The Perfect Bite is the kind of gorgeous cookbook that no one I know would actually use. A self-published portfolio of precision-engineered, photogenic dishes from Rioja, a restaurant in Denver, it appears to have been created as a souvenir for visitors who have undergone its tasting menu. To call the dishes elaborate doesn't begin to describe it. A characteristic recipe for Four-Cheese Pea Ravioli, Morels, Spring Peas, and Garlic Puree has 24 steps, none of them easy. By the time you got done making it, some of the ingredients would have gone out of season. All of the recipes culminate in elaborate instructions on "assembly and plating" — useful for reverse-engineering a wonderful restaurant experience, perhaps, but too fussy for even the most elaborate of civilian dinner parties. Lacking a staff of kitchen slaves and a deep fryer to prepare Tempura-Preserved Lemons or Goat Cheese Beignets, I took this book as more of a suggestion about flavor combinations. Medjool dates, blue cheese, and almonds go excellently together in an arugula salad, though this should really be listed as a dessert. The same goes for Seckel pears and Taleggio. Jasinski's sweets themselves, such as Smoked Macadamia Chocolate Tart and S'mores Pot de Crème, just sounded excessive.
Tender is precisely the opposite — a cookbook not just to gape at, but to live by. It became my all-time favorite almost as soon as the Piglet sent it to me last summer. I've since become its chief evangelist, buying several copies as gifts for friends and cooking from it almost exclusively. More than any other recipe book I've ever used, it reflects how I want to cook and eat most of the time — unfussy, seasonal, largely vegetable-based but not vegetarian dishes. Nigel Slater is the admired food writer for the London Observer whose memoir Toast, about growing up obsessed with food in a working-class British family, was made into a film. His approach is very English-insouciant, with minimal ideology and a special appeal for those — dare I say male? — cooks among us who are more interested in improvisation than exactitude. Broken down into 29 chapters about different vegetables that grow in Slater's backyard garden in London, it's all a handful of this and a large pinch of that, with some "dark and interesting ham" thrown in. Nothing takes very long to make and it doesn't require a trip to Sur La Table for more gadgets. It's also refreshingly virtue-free. Slater fries kale in bacon and drowns Swiss chard with cream and Parmesan — two of my favorite recipes. If you are American, you may want to cut the cream in half. His baked ratatouille has become a staple in our house, dead easy to make and more delicious than many stovetop versions I've tried, where you have to treat each vegetable as a separate personality with its own issues. If you have a garden or are a member of a CSA, this book will inspire you to turn those dusky kohlrabi, leeks, and lima beans into dishes you want a second helping of, instead of keeping them for compost. Slater is a wonderful, engaging writer, well worth reading on the subject of food even if you aren't planning to cook anything.
Jacob Weisberg is Chairman of The Slate Group, a unit of The Washington Post Company devoted to developing a family of Internet-based publications through start-ups and acquisitions. The Slate group's roster includes Slate, The Root, the video site Slate V, and ForeignPolicy.com, as well as the bi-monthly print journal, Foreign Policy. Weisberg served as editor of Slate from 2002 until 2008. He has also been a Contributing Writer for The New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and a reporter for Newsweek in London and Washington, as well as an editorial page columnist for the Financial Times. His regular opinion column is published by Slate.
This was Tender's to lose. Its magic formula — a Brit with a food column pens a gorgeous cookbook devoted to veg — is proven over here at the Piglet; we saw Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty get to the final round of last year's tournament. Nigel Slater has yet to produce a dud, and this ranks among his best (if you ask me, or my mom who has been cooking from it non-stop since I gave her a copy). The Perfect Bite, on the other hand, was the underdog. It was self-published by chef Jennifer Jasinski, who faced the challenge of presenting her food to home cooks without dumbing it down or overwhelming them. She has done a beautiful job. Even if you don't have the time to make every component of a dish, you will want to borrow ideas and preparations from each. Hers is the harder sell that, once invested in, gives back big.
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 2012 Judges