The Genius Recipe Tapes

The Best Cookbooks This Year | Brian Hogan Stewart

Episode Summary

Salt + Spine podcast host, Brian Hogan Stewart dishes on his list for the best books to cook from 2021 -- and the must-shop gift guide for any cookbook lover in your life.

Episode Notes

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Episode Transcription

Kristen Miglore (voiceover): Hi, I'm Kristen Miglore, a lifelong genius hunter. For a decade, I've been unearthing the recipes that have changed the way we cook. Now on The Genius Recipe Tapes, we go behind the scenes with the geniuses themselves. This week, I had the chance to sit down with Brian Hogan Stewart, a communication strategist by day and the host and creator of the Salt + Spine podcast. His podcast is my favorite for really in-depth behind-the-scenes conversations with authors about their cookbooks. And since Brian has spent more time immersed in this year's cookbooks than just about anyone, I wanted to hear from him about the recipes he keeps turning back to, where he thinks cookbooks are headed. And which books he would recommend as gifts for all of the cooks in our lives. From beginners to those people who make their own milk bread every week. But first, just to show you how good Brian has always been at what he does, here he is to tell us how his very first podcast guest ever was the legendary cookbook author, Nigella Lawson.

Brian Hogan Stewart: If you're going to start a cookbook podcast, it should begin with Nigella. We decided there's no one better to start with than her it's. So it just worked that way. And she was just one of my favorite guests, other than you, of course, and many others. I've had so many wonderful people, but she was so gracious and just such a joy to talk with. She was so immersed in the conversation and really engaged and was just such a wonderful person to have.

Kristen: So it's not even just that your first guest was Nigella Lawson, and you had a whole season's worth of guests who had never heard you on a podcast before. And that is even more amazing that you lined up such esteemed guests. I guess that's what I'm curious about is like, how is that part of your work in communications that you knew how to explain to them what the concept was without really having something to point to?

Brian: I think that was a big part of it. I'm a communicator by trade, and I've done this for so many years in terms of crafting messages and conveying things in the way that they'd need to be told to get what you want. But it still surprises me when I think about that time and just cold emailing all of these people and their publicists for that first season; my producer and I got almost everybody we wanted. I think there was one person we really wanted that first season who said no, but other than that, we got Nigellaand Jacques Pépin and Diana Henry, and all these incredible people. I had no sort of background in audio. I hadn't done podcasting or worked with audio much before that, but something just clicked, and it felt right. And it's the premise is I want to talk to cookbook authors. I want to learn more about them: what inspires their work, what drives them, how they actually approach creating a cookbook, and what better way to do that than actually sharing that conversation with the world. And it was a remarkable experiment that has been really successful and a lot of.

Kristen: I hope that is so inspiring to people who are listening. If you have something you really want, just go big, put in the legwork, do all of your research, get yourself well, set up, and then it can happen.

Brian: Yeah. And that's not to say it wasn't terrifying. It was terrifying. This is probably my one shot, right? Like you don't get to just ask Nigella every week if she can come on your podcast. So I think it was still terrifying. I had a belief that somebody would be interested in this concept and that somebody would be interested, hopefully, more than one somebody that people would be interested in a podcast that focuses on going deep with cookbook authors and understanding that craft. And that vision really just guided me.

Kristen: It sounds like your passion and curiosity for cookbooks motivate you, in addition to all of the research and preparation you had done into the actual interview. I can tell from your interview style, both from having been interviewed By you for Genius Desserts back in 2018 and also just listening to your episodes. You clearly really get to know these cookbooks on these authors inside and out. Do you find yourself cooking from the books a lot?

Brian: Yeah, I do. And especially in the pandemic, I've had a lot more time at home to be cooking from books, but I think that is a big part of how I approach Salt + Spine is ensuring that I really am not going into any interview cold. We had Chris Ying on a while back, cookbook author and former editor of Lucky Peach magazine. And he called us the most well-researched podcast in America, which I now love to share with people because it is crucial for me. And sometimes, it can catch people off guard that I've done. Enough research to know what they majored in college or how food like manifested itself early in their life, because they shared that somewhere else before. And I really do focus on learning the cookbook and understanding what's unique about it. Or just sitting with it long enough to have questions about why you, as the author, approach the book in this way or structure it in this way, or decide to include these types of recipes and not this other type of recipe. Or what was the creative process like in terms of photography and design? And so I think that is really important to me and being able to have those questions that go a little deeper and are really tailored to that person's work and can dive a little bit deeper into that creative process and not just become sort of surface-level marketing responses.

Kristen: Can you think of one or two specific unique recipes that really came alive for you either because of your closeness to cooking from the book or through your conversation with the author, maybe in the last year or so, since the pandemic started.

Brian: The one that always sticks out to me is Nik Sharma has this recipe. He actually has the recipe on Food52 for the hazelnut and ginger cookies. It's hazelnut flour with ginger and some black pepper.

Kristen: Yeah. That was actually a Genius Recipe.

Brian: Yes, that's right. So he actually brought that he brought those cookies to our interview. So he had baked some at his house that morning and made them. And sampled them before we sat down and had the conversation. And those are not like a staple in my house. We make those all the time. It's a really unique recipe, as it's gluten-free, and it's just like these really inventive flavors and a cookie recipe that really speaks to his work as an author because it is really representative of a lot of the elements of his life. There's an Indian influence. He was born in India. There's this, he's a scientist by training as well. So there's like this element of science. He approached and created it with a scientific mind. So I think that was just like this lovely moment of seeing the recipe come to life and hearing more about it. And. It's tough to become a part of my life, too, because it's one of my all-time favorite cookie recipes now, and I make it all the time.

Kristen: And that one really it's so easy. You just basically stir the ingredients together to there's no, like creaming butter even, or sh doing much at all to it, other than just mixing it in a bowl, which is surprising for a cookie recipe. And the excitement and newness of it come from the inherent textures of the ingredients and flavors.

Brian: Exactly. It's just a wooden spoon melted butter. Like you're not beating butter. You're not creaming sugar into the butter. It's just it comes together so quickly. So that was a fun one.

Kristen: Are there any other trends that you saw throughout 2021, cookbooks, things that you were happy to see, something that you wished you saw more of?

Brian: Yeah, it's interesting because many of the books coming out were written, photographed, and put together at the start of or right before the pandemic. So I think it'll be fascinating to watch how the cookbook industry evolves for the next few years, as I think more people cook from home more permanently because they've become used to it or gotten interested in it and excited about it over the past year. So that's one thing that we didn't really see quite as much of an impact for this year, but I think we'll be pretty significant in the next few years. There was a lot of focus, I think, on just like simple home cooking. And again, this year, we did not see a lot of big cheffy books really breaking through or exciting the most people. It feels like the inspiring books were these books that were interesting and accessible for home cooks. Julia Turshen had a new book called Simply Julia, full of effortless recipes. And if folks are familiar with her work, she tends to have pretty small ingredient lists, and things come together quickly. She did a whole book on leftovers a couple of years ago, that's like an element that sort of carries through, and there they're often leftover friendly or can be big batch friendly recipes. And also Hetty. McKinnon had a new book called To Asia, With Love. It's her fourth book, and she's a vegetarian. So her recipes are inherently vegetarian. I have seen a lot of excitement around that book. I've made some really delicious things from that book because it feels so accessible. You open it up, and it's just like these fresh recipes that are really craveable and have these Asian influences. We did this dinner party series throughout the pandemic on zoom. And she joined us for one month, and we all made a pad Thai salad together, which is a cold noodle salad with the flavors of pad Thai. And it was just really this exciting book. So that's another one that I think is really great for home cooks, and there are several others, but I think it's, that's been like the theme this year is home cooking. Take on simple recipes at home, or some like more project-based recipes.

Kristen: It is exciting. You are analyzing the ways that cookbooks are built. For example, Julia Turshen's book. I think she's been really vocal about how they had to change course. I think they were shooting at the beginning of the pandemic. They were going to initially shoot in Julia's home as they had done for previous cookbooks. And they had to scrap their plans. And so you see that play out in how the cookbooks finally come together in the end, and you can see the clues of okay, this was probably shot before the pandemic, but they included a note or maybe in their acknowledgments, they pointed out. They ended up having Melina Hammer, a fantastic photographer, food stylist, and recipe developer who I think lives relatively near Julia. And so Julia would make the recipes and drop them off in Tupperwares at Melina's with a shot list, but then Melina would shoot them that way. So I think we see some signs of how things had to shift depending on where a cookbook was in the development.

Brian: We talked to Jake Cohen a while back, who wrote Jew-ish and his photoshoot was like the week of the lockdown. He had a 48-hour window to shoot the book, and that was it.

Kristen: I couldn't help but think about my own experience because I've been working on a cookbook now for three years. It has had some delays because of the pandemic. Cookbooks are just inevitably are going to be influenced by the limitations that we've had. I talked to Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich recently about their book Chasing Smoke, and it was researched and developed before the pandemic and came out during the pandemic. And they went to several different countries in the middle east and explored all these grilling techniques. And the, I feel like that was the last wave of cookbooks that would have easily been able to be produced like that, where you sell a cookbook proposal, you travel for the cookbook. A lot of us have been creating cookbooks from our literal home kitchens. Even if maybe we would have been in a test kitchen before. Indeed the book I've been working on has been very hyper-focused on home cooks.

Brian: Yeah. I think it's going to make things really practical. And I think it's just going to make things more personal too. Not every cookbook is designed to be intimate, but I think. Even if you're producing a cookbook alone in your house without a test kitchen, without a recipe tester by your side, without support folks to help you with prep or cleaning, or even having to do creative elements. Virtually all of those things will drive cookbooks to be a little more. Personal because they just, they are the act of creating them has been more personal for the past year and a half, and they just inherently will become, I think, more accessible and more personal. I'm looking forward to that.

Kristen: Me too.

Kristen (voiceover): Hey, It's Kristen. If you're enjoying this chat with Brian, head over to The Genius Recipe Tapes. Hit follow so you don't miss out on other stories like this one and like our recent episode with Jesse Szecwyk, about the unusual way that he dreamed up his new cookbook. And the secrets to the most magical holiday crinkle cookies I have ever eaten. In the second half of this episode, Brian gives us his best of 2021 cookbook recommendations, the heavy hitters, and the under-the-radar ones for every cook on your list or just for you.

Kristen: In terms of this year's cookbooks and this year's holiday season, I would be inquisitive about doing a little pop quiz for you. If people are shopping for cookbooks still for the holiday season and want to get a new cookbook that came out this year, I wanted to hear your recommendations for a few different types of cooks and people's lives. Which book from 2021 would you give to a beginning cook?

Brian: Let's see. I feel like I've talked about Simply Julia so many times, but it is one that I think any beginning cook should have its comfort recipes. You're going to find really craveable things in there, meatloaf and one-pan dishes, but in a really accessible way. I think that is probably the one that I would recommend everybody have. If you're new to cooking and really interested in learning some of the basics. Molly Baz wrote a book called Cook This Book. She's very popular with millennials and young people. And the graphic design is very bright and bold, but if you're a new cook, she has QR codes throughout the book that show you how to do certain things like chop an onion or how to do other sorts of kitchen things, whether it's a specific technique or just like a helpful little guide. So I think if you're a new cook, that could be a handy tool for you as well, that having those little guides embedded throughout the book could make it seem a little less daunting to take on some new cooking projects or try something.

Kristen: Next type of cook, a baker.

Brian: Okay. I love this category. One of my favorite baking books is Life is What You Bake It. The author is Valerie Lomas. She competed on the Great American Baking Show. Her season was canned at the last minute after everything was said and done because one of the judges was accused of inappropriate behavior. They decided to just cancel the whole season. And she has, at that point, she had already won the public, didn't know that, but she was set to become the first person of color to win any of the great baking franchises, Great British Bake-Off and Great American Bake-Off. So it would have been this massive moment for her and the franchise, and they just scrapped it. She was a lawyer, a passionate baker and decided to pursue baking more seriously. That's why she auditioned to go onto the show. And she turned that into a moment for herself. And that led her to her first cookbook, Life is What You Bake it. And it has these beautiful little stories throughout her life and what led her to bake. What her life was like for her to go through that process with the show and leave her career as an attorney to pursue food and baking more full time. So there are these beautiful vignettes and stories throughout, but it is also filled with these delicious recipes. There are breads and cookies and muffins, and it's just like this beautiful book. So that's one of my favorite ones. Can I give you a second one?

Kristen: Yeah, please.

Brian: The other baking book I've just been loving lately, and I'm thrilled. I think she's going to be on Salt + Spine soon! Kristina Cho's new book, Mooncakes and Milk Bread. And it's this beautiful book that is features recipes from Chinese bakeries. They bill it as the first book of its kind to take an in-depth or this comprehensive look at Chinese bakery recipes. And so I think it's one of those just inventive books that you would feel really excited about and inspired by if you're a baker and want to try something. Maybe you haven't eaten it before or want to create a classic item that you're always getting at the bakery when you're in Chinatown. I've never thought to make it in your home kitchen. So I just, I love that book, and I think it's a significant book and an exciting one to have on your shelf.

Kristen: Next this category, a super experienced cook who wants to try something.

Brian: Yeah. I think if you're really experienced, there are a few good cheffy books this year Mister Jui's in Chinatown, which I think if you're interested in Chinese cooking is a really great one. It's not super inaccessible. Like you don't need to be a professionally trained chef to cook from his book. But Joshua McFadden has a new book called Grains for Every Season. And I think his recipes are achievable but a little more advanced. And he wrote Six Seasons, a really highly lauded cookbook a couple of years ago, an award-winning book. And this is his new book on grains. It's called grains for every season, rethinking our way with grains. And I feel like that's just a really inventive one with really unique flavors. I haven't cooked from Grains for Every Season yet, but I've cooked a lot from his first book, Six Seasons. And there's a lot of exciting and unique flavor combinations and pairings. As a pretty polished home cook, I would not have thought of it. And so I think while it's not super intense or time-consuming or technical as a home cook, I feel like it's always exciting me. To look through his books and see how he approaches flavor. So I think if you're a pretty experienced home cook, Grains for Every Season and his first book, Six Seasons, would be excellent choices. We also got a new Ottolenghi book this year. And so I think if you're a fan and you're a pretty advanced home cook, you can't go wrong with any of his books.

Kristen: And the new one was Shelf Love, correct?

Brian: Yes. And that's another one that's is pantry recipes and unlocking the secrets of your pantry, fridge, and freezer. So that was another one that I think. A wonderfully timed cookbook for the world that we're living in today. People have really been forced to think about how we cook from our pantry and rely more on that when grocery shopping wasn't quite as much an option. But as I said earlier, I think that'll be a trend moving forward too, because I believe even as we hopefully move past COVID and the world reopened, and can freely grocery shop more and go out to eat more. People are still going to be attentive to how we cook from our pantry and from our freezer, how we get creative with what we have, and how we make home cooking exciting. That's a good one of the time or the lanky test kitchen shelf love, but also one that will be a staple probably for a lot of people moving forward.

Kristen: And finally, someone who reads cookbooks like novels.

Brian: That's a good one. That's me in a nutshell; I read cookbooks like novels. So I'm like, I have 14 rolling around in my head right now. What do I tell you? Cause that's how I, those are all my favorite cookbooks and how I read them. Bryant Terry has a new book called Black Food, full of stories, art, and then it also is seventy-five recipes from across the African diaspora. It's the book from his new imprint for color books, where he's focused explicitly on publishing cookbooks and food books by people of color. That's just a fascinating one with many contributors that have provided recipes, essays, personal vignettes, and lots of content in there. So that book is perfect if you're interested in both recipes and a lot of compelling storytelling. And it's a beautiful coffee table book to like definitely cook from it. But it's also just like the design is stunning, and there's no food on the cover, which is rare for American cookbooks. It's it says black food in this beautiful, bold typeface. So that's a really great one. The other one that I really loved came out right at the beginning of this year. I'm 95% sure. It was not 2020; it was January 2021. Black, White, and the Grey, the memoir from Mashama Bailey and John Morris Sano, who run The Grey Restaurants. And it is more a memoir than a cookbook, but it has a recipe at the end of every chapter. There are maybe a dozen recipes in the book, so you can definitely cook from it. And they're connected to the themes of the book. It's just this outstanding memoir of how they came together to open this restaurant and an old Greyhound station and what it has meant for the community and the trials they've gone through as friends and business partners. And I think if you're interested in restaurants or food, that is just an excellent book. And the benefit is you can cook from it too.

Kristen: Is there anything that I haven't asked you about, but a book that you just loved and you think would be for anyone?

Brian: One that I didn't mention that I really love from earlier this year is called Getaway from Renee Erickson because I think as we're still not entirely past COVID, it's such a fun book. It features recipes inspired by some of the favorite places she's traveled. She's a writer, and she has written other cookbooks before, and it's just you can transport yourself to Italy so quickly, or you can transport yourself somewhere else based on the different recipes. So that I really liked that one this year because I could just open it and feel like I was traveling, which I've missed traveling so many things just change so fast now; we've been living in a global pandemic. We don't know when we will be able to travel again internationally. So I think it will be interesting to see what the next couple of years looks like. And how they will respond to more people cooking from home and being interested in home cooking and knocking on wood. Hopefully, we'll be able to travel again soon and experience the world. And what is that going to mean for consumer demand for cookbooks? Are people going to be really interested in seeing more travel cookbooks, more international cookbooks, more cookbooks from around the world? The other thing I think is, we should be paying attention to our Tik Tok cookbooks. This year, we got The Korean Vegan, a beautiful cookbook from Joanne Lee, who became famous on Tik Tok throughout the pandemic. And I think that's a whole new genre that will be really exciting to watch.

Kristen (voiceover): Thanks for listening. And my thanks to Brian Hogan Stewart, the host and creator of the Salt + Spine podcast. And by the way, if you're looking for a gift for someone like him, who already seems to own every cookbook that they would ever want, Brian suggested that vintage cookbooks can be a significant way to go. For example, he and his wife were married in New Orleans. And so for their first anniversary, she gave him an old copy of a Times-Picayune cookbook to independent cookbook shops that I love to turn to for gems like that are Kitchen Arts and Letters and Bonnie Slotnick's. This week's show is put together by Coral Lee, Amy Shuster, Paul Shuster, and Emily Hanhan. If you discover something genius over the holidays, I would always love to hear from you at, or you can tag me at @miglorious on Instagram. And if you like The Genius Recipe Tapes and the Food52 podcast network, the very best thing that you can do to support us and to help other people find the show is to take a moment to leave us a five-star rating or review. Or send this episode to someone who has almost finished reading that cookbook on their nightstand. Thanks so much. Happy holidays. Talk to you next week.