongly recommend.
Vino Argentino: An Insider’s Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina, by Laura Catena
From the Wonder-Woman of the wine world (Catena is an emergency room physician, producer of fantastic wines, and one of the most recognizable faces of Argentina’s wine industry), this book is an excellent primer on what makes Argentina such an alluring destination for wine fanatics and casual sippers alike. In fact, I began reading this book shortly after returning from a 10-day tour of the country myself, and it not only brought me back to the magic of the country, but also served to clarify and highlight certain experiences I had while there. (It also made me want to return to Argentina immediately, which, come to think of it, I've wanted to do since returning to the States back in October!)
Unlike most wine books, Vino Argentino doesn’t just focus on the juice. Instead, it serves as a tour guide through the country’s most important wine regions (with sections on their history, major players, wines, and more) and also provides an excellent sense of cultural and historical context. There are forays into the occasional technical issue, but it’s always entertaining and charmingly presented, and it’s always at the service of Catena’s larger goals: To educate consumers about her beloved country, and to share her enthusiasm for its people, its culture, its food (there are a number of fabulous recipes in the book), and, of course, its magnificent, world-class wine. She succeeds with gusto.
Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World’s Top Wine Professionals, by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay
Bringing together one of America’s most respected sommeliers and one of the field’s most accomplished wine writers, and Secrets of the Sommeliers delivers exactly what you’d expect from a team like this: Serious information--much of it informed with the kind of “insider” knowledge that these two have accrued over the years--conveyed in a way that’s both casual and compulsively readable.
The varietal guide to blind tasting is particularly useful to budding professionals and the most passionate consumers, and a rundown of the best importers to become familiar with provides a fantastically helpful guide to consumers who find themselves confused and overwhelmed when picking through the wine-store shelves. Advice on topics as diverse as food and wine pairing, wine travel, service, and making the most of auctions are very well-researched and laid out, but it’s Parr’s and Mackay’s willingness to speak truth to power, as it were, that really sets this book apart: Referring to Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay, for example, as having “the ignominious distinction of...[being] the world’s most overpriced Champagne” is gusty and bracingly refreshing. In other words, exactly what the wine world could use more of.
Speakeasy: Classic Cocktails Reimagined, from New York’s Employees Only Bar, by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric
Suddenly, somewhere along the way, cocktails became a serious business again. Maybe it’s the pendulum’s natural swing back from the ridiculousness of Carrie Bradshaw’s sugary-sweet cosmos and every crime-against-nature apple-caramel martini that we’ve ever been subjected to. Whatever the cause, serious drinks are the stuff of grown-ups once again. Finally.
Which is where Speakeasy begins, and the place from which it takes off. The recipes are excellent (after testing a number of them, I’ve become an unrepentant addict of their Secret Crush, a riff on the Champagne cocktail that calls for Llopart Cava brut rosé and Campari, and results in a compulsively drinkable treat any time of day); the advice to use real ingredients as opposed to resorting to mass-produced ones of questionable quality is well-argued (their recipe for a lime cordial, key to a good gimlet, is brilliant); and the style--well-informed, considerate, and thoroughly engaging--is just what you’d want from two of the country’s leading beverage personalities.
At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, by Madhur Jaffrey
Few cuisines intimidate home cooks quite like the ones listed above. Mention to even the most accomplished dinner-party host or hostess that you’d like to learn to prepare the emblematic dishes of South Asia, and you’re more often than not met with an uncomprehending stare that mixes fear and incredulity. Its reputation --not necessarily true, by the way--for being endlessly difficult to prepare at home, especially for unseasoned cooks, has frightened generations of people who otherwise love the food.
Madhur Jaffrey, however, not only takes the fear out of cooking the food of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, but her recipes are both approachable and utterly delicious. Start with something simple--say, roasted cashews spiced with cumin and cayenne. This is exactly the sort of deceptively simple, high-impact item to whip up for cocktail hour with friends, and perfumes the house with a scent both exotic and unarguably comforting. Move on to a Sri Lankan fish curry, which sounds daunting until you see Jaffrey’s recipe: Easy to prepare, time-effective, and, like so much else in this excellent cook book, impressive. For passionate home cooks and, frankly, anyone who loves to eat, this book is a necessary addition to the kitchen.
At Home by Steve Poses: A Caterer’s Guide to Cooking & Entertaining, by Steve Poses
As a native Philadelphian, I take a special kind of pride whenever the name Steve Poses comes up in conversation: He has done as much as anyone to put Philadelphia on the nation’s food map, and his Frog/Commissary Cookbook, written with Anne Clark and Becky Roller, informed so many of my own mother’s dishes growing up that, over the years, I mush have eaten every recipe in it.
Now, with At Home, Poses turns his attention to one of the biggest dilemmas of all: How to make the most of entertaining, well, at home. This is not an easy task: Many of us, when pressed, are happy to bake a few boxes of frozen hors d’oeuvres, cook up the same tired dishes we always do, and hope that our guests drink enough in the beginning to miss the obviously repetitive nature of the get-together.
At Home changes that.
The recipes in this book are, as always with Poses, easy to prepare and pack a serious flavor punch. Shrimp poached in coconut milk with pumpkin and cilantro pesto is exotic, decadent, and tastes like it took far longer to create than it does. Savory ricotta cheesecake flips expectations on their head and serves as an excellent, whimsical first course. But more than that, At Home provides the kind of advice and guidance that could only have come from a professional with Poses’ experience: Advice for rolling and tying napkins, microwave do’s and don’ts, a running commentary on how to successfully entertain at home, and more. It’s all here and then some, all presented in the charming, conversational voice that’s inimitably Poses’.