My Favorite Cookbooks of 2020
This year has been difficult, to say the least. I have been a kind of intense home cook for a while, but it was during quarantine that I really took the time to read through cookbooks, shop lots of different groceries for ingredients, cook dishes that took all or multiple days. I have been following new cookbook releases pretty closely this year, and here is a list of my favorites. I am only including books that I have tried multiple successful recipes from. As the year continues and I cook more, I may have new favorites as well.
1. Kiin: Recipes and Stories from Northern Thailand by Nuit Regular
Kiin is the kind of cookbook that really transports you to another world, someone else's memories (through food), in a way that I really needed this year. Kiin is a really elegant cookbook—great stories, beautiful pictures, recipes that for me have a 100% success rate. Nuit Regular includes a mix of unique regional dishes and familiar Thai restaurant recipes. She does not make substitutions for American palates. Some ingredients can be difficult to come by. But others are simple and most are accessible. And yes, many of the recipes are multiple pages and have long ingredient lists. But this is because Regular walks you through every step, so even amateur home cooks can get amazing restaurant-worthy results. The Jungle Curry may be the best recipe I have tried so far. This cookbook features meat and fish pretty heavily, but Regular also has many salad dishes and wonderful base recipes for curry pastes and dipping sauces that are easily adaptable to vegetarian and Kosher versions.
2. Chicano Eats: Recipes from My Mexican-American Kitchen by Esteban Castillo
Chicano Eats is a delight to cook from. It is not an especially comprehensive cookbook, and it is certainly not "traditionally" Mexican, but many of the recipes are quite unique, and all I have tried have been delicious. I love Cal-Mex, and this book helped me satisfy my urges from here in Texas in 2020, when I couldn't get out to California. Castillo's "Mexican-American," is true to California's seasonal produce and multiethnic influences. E.g. one of my favorite easy recipes is for sambal shrimp tacos; another is a creamy cilantro and poblano pesto. In true California form, there are some very creative vegetarian versions of Mexican street food and comfort food. The flavors of everything are layered and complex, but most of the recipes themselves tend to be simple and easy to follow. Don't expect too many salads or vegetable dishes, though fresh produce make an appearance in most of the recipes.
3. Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves: Hill Country Recipes from the Heart of Sri Lanka by Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama
I knew Milk, Spice, and Curry Leaves would become a fast favorite for me after the first time I cooked from it. These recipes are all extremely flavorful, yet most are quite easy to make. It is also a very vegan/vegetarian-friendly cookbook, with most recipes containing no meat, fish, or dairy at all. I am an avid meat eater these days, but two of my favorite recipes are the spicy red lentils and creamy kabocha squash in coconut milk. There are two core spice mixes you will have to make yourself, but once you do, most recipes minimal steps and few ingredients.
4. Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine by Olia Hercules
Surprisingly, I have not seen Olia Hercules' Summer Kitchens on many of the top cookbooks of 2020 roundup articles that came out this winter, and it is truly a shame. There is no e-book version, so I wonder if that is why it seems to have flown under the radar. But Summer Kitchens is a beautiful book with recipes that easily fit into my American diet and grocery access. Though the premise of the book is a focus on Ukrainian "summer kitchens"—outdoor makeshift kitchens for humid summer months—the cookbook is really of all seasons and a wonderful introduction to Ukrainian cuisine. It is not all potatoes and pickles and cabbage (even in the winter!). There are wonderful recipes for soups and stews and salads. The cookbook is also quite vegetarian/Kosher-friendly (though my favorite recipe from it so far has been a beef and pork stew).
5. Sheet Pan Chicken: 50 Simple and Satisfying Ways to Cook Dinner by Cathy Erway
So... I typically hate cookbooks that focus on ease and simplicity, the whole idea of the "weeknight" dinner. They typically translate to one-note New American-style foods, dishes that are simple and nourishing but not especially enjoyable to eat. But Cathy Erway's Sheet Pan Chicken is the total opposite. These recipes are great for cooking for a crowd. Or yes, the dreaded "weeknight" meals. Many require a long marinade time or brine but are very worth it. Each recipe draws from different global cuisines, but in a way that feels authentic and respectful of the inspiration. Erway also breaks down the different types of bone-in chicken cuts, how to butcher or spatchcock a whole chicken, and what to look for when buying chicken. I love the mostarda chicken, weeknight spatchcock chicken, and sheet pan 3 cup chicken.