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The literate, food-loving world can now be further divided into two camps: Those who feel a thrill of joy when they spot Gwyneth Paltrow's new cookbook, It's All Easy, on the shelf, and those who will laugh and roll their eyes when they pick it up.
In the same way that I know most people reading about this book on a website that hosts a pretty serious tournament of cookbooks will be of the latter sort, GP has targeted (and is pandering to) her audience: This cookbook is not one bit ashamed about shortcutting a ramen recipe to be weeknight-friendly, assuming that you own (or should own) a Spiralizer, or the fact that it shows off some 35 portraits of Gwyneth between recipes.
Despite what I'd like to report, I fell squarely between camps. At first skim, I was more than a little offended by the book's premise—but just try to flip through this cookbook without wanting to make something. It's hard. The imagery is gorgeous, the pages uncluttered. I was reminded of early Ina Garten books, which told me I could live the Hamptons dream in my own home—and which pretty much delivered on their promises.
So could It's All Easy do the same?
Are You Busy Enough?
First, the cover: There's Gwyneth, with a successful middle part and what looks like a loose drawer of wild vegetables, all but throwing up her hands at her idyllic-looking life and saying, "it's all easy!" (Was that a wink?) Is that supposed to be encouraging? Alluring? As a late-20's working person who lives in New York City, I might indeed be, to quote her intro, "under an intense amount of pressure to do multiple things simultaneously, and to be doing them to an impossibly high standard"; the kind of person who yearns for "the moment that is the antidote to all their busyness"; the kind of person who is totally down for easy weekday recipes. That's me! But do I buy it, really? Not a wink.
Just turn the page, and you're hit with rather aggressive propaganda that I've translated here for your pleasure: "This book is meant to be a road map"—meaning: you need direction—"a self-help book"—meaning: you need help—"for the chronically busy cook"—meaning: you need a cure. It's a marketing play, of course (You're too busy! These easy recipes are going to solve everything!), but pardon me for disliking the taste of cold, stony guilt that slips down into my belly when someone reminds me that I could be doing better—should be making myself do better—than I am.
Though I doubt there's a malicious bone in GP's processed food-free body, I felt a little like leaving a bad doctor's appointment at first skim.
But let's consider how literally we should take her. To quote Thea Baumann, the Food Editor at GOOP and co-author of this cookbook, in her intro, "With a name like It's All Easy, you might expect this to be full of recipes with five ingredients that can be made in under twenty minutes. It's not.... These recipes are easy, healthy, and approachable for cooks with any lifestyle and any skill level." I'd give myself an above-average skill rating in the kitchen, but to test how true this statement actually is, I wrangled my roommate Justine to cook with me. (In the three years we've lived together, Justine has used the kitchen to cook noodles, toast bagels, and open beers, solely.)
I smoothed out my ruffled fur, reminded myself that GP probably had a pushy publishing house to deal with, chuckled good-naturedly at her decision to footnote the term FOMO* in a gesture of inclusiveness, and dove in.
*fear of missing out
Tell Me About the Cookbook, Please
Flipping on through the recipe pages, I was easily distracted from annoyance: Every recipe—and Gwyneth herself, in many, many sun-dappled head shots—looks appealing. ("Look at my beautiful life!" Justine mocked. "The lack of imperfection is... notable," my boyfriend agreed.) But to me, the styling feels realistic; the dishes, I would love to own. The names of the recipes are simple and just trendy enough to be exciting (I see you poke bowls, congee), the ingredient lists generally short, and the explanations straightforward. I added sticky notes to lots of them.
But in reality, I had a hard time deciding what to make. As a specifically healthier kind of recipe set than I typically consider ("many have little or no sugar, dairy, or gluten," the jacket flap quietly admits), these meals often felt mysteriously incomplete: Here's saag paneer, minus the paneer (Indian Creamed Spinach), Chicken Piccata with no starch in sight, and an admittedly enticing, saucy platter of pork-free Szechuan-Style Green Beans. With so many influencing cuisines weighing in—from the aforementioned to Thai, Mexican, Southern, Polynesian, Italian, Middle Eastern, and more—I couldn't help but feel befuddled trying to pair a side with a main, or two small plates, without feeling I'd gone fusion.
Maybe I was missing the point: The idea of a truly easy dinner might just be to put one thing on the table, be it a big bowl of creamed spinach and some crusty bread, and tell your family they can go to bed hungry if they were hoping for something more. But I was feeding three voracious busybodies (me, Justine, and my boyfriend), and I wanted plenty of food. I settled on Chicken Wonton Soup and Miso Turnips.
Is It Really All Easy?
My grocery list was appealingly short. Deviously, I texted Justine, "Could I ask you to grab an ingredient on the way home?" followed by my requests: tamari and 4 baby bok choy. Back at Whole Foods, only tiny snafus: I had to beg the butcher to grind up some chicken thighs for the pound of ground dark meat chicken I needed, and I had to settle for regular turnips rather than the cute little Tokyo ones. Life went on.
"This book makes you want to be the kind of person who knows what tamari is," Justine said, flipping through it, but she hadn't known and headed to the Asian foods aisle only because the bok choy was a clue that the other ingredient might be there.
To be clear, the ingredient list doesn't offer soy sauce as the easy alternative, and while there's a section called "Pantry" right at the start of the book, listing the ingredients and tools you might be called upon to use, it's mainly just that—a list—without much helpful information; next to Tamari, no explanation. Next to Dashi, this: "This seasoning liquid is the base for most of our ramens. Made from soy and bonito, it's full of umami flavor." Soy? Dashi as I know it is a kombu-bonito broth... but I digress. The Pantry section is self-evident, at best; the ingredients skew healthy-trendy (see: Kuzi root), and the tools skew upper middle class (see: Vitamix, Spiralizer). But what did I expect?
That said, pulling off both recipes was easier than easy. For the soup, I simmered stock with some aromatics, mixed chicken and some aromatics into meatballs, then dropped them, along with some vegetables and strips of wonton wrapper, into the hot broth—that's right, it's a deconstructed wonton soup—which took, all told, about 45 minutes. (Note: quick recipes get an "Under 30 minutes" subtitle, while anything longer has no time indicated at all.)
The headnote reads: "Everyone loves wonton soup, but who has time to fold up individual dumplings for a midweek dinner?" I'll be honest, I typically don't, but what is the harm in telling someone how to turn meatballs and wonton wrappers into wontons? By wetting the edges of the wrappers and pinching them together, corners up, I made half my meatballs into wontons in a little over five minutes. All the little strips of wonton wrapper that were so cleverly called for in their stead sank to the bottom of our soup bowls in a gummy clump.
I'm just saying: If this is truly a book for any skill level of cook, why does it not explain the technique that's being shortcut, so the reader might choose to learn and gain confidence? It would take but 25 words to note that you could make these wontons on a Sunday, freeze them, and then have instant wonton soup any night next week. Omissions like these keep It's All Easy from being truly useful.
The turnips, on the other hand, were baked, slathered with miso-maple-butter mix, then broiled. Yes the mixture was a little gloppier than I expected, and looked nothing at all like the gelatinous red splash that covers the pan in the book's picture, but otherwise it was easy. No catch.
The Finish Line
I'll give it to GP, the food tasted very good. Rebel that I am, we had some wontons in our meatball-and-wonton strip soup, but the ratios were spot on: plenty of herbs and alliums for every bit of chicken. Justine and I popped the turnips like candy, which they were a little akin to ("Is this dessert?," my boyfriend with total sincerity asked after trying the first one halfway through his soup).
Did I enjoy cooking from this book? Were the recipes exactly what they were chalked up to be? Yes on both counts. It was a quick and painless evening in the kitchen, with an output that made sense for the input required: Measure enough scallions and cilantro into your ground chicken thighs, and the resulting meatballs will have flavor. But did I learn anything about cooking, was I inspired, did I feel a newfound grasp on the tools and ingredients available to me, the way people rave after they make it through a few Ottolenghi dishes, or the way we feel reading Brooks Headley in the Piglet? Oh, come on.
This book is going to be loved by many, simply for being beautiful and delivering on its easy-breezy promise and cutting out extra information. (People are so used to being pandered to these days, told half the story because it's for their own good, that they won't miss the big picture.) They will hear about this book, gift this book, and even try cooking from this book because it's Gwyneth's. They will be charmed to pieces by the pictures of her gorgeous family and the novelty of this hitherto unknown dish called Zuni Sheetpan Chicken.
It's All Easy is going to reach an audience that hasn't gone into the kitchen yet (or once did, but has found themselves "too busy" to keep at it) for the exact reason that I might have rolled my eyes at it: Gwyneth. That, to me, is incredibly good news no matter how annoyed I am that she chose this opportunity to also remind us of her enviable sweater collection. Hopefully, of course, those cooks find their way to Food52 not long after.
How excited are you for Gwyneth's new cookbook? Be real with me in the comments.