Once upon a time, Nordic cuisine seemed like something Mrs. Claus whipped up for Santa and his elves. That was before Noma, the revered Copenhagen-based restaurant run by Rene Redzepi, skipped the milk and cookies in favor of culinary experiments with reindeer moss and tender spruce.
By JILL WENDHOLT SILVA
The Kansas City Star
From documenting the creative process at Noma through Instagram snapshots to revealing the science behind molecular gastronomy with step-by-step recipes to teaching the art of making charcuterie, this years gift picks challenge the conventional cookbook status quo.
Some dont even have recipes. Others call it project cooking. But even if you never plan to get your hands dirty trying simple spherification (a method top chefs use to create caviar bubbles), its fun to be a part of the culinary conversation.
The Photography of Modernist Cuisine
By Nathan Myhrvold and the Cooking Lab Photography Team (The Cooking Lab; $120; modernistcuisine.com)
Its a titillating phrase, sure, but is food porn a good or bad thing?
Its a question that photographer Nathan Myhrvold ponders in an essay, but the answer hardly matters because his latest large-format book is full of superb images from a school of fish swimming in the sea to a macro-close-up of the alien-looking fruit rambutan that stand above the world of slick magazine food photography.
Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive, was the driving force behind Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, a modern culinary treatise containing 2,474 pages and 1,522 recipes. The five-part set won plenty of culinary awards, but at $625, it was out of reach both financially and technically for most home cooks.
Granted, his photography book is neither light (youll need a sturdy coffee table to perch it on) nor inexpensive. But the visual content is groundbreaking.
Myhrvold and his team use super-macro close-ups to reveal the canyons in cauliflower, and they use microscopy, a process that takes images to a cellular level.
Mastering Fermentation: Recipes for Making and Cooking With Fermented Foods
By Mary Karlin (Ten Speed Press; $29.99)
Mastering Fermentation sounds rather academic, but cooking teacher Mary Karlin taps into one of the hottest DIY trends of 2013.
Fermented foods (think sourdough bread, cheese, olives, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, beer, wine, sauerkraut or pickles) have been around for ages. While chefs have been busy with house-made pickles and sauerkraut, craft bartenders have been stashing mysterious bottles of herbal tonics and vinegary shrubs to ferment behind the bar for use in swank cocktails.
Several cookbooks with a fermenting theme crossed my desk this year, but what makes Karlins book especially appealing is the contemporary spin she puts on recipes for foods that most of us stock in our pantry, such as flavored vinegars, mustards, Asian fish sauce and even root beer.
Karlin guides novices through the basics of fermentation, including the equipment, ingredients and troubleshooting, then gives recipes for pantry basics and winds up with creative ways to cook and serve these ingredients.
In the Charcuterie: The Fatted Calfs Guide to Making Sausage, Salumi, Pates, Roasts, Confits and Other Meaty Goods
By Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller (Ten Speed Press; $40)
Scores of charcuteries and salumerias have opened across the country in recent years, and it seems chefs everywhere are trying their hand at charcuterie. But San Francisco Bay Areas Fatted Calf Charcuterie, a husband-and-wife collaboration, is surely among the most famous.
In their first book, the authors ride the craft charcuterie movement, targeting their recipes at the meat-loving home cook, DIY-types in search of a new pantry project, and professionals looking to broaden their repertoire.
After detailing provisions for your pantry, their guide offers 125 recipes for making brined, smoked, cured, skewered, braised, rolled, tied and stuffed meats at home. Included are step-by-step photos for butchering of primal cuts and mouthwatering recipes for such delicacies as whole duck confit, rabbit spiedini, porchetta, oxtail terrine, guanciale, pastrami, head cheese, foie gras, chorizo and pepperoni.
Molecular Gastronomy at Home: Taking Culinary Physics Out of the Lab and Into Your Kitchen
By Jozef Youseef (Firefly; $29.95)
OK. It was kinda fun to make fun of foam, sous-vide, spherification and meat glue, or to shake a head at new-agey pantry staples such as liquid nitrogen, dry ice and gelling agents. But when a coherent cookbook takes food science down to a laypersons level, thats no joke.
London-based chef Jozef Youseefs well-organized cookbook starts with definitions: The term molecular gastronomy has been around since the mid-2000s and is typically used to describe a style of food that has been served by such top chefs as Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck.
Still, many onlookers felt a certain discomfort with food techniques requiring equipment that looked more at home in a laboratory than a kitchen.
One of the simpler techniques, spherification, was developed by the pharmaceutical industry in the 1950s, then refined and tweaked by Adria. The main gelling component is sodium alginate, an extract of brown algae used in soups, jellies, ice cream and sauces as a flavor enhancer, stabilizer and thickener.
When sodium alginate is combined with calcium lactate and dissolved in a water bath, it forms a thin membrane around liquid and produces what is often referred to as caviar. Not so different, really, from eating fish eggs. Step-by-step photo recipes are designed for the experienced home cook willing to invest in a bit of gadgetry.
For the rest of us, well, its a demystifying read. Tap your inner geek and remember that just because you understand how sausage is made doesnt mean you have to make your own links.
A Work in Progress Journal, Recipes and Snapshots
By Rene Redzepi (Phaidon; $59.95)
For those who have wondered about what goes on in the mind of one of the worlds greatest chefs, the editors at Phaidon have figured out how to give armchair thrill-seekers a window into the raw and sometimes gritty process of creating a cuisine.
The journey to push beyond each dish and create a coherent, edible language that reflects a sense of place is laced with fear, self-doubt, a loathing of the media, adrenaline rushes, eureka moments and all the expletives of modern kitchen parlance.
Young chef Rene Redzepis three-book experiment works at the gut level, and its so refreshing to see that come to fruition in something considered low-tech. Redzepis yearlong journal chronicles his emotions from near burnout to those creative genius-juiced moments that have placed Noma, his unlikely local-food restaurant in Copenhagen, at the top of the list of greatest restaurants in the world.
Redzepi is quickly gaining the sort of mystique Ferran Adria had before closing El Bulli, an out-of-the-way culinary mecca where many of the elements of molecular cuisine were unveiled. At Noma, the focus is on what many chefs might create from a seemingly barren landscape.
Limitations breed creativity as Redzepi and his chefs continue to push the edges of cuisine and chart new territory in a brand-new kitchen laboratory. Ideas, such as Trash Cooking, or finding elegant ways to serve up trimmings that might be headed for the trash, and Nordic ingredients such as reindeer moss, reindeer tongue and tender spruce stretch the imagination.
Although the journal is annotated to allow readers to jump among the journal, the recipes and the Instagram shots, the three books can be experienced in any order. It is highly doubtful many people would ever cook from these recipes, but the insight into the creative process is fascinating.