The Best of 2009 (Or, The A.G.’s Gift-Buying Guide)

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Today’s the second day of Hanukkah and as much as I wish I could tell you that I’m frying latkes and spinning dreidels and unwrapping Hanukkah gelt in celebration, I’m actually sitting here next to a pile of cookbooks trying to figure what constitutes the Best of 2009. You see, many of my food blogging contemporaries–David, Deb, Eat Me Daily–have already offered up their take on what you should buy for you and yours this holiday season and now it’s my turn to separate the wheat from the chaff or the sour cream from the apple sauce (latke joke!). Are you ready for some hardcore gift-buying ideas? Come along with me.

The Best Food Books of 2009

[Note: click any of the images to go directly to the Amazon page.]

Our first category is books so let’s jump right out of the gate and start with my favorite cookbook of the year, a book by a guy who’s both a celebrity chef but also just a down-to-earth, normal human being. His name is Michael Symon and I had the pleasure of interviewing him earlier this year outside the Standard Hotel (see here). At that point, I hadn’t cooked from his cookbook yet, so I didn’t know what to expect when I put it to the test. Now that I have, I declare “Live To Cook” the cookbook of the year:

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I’m basing this declaration not only on the two recipes I have made–his spicy tomato and blue cheese soup & his outrageoulsy good chili–but all the recipes I’ve yet to tackle but will undoubtedly approach in the next year; namely, his legendary beef cheek pierogies.

I think of this book the way that I think about the Barefoot Contessa books; a well-tested cluster of eclectic recipes that pack a punch but don’t send you into a tizzy attempting to complete them. I highly recommend it.

Next on the docket, a great baking book from Karen DeMasco, former pastry chef at Craft and current pastry chef at Locanda Verde. I’ve enjoyed Chef DeMasco’s pastries at various points in my life; her sandwich cookies at ‘wichcraft, her doughnuts and caramel corn at Craft and, most recently, her toasted almond semifredo at Locanda Verde. I’m a big fan of hers and had high expectations for her book. It doesn’t disappoint:

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The recipes are easy to follow and the selection is crowd-pleasing without totally pandering to convention. For example, her caramel corn–which I made and devoured happily (don’t tell my dentist dad)–has cayenne pepper in it. It’s an unexpected touch but elevates the caramel corn from candy to something else entirely. I also made her pumpkin bread but made so many substitutions (I was missing several key ingredients) it’s not fair to judge it on how mine came out (just ok). The point is, this is a good all-around baking book with enough flourishes to make it stand out from the pack. Get it for your loved ones who love to bake.

A beautiful book that any Francophile would be happy to get is a book translated by my friend Clotilde, a book called “I Know How To Cook”:

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This book is just gorgeous; it’s almost too pretty to cook from. I love, love, love the illustrations (sort of retro 70s-ish prints) and the recipes aren’t light, continental French fare: there’s lots of meat and cheese and gut-sticking food that’ll warm you up with a bottle of Bordeaux on a cold winter’s night. I’m biased, of course, because Clotilde personally autographed my copy, but I think there are many people who’d be more than glad to receive this book for the holidays. Maybe Clotilde can pop out of a Christmas cake as an extra bonus, if you ask her nicely.

The Lee Bros. are Southerners by way of Brooklyn and their books always crackle with a mixture of Southern charm and urban cool. Their latest book is no exception:

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A sequel to their last book, this book takes a lighter approach to Southern cooking. Just because it’s healthy, though, doesn’t mean it’s boring–there are many unusual recipes studded throughout: recipes for ginger beet pickles, radish butter, and lettuce soup to name a few. I’m looking forward to trying their easy shrimp creole, mushroom and okra purloo (though I’m okra squeamish), and Austin style migas (which probably won’t hold a candle to Eggs Adam Roberts, but still.)

Finally, in terms of cookbooks that I already have in my possession (and note to the FTC: many of these came directly from the publishers as did many others, but no one is paying me to promote them–this is all coming from my SOUL), I’d like to give a shout-out to a series of cookbooks you probably won’t find at your local book store (believe me I looked), Canal House Cooking:

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These books are the most lovely, intimate cookbooks I’ve seen in a while. Self-published by legendary food photographer Christopher Hirsheimer and Chef Melissa Hamilton, opening these pages is like opening the private diary of your favorite aunt who always cooks the greatest meals but never divulges her secrets. The recipes are quirky yet approachable and very much seasonal. There’s lots of duck for winter, lots of tomatoes for summer, and many other surprises in between. The first recipe I plan to make is a recipe for pain d’epice, a spice bread, that–according to the Canal House recipe–requires no actual spices to taste spicy. I’m intrigued.

As for food books that aren’t cookbooks, I have on my nightstand an elegant book by legendary editor Jason Epstein called “Eating: A Memoir”:

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I’ve only read the Preface so far, but I’m already hooked. Epstein writes with a charming voice and the stories he has to tell–editing everyone from Vladimir Nabokov (my all-time favorite writer) to Wolfgang Puck (who once responded, when I asked him a question on camera, “Are you speaking English or French?”)–should prove not only entertaining but edifying. Plus, I think there are recipes.

Of course I must mention my friend Molly’s book, which I raved about here. This book may be my favorite blog-to-book transfer ever (and I include myself in there!): incredibly moving, smart, inspiring, and soulful, you really shouldn’t miss it.

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So that’s it for food books that I actually have in my possession. As for the ones that I greatly desire to have in my possession, here’s My 2009 Cookbook Wishlist with no commentary–the titles speak for themselves. Santa & Hanukkah Harry, take note:

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Did I miss anything? I still haven’t gotten my hands on Pim’s book, so maybe Santa will slip that under my menorah?

And now on to a new category…

Other Food-Related Gifts

I made a big fuss earlier this year about this cheap-o knife sharpener I bought on Amazon.com. Remember I made this video? Ya, you really don’t need to watch that video. But the point is that if there ever was a perfect stocking-stuffer for the amateur gourmet in YOUR life, this knife sharpener is it. I use it all the time and my knives have never been happier; you’d be a FOOL not to buy it.

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Olive Oil is not something most kids dream about getting on Christmas morning (unless you’re Foodie at Fifteen), but if there’s an adult kid in your life who hasn’t found that perfect olive oil to make their food taste great, I have a new favorite: Frantoia.

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For years, I’d watch “Molto Mario” and wonder what olive oil Mario Batali was using on his show. This was it. And now Eric Ripert uses it on his show “Avec Eric.” So if this olive oil is good enough for those two world class chefs, it’s good enough for you! And, indeed, it’s a robust olive oil, with lots of depth and complexity and for something so versatile (you can cook with it or pour it over salads) it’s relatively cheap: $25 a bottle which, for fancy olive oil, is a reasonable amount to pay. It may even fit in a really fat stocking.

Finally, not a cooking implement but a food-related gift nonetheless. Julie & Julia! As I wrote here, I really loved this movie. Don’t believe the blog snark, it’s good. I’d be glad to get this in my stocking.

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The film snobs among you, however, who scoff at this selection will be glad to know that Craig is here with his Top Five DVD picks for 2009. He’s a filmmaker with his own movie up his sleeve (see here) so you know you can trust him. Take it away Craig!

Craig’s Top Five Movies of 2009 (That Are Available on DVD)

[Note: the movies he’s holding are not the movies he’s recommending; we don’t own any of them yet.]

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It’s hard to narrow it down to 5 and there’s still a lot I haven’t seen (“Up In the Air”, “Avatar”, “The White Ribbon”, “A Serious Man”) and some great ones that aren’t available on DVD yet (“An Education”, “The House of the Devil”)–but here are 5 films from 2009 that I really dug that are available on DVD.

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Anvil. A documentary that catches up with 80’s Canadian metal band Anvil is so much more than a “real life ‘Spinal Tap'”. It is a tender, warm-spirited profile of two over-the-hill rockers who aren’t gonna give up the dream anytime soon. There hasn’t been a film protagonist as genuinely likeable as lead singer Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow in recent memory.

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Moon. Leave it to David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones to come up with a low budget sci-fi that manages to be both suspenseful, thrilling and yet strange, poetic and profound. Sam Rockwell is an astronaut in the near future who may or may not be going crazy as he spends the final days of a work assignment alone on a lunar station. Hypnotic and beautiful.

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District 9. Not since pre-Titanic James Cameron have we seen sci-fi done with such ass-kicking panache mixed with genuine emotion and feeling. The story of a dorky Johannesburg bureaucrat who assists a couple of aliens as they escape from planet Earth is political without being didactic, smart while delivering the roller-coaster goods. Awesome.

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Adventureland. Greg Motolla follows up his iconic “Superbad” with something both similar and surprising -a subtle, humorous yet melancholy first love story about small town misfits who form a connection over a crappy summer working at a subpar amusement park. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast as Motolla’s nerd-surrogate with an aloof and alluring Kristen Stewart as the carnie of his affections.

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Humpday. OK. Full disclosure: the star of “Humpday”, Mark Duplass, is also the star of my film “True Adolescents” so I may be more than a bit biased. That said, “Humpday” takes what reads on paper as a ridiculous premise–two straight guys dare each other into making a gay porn for a film festival–and turns it into a naturalistic, insightful and hilarious exploration of one-upmanship amongst dudes. The scene where Mark Duplass explains to his wife his involvement in an amateur porn film without really telling her what he’s up to–is squirm-inducingly golden.

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Well that’s it folks. Hope this helps you in your shopping; and if there’s anything I missed, please let me know in the comments. Who knows, you may find me in your chimney stealing your cookies and handing you your suggestion. As long as the cookies are rainbow cookies, those are my favorite.

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