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2011's Best Cookbooks: Revenge Of The Kitchen Nerds

For years they've toiled in the kitchens and at the tables, accumulating skills, smarts and lore. They've traveled the unknown fringes of heavily touristed countries in search of endangered recipes. They've spent long months studying exactly what happens to any given kind of food in a 400-degree oven. They've broken the code to discover what those most enigmatic eaters — children younger than 12 — will really eat. Who are these mystery mavens? And why have they all chosen to publish this year?

It's been said that we're living through something of a technical moment in cookbook publishing, with test kitchens and modernist cuisine-ists and the eternal debate over whether the paper cookbook is dead (short answer: No!). Yet some of this year's best cookbooks came from very different kinds of nerds — culinary scholars, veteran authors, even serious home kitchens. With their rich sense of place, precise grasp of smart cooking practices and cultural depth, these books come to life freely — and flavorfully — into our home kitchens in a way even the sexiest handheld evaporator would be hard pressed to match.

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2011's Best Cookbooks: Revenge Of The Kitchen Nerds

Cook This Now

by Melissa Clark

At least three people I personally know have had their lives changed by the recipe for roasted cauliflower with pomegranate seeds, mint and salted yogurt in this book. Now, most of us know these days that a roasted vegetable is a thing of beauty. But what Clark does so well in this and many other recipes is to tweak easy dishes just far enough that they become interesting again, but not so far that they become difficult. She does it with granola and shortbread, she does it with Brussels sprouts and couscous. Professional food columnist or not, Clark is at heart a home cook's home cook, with a flair for practical innovation. If you're finding your weeknight cooking routine has a little room for improvement, then make a little room on the shelf for this one.

The Food of Spain

by Claudia Roden

I am going to go out on a limb and say that Claudia Roden could do for Spanish food what Julia Child did for French food or Diana Kennedy did for Mexican food. Exhaustive without being exhausting, The Food of Spain offers up historical insights into each of the wildly diverse cooking regions of Spain in a series of introductory essays. But the recipes are the real prize here. They're thick with saffron and tomatoes, crowned with almonds and garlic and ordinary parsley. Roden is a master of succinct command, and a realist when it comes to the American supermarket. (Just try her recipe for Baked Rice With Currants And Chickpeas.) It's rare to see such a balance between scholarship and usability; such subtlety, however, will be the last thing on your mind when you've had your first taste of meatballs in almond sauce.

All About Roasting

by Molly Stevens

Roasting has always seemed a little like magic to me — the way you can pop a dish in the oven and then, after a decent interval and with no further effort whatsoever, pull it out in all its golden-brown perfection. Stevens is the best author I know when it comes to single techniques. She's meticulous on the science (did you know there's a perfect temperature at which a roast should rest?), smart about cooking tips, and pragmatic when it comes to ingredients. You get a standard formula when you need it — leg of lamb, roast chicken, sear-roasted salmon. But her variations are just unexpected enough to keep you coming back for more. A rainbow pantheon of roasted vegetables, including the anything-but-boring Quick-Roasted Green Beans And Shallots With Garlic And Ginger Juice, rounds out the book and is, in itself, worth the cost of admission.

The Food52 Cookbook

by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

It sometimes seems like every other food blog steams off to the hardcover highway by the time it hits its first birthday, so it's no great surprise that the popular Food52 blog has gone to print. What's surprising is that the result holds so much bookish appeal. The recipes are idiosyncratic but clear, the photographs are top-notch, the headnotes add just enough value, and there's something for everyone in the food, from crowd-pleasing Zucchini Pancakes to elegant Risotto Rosso. And isn't it heartwarming that something as ephemeral as a blog, about something as transient as food, might be just good enough to make it to your permanent bookshelf? Take a bow, home cooks. All those years spending half your day in the kitchen making an intimate dinner for four have finally paid off.

What Chefs Feed Their Kids

by Fanae Aaron

Imagine the life of a chef who is also a parent — the backbreaking hours, the sleepless nights, the pleas for snack and homework help right at service time. You may think you have it hard with your picky eater, but compared to these parents, you probably don't. In this book you won't see cupcakes decorated with M&M's or raisins arranged to look like ants on a celery stick. This is real food — curried chickpea salad, brown rice risotto with spring greens. It's made in a hurry and it's seasoned to please. Find me a kid who is eating Barbara Lynch's Japanese Pancakes and I will show you a kid whose whole worldview regarding vegetables is about to change.

The Country Cooking of Italy

by Colman Andrews

With only 10 spots on this list, I ended up splitting one between two fine cookbooks — The Country Cooking of Italy and Lidia's Italy in America (below) — because while both deal in some fashion with the Italian culinary experience, they are otherwise almost polar opposites. Country Cooking is probably the most authentic book you'll find in the enormous rustic-Italian field this year. It's a showcase for slow food at its source, the type of cooking in which hours of bean-soaking lead, in the fullness of time, to a soul-warming Pasta E Fagioli.

Lidia's Italy in America

by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali

Lidia Bastianich's book — in contrast to Colman Andrews' Country Cooking of Italy — is a treasure trove of crowd-pleasing gutbusters (e.g., Baked Stuffed Shells, Spaghetti With Breaded Shrimp) proudly served at many a 2 p.m. Sunday supper table in the exurbs. Although I believe the two authors may actually be friends, I like to imagine that if you placed Andrews' and Bastianich's books shoulder to shoulder on a bookshelf, they'd get into a shoving match until one of them fell off, splattering red sauce everywhere on the way down.

The Food of Morocco

by Paula Wolfert

Is there anyone who can fall more completely in love with the food of one country than Paula Wolfert? Although Wolfert is known for her profound immersion and expertise in many Mediterranean cuisines, it's Morocco where she started and Morocco where she's returned, again and again. These are closely observed, detail-oriented recipes, and few could be described as really casual. With equal aplomb Wolfert presents banquet food like the myriad-layered bastilas, and slowly savory all-in-ones like Chicken Tagine With Prunes And Almonds. I would, perhaps, hesitate to present this book to those newly graduated from ramen and pizza. But for the fearless cook who travels by chopping board and stovetop rather than by plane, this kind of book is sugared with erudition and brimming with rewards.

Ruhlman's Twenty

by Michael Ruhlman

Ruhlman's Twenty is an endearingly geeky, earnest tome from one of the cooking world's best technical popularizers. In his drive to reach and instruct the rank beginner, Ruhlman sometimes reminds me of nothing so much as a 21st-century Irma Rombauer (she who so famously wrote in the first Joy of Cooking: "Stand, facing the stove"). Are there other ways to attain the perfect golden brown crust? A moist, fully cooked chicken breast? The platonically crunchiest pecans for Caramel-Pecan Ice Cream? Perhaps. But they may not come with a sherpa as sure-footed as Ruhlman. With his emphasis on consistent results and close observation, Ruhlman has become a touchstone for a certain kind of technically oriented cook. I also couldn't help but be impressed that he's deadly serious about flavor, and he doesn't care if it's going to take 16 tablespoons of butter to get there.

American Flavor

by Andrew Carmellini

The popular image of a chef's life is one of rigor, perfectionism and focus; that focus can sometimes narrow a chef's perspective when it comes time to write for a popular audience. But Andrew Carmellini's book is arresting for its ease and breadth. It's a step back from his life under the toque, to reconnect with his roots in food, which seem to extend all over this country. Where else will you find Hawaiian Spam musubi in the same book as lamb tagine with green olives? The traces of a chef's painstaking craft are here if you look, in the way Carmellini adds just one more careful layer of flavor or texture at a point when most of us would call it done; cooking orzo like a pilaf and dosing it with handfuls of scallion and lemon and Greek yogurt, brightening Swiss chard with apricots and sunflower seeds. But it's obvious Carmellini doesn't just love to cook. The guy loves to eat, and his palate is fiercely democratic. Accordingly, just about anybody should find something to love in his book.

The Rosie's Bakery All-Butter, Cream-Filled, Sugar-Packed Baking Book

by Judy Rosenberg

I don't mind admitting that this is a contrarian choice. Today's dessert cookbooks are dominated by specialists — the cupcake divas, the macaron acolytes, the cookie goddesses. They're appealing, focused and sometimes frantically elegant. But when it comes to everyday baking and fearless indulgence, I'm willing to bet you'll be relieved to have this rather old-fashioned book on hand. It's true that many of these recipes — the famous Chocolate Orgasm brownies, the rugalah — are old favorites from previous Rosie's cookbooks. But for all their familiarity, how can anyone resist a perfectly crafted glazed lemon cookie or raspberry thumbprint? The book is an overflowing melange of old, new and in-between, and somehow you can't see all these sweets together between two covers without being overwhelmed by their sheer over-the-top, come-on-in generosity.

T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.