First of all, a warning: I’m someone who judges a book by its cover. I’m also someone who judges a book by its concept. So if you say to me “seasonal” or “local” or “farm to table” I’m likely to tell you that’s a great cookbook-- even if I’ve never opened it. So I knew that David Tanis’ Heart of the Artichoke was my winner before it arrived.
Once it did, my decision was confirmed. The dust jacket touted the “simple yet elegant” recipes and told me that “no one embodies the present-day mantra ‘Eat real food in season’ better than David Tanis.” I’m such a real food cook that my husband often chides me for making too much work for myself by doing everything from scratch. Tanis also spends half of every year in Paris, endearing him further to me. I flipped through Heart of the Artichoke and picked out a few recipes I wanted to try. My plan would be to cook from each book, serving the results to my family for dinner and validating the superiority of Artichoke after only a couple meals.
But before I could even begin, a problem arrived: the competition. Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce is primarily a baking book, focused on using whole grains in delicious ways. It was filled with breakfasty items like Strawberry Barley Scones and Buckwheat and Pear Pancakes. And I couldn’t make gingersnaps for dinner! But as I read through it, making my selections, I found myself drawn to nearly every recipe. My early experience in the kitchen involved baking, often ornate cakes or breakfast treats. Items like Pumpkin Pancakes appealed to that younger me. I rejiggered my plan, determining I’d bake in the morning from Grain and cook in the evening from Artichoke.
After weeks of dragging around, seemingly exhausted no matter how many hours I’d actually slept, I dreaded this new plan to rise before my kids. I told myself after a few days I could return to my old sleeping ways, that I’d do this to test the book and be done with it. And so I began to get up at 6:30 AM to cook. My kitchen was dark and quiet, my family asleep upstairs. The mornings were chilly and drizzly. I toasted barley in butter and then set it to simmer in milk and cardamom for an hour for Barley Porridge. Drinking my coffee alone at the kitchen table, watching the grey light brighten my yard, I planned a week of meals and made my shopping list.
The next morning I baked Strawberry Barley Scones, moving and measuring slowly and deliberately, a way of cooking only possible because I was alone with no kids “helping” to crack eggs, or everyone cranky and ready for dinner and bed. The next day I was craving the Barley Porridge, and even before making coffee I was toasting barley again. Soon I welcomed the 6:30 alarm. My quiet cooking time. Crepes. Pancakes. Another batch of scones. Another round of porridge. One afternoon, my son and I baked the gingersnaps.
In the evenings I cooked from Artichoke, loving the ease of Pork Scaloppine with Lemon, Capers and Chopped Arugula and the fun of using my buckwheat flour (purchased for Grain recipes) for Buckwheat Galettes with Ham and Cheese. But I was always hurried, chopping as fast as possible, rushing from stove to sink and back to stove, always looking at the clock, listening to little voices worn out from long days, ready to sleep.
Artichoke became about putting good food on the table quickly. Grain was a chance to relish the slow movement of time alone while baking, enjoying each sift of flour, and finding the patience to wait nearly ninety minutes for a simple bowl of porridge. Surprisingly I seemed to have more energy waking earlier. Was it the hearty breakfast? Or the time to myself?
There are moments in every cook’s life when a meal, or a recipe, or an ingredient, leads to a transformation. Maybe you hold your knife differently. Or you start to use a new ingredient with abandon. Or you never salt the same way again. Good to the Grain reawakened the pleasures of baking for me. More importantly, it reawakened me.
Four weeks after I began this project, I’m up every morning at 6:30 and have no intention of sleeping later. It’s become my routine, even if I don’t always spend the time baking. Some mornings I hit the gym. Other mornings I read and drink coffee. Or mix up pancakes to cook when the kids rise. The time is mine alone. Good to the Grain reminded me of the power of cooking to change a routine, to provide a better way of being.
Cooking can change you; the best cooking transforms you into a better version of yourself.
Winner: Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce
If you are what you eat, then Meg Hourihan is: fresh picked summer corn from the farm stand on Nantucket. Edna Lewis' Coconut Cake on a snowy birthday evening. Cold oysters briny as hell followed by steak tartare and enough wine to make the worry of so much raw food fade away. A simple supper of hot dogs, beans, and brown bread from a can with her husband and two kids at home in New York City. You can find her at www.megnut.com.
What distinguishes Good to the Grain from any other grain cookbook -- and what makes you want to get in the kitchen -- is Boyce's open-minded attitude. She approaches baking with whole grains with a cook's curiosity rather than a health food agenda.
Two years ago, my mother introduced me to David Tanis's first cookbook A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes. Now, I get to return the favor. NB, Mom: Go directly to the Dead-of-Winter Dinner from the Supermarket menu; it's Dad's dream come true (he is always asking for an old-fashioned minute steak, and Tanis delivers). Plus, it's nice to see a Berkeley chef who's usually all about, well, figs on a plate, devote an entire meal to the realities of supermarket shopping.
Inspired by The Morning News' Tournament of Books, we got together with
our friend Charlotte Druckman and created the Tournament of Cookbooks.
Here on Food52, you can watch the action and weigh in on the results as
the 16 most notable cookbooks of the year vie for the coveted Piglet
trophy. The tournament features top food writers and chefs as judges.
Play will take place over the course of 3 weeks, with a decision
published each weekday.
The 2011 Judges