Food and drink books perfect for a tasty holiday

The best tomes, new and old, printed and electronic.

| December 19, 2013
LEARN FROM CHARLIE: The late great Charlie Trotter compares 
cooking to jazz in The Kitchen Sessions.
LEARN FROM CHARLIE: The late great Charlie Trotter compares cooking to jazz in The Kitchen Sessions.

I love books. And I love the opportunity they provide for continuous learning. And now, thanks to technology, I can bring important parts of my library with me. Regardless of your level of passion for food and wine, there are untold volumes to help you grow on your “foodie” journey. Some are great in digital form; but others require a physical object to hold in your hands to appreciate fully the photographs that illustrate the content. This is usually true for food and wine books, which entice you with images as much as text.

If your holiday shopping list includes a wine lover who’s also a design aficionado, 99 Bottles of Wine: The Making of the Contemporary Wine Label (Val De Grace, 2013) is the book for you.

It’s a rare behind-the-scenes look at the development of wine label graphics and the branding strategies behind them. The author is both owner and creative director of CF Napa Brand Design. He’s chosen 99 of his firm’s most beautiful label designs, mostly for the wines of California (especially Napa Valley), and shared the thinking behind the label graphics and branding strategy. He touches on the designs of huge producers like Fetzer and Santa Margherita, but mostly takes you behind-the-scenes of small boutique producers. There’s the Educated Guess cabernet from Roots Run Deep Winery that features a “blackboard” label with chalk chemical formulas that diagram the winemaking process. Or Scarlett, a cab from McGah Family Cellars, with a label that riffs on art nouveau giant, Alphonse Mucha. A young woman’s flowing crimson fairy tale locks intertwine with gold foil grape leaves; her eyes lock on you in a Mona Lisa-esque gaze that says, “buy me, please.” It’s one stunning image among many. This handsome book showcases the labels with huge full-page photographs (beautifully shot by Tucker & Hossler Photography) and, in pithy summaries opposite the graphics, discusses the ideas behind each label’s development. And if the images aren’t fun enough, the dust jacket actually unfolds as a huge poster that displays all 99 bottles with their impossibly varied designs.

Chef Charlie Trotter, who died of a stroke last month, produced some of the most beautiful cookbooks in print. And while they captured Trotter’s complicated, exquisite creations, they were beyond the skills of all but the most sophisticated home chefs. However, my favorite of his books is a companion to a PBS series where he equates cooking with the improvisation of jazz, aptly titled The Kitchen Sessions (Ten Speed Press, 1999).

The book is packed with amazing recipes that are within the reach of the home chef. They’re not 30-minute meals, but they include some of my favorites like fig-balsamic sauce with pickled red onions. Charlie serves this with pork chops, but I follow his improvisatory lead and substitute grilled tenderloin that can be served as an entrée or a canapé. My go-to Thanksgiving dessert is the pumpkin-apple-pecan strudel with ginger-maple syrup ice cream. In typical Charlie fashion, it’s garnished with cinnamon-butterscotch sauce, mint syrup and diced pumpkin. If you have basic cooking skills and don’t mind spending a bit of time to prepare multiple components, this book will put you on the road to enjoying haute cuisine at home without esoteric tools or ingredients.

If you’re new to wine, or simply wish to refresh yourself on essential knowledge, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course (Sterling, 2013), is for you. Kevin Zraly’s book has long been one of the best places to learn about wine; and thanks to the book’s popularity, it is updated frequently. But in addition to knowing that the most recent volume will reflect current trends and vintages, it’s the short Q&A format that makes this book indispensable. Even if wine seems scary and unfathomable, Zraly makes it totally entertaining and accessible. And because he breaks the subject down into manageable bits, it’s perfect bathroom reading or for wine lovers with children whose life is fragmented and full of distractions. Even if you never read another wine book in your life, you’ll be glad to have this one under your belt. It will add immeasurably to your enjoyment of the fruit of the vine.

If you care about food and wine matching, and surely you should, What to Drink With What You Eat (Bulfinch, 2006) is THE essential reference. I love this book so much that I have a hardback copy at home, but it’s also always with me on the iPad. Pairing has long been a particular obsession of mine; indeed, I’ve earned certificates and read everything I could find on the subject — this book is sacred text. And while there are some perfect matches that I rarely vary, there’s a great deal of flexibility in matching food with wine; it’s more art than science. The authors have compiled knowledge from the world’s greatest chefs and sommeliers and present it in a comprehensive manner. You may search by food to see a wide range of possible matches or start with wine to discover which dishes have a natural affinity for a particular grape or style. Eat, drink and learn.


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