For my 2020 year-end round up I opted to write about all the cookbooks of that year instead of picking just a few for a gift guide (likely why this is being posted in January -ha!). Summing up a whole year of cooking isn’t like choosing a “Best of” list either, I find myself meandering back through the days and months to peek into my kitchen to see how I was feeling and what I was cooking. Did 2020 feel like two years rolled into one for you? It did for me. 2020 consisted of two parts: before March and after March. At the beginning of the year, I found myself cycling through the days — I had gone back to work last fall and, I found it more challenging to get a meal on the table each evening. I clung to my favourite recipes to help keep me on track and inspired. Then, when the lockdown happened in March, I kept holding onto home cooking as a way to tether myself to that old life that felt like it was slipping away. If I could control nothing else, I could control what happened in my kitchen. When I stepped into this space, it looked as it always had — full of the familiar smells and sounds of a meal on the stove or in the oven. If nothing else, 2020 really became a year for home cooking. An exciting time for cooking because people were discovering their kitchens again to make and bake things like never before.
My passion is for cookbooks — I’m not sure that anyone would disagree that there is a warm tangibility that comes from holding a beloved book in your hands. A cookbook full dogeared, stained pages, and of the makeshift bookmarks made from scraps of paper, grocery lists or receipts. Cookbooks are meant to be used and loved. This being said, home cooking and cookbooks are not mutually exclusive. Cookbooks are a luxury — they can be pricy, and it was this fact that pushed me to post the “No Book” Book Club Edition post back in the spring (go and have a read if you’re looking for something good on the internet).
Getting back to why I’m here — the cookbooks of 2020. Glancing at the flat lay class picture I took of all the books that came into my home, while a few of these were personal purchases or gifts, the vast majority of them were sent to me by authors or publishers. And to them, I am extremely grateful. About a quarter of the books are about baking, so I have written and posted a roundup for baking books — find it here. The books left represent much of what I loved about cooking this year — personal stories, home cooking/comfort foods, and vicarious travel.
Looking back over the year, I did a lot of traveling. Sure, it was to none of the places I actually planned to visit, happened without leaving my home, and it was an entirely solo endeavor. But with the help of some great cookbooks, I got to vicariously travel to different parts of the world through delicious recipes and heartfelt stories. For those who know my in real life or, who have read my stories in Peddler, know that my Ukrainian heritage is important to me and, as such, I find the books of Olia Hercules to be ones that speak to my soul. This year her book Summer Kitchens (review here) was published, and I found myself spending time with her stories and recipes like I would if I was sitting with an old friend. The familiar food that I recognized from my grandmother’s kitchen was comforting and learning about other regional recipes from Ukraine was fascinating. Then there was Carpathia written by Irina Georgescu (review here), who said it best when she made this comment in her book: “Food is intertwined with personal journeys and life stories.” I treasured the time I spent seeing Romania through her recipes and knowing about her experiences. Cookbooks like Falastin by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley (review here) or Eden Grinshpan’s Eating Out Loud (review here) were other books that offered home cooks a way to venture to other culinary places through personal stories and recipes. Some books I received later in the year and still plan to review such as: Asha Gomez’s I Cook in Color, Lara Lee’s Coconut and Sambal, Mimi Thorisson’s Old World Italian, and Caroline Eden’s Red Sands.
The year wasn’t just about vicarious travel, much of my time was spent focusing on the day-to-day workings of my kitchen. I was looking for meals to feed my hungry (and in some cases hangry) family and it was the cookbooks that offered recipes for home-cooked meals that I reached for. Not everything needs to be complicated in a culinary sense — heavy on the technique or laden with ingredients — sometimes the most valuable recipe a cookbook can offer is an accessible one that will result in something delicious. Luckily, this year offered a bounty of books for worthwhile, delicious, and easy recipes: Yasmin Fahr’s Keeping it Simple (review here), Home Cookery Year by Claire Thomson (review here), Lukas Volger’s Start Simple (review here), Pesto (review here), Open Kitchen by Susan Spungen (review here), Mandy’s Gourmet Salads (review here), and Five Ingredient Vegan by Katy Beskow (review here). A couple of books that I loved for the veg-centric recipes they offered were Gill Meller’s Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower (a book that is in my top-5 — read my review here) and Trine Hahnemann’s Scandinavian Green (review here). Some gifts that I loved were Ina Garten’s Modern Comfort Food, Meet Me at the Table from The Marigold Project (see post here), Angela Liddon’s Oh She Glows for Dinner, and Nigella Lawson’s Cook, Eat, Repeat. There are a few cookbooks that look interesting to me that are still awaiting a review: Skye McAlpine’s A Table for Friends, Nik Sharma’s The Flavor Equation, Always Add Lemon by Danielle Alvarez, and Simply by Sabrina Ghayour.
Even my six-year-old daughter got into the kitchen with Melissa Clark’s recently published Kid in the Kitchen (review here). It was one book that we enjoyed cooking from together! I also bought her a copy of Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar Kids Only cookbook — and true to the title, this is bound to be a favorite among kids. Katie was immediately drawn to the recipe that featured cereal as a primary ingredient (i.e., the Coco Cabana Cereal Squares). Lots of “fun food” inspiration here for when you are looking for a delightful treat.
Returning to an earlier point I made regarding cookbooks that offer a personal story, there are two stand-out titles for me from 2020: Alexander Smalls (w/ Veronica Chambers) Meals, Music, and Muses and Hetty McKinnon’s To Asia, With Love (but, honestly, any of Hetty’s books could be inserted here). I won’t say too much about To Asia, With Love right now as I’m saving that for when the book is published in North America later this spring, suffice to say it’s beautiful, heartfelt, and delicious (if you’d like to read my review of the 5th anniversary edition of her timeless cookbook, Community, then click here)! Focusing on Alexander Small’s book, it’s unlike any other book in my collection. Smalls is incredibly talented in so many ways — an award-winning chef and restaurant-owner, an author, as well as being a gifted opera singer. Meals, Music, and Muses is a culmination of all Smalls holds dear; as he says in the introduction: “This book is a curated set of recipes, a playlist if you will, of essential African American dishes: the very best of what I have eaten, cooked, and imagined.” He cleverly organizes “the book into seven styles of African American music that sets the bass line for this medley of meals.” His tone is charming and hospitable, bidding the home cook to stay and enjoy his company — with his stories as well as recipes. My family and I took great comfort in his recipe for Stone-Ground Grits and I found myself making it for us countless times — some recipes feel like a hug and, in this case this recipe delivers.
Speaking of books that offer comfort in the form of a recipe, one of the most comforting books I was given this year was The Chicken Soup Manifesto by Jenn Louis. After reviewing Louis’ The Book of Greens a few years ago (review here), I became a fan of her recipe-style as well as her tenacious deep-dives into a single subject. She writes well-researched and delicious books and, while I didn’t review The Chicken Soup Manifesto (I’m a vegetarian and felt that if I omitted chicken from the book, I wasn’t being true to the book’s intentions), I ended up loving this book. Does it matter to me that the premise of the book is on chicken soup? Not really — chicken soups are surprisingly easy to adapt to vegetarian eating and, all the soups I’ve made (and remade) from Jenn’s book have been comforting, lovely, and so delicious! This cookbook made a great Christmas gift too — in a time when I couldn’t cook for them myself, sending them a cookbook offering the ultimate in comfort food (which is, imho, soup) was the next best thing!
As I did with the round up on baking cookbooks, I’m going to end here with a mention of a cookbook-adjacent book I bought in the fall and adore: the Cannelle et Vanille Notes from Aran Goyoaga. An extension of her last book — the Cannelle et Vanille cookbook — this is a beautiful journal full of Aran’s photography as well as blank pages to be filled with anything you’d like. I’ve been using my journal to jot down lists and menus, I’ve also written down a few important recipes I’d like to keep. If you’re not familiar with her work, click here to read my review of Cannelle et Vanille (the cookbook). And, if you are familiar with her books (I also recommend her Small Plates and Sweet Treats — no review, as this book predates my blog but has lived on my shelf for close to a decade!) and enjoy them as I do, then make a note — I’ve heard rumors that she has another book set for publication this fall!
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Penguin Random House Canada, Appetite by Random House, Clarkson Potter, Avery, Raincoast Books, Chronicle Books, Hardie Grant, Bloomsbury Publishing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Flatiron Books, Hachette Book Group Canada, Manda Book Group, Weldon Owen, Harper Wave, and Interlink Books for providing me with a free, review copies of most of these books. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own. Please not that this post does not contain any affiliated links.