Cookbooks are always popular gift options at local bookstores. This year, the surprise is what's flying off the shelves: Anything with the word "American" in the title and books touting American-style foods are all the rage, according to one of the buyers at the Cherry Creek Tattered Cover. The hottest of the hot: Jell-O: A Biography, by Carolyn Wigman (Harcourt Books, $15), and Macaroni & Cheese: 52 Recipes From Simple to Sublime, by Joan Schwartz (Villard, $15.95). Wigman brought us Spam: A Biography a few years ago, and her shrine to the kitschy gelatin product is no less reverential -- she includes an extensive section on Jack Benny and his infamous Jell-O show, along with recipes that will fit in at any holiday cocktail party. (I made the horseradish mousse, and it was a huge hit.) The mac-and-cheese tome includes some interesting takes on the old favorite from big-time chefs such as Rick Bayless (whose spicy, chile-spiked creation was too much for my kids) and Bobby Flay.
I haven't liked the awkward size of Recipes From Home, by David Page and his wife, Barbara Shinn (Artisan, $30); its long shape, thick from the side and thin from the front, makes it impossible to prop up anywhere while you're cooking. And that's a shame, because the recipes themselves, culled from the couple's work at their esteemed Home Restaurant, in Greenwich Village, are wonderful. (One of my favorites, totally comforting, is for mashed sweet potatoes with orange and shallots.) As usual, this season features many other books from chef/restaurateurs, the best of which, in my opinion, would have to be Union Square Cafe's Second Helpings (HarperCollins, $35), by owners Danny Meyer and Michael Romano (the lemongrass vichyssoise is unbelievable); Moosewood Restaurant: New Classics (Clarkson Potter, $40), which includes the usual lemony baked tofu and vegetable barley soups but also a heavenly fish in a cornmeal chipotle crust; and Charlie Trotter's Meat & Game (Ten Speed Press, $50), wherein the self-important chef pairs a grouse breast with red-wine-braised prunes, gingered chard, cinnamon-capped mushrooms and sage -- and expects the home chef to follow suit. If you can get through Trotter's intimidating inventions and ultra-formal wording, though, the payoff is food that will make people think you are a chef. It helps that the stunning photography makes the dishes look almost 3-D; the pictures are by Tim Turner, and they're really the best I've ever seen in a cookbook.
Food TV has made celebrities out of everyone, and they're all out in full force. Check out How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking (Hyperion, $35) by the babe from the Style network, Nigella Lawson, whose Nigella Bites show has as many men checking in as Jamie Oliver draws women to Naked Chef. (Oliver's new book from Penguin, Happy Days With the Naked Chef, doesn't seem to be out yet.) Nigella bakes, all right, and her molten chocolate baby cakes are hot, too. Another sizzling TV chef, Zarela Martinez, who hosts PBS's ¡Zarela! La Cocina Veracruzana, recently put out the tempting Zarela's Veracruz (Houghton Mifflin, $35), which includes killer recipes for spareribs with chiles and mushroom empanadas. And while Oprah's latest personal chef has been much more low-profile than her previous ones (who still has In the Kitchen With Rosie unused on the shelf?), Art Smith's new Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family (Hyperion, $29.95), is the ultimate American-food offering, with nothing really new among the buttermilk-fried chicken and deviled-egg recipes, but the way it's all presented makes this book great for newlyweds and newbie foodies.
Even better for the basics, though, is A New Way to Cook, by Sally Schneider (Artisan, $40). Schneider is a food writer and former professional chef who's pulled together almost an updated Joy of Cooking, with 600 recipes -- everything from basic potatoes to pan-seared quail over greens -- and excellent "guides to improvising" strewn throughout that take instructions for steam-roasted carrots and turn them up a notch for steam-roasted fennel with pancetta and juniper.
For longtime foodies, a good gift this year would be Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Ecco Press, $14 paperback), by Anthony Bourdain. He's a whiny, egomaniacal pain in the ass, but Bourdain will remind those in the biz of someone they've worked with, and his descriptions of the real restaurant world are accurate and funny. And anyone who eats regularly at McDonald's and hasn't read Fast Food Nation,by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, $25) is in for a real shock. The book's subtitle is "The Dark Side of the All-American Meal," and Schlosser isn't kidding; you'll never eat fast food again.
There are also several opportunities to buy locally. Susan Stevens, owner of The Seasoned Chef cooking school, has compiled The Best of the Seasoned Chef ($24.95), with recipes from local restaurants, and Pierre Wolfe, former owner of the now-defunct Quorum and The Normandy, has written Tastefully Yours: Savoring Denver's Restaurant Past ($18.35 soft cover, $30 hard cover), 234 pages filled with the ghosts of Denver's long-gone restaurants and the often humorous stories that went with them, along with recipes from current eateries.
The book I'm giving out the most of this year, though, is Caviar, Truffles & Foie Gras, by former Quilted Giraffe sous chef Katherine Alford (Chronicle Books, $24.95), who writes about a few of my favorite things. They're included in the usual combinations, such as caviar and smoked sturgeon sandwiches and seared foie gras with roasted pears, but presented with an irresistible a flair for excess. And isn't that what makes the holidays tolerable?
If you don't have time to buy a cookbook and whip up a few impressive appetizers, several local merchants offer some options. In the category of to-die-for are the locally smoked salmon ($19.95 a pound) at Whole Foods (2375 East First Avenue) -- it comes from Basalt, made by a company called Loganstock -- and the smoked duck breast from The Truffle (2906 East Sixth Avenue), which runs $27 a pound. I've seen people actually fight over both; the salmon is richly flavored and has one of the most supple textures available in a non-lox format, and the duck breast is like eating duck bacon.
The diet starts first of the year, remember.
More resolutions: I'm the one who's seeing stars after giving myself a good smack in the head for mistakenly calling the Penrose Room at the Broadmoor Hotel a Mobil five-star restaurant ("Star Struck," December 6). The hotel is indeed rated five stars -- and touts that rating everywhere -- but the restaurant is only rated four.
Still, according to the Mobil Travel Guide, this means the four-star eatery should have displayed "highly polished, efficient" service, with waiters who are "confident, adept and able to handle unusual situations in stride, with no pretension or attitude," and the "pace, timing and table maintenance" should have been "very good." The food, on the other hand, should have been "perfect and unique, because of the superior execution of either featured cuisine or of the personal culinary vision of the chef," who also should have displayed "excellent technique" in preparation of his dishes with "intense flavors."
All of those elements were sorely lacking in our far-from-four-star meal. And the hotel was even less deserving of its five-star rating. I think the Broadmoor needs to pay more attention to earning its reputation than to marketing it.
And as it turns out, quite a few readers agree. While no one has written or called to defend the place, several have shared experiences similar to mine. A food scientist and golfer in Colorado Springs phoned to say that "the review brought back memories of how bad our meals have always been there," and both Kim Siebert and Briana Hutchins, who also live in the Springs, said they drive to Boulder to eat at the Flagstaff House (1138 Flagstaff Road) whenever they want to splurge on a special occasion -- and steer clear of the Broadmoor. Rick Doerr wrote a lengthy e-mail describing a terrible celebratory meal he and his then-fiancée had there, a day after he'd popped the question at the top of Pikes Peak. "After years of enduring the propaganda, all the while knowing the truth firsthand, your review was a great way to start my day," Doerr said. "What an embarrassing disappointment. Thank God I didn't plan to pop the question there."
Several more readers asked for other options for a truly first-rate celebratory meal. "I've eaten at the Penrose Room twice, once to celebrate my wedding and once to celebrate my thirtieth anniversary," said Jeanette Davis. "The first time, it was awful, but we were so young, we thought we must not know what it should be like. The second time, it was awful, and we knew it would be our last time. Now I want to celebrate with my daughter, who just gave birth to our first grandchild, over the holidays, and I want it to be perfect."
If I were Jeanette, I'd head to one of the following, all rated four stars by Mobil and often deserving of more: the aforementioned Flagstaff, Tante Louise (4900 East Colfax Avenue), the Palace Arms at the Brown Palace Hotel (321 17th Street), or Q's in the Hotel Boulderado in Boulder (2115 13th Street).
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.