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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Cookbook cues: Food52 Cookbook: 140 Winning Recipes from Exceptional Home Cooks by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs
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Your neighbor's famous sticky buns or great Aunt Martha's paprikash may be what come to mind when you think of great home cooking. But made-at-home fare is elevated to a new level in Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs' Food52 Cookbook: 140 Winning Recipes from Exceptional Home Cooks (William Morrow, $35). Think Moroccan carrot salad with harissa, cider-brined pork with Calvados, and figgy pudding butter cookies.

This book was born of the crowdsourced recipe website food52.com, and features a broad range of cuisines, dish type, and season. Co-founders Hesser and Stubbs hosted weekly themed recipe contests over one year. Entries were tested by online community members and the authors, and winners were selected by their Food52 peers. Contests included such standards as "your best holiday cookie" to the more esoteric "your best way to cook a whole fish" to the oddly specific "your best stew with olives."

Although you can get all of these recipes (plus 12,000 others) at Food52, the book delivers the best of the best, beautifully photographed with testing notes and tips. Hesser, long-time editor and writer for the New York Times and author of the James Beard award-winner The Essential New York Times Cookbook, along with Stubbs, present each cook's story along with entertaining headnotes. And, I feel compelled to mention that the book is perfectly sized and weighted to lay flat when you open it, an oft overlooked feature in many of the new smaller format cookbooks.

The authors' love for home-cooking shines through on every page. Their introduction is a love letter to those who choose to cook at home, and a manifesto that all should heed:

  • If you cook, your family will eat dinner together.
  • If you cook, you will naturally have a more sustainable household.
  • If you cook, you'll set a life-long example for your children.
  • If you cook, you'll understand what goes into food and eating more healthily.
  • If you cook, you'll make your home an important place in your life.
  • If you cook, you'll make others happy.
  • If you cook, people will remember you.

It's encouraging to think food writers and cooks this experienced can be inspired by the humble home chef; however, as you flip through the book, you will discover recipes that reach far beyond your typical weeknight dinner. If you frequent food blogs, you will see many familiar names, and in reading the biographies, you will discover many of the featured cooks have had culinary training. I'm not sure if this is reflective of those who use the website, or if these are the folks that had the requisite talent to win the contests. You will even find recipes from fellow Wisconsinites, including Isthmus contributor Erin Hanusa with a riff on the former Café Soleil's Magic Coffee and Dax Phillips from New Berlin with a meatloaf recipe.

Despite their pedigree, these dishes were conceived and perfected on the homefront, and if you add any of them to your repertoire, they are sure to impress. The book is organized by season, and has an accompanying index organizing the recipes by menu.

Because the recipes in this book are linked by their status as Food52 contest winners, and not by personality or food type, this is one of those books that may end up sitting on the shelf. You will not think of this book when you need a great cookie recipe (although it has them) or a stunning dinner party first course (ditto), because other books will come to mind first. However, if you take the time to peruse the recipes and mark the ones that intrigue you, you will find your own winners.


Anna Thomas Bates blogs at Tallgrass Kitchen.

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