You know how some people are obsessed with stamp collections or fantasy football teams? Well, we're obsessed with cookbooks. Here, in Books We Love, we'll talk about our favorites.
Today: A book full of dinner parties, from Seattle's nautically-minded Renee Erickson.
The cover of Renee Erickson’s A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus looks charmingly hand-drawn, a subtle rebellion against the massses of cookbooks that make messyperfect photos of plated food their first impression. This book is handmade out of the gate, and you’ll want to run your fingers over its embossed white lettering.
Open up the front cover and you’ll find a calm grey-blue photo of a sailboat sitting, sail-down, in Puget Sound, endpapers all calm and very Seattle. You might resent everyone who lives there, if you aren’t one of them. But you won’t resent Erickson because the next photo she gives you is full of pretty bottles of booze and you think, Yes, I will stay for a drink.
Erickson is the chef and proprietress behind Seattle’s Boat Street Café, The Walrus and the Carpenter, and The Whale Wins. Those of you who have never been to Seattle may know Boat Street Café as the place where Brandon Pettit, co-owner of Delancey and husband to Molly Wizenberg, spent some time -- in her latest book, Delancey, Molly describes it as the sort of restaurant that feels like a dinner party, both in the kitchen and in the dining room.
This cookbook, Erickson’s first, feels much the same -- while some restaurant cookbooks can feel overly cheffy, inaccessible, or better suited to a coffee table than your kitchen shelves, Erickson’s is all personality and warmth, that combination of inspiring and accessible that we’re all looking for in a cookbook.
It will light a fire under your ass to finally buy marrow bones (she roasts them and pairs them with rye toasts and a parsley-caper salad), but also offers subtle and smart improvements to what you’re already doing: Replace the Maldon on your fat tomato slices with vanilla salt (let’s all bookmark this for next summer), and garnish your martini with an anchovy-stuffed olive and preserved lemons. Swap out the butter dish next to your radishes for a bowl of green goddess dressing.
A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus joins the family of cookbooks populated by Jody Williams’ Buvette and Caroline Fidanza’s Saltie, written by chefs who have opened cozy neighborhood places free of fuss and distinctive in their style. They so easily encourage us to look at old dishes in new ways, with a wink and a handful of capers. Erickson’s book is inspired by Provence; it's got lots of dishes that you can serve at room temperature, with lots of herbs and citrus, smartly using heavy-hitting brighteners -- Boat Street Café was one of the first places to introduce a pickle plate, that now-expected dish on many menus. There’s a lot of seafood, and plenty of room left on the table for good wine.
The layout of the book, the way the photos and the headnotes and the empty space play together, matches Erickson’s ethos as well -- elegant and airy like a kitchen you wish were yours, but more cozy than austere.
The book is organized into 12 seasonal menus, peppered with just enough supplemental information to inform and endear: a page on oysters (there’s a lot of seafood here), and another dedicated to Erickson’s staff, laudatory and sincere. A profile on her butcher, another on a beekeeper. There are short, narrative recipes for a number of seasonal ingredients -- Roasted Red Pepper Flan, Shaved Zucchini Salad, Radicchio and Comté Cheese Tart -- that stretch the utility of this book past dinner parties and into weeknight territory.
And the last, most charming bit: Erickson has an entire menu, a whole chapter, for her own birthday. “I like to joke that my birthday is a national holiday, because that’s the way I treat it. But it’s not my fault,” she argues -- that’s the way she was raised, with big celebrations each summer, and she carries on the tradition today.
A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus might have you dreaming of opening a restaurant of your own one day, although we all know the advice that cautions against it. So start by throwing a Renee Erickson-style party -- go find some good oysters, some good wine, and cozy up to whatever menu in here strikes your fancy. You can still learn from all of her successes, and you get to choose just who shows up at the door.
Note: We've linked to Amazon for every book mentioned, but we encourage you to patronize independent bookstores around you -- they are our favorite places to browse and buy cookbooks.