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The Piglet2013 / First Round, 2013

Dirt Candy: A Cookbook: Flavor-Forward Food from the Upstart New York City Vegetarian Restaurant

Dirt Candy

Amanda Cohen

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VS
Roots: The Definitive Compendium with More Than 225 Recipes

Roots

Diane Morgan

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The Judgment

Shauna_and_danny_ahern

By Danny & Shauna Ahern

My chef husband and I grow genuinely excited about our weekly visits to the farmers' market. Ours isn’t like the Union Square Market in New York or the Ferry Terminal Market in San Francisco, it’s a small, 9-stall market for our tiny island off of Seattle. (It's 15 stalls in the summer, if you count the man who makes wooden spoons or the woman who pastes old book covers onto blank journals.) The size doesn't matter. We just get excited about vegetables. 

We talk fast about Japanese cucumbers in August or point excitedly at the French pumpkins our favorite farmer grows. Pumpkin curry? Pumpkin quiche? 

So when we were asked to be judges for the Piglet, and were given two vegetable-centric books, we were thrilled. 

Roots, by Diane Morgan, is a lavish, traditional cookbook, filled with recipes for root vegetables. That's right, root vegetables. These are the humblest, most awkward of produce. There's little that's sexy about a rutabaga. Fresh basil inspires ecstasy. Broccoli off the stem is a revelation for children. But knobbly turnips? Lotus root? Galangal? These are not the stars of the vegetable world. 

Morgan, however, wants you to understand that these are the enduring stars of cuisine you should be bringing to your table. Each chapter contains a photograph of the root, an interesting introduction to it with cooking tips, storage ideas, and lists of places the vegetable is available and when. This is a book that's meant to be useful. The recipes in each section are familiar with an unexpected twist, like Pot Roast with Honey-Roasted Rutabagas. Crisp-Fried Tofu and Vegetables in Kao Saoi Coconut Broth. None of the recipes are particularly complex; most of them take up one page in the book. 

The images are gorgeous, filled with strong light and beautiful dishes, but they look as though they could have been shot in someone's actual kitchen, on a wooden table near a window. Flipping through, I noticed myself bookmarking recipe after recipe. Without a doubt, I felt I could make these dishes. 

Roots is a very humble book. There's little of the author in here. The headnotes aren't witty, pithy anecdotes, but rather simple evocations of the taste and texture of the dish. And really, when the recipe is for poached Asian pears with galangal and honey, I don't want any anecdotes standing between me and that dish. 

This book is meant to be cooked through. What do we make with all of our sunchokes if we’ve bought too many at the market? Now, we'll pull out our copy of Roots. "Honey, how about roasted sunchokes with lemon, rosemary, and garlic? Or mixing roasted sunchokes and butternut squash in a gnocchi? Or winter greens, sunchokes, carrots, fennel, and radishes with a grainy-mustard vinaigrette?" We've made all of them now. They're all darned good. 

Roots is a labor of love, a fastidious recording of every way to use every root vegetables, and an enticement to use the vegetables in a new way. It's beautifully useful. 

On to Dirt Candy, a book I wanted to love. It comes from a much talked-about vegetarian restaurant in New York. It's a comic book cookbook! With kick-ass vegetarian food! There is a recipe for celery salad with grilled king oyster mushrooms and celery pesto! This book is daring, interesting, and certainly one-of-a-kind. 

Since I wrote a narrative cookbook, mostly about my chef husband and what his life on the line was like, I assumed I'd choose this book to win. How could I not? 

The first risk of a narrative cookbook is having a narrative that doesn't compel further reading. It takes great courage to write truthfully about how difficult it is to open and run a restaurant. (My husband Danny and I read parts of this book to each other and nodded our heads continually.) However, the narrative -- told strictly in comic-book form -- ends up being mostly the story of complaints about contractors, customers who don't understand the food, and the complications of being on Iron Chef. 

The food in Dirt Candy is truly exciting. Smoked Corn Dumplings. Wasabi Pea Leaves. Portobello Mousse. The only illustrations of the food in the book, though, were line drawings of the dishes, obviously modeled on the sketches Cohen makes for her line cooks, with notes on how to plate the dishes. 

This book didn't make me hungry. 

Mostly, the problem is this: Dirt Candy contains recipes for food very few people will make. It's unapproachable. "Way off the wall," as my husband said. 

I wanted to make the Stone-Ground Grits with Pickled Shiitakes and a Tempura-Poached Egg. But in order to make this dish, you have to make corn stock and corn cream in advance for the grits. You have to poach eggs, then deep fry them in tempura batter and panko crumbs. Don't forget to pickle the shiitakes the night before, but preferably a few days before. And then, top it all off with homemade huitlacoche cream, which is Mexican corn fungus blended until creamy. This was one of the simplest main dishes in the book. 

Almost every main dish recipe requires making four other recipes, on four separate pages. (See page 184. See page 52. See page 138. See page 21.) 

I grew exhausted just looking at this book. 

My husband has been a chef his entire adult life. This is a man who wakes up in the morning and says, "You know what? Today I want to make walnut vinegar." He's not afraid of any dish. But the day we made the Roasted Potato Soup, which required 8 hours of prepping and cooking, Danny threw up his hands and refused to look at the book anymore. Because, in the end, it was just a decent potato soup. My husband was apoplectic when we ate it. "I am never making that potato soup again." 

Dirt Candy is clearly a cookbook that comes from a professional kitchen. Dishes could not go out during dinner service if it weren't for the dozens of hours line cooks work during prep time. When you have 6-pans filled with cucumber salad with Chinese chives, shiso-galangal sauce, avocado relish, fried pickles, and tofu poached in coconut milk for 1 hour, it's fairly easy to put together a dish of coconut-poached tofu with cucumber three ways. At home, though? That's probably not going to happen. 

And the food we made from the cookbook suffered from this endless, needless complexity. I was genuinely excited to try the Zucchini Ginger Cake. However, I realized that I needed to make zucchini candy by boiling zucchini and sugar water, then dehydrate the zucchini for 4 hours, then pulse it into whipped candy. And then I needed to make a whipped cream with that zucchini candy before I could complete the cake? Well, that didn't happen. I made the cake, which was a pretty serviceable ginger cake. The people to whom I gave it at a party enjoyed it. But it was just a ginger cake without the rest. 

However, we were left with inspiring ideas for food. The Avocado Relish -- made with minced galangal, fresh ginger, garlic, bird's eye chiles, cucumbers, avocados, and lime juice -- looks so delicious I think I could eat it with a spoon. I don't need much more than the Yellow Tomato Coconut Curry Sauce and some leftover roast chicken for dinner. I've never thought of making pickled potatoes but I'm going to try it now. It's possible that, if a reader knows that most of the dishes are unapproachable, he or she can glean flavor ideas in sauces and offhand explanations of more convoluted recipes. 

Is Dirt Candy a vanity project for the restaurant? Is each dish so intricate, taking days to make, that you'll give up and just book a table at the place the next time you're in New York? I'd certainly love to try this restaurant. But I don't want to cook the food from this book again. 

So which wins? The innovative cookbook, much of it told in comic-book form, with dishes so interesting you don't care they are vegetarian, but dishes so complex you'll have to take the day off work to make for dinner? Or the traditional cookbook, with lovely photographs, celebrating humble root vegetables, with recipes sure to work every time we make them? 

We receive three or four cookbooks a week from publishers. Our shelves are bulging. We have to be pretty discriminating about what we keep these days or our rooms will be nothing but stacks of cookbooks lined up along the walls. These days, we read cookbooks, cook from them, and give away the ones we won't use again to friends and family. 

Our copy of Dirt Candy is going into our reference shelf, up in the office. Roots is going on our dining-room shelves, close to the kitchen, so we can pull it out when we return from the farmers' market and wonder what to do with radishes this week. 

And the winner is…

Roots: The Definitive Compendium with More Than 225 Recipes

Roots: The Definitive Compendium with More Than 225 Recipes

Get the Book

Do you Agree? (46 comments)

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about 1 year ago GregoryBPortland

Another fellow Portlander who thinks Diane Morgan rocks. ROOTS is her masterpiece, somewhere around her 20th cookbook. The photos are gorgeous and the recipes are home-cook friendly. Great choice, Gluten-Free-Girl and Chef Husband!

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about 1 year ago sanfranchristo

+1 for an thorough, fair, and enjoyable review. If only all of the first round judges took their task as seriously.

Imag0055

about 1 year ago mainecook61

Well-written review that nicely brings out the relative strengths of both books.

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about 1 year ago hardlikearmour

hardlikearmour is a trusted home cook.

As a fellow Portlander, I was thrilled to see Diane Morgan's book prevail! Thanks for a well-thought out comparison of the books.

Stringio

about 1 year ago Tracie Norfleet

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the tournament of cookbooks.

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about 1 year ago Creative Culinary

I have a beautiful cookbook from the owners of Eleven Madison Park in NYC that this review reminds me of. Gorgeous book though with amazing photos but restaurant prep for sure. I've yet to make one dish from the book as a result but I still love it and my friends have loved perusing it too; it's one of those coffee table books!

Still; I typically purchase cookbooks to cook from them and I just love 'Roots' - it has definitely opened my eyes to the glory of root vegetables I had not previously experienced...for me that is the perfect cookbook!

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about 1 year ago Diane Morgan

Thank you for the lovely comment. I am humbled by all this praise for Roots.

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about 1 year ago Iaian

One more thought, how is this scammer (google "widow gate" or "bloggers without borders scandal" to see the juicy details of just one of her acts of fleecing the stupid) given anything other than a shunning or a jail sentence?

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about 1 year ago Iaian

The fact that an unemployed "chef" (how many restaurants has he been fired from so far? For that matter, why are his fingernails always disgusting and how many of his former patrons has he sent to the hospital with food poisoning due to his lack of hygiene?) and a hypochondriac whose "food" looks like something my cats have either buried in their litter box or horked up have been given more attention and allowed to judge this contest proves that it is as much of a joke as "Team A-Hole" are.

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about 1 year ago Sean Sullivan

It is a great book. I truly enjoy reading it, and I can't wait to offer my customers some of these recipes with gorgeous local veggies.

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about 1 year ago susan g

After reading this review and the one for Pig/Beginnings, I am happy to see two well considered statements of opinion from qualified people who speak clearly, based on cooking, reading and looking. Even the selection of the pair of books showed some thought for parity so that the comparisons had relevance. This year's Piglet is off to a great start!

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about 1 year ago Omnivore Books

GREAT review! The assessment of Dirt Candy reminds me a bit of my experience with Momofuku Milk Bar that I judged in last year's Piglet - great for understanding a professional kitchen's mise-en-place process and inspiration, but utterly impossible to use without days of planning. Loved Shauna's voice in this, and am proud to carry her books in my shop.

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about 1 year ago Gwyneth

Hrm... I am wondering why these two cookbooks were paired? They seem wildly different, which makes the judging sort of arbitrary, no? Apples to oranges.

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about 1 year ago TheTomatoTart

Thanks, Shauna, for your honesty. I've been looking at the roots book, and now I'm off to buy it.

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about 1 year ago allysahn

I totally agree with your review! I live in New York and love going to Dirt Candy, so when the cookbook came out, I snapped one up, but I have yet to make any of the dishes. The comic book layout is cool, but the book is more fashion than function.

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about 1 year ago ATG117

I thoroughly enjoyed this review much more than I recall liking any review last year. It was thorough, honest, and, in my opinion, it hit all the right marks by assessing everything I want to know about a cookbook I'm looking to buy.

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about 1 year ago thelittlebite

What a great and thorough review! I'm definitely checking out Roots as soon as possible. I'm a big fan of all the root veg and would love some new ways to cook them besides my old standby: roasting. Thanks!

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about 1 year ago Diane Morgan

I am so humbled by all these incredible comments. A huge thank you!!!

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about 1 year ago healthierkitchen

I look forward to getting a copy of your book!

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about 1 year ago CarlaCooks

I am also going to buy copy of the book! I just joined a CSA-like group here in Denmark, where we're heavy on the root vegetables, especially in the winter (this week's box includes a kilo of potatoes, and we get that nearly every week!), so I really look forward to having some new ideas on how to use all of the lovely roots! Congrats on winning this round, Ms. Morgan!

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about 1 year ago Diane Morgan

Thank you!
I love the idea of your cooking from Roots with a CSA box in Denmark. While I had to balance the number of recipes within each chapter to shape the book in a reasonably even way, I could have easily doubled or tripled the number of recipes for potatoes in the book. Enjoy!

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about 1 year ago Sean Sullivan

Beautiful book! My colleagues and I all love it. We can't wait to feature some of the recipes made from gorgeous local veggies!!!

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about 1 year ago healthierkitchen

What a great, honest review. I haven't yet seen either book but though I might enjoy paging through Dirt Candy in the bookstore, and would love to eat there, I know that like Shauna and Danny, Roots would be a usable resource in my kitchen. Thanks for keeping it interesting!

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about 1 year ago Bevi

Kudos to Danny and Shauna for exploring both cookbooks so thoroughly, cooking from them, and taking such graceful care to convey your thoughts about your time spent with both books. You do real justice to Piglet.

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about 1 year ago Island guy

Bravo Danny and Shauna. Such fine writing—there should be a place for it here on Vashon! I'd love to read more. With appreciation from a neighbor on Maury...