Tom's Big Dinners: Big-Time Home Cooking for Family and Friends, by Tom Douglas (William Morrow 2003)
For years, this has been one of my go-to books for ideas. Although Tom's a chef (with some 12 restaurants in Seattle), these are not chef's recipes. This is home food done in a menu format.
For this time of year, take a look at Pop Pop's Winter Solstice menu. Pop Pop is Tom's father-in-law. A poet and writer, Pop Pop marks the turning of the sun each December. Tom's menu for him begins with the martini, goes on to Caramelized Fennel Tart, Creamy Seafood Chowder, Smoked Paprika Rouille, Parsley Scones, and Cornmeal Rosemary Cake with Lemon Glaze. December 21 would be fine, but it's a good idea for New Year's Eve, too.
New American Table, by Marcus Samuelsson (John Wiley & Sons, 2009)
Marcus Samuelsson's Swedish Christmas ham is glazed with tamarind and teamed with his traditional anchovy potato gratin, also known as Janssen's Temptation. (Do not knock it; this is one of those dishes that is far better than it sounds.) In Sweden it may be Christmas, but can't you see this ham on a New Year's Day buffet?
What makes the book worth having is Marcus himself. Born in Ethiopia, he was adopted by a Swedish couple and raised in Sweden. So it's no surprise that much of his work in and out of the kitchen spans borders and challenges otherness. In this book, he sees "American" food through those eyes; he comes from somewhere else ... and so do most of us, if we trace our people back far enough. He picks up that verve in the recipes he's collected, mostly from recent immigrants. This is a big plus.
Feast: Food to Celebrate Life, by Nigella Lawson (Hyperion, 2004)
Nigella Lawson is England's answer to cook as you please and look sensational in the process.
For now, though, I'll go with her Perfect Roast Potatoes, done with 6 pounds of potatoes and 2 cups of goose fat. Yes, two cups. Come on, you do this once a year and they actually crunch. You can waste a lot of time on demanding recipes and not get the applause you'll get with these simple spuds.
Every time I flip through feasts, I'm sticking Post-Its on pages. The book bristles. With those potatoes, her roast goose is a logical partner. Lighten things up with her green bean lemon casserole. Her chocolate fruitcake will not be sent around the world. It will not get out of the house, nor will it last very long.
Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home, by Mario Batali (Ecco 2005)
Why Mario didn't go for 365 recipes, I don't know. But he does deliver his usual solid take on Italian tradition.
My menu pick for the moment would be to start with the perfect winter antipasto, which is his raw vegetables with garlic-anchovy bath (also known as bagna cauda). Then do a simple first course of Penne with Cauliflower. For the second course, go to Tuscan style with Braised Pork in the "Black Rooster" that is pork braised in Chianti. The black rooster is the symbol of Chianti's official designation. For a sweet, do his Olive Oil Orange Cake.