I'm not sure if I know as many horse racing phrases as I'll need to carry this metaphor through to the end, but I can at least start by saying "What a race!" I exhausted myself just watching. The one horse, Yotam Ottolenghi's new book called Plenty, is a compendium of his vegetarian recipes from his weekend column in The Guardian, with some added material. Yotam and his partner Sami -- a famously Israeli-Arab partnership expanding exuberantly in London -- have really started to percolate here in the States this past year, and their books were on a lot of people's kitchen counters this summer. The cover of this book, Ottolenghi's solo effort, is white and padded, like the soft books you give a teething baby to chew on while giving him a bath in the kitchen sink.
Also getting saddled in the paddock, Dorie Greenspan's new book, Around My French Table: More than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours, is her tenth in twenty years. Dorrie is considered widely to be the doyenne of baking and all things sweet in New York City, but this book declares new territory and has on its cover a romantically-lit shot of a chicken roasted in a heavy Dutch oven set on a neatly folded kitchen towel on a rustic farmhouse table.
As the two horses make their way to the gate, I wished I hadn't done as much food styling as I had before I opened my restaurant because I believe I detected in that cover shot of the chicken in the pot -- and throughout Dorie's book -- a few too many of the old tricks we used to use to get the chicken to look burnished "just so" and the vegetables and herbs to "glisten" and look cooked, but not "too cooked." In short, some of those tricks involved paintbrushes, q-tips and a few items from the dark brown condiments and cooking sprays aisle of your local supermarket. In any event, the shot is exactly reminiscent of a Gourmet magazine cover circa 1979.
I fixate on the covers and the design of both books -- as well as the food styling and photography throughout -- because it became a significant factor in my initial responses to them.
In Dorie's book, the styling and the photography were a considerable set-back for me. There's a shot of a cracker that's supposed to look like someone's just taken a bite out of it. No one has been near that cracker. In another, there are crumbs carefully arranged to look not carefully arranged. Salad Nicoise ingredients are nestled together hyper self-consciously to appear as if some avid cook was simply collecting her mise en place. Schmears of food on utensils are meant to look as if the shot were taken mid-meal and really, this food and that utensil were nowhere near anyone's actual meal. Check out the traces of cheese-topped onion soup left on the spoon in the shot on page 54. What is it doing there? No one has been eating that soup. Conversely, there's a shot of a piece of beef that's meant to look as if it has just, at that moment, been cut into, but the knife and fork are spotless. I really puzzled over it--it wanted to convey French food with all of its connotations of lusciousness, insouciance, and casual effortless elegance but somehow managed to come across as rigid, antiseptic and unripe. High and tight, I kept chuckling to myself page after page after page, hunting for even one photograph that let the food look real and delicious and appealing.
There is almost no sense in my trying to persuade you to my opinion about the photography and styling. This is distinctly an "a chacque un son gout" story. Dorie LOVES these photos, this styling, this strangely retro era of heavily-propped and aggressively-lit cookbook design. She effuses about it in her acknowledgements and said she burst into tears of joy when she learned she could work with this team on this book. Me, they killed the food. By the time they got it in the right tableau, the right crock, the just-so schmear and crumb and the light meter checked and the silver umbrella tilted another hair to the left, the food had long ago died. I wanted to cook exactly nothing from the book based on the photography.
I did not have this problem with Ottolenghi's book. Once past the odd and counter-indicative cover (you could not be certain that this is a cook book -- it could as easily be an interior designer's fabric sample binder), I reacted aloud -- an involuntary "oh" or "oh man!" or " mmm" and even a "holy shit!" at every single turn of the page. There are some photos of eggs in this book that will stop you in your tracks. Even collapsed roasted eggplants, still on their roasting sheet and just out of the oven, look appealing. The shots are taken of the food in its most alive moment -- the butter is foaming in the cast iron skillet of sweet potato cakes, the ice cubes are glistening in the green gazpacho, the pickled red pepper slivers veritably swim like live brilliant sea creatures in a tidal pool of pink-tinged olive oil. I've seen this in British books before, particularly in the food photography of Jason Lowe and the photographer who shot Nigel Slater's books Tender andKitchen Diaries -- the British really have something great going on there, and as a direct result, I yellow-stickied 22 things I wanted to cook from the book, just by looking at the photographs.
I find reading a cookbook's contents and deciding what to cook very similar to sitting down in a restaurant and deciding what to eat from the menu. I always want there to be a greater number of things I want than I can possibly eat, and I experience some anxiety when not too much sounds good or interesting. I had some of this anxiety with Dorie's book. I did not want to make, for example, her guacamole with tomatoes and bell peppers any more than I would want to make a pissaladiere out of a Rick Bayless cook book. I did not want to make sweet and spicy cocktail nuts, or tzatziki, or gravlax or dieter's tartine or cola-and-jam spareribs or pork roast with mangoes and lychees. I hope it is self-evident why I didn't. I did not want to cook anything with a silly name like Hurry Up and Wait Roast Chicken. And I decided not to cook any recipes that were introduced as someone else's, even though some of them sounded appealing.
Based on the yellow-sticky-memo-pad frenzy I went through with Ottolenghi's book, brought on by the photography of Jonathan Lovekin, it probably comes as no surprise that I penciled through the table of contents the way a handicapper marks up a racing form. I wanted to cook absolutely everything in Plenty. I couldn't wait to try Vine Leaf, Herb, and Yoghurt Pie. And Chard and Saffron Omelettes. And Saffron Tagliatelle with Spiced Butter, and Fried Butterbeans with Feta, Sorrel and Sumac, and Globe Artichokes with Crushed Broad Beans. And Parsnip Dumplings in Broth! Even the damned "Lettuce Salad" I couldn't wait to have at. Charging authoritatively to the front, Ottolenghi was already at the first turn, picking up speed and leaving Greenspan to eat track.
It started to look like a one-horse race.
I brought both books home from my day at the restaurant and set them on the kitchen counter, and went about the nightly grind of getting my boys adequately fed and bathed and into bed, where we all fell asleep during a chapter of Fantastic Mr. Fox. As is customary for me, I woke naturally at around 3 in the morning and got up to do some work during the peaceful, silent hours of the dead of night. But oddly, the boys woke up too, and Marco, the pickiest eater of all children of all time, the kid who makes me feel more inadequate as a chef than any Michelin-star system, said-out of the blue, "Mama, can you make me some of that French appetizer we had once?" I can't possibly explain it, but my kid-at 4 o'clock in the morning was wide awake and asking for gougeres. Which happens to be the first recipe in Dorie's book.
And they were superb.
Her pate a choux uses milk and water and a fifth egg, giving the cheese puffs an ever so slightly custardy moistness where a pate a choux commonly made with only water and 4 eggs can be prone to dryness. The recipe is clear and well-written. The headnote is charming and friendly. The yield is announced at the top of the recipe. There are sidebars with excellent advice about how to store and serve the gougeres and even a lively and lovely short paragraph at the end about the classic drink accompaniment: a kir. In an early-morning instant, Greenspan was gaining fast on the outside!
The following day, I made her Cheez-it-ish Crackers, even though I found the name irksome. These were delicious. The dough is quite short and nicely salty and perfectly cheesy and even though it was ten o'clock in the morning I really wanted the coupe de Champagne she wants you to serve with these little treats. This was another well-written, very clear recipe which even takes the care to remind you to cook your second batch of the crackers on a cool sheetpan, and not on one still-hot from the first batch. A side-note feature she employs throughout the book, called Bonne Idee, here offers you an alternative method for forming the crackers, which I used, with fine results.
I next made her Sardine Rillettes and ended up with a bright, tasty spread for warm toasts that I will happily make again. I liked very much her idea of mincing the shallot and then rinsing it, to soften its inherent raw bite. Greenspan had paced herself a legitimate half-mile and was now launching her bid!
From Plenty, I started with Ottolenghi's Vine Leaf, Herb and Yoghurt Pie. Even though I was eager to get started, I took the time to translate the recipe from grams to ounces, which you will need to do throughout the book, obviously, as it is British. This is an interesting recipe originating from the Turkish part of Cyprus in which you make a seasoned paste of yogurt, herbs, pine nuts, lemon and sauteed shallots, and then bake it encased in a thin "crust" of grape leaves. I used jarred leaves which come in brine and followed the step of soaking them in boiling water for ten minutes before assembling the pie, but even so, the tartness of the yogurt in tandem with the astringency that the grape leaves impart and the further brightening by the addition of both lemon juice and zest made the experience rather austere. I had done a bit of recipe testing in my cooking career before I opened a restaurant, for both magazines and books, and I was taught to both bring everything I knew about cooking to the project and simultaneously leave everything I knew about cooking at the door. In testing, you want to see what the writer is bringing, not what the tester is bringing. So, I noted his propensity for tartness and acidity and moved on to Chard and Saffron Omelettes.
These are rather thin whole egg omelettes made lively and attractive with a generous amount of chopped fresh herbs stirred into the beaten egg before cooking. The omelettes are then filled with a swiss chard and cooked potato mixture and a dollop of crème fraiche. They are mightily good-looking but lack deep flavor and deep satisfaction. I'm just the tester and not the writer but I will mention to you that there is no butter in the recipe and it really could have used some, both in the cooking of the swiss chard mixture and in the cooking of the omelettes. Without it, the omelettes lacked what I can only describe as savory deliciousness. I remember eating a purely vegetarian diet for the 3 months I once spent in India and I never missed the depth of meat flavor and never felt that particular vegetarian unsatiated hunger phenomenon because Indian cooks use so much ghee and such a satisfying combination of many spices. So far, this was not the case with Ottolenghi's vegetarian recipes. They lacked savory deliciousness. And I'd already put my twenty dollars on him!
In pursuit of that satiated feeling, I next made the Avocado, Quinoa and Broad Bean Salad because I knew the fat from the avocado-in concert with the beans and the grain-would do the trick. And I made the Black Pepper Tofu in search of the deep flavor I was still wanting, after the inadequate spice of the first two dishes. The Avocado Salad was tasty and good-looking but under-dressed and under-seasoned, while the tofu was abundantly spicy and flavorful, with nice crispy chunks of tofu but a marked shortage of sauce. There was not one teaspoon extra to spoon over rice, should I have made some as his head note recommends. Coming into the homestretch, I began to think that Ottolenghi's book was long on style but short on substance. And that Greenspan's was possibly just the opposite, and now emerging in the race as a more significant work, with provably sound and legitimate technique. I'm almost out of horse racing terms, but I think "neck and neck" applies!
At this point, I became a little possessed, like someone in the stands, up on my feet, agitated and yelling at the race. Quickly, I'll just say that I started cooking madly from both books to see if a clear pattern was emerging, and a clear winner. I made Dorie's Beef Daube, and I browned every cube of meat meticulously, without overcrowding, but it turned out grayish and the ratio of carrot to beef was off-kilter and it was only good, not excellent, and I asked myself why I would make this Daube when I could make Julia's or Jacques' or better yet, Madeline Kamman's, whose books I already own. I made her Simplest Breton Fish Soup, and even after I added all the things she recommends in the Bonne Idee sidebar, it still was only good and had a thin, wan character that the vinaigrette and toasts could only do so much to augment. I made Ottolenghi's Parsnip Dumplings in Broth, and while the broth was in fact filled out somewhat by the clever addition of prunes, it was not delicious enough to keep me from considering why I wasn't just cooking from Madhur Jaffrey's or even Deborah Madison's books, which I already own. Ottolenghi doesn't tell you, but this tester will, that waxy parsnips don't always share a cooking time with floury potatoes, so be sure to cut the parsnip in smaller pieces than you cut the potatoes so that they will go through the ricer together. His recipes don't take that kind of care. The Crusted Pumpkin Wedges with Soured Cream I made with these gorgeous, almost red kuri pumpkins we've been getting from our farmer, and while I had now gotten accustomed to Yotam's immoderate use of lemon and lemon zest and all the tangy acidic creams, I still wished there had been some butter in the recipe to bring the whole good idea into balance. I made the Lettuce Salad with the semi-dried tomatoes and liked very much the combination of the elements of the salad-spring onion, radish, red endive and capers -- and the way that the little bit of juice left in the tomatoes became part of the dressing -- but it too had a somewhat stern acidity. I was a cook in a restaurant in Turkey for a period of 11 months when I was in my twenties, and I feel like I have some at least rudimentary comfort with a flavor profile that often draws on lemon and sumac and yogurt and Persian dried limes -- it's not that Ottolenghi's austere and over-bright palate is foreign to me; it's just that his recipes are not quite careful and not quite balanced.
I made Dorie's Salted Butter Break-Ups, which were a tasty and solid little pick-me-up when you slump in the afternoon. Her crème brulee was perfection: a tender custard with a spare spoonful of bitter orange marmalade spread in the bottom of the ramekin that I will make again. I made her tasty and light cauliflower-bacon gratin. And even though I'd decided against cooking her friends' recipes, the spirit and intention of the book kind of beg you to because she wants to show you how she's eating in melting-pot France these days, at her own home and at the homes of her friends as well. And frankly, I had pretty much exhausted the very short list of things I was interested in cooking from the savory sections of the book. I could not bring myself to try anything served in a brandy snifter or a martini glass or with the words Vanilla Vegetable Salad in the title. But Marie-Helene's Apple Cake turns out to be so very very good, and I am glad I made it.
Ironically, a few sentences from Dorie's introduction to her own book started to guide me in cooking from Yotam's, and -- despite my fears that he was all early speed and no finish -- pushed Plenty past the wire by a nose and into the winner's circle. "Just about every time you cook or bake," she writes, "You've got to make a judgment call -- it's the nature of the craft ... I trust your judgment, and you should too." Which is what I will do from now on with every one of the more than 100 interesting recipes in Ottolenghi's book. I will use my judgment and bring everything I know about cooking to the project to coax the deeper flavor, the greater savory deliciousness out of his fantastic ideas, and at the end of the day, I will have a book on my shelf from which I will really want to cook, instead of a book that contains over 300 recipes of which barely a dozen will inspire. Plenty's ideas and my judgment became the right match; all this horse needs is a jockey.