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End the year on a sweet or savory note with chef Kathy Gunst's favorite cookbooks of 2021

Chef Kathy Gunst’s top three favorite cookbooks of the year. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
Chef Kathy Gunst’s top three favorite cookbooks of the year. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

We baked sourdough. We learned to use pantry foods in creative ways. And, during these past two pandemic years, many who never bothered to spend much time in the kitchen found themselves finally learning how to cook.

And here we are at the cusp of 2022 with an abundance of great new cookbooks to expand our kitchen repertoire. Books that take us on trips around the world, learning the secrets and treasured recipes of cooks from varied cultures. In this time when travel is still complex, cooking your way around the world may be the best bet for learning about new cuisines.

Every year when I go through the massive pile of new cookbooks that accumulate on my office floor, I find myself seeking inspiration. This year, in particular, and without even being fully conscious of it, I looked for help making vegetables take center stage on my dinner plate. I grew up with poultry and meat at the center of every meal. And while I adore cooking vegetables, they tend to wind up on the side. So I was — and wasn't — surprised to see that many of my favorite books this year focus on new and innovative ways to cook vegetables and make them the star of the meal.

From an English vegetable garden to a vegan Korean kitchen, and a New York baker to immigrant cooks in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, this group of new cookbooks will encourage you to experiment with new flavors and techniques and learn about cultures from around the world in your own kitchen.

"Life Is What You Bake It: Recipes, Stories, and Inspiration to Bake Your Way to the Top" by Vallery Lomas (Clarkson Potter)

Let's start with dessert.

Vallery Lomas was a lawyer who loved to bake. She received a call to be a contestant on "The Great American Baking Show" (the American version of the popular "Great British Bake Off") and won the competition! But one of the hosts was accused of sexual misconduct, the show was canceled and the final episode announcing Lomas' win never aired.

Writing about that experience, Lomas says: "When you knead dough, it's a glob in a bowl. After a while it rises, only to have the air knocked out of it from being punched down. But that punching down actually enables it to rise a second time. Kneaded dough may appear stagnant, but it doesn't stay down for long. ... Like the transformative, metamorphic magic of bread dough, I had been punched down and have risen again."

This beautiful book, full of breads, cakes, cookies and tarts is a testament to Lomas' tenacity and perseverance.

This summer I tried her One-Bowl Blueberry Buckle because it looked too simple to be true. But it was a quick, simple fruit dessert that will now become part of my summer repertoire. Over Thanksgiving, my son-in-law and I made Lomas' Old-School Dinner Rolls. The instructions were precise and the rolls, glazed with a buttery sheen, almost stole the focus from the turkey and stuffing. The rolls were soft, perfectly risen and golden brown. Be sure to try her Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Brownies, Candied Sweet Potato Pie and Hot Skillet Cornbread.

Recipe: Old-school dinner rolls

Makes 3 dozen rolls.

My Great-Great Aunt Hester perfected these dinner rolls over a century ago. I've updated them using modern appliances so that anyone can make them with ease. These rolls are fluffy and buttery with a hint of sweetness. They bake up next to one another on the pan, and pulling a warm roll off to enjoy straight from the oven is super satisfying.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups (480ml) warm water
  • 2 large eggs
  • 4 tablespoons (55g) unsalted butter, melted, plus 6 tablespoons (85g) unsalted or salted butter
  • ½ cup (100g) granulated sugar
  • 2 (¼-ounce/7g) packages instant yeast
  • 7 cups (875g) all-purpose flour, plus extra as needed
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Oil, for the bowl
  • Flaky sea salt for sprinkling (optional)
  • Instructions

  • Make ahead: Steps 1 and 2 can be done up to 24 hours in advance. Transfer the bowl of dough to the refrigerator, covered, after step 2. The cold air slows the rising process, and a slower rise yields a richer flavor. When ready to bake, remove the dough from the fridge and punch it down before shaping.
  • Add the liquids to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook: the warm water, eggs, and 4 tablespoons melted butter. Then add the dry ingredients: the sugar, yeast, 7 cups flour, and 1 tablepoon salt. Knead on low speed until all the ingredients come together, about 2 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and continue to knead until the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl, 8 to 10 minutes. (It won't form a ball around the hook, and that's okay.)
  • Lightly oil the largest bowl in your kitchen, and transfer the dough to it. The dough will be very sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel and let rise until the dough doubles in size, about 1 hour.
  • Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter and set aside to allow the butter to cool slightly, but remain melted. (If you've got salted butter, this is a great time to use it.) Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Use your hands to deflate the risen dough (what we call "punching it down")—really get in there so that no air pockets remain. Tip the dough out onto a floured work surface and roll it to a rectangle 18 by 12 inches—it should be about ½ inch thick. Use a 2½-inch round cutter to stamp out the dough as close together as possible (to minimize the dough scraps). Lightly gather those scraps and pat it into a ½-inch-thick sheet. Stamp out more dough circles until no dough remains. You may need a second baking sheet.
  • This next step requires a little technique. Lightly dip both sides of each round in the room-temperature melted butter. You want a thin coat, not a total dunk. (To do this, my mom would melt the butter in a small saucepan and tilt the pan so the butter went to one side, then she'd dip the circle on the other side where there was just a coating of buttery residue.)
  • After being dipped in butter, transfer the circle to the prepared baking sheet. Continue to dip and transfer, lining up the rolls on the baking sheet so they just touch. Be sure to use a light hand—the dough does not like to be handled.
  • Let the dough rise again, until the rolls are puffed up and springy to the touch, 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the temperature in your kitchen.
  • Preheat the oven to 400°F and place a rack in the center of the oven. Bake the rolls until the tops are golden brown, about 10 to 14 minutes. Remove the rolls from the oven and brush with melted butter. If you used unsalted butter for finishing, sprinkle the tops lightly with a few pinches of flaky salt; if you used salted butter, skip the additional salt. Serve.
  • Storage: These rolls are meltingly delicious straight from the oven, but you can store them by wrapping the room-temperature rolls tightly in foil and freezing them. To reheat frozen rolls, bake in the oven, foil and all, at 400°F until hot. In fact, these freeze so well that my mom has started making the rolls for Thanksgiving a week in advance! It's one less day-of thing to do on her holiday baking checklist.

    Reprinted from Life Is What You Bake It. Copyright © 2021 by Vallery Lomas. Photographs copyright © 2021 by Linda Xiao. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.

    "Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower: How to cook with vegetables and other plants" by Gill Meller (Quadrille)

    Leaf through a few pages of this stunning new book and you'll have at least a dozen recipes flagged, dishes you feel you must make. Gill Meller is an award-winning chef and food writer who lives in Dorset, England. His writing verges on the poetic.

    For instance, read this paragraph in the introduction to his new book:

    "There is a point, I think, in life, when we become aware of the fragility of it all — we see the plaster on the fractures, the balance scale — but there is some good to be taken from this. I've begun to feel more engaged with life and things that grow than I ever have before (perhaps this happens when we know we are going to lose something). There used to be so many things that seemed irrelevant to me, or that I simply didn't notice, that now have real importance. ... Changing the way we eat is one way to do some good in a world crying out for help. One of the best things we can do is eat as much locally grown, seasonal fruit and vegetables as possible."

    Meller pays attention to the food he grows in his garden and in the woods around him. The book is divided by season, and the winter chapter had me rethinking the root vegetables and members of the onion family that currently take up space in my kitchen and pantry.

    I tried the Parsnip and Fenugreek Rostis with Chilli, Shallots and Fried Egg — a gorgeous dish of contrasting textures, flavors and sensation. The rostis (think of a big, thin pancake) were made from grated, earthy parsnips mixed with fenugreek, chilli and garlic, and topped with sauteed shallots and a fried egg seasoned with thyme and chilli. The crisp rosti set off against the buttery egg made for a perfect light winter meal. I also tried the Shallots with Cauliflower, Garden Herbs and Kale. A simple puree is made with cauliflower and vegetable stock and served with crisp oven-roasted shallots with loads of sage and thyme and crisp oven-baked kale.

    Again, there's so much attention to texture, colors, flavors. Vegetables become meals where you never even think about meat. The dramatic photography by Andrew Montgomery seemed more like colorful paintings than traditional cookbook pictures. I can't wait for spring to try the Asparagus Cooked on the Fire with Labneh, Mint, Almonds and Seeds and the Radish And Sugar Snap Pea Salad, and come summer, the Frozen Raspberry Parfait.

    Recipe: Parsnip and fenugreek rostis with chilli, shallots and fried eggs

    These rostis make a perfect brunch, lunch or supper and are equal in every way to the best potato version by the same name. When I devised this particular recipe, I vowed never to tell a soul about the secret spice I'd used to flavor them — the spice no one could guess, the one that makes these rostis so unbearably delicious, the one that begins with F in the title of this recipe.

    Ingredients

    For the rosti:

  • 4 parsnips (about 400g/14oz), peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 egg, lightly whisked
  • 25g (1oz) plain flour
  • 2 tsp fine sea salt
  • 1 tsp ground fenugreek
  • Good pinch of chilli flakes
  • 1 large garlic clove, grated
  • Good grind of fresh black pepper
  • Sunflower oil, for frying
  • For the eggs:

  • 20g (3/4oz) unsalted butter
  • 2 or 3 shallots, finely sliced
  • Good pinch of chili flakes
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tsp of thyme leaves
  • Instructions

  • Make the rosti. Place the grated parsnip in a bowl along with all the other ingredients, except the oil for frying. Use your hands to thoroughly combine the mixture, squeezing it through your hands as you go. Leave it to sit for 5 minutes, then mix again.
  • Heat your biggest non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and add a little sunflower oil. Lift a quarter of the rosti mixture out of the bowl and into the hot pan. Use a fork to arrange it quickly into a nice, flat, rustic round, no thicker than 1cm (1⁄2in) or so. If you have a large enough pan, repeat for another quarter of the mixture – and so on. (If your pan isn't large enough, though, fry in batches.) Give each rosti about 6–8 minutes on each side, until golden and crispy all over.

  • Keep the rostis warm while you cook the eggs. Melt the butter in the same pan set over a medium heat. Add the shallots and chilli flakes and season with some salt and pepper. Cook, stirring regularly, for 5–6 minutes, until the shallots are nice and soft. Use a spatula to move the shallots to the side of the pan, then crack in the eggs. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle over the thyme leaves. Cook the eggs until they're just set, then gently flip them, if you prefer them, like I do, over-easy.
  • Place 1 rosti on each of 4 warmed plates. Top each with a fried egg and scatter over the spiced shallots. Serve at once.
  • Recipes excerpted with permission from Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower by Gill Meller, published by Quadrille Publishing, March 2021

    "Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus" by Yasmin Khan (W.W. Norton & Company)

    "This is a book about food, of course. But it's also a book about love. And about loss. It's a book about the recipes that travel with us on the great journeys our species have always taken, and how these recipes comfort us and nourish us.It's a book about the people I met, shared meals with, and cooked alongside, in Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus," writes Yasmin Khan in this moving new book.

    "But most of all, I think, it's a book about the resilience of the human spirit. ... And it's dedicated to all the migrants. .... Being uprooted from one's homeland is an unsettling experience, and as such people often become attached to things that help them to maintain a sense of identity," writes Khan. "… perhaps nothing provides more of a sense of identity than food."

    Although many of the stories in "Ripe Figs" are heartbreaking, the recipe collection speaks to warmer days. For breakfast, you might try the sweet tahini swirls, baked breakfast rolls that look irresistible with tahini, cinnamon and sesame seeds or a Menemen (spiced tomato scramble). The zucchini and feta fritters are so good you can serve them for breakfast, lunch or dinner — simple fritters/pancakes made with grated zucchini, coriander, lemon, garlic, dill and creamy feta.

    The salad chapter is particularly compelling: from a crunchy winter slaw with turnips, carrots, cabbage and cilantro to a sweet potato, chickpea and tahini salad, to a beet, fennel and pomegranate salad. Later this winter, I look forward to trying the pumpkin and cardamom soup, mushroom moussaka and citrus cake.

    Recipe: Zucchini & feta fritters (mücver)

    These herb-packed fritters make fantastic appetizers or even good sandwich fillers, popped 
into pockets of pita bread with some pickles and greens. They have the added bonus of being 
just as tasty at room temperature as they are when hot, so are useful to make ahead of time 
if you are having guests over, or to take on a picnic.

    Makes about 16. Serves 4 to 6 as part of a mezze.

    Ingredients

  • 3 medium zucchini, grated (about 1 lb 5 oz/600g)
  • 4 green onions, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • Large handful of dill, 
finely chopped
  • Large handful of parsley, 
finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
  • finely grated zest of 
1 unwaxed lemon
  • 1/2 cup/65g all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ⅔ cup/125g feta cheese, crumbled
  • Sunflower oil, for frying
  • Salt and black pepper
  • Instructions

  • Place the grated zucchini in a colander, either over a plate or in the kitchen sink, and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, tossing the vegetables a little to make sure they are evenly coated. Set aside for 30 minutes for the salt to drain the water from the zucchini, then, using your hands, gently squeeze them to remove any excess water.
  • Place all the ingredients except the feta in a large bowl and beat well until thoroughly combined. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt 
and a generous grind of black pepper before gently folding 
in the crumbled feta.
  • In a large frying pan, heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, spoon 1 heaped tablespoon of batter for each fritter into the pan. You'll need to cook these in batches, so as not to overcrowd the pan. Lightly press them down with the back of the spoon, flattening the fritters slightly, then cook for about 6 minutes, turning halfway, until cooked through, golden, and crisp on both sides.
  • Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate and keep warm while you cook the remaining fritters, adding more oil as necessary.
  • Reprinted from "Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus." Copyright © 2021 by Yasmin Khan. Published by W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.

    Other top favorites

    The only reason I didn't include these two books in my list of top three was because they already received great coverage on Here & Now.

  • Black Food: Stories, Art & Recipes From Across The African Diaspora,” edited and curated by Bryant Terry (4 Color Books, an Imprint of Ten Speed Press)
  • This stunning book is part cookbook, part Black history with essays, recipes, interviews and more. As Bryant Terry writes in the introduction: "Black Food is a communal shrine to the shared culinary historian of the African diaspora. These pages offer up gratitude to the great chain of Black lives, and to all the sustaining ingredients and nourishing traditions they carried."

  • Baking with Dorie: Sweet, Salty & Simple,” by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Who can resist a Dorie Greenspan book? The queen of sweets, this new volume focuses on sweet as well as savory and salty. Who's ready for a Miso-maple loaf? Lisbon Chocolate Cake? And on the savory side: Clam Chowder Pie (only Greenspan could pull this off!) or Smoked Salmon Roll-Up (a sponge cake rolled up around smoked salmon, capers and chives.)

    Other noteworthy favorites from near and far:

  • "The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World," by Reem Kassis (Phaidon)
  • "The Korean Vegan Cookbook: Reflections and Recipes from Omma's Kitchen," by Joanne Lee Molinaro (Avery Press)
  • "Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution," by Roxana Jullapat (W. W. Norton & Company)
  • "Bress 'n' Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer," by Matthew Raiford with Amy Paige Condon ( Countrymen Press)
  • "The Essential New York Times Cookbook: The Recipes of Record," by Amanda Hesser (W.W. Norton & Company)
  • "Provecho: 100 Vegan Mexican Recipes to Celebrate Culture and Community," by Edgar Castrejon (Ten Speed Press)
  • "Treasures of the Mexican Table: Classic Recipes, Local Secrets," by Pati Jinich (Mariner Books)
  • For those who love food stories

    There were many worthy food memoirs and food narratives published this year. A few favorites:

  • "Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food In America," by Mayukh Sen (W.W. Norton & Company)
  • Crying in H Mart: A Memoir” by Michelle Zauner (Knopf)
  • "The Kitchen Whisperers: Cooking with the Wisdom of Our Friends," by Dorothy Kalins (William Morrow)
  • "Black, White and The Grey: The Story of An Unexpected Friendship And A Beloved Restaurant," by Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano (Lorena Jones Books)
  • "What's Good: A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients," by Peter Hoffman (Abrams Press)
  • "At The Chinese Table: A Memoir with Recipes," by Carolyn Philips (W.W. Norton & Company)
  • This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.