At year’s end, with the all-consuming project — our annual guide to L.A.’s 101 best restaurants — behind me and some holiday downtime forthcoming, it’s a pleasure to turn my attention briefly from restaurants to excellent, recently published cookbooks and food-focused literature. There are many, and I’ll continue to highlight standouts in this space in the coming months. Here are six favorites that are as immersive and rousing to read as they are to cook from — ideal for last-minute gifts, or as a personal escape in these exhausting times.
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Food stylist, photographer and culinary tour guide Hisham Assaad wrote his first cookbook, a celebration and archive of the foodways of Beirut, during two catastrophic years in Lebanon: an ongoing economic and political unraveling that accelerated in 2019 (and continues today), followed by the pandemic and worsened by the explosion in the Port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020. Assaad doesn’t sidestep or sugarcoat these realities as he illuminates the cultural fundaments that endure. Reading the introduction, you want to amble the city’s streets with him, studying the pastiche of architecture, maybe stopping for soujouk (Armenian sausage) and ending with a drink in Mar Mikhael. The recipes include the street foods closely associated with Lebanese cooking (falafel, shawarma, savory pies). Even more valuable for home cooks are the sustaining family-style dishes that express the soul of the cuisine. Start with the simple fasoulya wa riz (fragrantly spiced lamb stew with rice) and an autumnal variation of kibbeh made with pumpkin.
“‘Black Food’ is a communal shrine to the shared culinary histories of the African diaspora,” Bryant Terry writes as a preamble to the absorbing anthology with recipes he edited. The book, beautifully photographed and illustrated, overlaps essays, poems and dishes from more than 100 contributors; it’s a collection into which you can disappear for a long afternoon, gripped by one clarion voice after another.
Chapters have powerful, self-evident themes (their subjects deepened by the pandemic and 2020’s