The best cookbooks of 2021 so far

Page Ventresca

While fall is typically peak cookbook season, this spring unleashed a flurry of exciting titles. Several new Middle Eastern and East Asian books are particularly strong, alongside beautiful dives into cuisines underrepresented in the mainstream cookbook world, such as Gullah Geechee and Colombian. We got fresh titles from popular names like Hetty McKinnon, known for recipes in all of the biggest food publications, as well as Bay Area chefs like David Kinch of Michelin-starred Manresa. While we may be seduced by restaurants reopening and the thrill of a vaccinated summer, we’re still looking for inspiration in the kitchen — and these eight new books do the trick.

Cover of the cookbook “The Arabesque Table” by Reem Kassis.


The Arabesque Table

Reem Kassis’ latest cookbook gives readers a snapshot of the kinds of dishes that might come out of a typical modern Arab home kitchen: a “lazy person’s” dish of garlic yogurt spaghetti; a Sudan-inspired salad of tomatoes, cucumber and peanut butter; and a contemporary take on fatteh featuring pan-fried shiitake mushrooms and yogurt sauce. Recipes like Kassis’ grandmother’s lamb and halloumi pasta bake, made with bucatini and oozing with mozzarella, highlight the rich and multicultural foodways of the Arab world. Each recipe headnote provides ample historical and cultural context for the dishes, making them exciting to read in themselves. — S.H.

“The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes From the Arab World” by Reem Kassis (Phaidon; $39.95; 256 pages).


"At Home in the Kitchen: Simple Recipes From a Chef's Night Off" by David Kinch with Devin Fuller is one of spring's strongest Bay Area cookbooks.

“At Home in the Kitchen: Simple Recipes From a Chef’s Night Off” by David Kinch with Devin Fuller is one of spring’s strongest Bay Area cookbooks.

Ten Speed Press

At Home in the Kitchen

This is not a Manresa cookbook — thank goodness. Instead, chef David Kinch shares simple go-to recipes using easy-to-find ingredients that he makes on his days off. Pantry staples like canned sardines get prime billing alongside family favorites like chicken and eggs. Many dishes showcase Kinch’s affinity for the cuisines of Spain and New Orleans — and his love of entertaining friends in his Santa Cruz home, with a good chunk of recipes intended to feed groups. The results — such as the penne in a creamy white walnut sauce or the Catalan-style kale with apples and salty ham — are not always mind-blowing, but they’re reliably tasty. Plus, every recipe comes with a photo, most are achievable on weeknights and they’re easy to follow. — J.B.

“At Home in the Kitchen: Simple Recipes From a Chef’s Night Off” by David Kinch with Devin Fuller (Ten Speed Press; $35; 304 pages).


The cover for "Bress 'n' Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes From a Sixth-Generation Farmer" by Matthew Raiford with Amy Paige Condon.

The cover for “Bress ’n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes From a Sixth-Generation Farmer” by Matthew Raiford with Amy Paige Condon.

Countryman Press

Bress ’n’ Nyam

This farm-to-table Gullah Gechee cookbook feels groundbreaking and unusually personal. Chef and author Matthew Raiford fills its pages with stories from his family’s farm, which his great-great-great grandfather purchased in 1874. It’s a heartfelt portrayal of this underrepresented section of the U.S.: the coastal South, where descendants of enslaved Africans still live, speak the Gullah Geechee language and cook dishes like spicy shrimp creole and citrus-scented sweet potatoes. The recipes tell the story of this place: a Lowcountry boil, brimming with live blue crabs, wild Georgia shrimp and sweet corn; shrimp and grits, rich with buttermilk and cream; directions for hosting a full-blown pig roast, including how to rig an underground pit. Some cookbook fans might long for more photos of finished dishes in the book, but they make way for scene-setting shots that transport you to Gillard Farms and its lush moss-covered trees. — J.B.

“Bress ’n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes From a Sixth-Generation Farmer” by Matthew Raiford with Amy Paige Condon (Countryman Press; $30; 240 pages).


The cover of "Colombiana: A Rediscovery of Recipes & Rituals from the Soul of Colombia" by Mariana Velásquez.

The cover of “Colombiana: A Rediscovery of Recipes & Rituals from the Soul of Colombia” by Mariana Velásquez.

Harper Wave


While Mariana Velásquez has worked on well over 20 cookbooks — including two that took home James Beard Awards — as a food stylist and recipe developer, “Colombiana” is her first to focus on the cuisine of her native country. It’s also advertised as the first major American cookbook dedicated solely to Colombian food. The colorful book combines recipes for traditional dishes and modern interpretations alongside short profiles of Colombian women and detailed tips for entertaining, from the tablecloths to the soundtrack. It’s somewhat eclectic — but also stylish and sophisticated. Her sweet corn arepas, for example, get a flavor boost from manchego cheese instead of the typical mozzarella, plus a burst of tomatoes and avocado on top for freshness. Other dishes are simply inspired by Velásquez’s heritage, like a refreshing and tangy salad of hearts of palm and pomelo. — J.B.

“Colombiana: A Rediscovery of Recipes & Rituals From the Soul of Colombia” by Mariana Velásquez (Harper Wave; $32.50; 304 pages).


Cover of the cookbook "Cook Real Hawai'i" by Sheldon Simeon with Garrett Snyder.

Cover of the cookbook “Cook Real Hawai’i” by Sheldon Simeon with Garrett Snyder.

Clarkson Potter

Cook Real Hawai‘i

Chef and restaurateur Sheldon Simeon has penned a thoughtful and personal look at the food culture of Hawaii, with recipes that reflect the many cultures that swirled together on the islands over the years: native Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipino and the rest. For Simeon, “real Hawai‘i” is a salad bowl, or chop suey, of all of those influences, reflected in recipes like baking-pan sushi casserole, parrotfish steamed with ginger and lap cheong, and a crave-worthy chip dip made with soy sauce, mayo and sesame seeds. You’ll also be able to master the classics, like mochiko chicken and poke, which gets its own detailed how-to guide. Thankfully, you don’t need to be on the islands to make these recipes: Simeon has written them with mainland grocery stores in mind. — S.H.

“Cook Real Hawai‘i” by Sheldon Simeon with Garrett Snyder (Clarkson Potter; $35; 304 pages).


"Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution" by Roxana Jullapat is an unusually educational baking book.

“Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution” by Roxana Jullapat is an unusually educational baking book.

W.W. Norton & Co.

Mother Grains

The most educational baking book so far this year, “Mother Grains” is a celebration of ancient grains like barley, buckwheat, rye and sorghum. Roxana Jullapat, co-owner of Los Angeles bakery Friends & Family, takes readers on a tour of each grain, outlining its history alongside nutritional facts and storing tips. And, of course, there are recipes that showcase each grain’s natural flavor. Most recipes are simple and inviting, like oatmeal cookies, chewy and butterscotchy with dates, and a formidable gluten-free carrot cake, extra sweet from sorghum flour. Note: While many of these ancient grains are gluten-free, this book contains only a handful of gluten-free recipes. Instead, Jullapat typically combines these grains with wheat flour to create the best possible texture. — J.B.

“Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution” by Roxana Jullapat (W.W. Norton & Company; $40; 352 pages).


Cover of the cookbook "Rodney Scott's World of BBQ" by Rodney Scott and Lolis Eric Elie.

Cover of the cookbook “Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ” by Rodney Scott and Lolis Eric Elie.

Clarkson Potter

Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ

South Carolina pitmaster Rodney Scott has graciously let the masses in on his barbecue secrets, hard-earned through countless years of toil over smoky hardwood embers. For one, he uses MSG in his multipurpose rib rub to amp up its savoriness, the genius. The book’s lengthy introduction takes us through Scott’s childhood in the South, with descriptive vignettes about harvesting tobacco on his family’s farm at 6 years old and reluctantly learning how to smoke whole hogs with his father when he was in middle school. “Building a pit is also not hard,” Scott writes in his first “recipe” for a barbecue pit — you just need seven 48-inch lengths of rebar, 62 cinder blocks and a couple of other things from around the house. (Store-bought is fine.) I tried out the recipes on a Traeger wood pellet grill, which worked wonderfully with only slight adjustments for timing. While a whole hog might not be within your scope, smaller-scale recipes, like smoked prime rib and hoppin’ John, abound. — S.H.

“Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ: Every Day is a Good Day” by Rodney Scott and Lolis Eric Elie (Clarkson Potter; $29.99; 224 pages).


"To Asia, With Love" by Hetty McKinnon is one of the best cookbooks of 2021 so far.

“To Asia, With Love” by Hetty McKinnon is one of the best cookbooks of 2021 so far.

Prestel Verlag GmbH & Company KG.

To Asia, With Love

You’ll likely find yourself constantly reaching for the latest book from Hetty McKinnon, also author of best-selling cookbook “Family” and known for recipes on Epicurious and the New York Times. “To Asia With Love” is full of modern yet practical vegetarian recipes inspired by McKinnon’s Chinese mother: bountiful noodles, textural salads, eggy wonders and speedy sides. The vibe is nostalgic and dreamy, captured through photography shot entirely on film — a rarity in today’s cookbook world. Her recipes are designed to be accessible for everyday cooking, and advice for ingredient swaps in every recipe makes last-minute trips to the store unnecessary. While eggs are prominent in the book — such as a standout steamed egg custard that emerges perfectly silky and wobbly — most recipes include tips for veganizing. Tips like these make the entire book a riffable pleasure. — J.B.

“To Asia, With Love: Everyday Asian Recipes and Stories From the Heart” by Hetty McKinnon (Prestel Publishing; $35; 256 pages).

Janelle Bitker and Soleil Ho are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: and


Steamed egg custard from "To Asia, With Love" by Hetty McKinnon (Prestel Publishing).

Steamed egg custard from “To Asia, With Love” by Hetty McKinnon (Prestel Publishing).

Hetty McKinnon

Steamed “Water Egg” Custard from “To Asia, With Love”

Serves 4

Savory egg custard, steamed until soft and silky, is a classic Cantonese comfort. In “To Asia, With Love” (Prestel Publishing), Hetty McKinnon explains that it’s surprisingly tricky to get right given its short ingredient list and seemingly simple technique. The key is using cooled boiled water — similar to tepid tap water — to fully combine with the egg, plus low heat and patience. Top simply with a little soy sauce, sesame oil and sliced scallions, or enjoy it unadorned with white rice on the side.

2 large eggs

½ cup boiled water, cooled until it’s just warm (not hot) to the touch

Sea salt

Rice, for serving

Soy sauce, sesame oil, sliced scallions, cilantro leaves and/or sesame seeds, for topping (optional)

Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl until the whites and yolks are completely blended. Place the bowl on a tea towel (to stop it from moving around) and slowly add the water in a steady stream, whisking constantly. Add ½ teaspoon of sea salt and whisk vigorously until the mixture is very well combined.

Place a steaming rack or trivet in a saucepan (make sure it will hold the bowl you will steam the custard in), then add water until it is just underneath the rack. Bring the water to the boil.

Pour the egg mixture through a sieve into a shallow heatproof bowl (the one McKinnon uses is about 7 inches wide). Once the water has reached a rolling boil, place the bowl on the steaming rack or trivet. Cover with a lid, and immediately reduce the heat to the lowest temperature possible.

Allow to steam for about 10 minutes, then lift the lid to see if the egg has set in the middle. If not, cover again and steam for another minute or so until it is set with a slight wobble. When the egg is ready, turn off the heat and leave the egg to sit, covered, for 5 minutes before removing.

Serve warm just as is, or with your chosen toppings, but always with rice.

Arepa de Choclo, a sweet corn arepa loaded with cheese, from "Colombiana" by Mariana Velásquez (Harper Wave).

Arepa de Choclo, a sweet corn arepa loaded with cheese, from “Colombiana” by Mariana Velásquez (Harper Wave).

Gentl & Hyers

Arepa de Choclo (Sweet Corn Arepas) from “Colombiana”

Makes 6

There are a number of arepa recipes in Mariana Velásquez’s cookbook “Colombiana” (Harper Wave), but these sweet, cheesy arepas are an excellent starting point. Velásquez uses manchego instead of mozzarella for extra flavor and tops the corn cakes with a refreshing salad to both cut through the richness and make the dish feel like an appropriate meal any time of day. Make sure your griddle is piping hot so you get a crusty outer layer on the arepas.

For the arepas

1 cup sweet yellow corn kernels

1 cup pre-cooked yellow cornmeal or Masa Arepa

3 tablespoons sugar

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup quesito or fresh ricotta cheese

½ cup grated Manchego or Parmesan cheese

3 tablespoons butter, melted, plus 2 tablespoons

¾ cup 2% milk

For the raw tomato and avocado salad

2 cups ripe cherry tomatoes, halved crosswise

2 Hass avocados, pitted, peeled and cubed

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Flaky salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve

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