The pandemic has dramatically changed the way we cook. In a December 2020 study by Hunter, a food and beverage marketing communications firm, 54% of respondents said they are cooking more than they were before the pandemic, and 35% say they “enjoy cooking more now than ever.” Why? Because by cooking they save money, eat healthier, and feel good, respondents said.
Cookbook authors and publishers have noted these shifts and are acting on them. When Chetna Makan, a Great British Baking Show semifinalist and Instagram and YouTube personality, conceived of her new book, Chetna’s 30 Minute Indian (Mitchell Beazley, June), she and her family were under strict lockdown orders in the U.K.
“Weeks in, I noticed the enthusiasm for complicated or elaborate meals and dishes had dissipated,” Makan says. Her book, she hopes, will help home cooks “break away from their stresses and make a delicious meal” and “just bring some joy into their life.”
A raft of forthcoming cookbooks aims to do the same, offering stressed-out, homebound, and frugal-minded readers recipes that will meet them where they are during this ever-stranger era.
The dinner dilemma
With few boundaries remaining between work and home, and time expanding and contracting in unusual ways, a number of cookbooks focus on ingenuity, intuition, and—like Chetna’s 30 Minute Indian—speed.
“I wanted to create meals that were quick and easy, but also flavorful,” Makan says of her approach. In her book, which comes on the heels of 2020’s Chetna’s Healthy Indian: Vegetarian, she continues her quest to demystify Indian cuisine for a wide audience, using shortcuts, such as canned vegetables, to cut hands-on preparation and cooking time.
Sam Sifton, food editor at the New York Times and founding editor of NYT Cooking, speeds things up by encouraging readers to trust their intuition in his forthcoming New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes (Ten Speed, Mar.). The book’s “recipes”—for such dishes as smothered pork chops, soft-boiled eggs with anchovy toast, and oven s’mores—offer a list of ingredients and brief instructions but no quantities, saving cooks time and leaving them room to flex their culinary creativity. PW’s starred review described the book as a “remarkable” compendium of “purposefully inexact methods for creating delicious meals.”
In the same vein as Sifton’s title is No Recipe? No Problem! (Storey, May) by Phyllis Good, creator of the Fix-It and Forget-It series. She applies a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ethos to cooking, helping readers to wing it in the kitchen sans recipe.
“I’m not here to tell you what do,” Good says. “I want us—the reader and me—to discover a different way of thinking about cooking for greater success.”
Like Sifton, Good encourages readers to follow their intuition, including while shopping for groceries. “Start with something that looks delightful and that you know your family is going to enjoy,” she notes. “You don’t have to know exactly what you’re going to do when you bring that ingredient home.”
The book, which PW called a “winning guide,” includes workbooklike features, such as “Freestyle Cooking” charts and “Kitchen Cheat” pages, that help new and experienced home chefs navigate the kitchen without instructions.
With a wave of novice home chefs firing up their burners, basics-focused cookbooks have renewed appeal. Cook This Book (Clarkson Potter, Apr.) by Molly Baz, a recipe developer who, until recently, was a star of Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen, is an introductory cookbook with essential tips and basic recipes that emphasizes improvisation as well as accessibility: the book includes QR codes that link to videos about technique. “I feel grateful I can be of service at this time,” Baz says, “when people around the world are cooking at home.”
Other titles prioritize frugality and readily available ingredients. The Olive Oil and Salt Companion by Suzy Scherr (Countryman, July) details the culinary and medicinal uses of the titular pantry staples. The book includes recipes for flavored salts, salted meats, and savory desserts, as well as instructions for making easy and economical beauty products and household supplies.
Fermented Foods by Caroline Gilmartin (Crowood, May) explains the age-old global practice of food fermentation and stresses sustainable techniques. Gilmartin, a fermentation specialist with a background in microbial genetics, describes the processes and mechanisms of fermentation, provides safety measures, and delivers foundational recipes for popular fermented products, such as kefir, yogurt, and kombucha.
And in Canned, a June release from Ryland Peters & Small, Theo A. Michaels reimagines tinned goods. “From a foodways point of view, tinned goods are small portions and create little waste,” says editorial director Julia Charles. The book emphasizes convenience and budget-friendliness; nearly all the recipes can be made using canned food plus pantry staples, such as a gumbo with canned okra or a Moroccan-style tagine with canned chicken. “The three things that have come out of the pandemic are comfort food, thrift, and preparedness,” Charles adds.
Secret (and secretly useful) garden
Comfort, thrift, and preparedness have also driven a renewed interest in foraging and gardening, and here, too, cookbook authors are ready to meet demand.
In The Forager’s Pantry, which Gibbs Smith will release in March, Ellen Zachos, founder of backyardforager.com, provides an introduction to common spices, herbs, flowers, fruit, seeds, roots, and mushrooms. She pairs foraged finds with familiar staples, such as eggs or frozen puff pastry, and stresses accessibility and sustainability.
“People are returning to the land and exploring new ways of eating,” says Sadie Lowry, associate editor at Gibbs Smith. “The idea of finding new treasures in your environment to bring life to your cooking really resonates.”
The Forager Chef’s Book of Flora by Alan Bergo (Chelsea Green, June) offers a more upmarket take on the same subject. Bergo, a Minnesota restaurateur, culinary mushroom expert, and foraging influencer—his Instagram account, @foragerchef, has more than 16,000 followers—offers root-to-flower inspiration from his own kitchen, with recipes including ramp vichyssoise and spruce tip panna cotta.
Turning to the home garden, blogger Valerie Rice’s cookbook debut, Lush Life (Prospect Park, May), provides recipes divided by season (summer brings grilled salmon in fig leaves with nectarine relish, fall offers roasted heritage turkey with thyme and black pepper gravy) and instructs readers on how and when to plant and harvest the required flora. PW called Lush Life “an excellent guide to living in tune with nature and the seasons.”
Yvonne Tremblay’s Culinary Herbs (Whitecap, Mar.) also helps readers to make the most of their home gardens, spotlighting savory and aromatic plants. The book includes instructions on planting and harvesting, and lays out familiar as well as inventive uses for herbs, such as basil pesto or minted mango mousse.
Further botanical recipes come in Wild Sweetness (Harper Design, Mar.) by Thalia Ho, which PW described as a “tasteful guide to off-the-beaten-path confections.” Like Ho’s blog, Butter and Brioche, the book stresses oneness with wilderness and the earth. Its recipes feature such ingredients as flower petals and dried berries and offer verdant spins on classics, as in a white chocolate ice cream that includes rosemary and juniper.
“We’ve inherited this dreadful disharmony in the world with ourselves, with each other,” Ho says. Amid the pandemic, she adds, “a lot of people are seeking a return to nature. Now is a good time for sweetness.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Below, more on spring cookbooks.
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Voracious Reading: Cookbooks for Spring 2021
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Kitchen Staycations: Cookbooks for Spring 2021
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