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The Piglet2014 / First Round, 2014

Balaboosta vs. The A.O.C. Cookbook

Balaboosta

Einat Admony

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The A.O.C. Cookbook

Suzanne Goin

Get the Book

The Judgment

Sam-sifton

By Sam Sifton

The high priestesses of the Piglet set me up with cookbooks from two serious hitters in the restaurant world: Suzanne Goin of Lucques, A.O.C., Tavern, and the Hungry Cat in Los Angeles; and Einat Admony of Balaboosta and Taïm in New York. They arrived in my kitchen at roughly the same time that Time story about the so-called “Gods of Food” set off a brushfire of controversy about whether the magazine had done enough to locate -- much less recognize -- women in the pantheon of professional food. 

This was a funny coincidence. Because, of course, here were two who walk near those heights: Goin, with four restaurants to her name and a direct line back to Alice Waters, for whom she worked at Chez Panisse; and Admony, a falafel maven in New York who transformed street food into a kind of sacrament at Taïm, and home cooking into practically a religion at Balaboosta. 

To their tracts I would turn! 

But of course religion is a terrible lens through which to examine cookbooks. (Maybe the food world too?) It leads to the worship of false idols. Cookbooks are not sacred, anyway. Their purpose is not devotion but use. 

The better analogy is pornography. Cookbooks are designed specifically to arouse. They excite in us the passion to cook or at any rate to consume. The best ones make us want to do that right now. 

Or they don’t. And those are cookbooks we do not use.

Does the cookbook make you want to cook? Does it do so again and again? For a cookbook to win the Piglet, these questions must be answered affirmatively.

I have cooked extensively from Goin’s first book, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, to unbelievable effect at dinner parties and family suppers alike. It stands butter-stained and thyme-fragrant on my kitchen bookshelf, its binding cracking from use. Goin’s marriage of Californian values and flavors to the cooking of Europe and the Mediterranean rim is just, like, crazy-making in its deliciousness, even if it requires hard and considered work in the kitchen beforehand. Goin is a project cook, even when the cooking is putatively simple. There is always another step to take to make her dishes, a subsequent recipe to cook, a need for an ingredient that there is no way you’re going to find on a weekend in Brooklyn even if you have a professional’s knowledge of places to buy specialty items and, should this fail, Florence Fabricant’s mobile number on speed dial (and I have both).  

Pork confit? You need three quarts of duck or pork fat to make it. The ingredient -- pork confit is not a dish for Goin, but simply an element of a larger one -- appears in Sunday Suppers and shows up again in The A.O.C Cookbook. Come on, lady. I braised a pork shoulder in dark beer with a lot of aromatics instead and then followed the recipe from there and it was about the greatest thing I had eaten in half a year. I’m sure I would say a full year if I had made the actual recipe. But I am not tracking down all that fat for anyone. 

Cooking Goin is complicated. Her recipes -- written with exacting detail and endless instruction -- reward those who follow them closely. Put another way, you can cheat as I did with the pork, but not always. To cite an example from Sunday Suppers, I have made Goin’s Devil's Chicken Thighs with Braised Leeks (based on a Julia Child recipe) approximately one million times since the book came out in 2005. About three years in I started to take shortcuts, not braising the leeks ahead of time, trying to make the dish more of a one-pan meal. This diminished the quality of the end result greatly. I am back to following the instructions as closely as if I were rehearsing to work in her kitchen and not get fired. The dish takes all day to make. It is back to being fantastic. 

The A.O.C. Cookbook owes a great stylistic debt to its older sister. It looks and feels and reads similarly, and cooks just as well, with beautiful photography from Shimon and Tammar Rothstein. The books are a hell of a pair.

For this exercise, I noodled around A.O.C. for weeks. Here were recipes to entrance the imagination, to imagine serving to applause in apartments with more than one floor, with separate entrances, with gleaming kitchens and the luxury of time to cook in them. (Also a wine cellar. Caroline Styne, Goin’s business partner, provides excellent notes on pairings throughout the book.) The delights piled high in the brain. Braised Duck with Madeira, Kale Stuffing, and Dates. Striped bass with roasted beets and blood-orange butter. Pork Confit (my attractive nemesis!) with Caramelized Apples and Cabbage in Red Wine. Parsnips and Turnips with Sage and Prunes. Goin writes about these things as if you could knock them off in an hour, which perhaps you could if there was a team of underlings working for you who could do the shopping and the prep work. But for the home cook caught in the time famine of life in New York, please understand: There is not much here for the kids on a weeknight.

Except, there is. Those root vegetables, for instance, pair beautifully with a simple roast chicken. And I managed to pull off a dish of cinnamon- and cumin-scented lamb meatballs in spiced tomato sauce, with feta and mint, in just over an hour. It made for an insanely good meal with warm pita on the side, less a project than a considered block of time in the kitchen working with children, and it punched well above its weight in matters of flavor, thanks to the interaction of the lamb fat with the fresh breadcrumbs and spices in the meatballs, and the thick tomato sauce, fiery and almost sweet, that surrounded them. 

The verdict of our family’s most fearsome recipe critic, age 10: “I would eat this every week.” Me, too. 

Balaboosta fares less well on this scale -- and I write this as a major fan of the restaurant from which the book takes its name. Our best run at excellence was with a platter of Admony’s mother’s chicken with pomegranate and walnuts. Cooked directly from the recipe, with no changes, it was slightly muddy in aspect and flavor, but pretty good for that: Israeli home cooking, I suppose, untrammeled by restaurant fanciness. “It was okay,” said our Antoinette Ego, to nods from the rest of the clan. 

The recipes in Balaboosta are grouped interestingly: dinner-party dishes; kid food; quick-and-easy dinners; comfort food; barbecue options; healthy meals; slow-cooked ones; Israeli ones; fancy ones; romantic ones. The trouble is, very few of them appeal -- or at any rate appeal to me. With the exception of Mama Admony’s chicken and a marvelous roasted eggplant slathered with tahini and lemon juice, then covered in an herb salad, I found it actually difficult to find food in the book I wanted to cook.  

Sometimes this was because of the simplicity of the dishes described. I don’t need a recipe for chicken fingers, for instance, or roasted Brussels sprouts (though I did like the addition of a grated Anjou pear to the roasting mixture). Other times it’s because, well, I don’t want a recipe for popcorn with chocolate, nor one for chicken baked with ketchup, apple juice, paprika, onions, and a little cumin. (I can pick that up at the airport.) 

And I simply don’t buy a recipe for chili that name-checks the Wendy’s version in the headnote that accompanies the instructions. Nor one for a “Morning Orgasm Cocktail” that declares, “With two kids who still like to finish the night in our bed, special morning time doesn’t happen as often as I’d wish, so this drink has become a bit of a replacement.” 

I won’t list the ingredients.

The A.O.C. Cookbook advances.

And the winner is…

The A.O.C. Cookbook

The A.O.C. Cookbook

Get the Book

Do you Agree? (86 comments)

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about 1 month ago Naomi Manygoats

Well written and entertaining review! Balaboosta is already in one of the stacks of cookbooks I lugged home and have not gotten around to reading or cooking from. I do enjoy that type of book though, I live in a rural town, very far from NYC, so I love cookbooks that allow me to travel all over the world, and to some great restaurants, by cooking at home. Had I read the Wendy's chili note or the Morning Orgasmic Cocktail bits though I doubt I would have bought the book, not that I am a prude, but really! Might have to add Sunday Suppers to my list; I do hesitate when folks in NYC and San Francisco can't track down ingredients though there is slim chance of it within 30 miles of my house!

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about 1 month ago sandriavdh

Thanks for the detailed review. AOC sounds like the for sure winner. And sounds very interesting, if a little above my level of technique. I would be interested in giving it a try though!

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about 1 month ago Susan55

I couldn’t wait for this book and I've cooked from it a few times now. I've also cooked from Sunday Suppers and know what to expect from Ms. Goin’s recipes. The lamb meatballs, as noted above, are full of flavor, come together quickly, and are riffable - which I love. However, if the two dessert recipes I looked at are any indication, you really have to read through the recipes and make sure you have everything you need in place, because some of the editing is sloppy (missing ingredients / prep steps / notes regarding equipment). Still I'm glad I have it; some great techniques, and recipes for batters, condiments, sauces, etc; that you can incorporate into your overall repertoire. Plus wine notes from the amazing Caroline Styne! Just be forewarned - read carefully!

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about 1 month ago Susan55

I have been waiting for this book for and I've cooked from it a few times. I've also cooked from Sunday Suppers and know what to expect from her recipes. The Lamb meatballs, as noted above, are full of flavor, come together quickly, and are riffable - which I love. However, if the two dessert recipes I looked at are any indication, you really have to read through the recipes and make sure you have everything you need in place, because some of the editing is slopping (missing ingredients / prep steps / notes regarding equipment. Still I'm glad I have it; some great techniques, and recipes for batters, condiments, sauces, etc; that you can incorporate into your overall repertoire. Just be forewarned - read carefully!

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about 1 month ago Barbara Robertson

If "A.O.C." is comparable to "Sunday Night Dinners at Lucques" in any way, it is by far the winner.

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about 1 month ago rosalind5

Beautifully written. I'm not keen on restaurant cookbooks, for all the reasons Mr. Sifton (thank you SO much for your Thanksgiving cookbook, BTW) lays out. But I appear to be wrong in this case.

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about 1 month ago beejay45

Just from the tone of his intro, this reviewer doesn't sound like a Balaboosta kinda cook, even though he enjoys eating at the restaurant. And this is another example of comparing apples and oranges (so, I'm not reading them in order) -- classic restaurant cuisine vs. home cooking of whatever variety, with a reviewer who clearly prefers the apples doing the judging. Makes me want to buy Balaboosta just because it's the underdog. ;)

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about 1 month ago CetteSiljack

I am so happy that AOC won, but as a overwhelmed mother and a fairly serious cook, I have to say this: Sifton, you don't give nearly enough credit to SS@Lucques. It is my all-time favorite cookbook precisely because each one of those steps Goin calls for on the way to some complex recipe turns out to be THE perfect way to cook that ingredient. You never need to cook the whole dish. You can just make some component--and it will be amazing. I now make fish, mushrooms, polenta, cole slaw, meringues, pork loin and literally dozens of other things the way Goin instructs. She is SO SMART. She actually thinks about the whys and hows of cooking, and her recipes are lessons. I adore her. Thanks

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2 months ago Elveenah

Totally agree! I want to learn recipes that make me excited about eating. I'll be getting The A.O.C. Cookbook sometime in the near future!

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2 months ago LindsayC77

I bought "Sunday Suppers" a few years ago based on various recommendations, and while the dishes I've made have turned out beautifully, I feel weirdly relieved to read this from Mr. Sifton: "There is always another step to take to make her dishes, a subsequent recipe to cook, a need for an ingredient that there is no way you’re going to find on a weekend in Brooklyn," let alone a weekend in Madison, Wis., where I happen to reside.

This review, although of an entirely different cookbook, has both reassured me and inspired me to go back to the one I already own. What a nice surprise.

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2 months ago Juliebell

I have all books mentioned and I could not agree more with this well written review.

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2 months ago Dianerquinn

I received A.O.C. For Xmas and have been working my way through it slowly. It is a fantastic and exciting cookbook. My first choice was the pork confit - yes I hunted down all that duck fat. It was AMAZING! Sam's article is correct - this cookbook arouses your senses and makes you want to try every exacting step. I will be making the lamb meatballs tonight!

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2 months ago Peter D

Would like to try some of these recipes.

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2 months ago linded

The quality of the reviews in The Piglet is astounding. You just don't see this erudition and serious consideration of the cookbook as a legitimate piece of work very often. Thank you, Sam Sifton and Brian Boitano, for the effort you took with your writing and research. I'm truly impressed.

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about 1 month ago XenaB

So true. All reviews were enjoyable so far but the Sifton and Boitano reviews were such fine writing.

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2 months ago g. marks

While I am happy to read a review by an author who isn't afraid to be frank about how he feels about something, I think Mr. Sifton was snobby and snarky in some of his comments. I think he could have made his point without such condemnation. It also sounds to me as though he was clearly an impartial judge based on his lengthy reference to the A.O.C. author's other cookbook.

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2 months ago Canned

Got it right, Sam. AOC rules. Black rice with Squid can be a weeknight meal of epic proportions. Move on, AOC.

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2 months ago twinjadojo

Wahoooo! Ms. Goin single-handedly elevated my cooking with Sunday Supers. So challenging (especially without an exhaust hood and dishwasher) and such exceptional results, without fail. I will mos def be adding AOC to my wish list. I miss dining at her restaurants in LA, but I know I can come darn well close to replicating the dishes in my humble farmhouse kitchen. To do and to teach with equal success-that is a true gift. Goin, girl!

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2 months ago Jenali

This is my first time following the Piglet and I'm glad that I decided to check it out. My cook book wish list is quickly expanding. I will definitely check out Goin's two cookbooks considering how highly praised both were in this review.

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2 months ago boulangere

Cynthia is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

This review makes me want to pick up Sunday Suppers at Lucques.

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2 months ago Ashley

Sounds interesting.