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Recipe Rebellion: A Year Of Contrarian Cookbooks

"Just throw the whole lemon in the food processor for lemon bars."
"Don't just soak your dried beans — brine them!"
"You don't need a whole day (or two) to make a good sauce."

Some of the things this year's cookbooks said to me as I tested them were downright contrarian. But that's the brilliant thing about cooking in a global, crowdsourced, Web-fueled world: People no longer cook according to some received wisdom handed down by a guy in a white toque. They figure it out as they go along, and if they stumble on a shortcut, it's blogged and shared in no time flat.

The rebels, rule breakers and renegades who rule this year's Top 10 list aren't looking for a Ph.D. in Traditional Cooking. They're pleasure seekers whose books are filled with quirky facts, gorgeous pictures, ingredients deployed in unexpected places. They're informative, thoughtful and well packaged, and traditional only in the sense that they make classic perfect gifts.

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The Sprouted Kitchen

"Whole foods blog." Ten years ago, that phrase might have drawn blank stares. But today it's a genre: a vegetable-centric but not necessarily vegetarian approach to healthy (and slightly hedonistic) eating. As a blog and as a book, Sprouted Kitchen exemplifies the winning formula: fresh visuals, easy-enough-for-everyday recipes, a willingness to mix it up with unlikely ingredient pairings. Sara Forte is particularly attentive to texture, and there's scarcely a recipe without some nuts or seeds or crisp celery dice for crunch. She's also big on everyday luxuries, like pomegranate seeds and Marcona almonds (tossed in to great effect in a brussel leaf and baby spinach saute). Meanwhile, you can almost smell the fair-trade, single-sourced coffee in husband Hugh's sharp, saturated, high-contrast images.

Modern Sauces

If the term "saucemaking" makes you think of endless hours over a pot full of bones, a sinkful of dirty sieves and another sunny weekend lost in the kitchen, you're not alone. Every year or so, it seems another new sauce book reels off the five mother sauces, in case we weren't listening the first time. But Holmberg's book is something new — a fleet book of shining potions Marie-Antoine Carême might recognize as multicultural descendants of his originals: vinaigrettes, nut sauces, fruit sauces (as well as the more traditional butter and cream varieties). Also included are generous helpings of the real-life dishes graced by these sauces. Despite her classical training, Holmberg cares more about flavor than tradition, as is finger-lickingly clear in a smashed new potato salad with warm maple-bacon vinaigrette and scallions. And though she'll show you how to make perfect scratch mayonnaise, she's OK with it if you want to use store-bought. "It's OK to cheat sometimes," Holmberg declares. Sing it, sister!

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

At the heart of Smitten Kitchen's success (both as book and blog) is a paradox: Deb Perelman is fussy about making good things simply. Be careful to get the right consistency in the dough, but don't bother making ridges on the gnocchi. Just throw the whole lemon in the Cuisinart for the lemon bars (but be sure you pick out the pits first!) Is there any reason you can't take out the beef and make a superfast portobello Mushroom Bourguignon? No, there is not, but make sure your mushrooms squeak in the pan. It's this level of detail in what are essentially easy, mostly new recipes that make this a good bet for both the clueless new cook and the older one who's plumb tired of complicated weeknight cooking — and most people in between.

The Science of Good Cooking

If you're going to buy just one of the many books put out every year by the editors at Cook's Illustrated, this is it. True, a number of the recipes have appeared in previous "best of" compilations and in the magazine itself. No matter — The Science of Good Cooking is a one-volume kitchen seminar, addressing in one smart chapter after another the sometimes surprising whys behind a cook's best practices: "Create Layers for a Breading that Sticks," "Starch Helps Cheese Melt Nicely." Did you know that if you steam vegetables before roasting, they'll become both tender and caramelized? (Try it in roasted cauliflower with sherry vinegar-honey sauce and almonds.) You get the myth, the theory, the science and the proof, all rigorously interrogated as only America's Test Kitchen can do. Do you have to cook beans four different ways to find out which one yields the tenderest skins? Not if someone else already has!

Susan Feniger's Street Food

Warning: This is a Messy Kitchen Book. It's full of fried things that will soil your backsplash, tomatoey things that will spot your apron, and sauces that will end up unidentified in Tupperware in the fridge. You might find yourself screaming when you later take out your contacts with a chile-laced fingertip. But one taste of the Singapore crab cakes with red chile sauce ought to make it clear why you should plunge right in anyway. This is food from all over the world that's so bone-suckingly good you will stop at nothing to have or make more. After a week, the book's pages will be filthy, which will only make them a better match for your bespattered kitchen.

Hiroko's American Kitchen

It's been harder for Japanese cookbooks to jump to the mainstream than other Asian cookbooks, maybe because some of the ingredients — shiso leaves, burdock, sushi-grade tuna — are harder to source, maybe because the cultural emphasis on beautiful presentation scares rushed home cooks away. But this book goes more than halfway to making Japanese flavors accessible to American home kitchens. It's organized around six main sauces, each one featuring in several fairly straightforward recipes. Although there's the extra step of making the sauce, that's it for the fuss quotient. Shimbo's recipes are full of refreshing surprises, like the grapefruit and dried apricot in a Collard Greens Salad with "BBC" (mirin, soy, wine) Tahini sauce — and just about every ingredient can be found in a well-stocked supermarket.

Jerusalem

Ottolenghi and Tamimi grew up on opposite sides of Jerusalem — one on the Jewish side, one on the Muslim side — often eating different versions of the same food, made with the same ingredients, called by different names. Cholent becomes maqluba; couscous, or ptitim, becomes maftoul; and everybody eats a ton of chickpeas. The two are not sticklers for authenticity. They insist, in defiance of grandmothers on all sides, that nobody owns the best hummus — or the best falafel, the best knaidlach, or the best koftas or tabbouleh, all of which jostle each other in tasty fellowship in this gorgeous volume. That open-minded view underlies a basic kitchen truth: When good food belongs to everyone, no one is the loser.

Canal House Cooks Every Day

If you eat with your eyes, Canal House should keep you satisfied for weeks. Contrarian foodies Hirsheimer and Hamilton broke boundaries with their gorgeous food quarterly, simmering with eye candy and full of seasonal comforts. In their book they dispense with conventions like meal categories (Appetizers, Main Courses), or ingredient categories (Poultry, Vegetables). Instead they choose to take it month by month, lavishing a half-dozen recipes at a time on strawberries in May or chanterelles in September. Even their simplest ideas, like chicken broth with spinach and little meatballs, reveal a meticulous passion on the plate and on the palate. One caveat: If you are trying to overcome an antique-china addiction, steer well clear of this book.

The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook

Maybe you bought the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook last year, stopped at "freeze-dried blueberry powder," and haven't cracked it since? Dahlia Bakery welcomes jaded bakers back to the oven the old-fashioned way: with muffins and scones and cupcakes and pastries. Here, the forms remain the same, but the content has leapt forward — a sorbet of pinot noir and raspberry, a cornmeal rosemary cake, carrot muffins with brown butter and currants. There are even step-by-step photographs for the tricky bits, featuring Dahlia's smiling young crew piping frosting on cookies, folding apple dumplings, effortlessly icing a platonically perfect cake.

Simply Sensational Cookies

It seems like only yesterday home bakers were sobbing into their mixers trying to make the perfect macaron and wishing they had just made a bake-sale brownie instead. Simply Sensational Cookies falls somewhere between the two extremes. It's a big, generous compendium of completely doable recipes that range, according to Baggett, from Fairly Easy to Extra Easy. There's certainly classics like rugelach and jam thumbprints. But there are also deceptively sophisticated-tasting newcomers like lavender-lemon meltaways or cranberry, orange, and sage cookies. The yields are dead-on accurate (no small thing in a cookie book), so you can easily factor in a dozen just for the cook.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Finally, one more cooking-related contest: the race for best cookbook of 2012. Food writer T. Susan Chang has compiled her list, and she tells us about her favorite.

T. SUSAN CHANG FOOD WRITER: I spent a lot of 2012 testing cookbooks. And what I loved about the ones that came out this year is that they were so contrarian. I mean, we're living in a globalized, crowd-sourcing world. We're not interested in taking orders from some guy in a white chef's coat. So this year's cooks are figuring it out as they go. They're stumbling on shortcuts, and as soon as they do, they're taking pictures, blogging and sharing in real time.

One great book for that kind of thing is "Susan Feniger's Street Food." I should say this book comes with a warning: You're going to get messy. It's full of fried things that'll get your backsplash dirty. There are tomatoey things that'll stain your apron. You'll end up with a fridge full of mysterious sauces. But you know what, it's worth it.

Try the Singapore crab cakes with red chili sauce, or the Ukrainian spinach dumplings with lemon marmalade and sour cream, or Burmese melon salad with ginger and green lentils. I know you'll see what I mean. This is food from all over the world, and it's bone suckingly good.

After a week, the book's pages should be spattered, your kitchen should be filthy, and you should be full. That's how you'll know you got it right.

SIEGEL: That was T. Susan Chang. Her latest book is called "A Spoonful of Promises: Stories & Recipes from a Well-Tempered Table." You can read about her other favorite cookbooks of 2012 at npr.org/bestbooks.

From a well-tempered table. You can read about her other favorite cookbooks of 2012 at npr.org/bestbooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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