While other lists may be recommending books that came out in the last month, I will only recommend books that I have cooked from.
Momofuku was published in 2009, and I received it as a Christmas gift from Mrs. Dude. Momofuku is a book that's hard to classify - and that is its biggest strength. This is a book eschews words like "authentic" and strives instead for "tasty". When he can't get the right kind of kelp in New York, he substitutes high quality bacon. We keep around his ramen broth in the freezer, and serve it up on weeknights with some veggies and noodles. It's my favourite thing to eat on a weeknight. His rice cakes were unique and delicious.
While I wouldn't say that the recipes in this book are challenging, they do require commitment. The ramen broth is not challenging to make, but it does basically take a full day. And many of the recipes later in the book require things created in earlier recipes in the book.
Seven Fires is an awesome Argentine barbecue book. This is the perfect book for the barbecue enthusiast in your life. Most of the recipes are relatively simple with few ingredients, and bright, fresh flavours. Take the Argentine steak with chimichurri. Nothing could be simpler to prepare on the grill (Cooking steak is easy. Cooking steak perfectly takes practice - so practice a steak tonight!). Or the grilled chapa bread. Start a couple hours in advance, and you can serve it with your dinner. The flavours here are simple, but really great. They emphasize fresh herbs and acids to brighten them. I can't recommend this book enough.
A newer one, Meat: A Kitchen Education was published in October of this year. For such a slim volume, it's really a very complete reference on all things meat, and has recipes for all kinds of cuts. A recent favourite was the beef shank. This book also includes sections on game, and less-common meats (at least in this part of the world) like squab. It's a more ambitious book than Seven Fires, but an excellent addition to any cook's library for simple information like learning how to dismember poultry.
In the "late-night reading" category, the biography of Ferran Adria, Ferran is a good read.
This book takes you from the simple beginnings of the experimental restaurant El Bulli, which started as a pretty sleepy little restaurant in the middle of nowhere that often struggled to have a single visitor in a night, to becoming the hardest-to-get restaurant reservation in the world. (Check out some well-photographed food here). The author is no sycophant, indeed proclaiming that there are dishes he's been served at El Bulli that are "vaguely punitive" or take this quote:
Just your everyday mix of sea anemone, raw rabbit brains, oysters and calamondin (a sour-sweet Southeast Asian citrus) in lukewarm dill broth. I wouldn't go as far as one blog entry I later happened across, which described this creation as "Vile. Vomitous. Nightmare!" But I found it so utterly unpleasant and cacophonous that I wondered for a moment whether Ferran had gone off the rails. It made my teeth ache.
This is a fun read. Even for those of us who will never get to eat at El Bulli, Ferran Adria has affected cooking in ways that we'll be feeling for decades. Fascinating read.
And the final food book that I'm recommending is Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.
Okay, so this one I will not unreservedly recommend for the foodie in your life. I loved this book. But, you know. I'm a microbial geneticist. I love human genetics. I love hearing about the evolution of early hominids. This book describes how much of an advantage cooking was to early humans, and how much it has shaped our evolution. All animals extract 20-30% more calories out of cooked food. We require *much* less time to chew cooked food, freeing up time to hunt, work and write poetry. (Indeed, it takes so long to chew raw meat, that most meat-eating non-human primates will only eat the intestines and organs of other animals - the meat takes too long to chew).
If you're interested in cooking, and you find human evolution interesting, you'll love this book.
My final Christmas present recommendation is a bit of a surprising one (and a bit of an expensive one). Get a smart phone. I got a Droid this year.
Motorola DROID II is an excellent phone. I use it almost every week in the kitchen. I take my recipes with me to the homes of my friends and my family. And I look up tidbits in the kitchen. I knew that I would find my smartphone useful. I had no idea I would use it in the kitchen as often as I do.
And finally, to me, the best parts of Christmas are about food and family. Spending the day cooking, eating, talking and singing. Watching my son play, and giggle. In the end, the gifts don't really matter. Don't stress. Make something delicious and share it with your family.
Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.