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The Piglet2016 / First Round, 2016

Seven Spoons vs. My Kitchen Year

Seven Spoons

Tara O'Brady

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My Kitchen Year

Ruth Reichl

Get the Book

Judged by: Brooks Headley

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Brooks Headley is the owner of Superiority Burger, a 6-seat vegetarian restaurant in the East Village with dubious hours of operation. His first cookbook and last year's Piglet winner, Fancy Desserts, was published in 2014, and in 2013, he received the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef for work with his team at Del Posto in Manhattan. He writes a quarterly column in Bon Appétit and is currently working on The Superiority Burger Cookbook, which has a fall 2017 release date.

The Judgment

I never attended culinary school. My cooking education is 50 percent what I learned (and am still learning) from cookbooks and 50 percent absorption from good cooks and chefs I worked with over the years. You don’t always learn all the tricks from a Mark Ladner or a Mark Peel, though—sometimes you get a stack of techniques from a dishwasher with a previous pastry background, or you’re shown the most delicate and beautiful way to crisply fry oil-free French fried onions by an exasperated line cook. 

But not everyone gets the privilege to torch their savings and create a Katamari-like mound of credit card debt devoting their lives to low-paying professional kitchen work, so for most people, cookbooks are key. Cookbooks are how you learn to cook. I even put one out last year that won this very competition.

The two books in question are Seven Spoons by Tara O’Brady and My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl. Neither book appeals to me aesthetically, but as the published author of a cookbook with images of copulating elephants and an employment cover letter in Mad-lib form, I am actually forbidden by law to comment on any other human’s aesthetics. So, here we go with a completely objective ranking of only the recipes and headnotes in each book, with the final decision made by a consortium of sorts: my staff—we cooked and ate from each book’s recipes for staff meal at Superiority Burger, our 9-month-old vegetarian restaurant.

I’m breaking my rule straight away: Both of these books have matte finish pages. This irks me deeply. Food photographs look wetter, more delicious—just better—on glossy or semi-glossed pages. Calling on all salaried food stylists and cookbook editors with midtown Manhattan offices to end this trend immediately. Unless you’re going to go full La Technique and print the photos in black and white on matte paper, then I beg of you: Please stick with glossy.

Day one we busted out the Vita Prep and made Ms. O’Brady’s Default Smoothie, a banana-based shake dyed a green hue from raw kale. Our facilities manager Matthew had to run up to Commodities Natural Market on First Avenue to grab us kale, as we’ve never had any in house at Superiority Burger. Banana is powerful stuff, so it mostly tasted of that, with a creepy, kale-y undertone. Ana took a sip and then grimaced—too healthy-ish. Matthew loved it, and actually finished the remains directly from the blender top. But he also bikes 10 miles a day and works out a lot. We are not sure where he finds the time to do this (or rather, the rest of us are self-hating because we don’t share his fitness regime). He Youtube-Bluetoothed the New York Philharmonic version of “Fanfare For The Common Man” to the restaurant sound system while still finishing it off. 

Next up was Ms. O’Brady’s Mushrooms and Greens with Toast. This recipe spoke to us, as we often have vegetable sides that incorporate torn up sourdough bread in that panzanella/pappa al pomodoro/Zuni Café bread salad sort of way. The recipe instructed us to get kale again, but we opted for Swiss chard, preferring its slippery whoosh to kale’s curly scoliosis. Angel and Mel both took heaping portions and devoured them. “It’s kinda like pizza,” Angel said with a mouthful, smiling.  

For another staff meal, Julia suggested a green sauce battle, so we made Ms. O’Brady’s Halloumi in Chermoula alongside Ms. Reichl’s salsa verde. Both versions were pretty good. But the sauce from My Kitchen Year contained toasted almonds for an aromatic tinge, seemingly in direct opposition to Seven Spoons’ cumin, coriander, and smoked paprika. Simplicity won out. Nearly everyone started spooning the green, almond-y stuff onto whatever was around: stale bread, pretzels, yellow cake scraps, potato skins we were supposed to be saving for a soup garnish. It even got Julia and I talking about what other herb we could use to make a very straightforward green sauce that would explode green-ness in your mouth. We decided on tarragon, and ended up devising a tarragon salsa verde for the menu based slightly on Ms. Reichl’s recipe.

As a vegetarian, almost nearly-vegan restaurant—minus a couple blocks of cheese and a tiny little corner of milk in a reach-in—it seemed goofy and, well, wrong for us to cook anything with meat in it from either book on site. But in the interest of fairness to this competition, I had Julia knock out a few recipes at home in Brooklyn and bring them in for the carnivorous contingent of the staff.

She showed up one Monday with four quart containers of Ruth’s chili. “It’s got beer and chocolate in it!” she announced. My immediate reaction was “ew” but what we all tasted was clearly a winner: deeply flavorful, maybe due to the homemade chili powder in the recipe. (We eventually started making our own toasted chili powder….inspiration strikes again!) Luis had seconds and then thirds; he griddled off a handful of corn tortillas for everyone’s second round. Julia had a bowl of shredded cheddar for sprinkling, but it went mostly undented. It was that good, Ruth, just like you wrote.

A few days later Julia arrived to work with Ms. O'Brady's roast chicken and couscous with "punchy relish" in a couple of those GladWare supermarket to-go boxes (they still make those?). She really wanted to talk about the method, which involved cooking the couscous in the oven with the bird, which we all found hopelessly charming. None of us had eaten any kind of couscous in years, so we found the large pearled Israeli variety texturally exciting. Matthew considers roast chicken the greatest food on the planet, and often names his mother the reigning expert of all roast chicken cooks; he attacked the bones with his usual animalistic fervor but ate around the pieces covered in the "punchy relish" with its addition of a few anchovy slivers, which he found unnecessary.

Both cookbooks have biscuit recipes that contain the words “best” and “fantastic” in each name. Both biscuits were full of way too much butter. And both were very, very delicious and satisfying, albeit nap-inducing as a staff meal component; all the cooks were operating at half-speed for the next few hours. Ruth cops to the butter extravagance in her introduction, as well as crediting Nancy Silverton for the initial recipe inspiration. Sentiments like these endear cookbook writing to me. Nothing’s original, and if you stole it, fess up. (Ms. Reichl does this repeatedly throughout My Kitchen Year, giving shout outs to Fergus Henderson, Fannie Farmer, and more.) Both recipes also utilize the phrase “shaggy mass” in the instructions, which was fun to read (and do) and also reminded me I need a haircut.

Speaking of theft, we came across a green horseradish oil recipe meant to garnish a celery root soup while flipping through Seven Spoons. Cruz only works on Mondays so we save up special projects for him: He made the recipe to exact specifications and we were psyched to possibly steal it and use it on a sweet potato special we were working on. We all gathered around the mortar and pestle with plastic tasting spoons to dig in. Gabe said he couldn't taste the horseradish, which Mel found completely ludicrous because it was the only thing he could taste. Ms. O’Brady writes to “err on the side of spirited” for the oil’s seasoning, which we did. In the end we did end up making our own green horseradish oil, but we eliminated about 3 of the ingredients before using it on our menu. As Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco has said, “the greatest ingredient in cooking is restraint.” (When’s that guy gonna write a cookbook?!?!)

The Everyday Yellow Dal from Seven Spoons was absolutely fantastic, succulent, and a blast to eat over some day-old, heated-up-on-the-griddle jasmine rice. And the introduction which talks about what dal is, (more like a gravy than a soup), and why you need to thoroughly wash and rinse the lentils repeatedly in order to get the purest, cleanest flavor is one of those chunks of cookbook writing that I won’t ever forget. Everytime I see a package of yellow split peas at Kalustyan's from now until I die, I will think of this intro. I love this kind of thing, when the text of a cookbook just lays into you, brands itself in your brain: Norman Love’s words about pâte choux in Baking With Julia as written by Dorie Greenspan; Thomas Keller killing those rabbits in The French Laundry Cookbook; Kenny Shopsin’s theory of serving/not serving customers with allergies in Eat Me. It’s great stuff—stuff you remember. That’s the whole point of reading cookbooks. 

We go through a lot of beets at Superiority Burger in the winter (well, this is our first winter), but they’re always cooked. Salt-roasted, vinegar wet-roasted, wrapped in foil roasted, sometimes poached. Raw beets have been a hard sell, both on the customers and the staff; they can be a little bit weird, and cooking gets the dirt flavor out, mellows it. My Kitchen Year has a raw beet-cabbage-apple slaw recipe. I asked Millicent to make it for staff meal, thinking full well that it would go absolutely untouched. I thought it was delicious, only slightly funky, and didn’t even mind the raw red onions (once their pungency was kept in check by apples, a shot of golden balsamic vinegar, and the liquids released by salting the vegetables). Julia, a huge fan of sitting at Veselka at 5 AM and eating cold borscht, didn’t like it at all, and Matthew (the healthy guy, a shoe-in to love this salad) turned his nose up at it like a spoiled 7-year-old. I loved it though, and saved it in a pint container to eat at home over the course of the next three nights after work (where it seemed to get better with age in my apartment’s mini bar-sized fridge).

The Diva of Grilled Cheese from My Kitchen Year, while having a slightly unfortunate name, was the favorite of any of the things we set out on the counter of all the things made from either book. It called for a raw onion, garlic, shallot, and scallion addition to the classic mayo on the griddled side of the bread grilled cheese sandwich. Unable to control myself, I quickly sautéed all the alliums before adding to the cheese before griddling. None left over.

In the end, after tallying the results, the restraint and soul and quiet confidence of My Kitchen Year's recipes won over my staff’s bellies. We voted with our stomachs. 

And the winner is…

My Kitchen Year

My Kitchen Year

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Do you Agree? (55 comments)

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9 months ago Lisa Walker

Yeah, when the hell is Bianco writing a book! Best review yet. High-five.

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9 months ago Annmarie Erickson

Best review ever!

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9 months ago Margaret Malaspina

Great advice about how to handle the heavy, klunky book. I'm heading to get it punched for three rings pronto. Many good recipes, but book felt like a "publishing project." Reichl's other books are excellent. This one a little too much schmaltz... let's see...what can I do this year...I could write a BOOK about the year...Or maybe that idea came from the publisher. Too many years in publishing have jaded me.

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9 months ago Nancy Marrelli

Good review - great choice of reviewer, who took the task seriously.

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9 months ago raisingkane

Late to the party... I just read the first three judgements. From most recent to first published. This one was the best. Great writing and lots of recipes sampled from both books--by people who have experience with food and like to cook. The other two were really disappointing--especially from the woman who bought overpriced spices.

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9 months ago Pascale Poitras

If you enjoy My Kitchen Year, and Ruth Reichl's writing, you should really check out her books. She wrote 3 AMAZING memoirs....
Comfort me With Apples
Tender to the Bone
Garlic & Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise

They are such great books that after loaning them out, I realized I couldnt live without them, and repurchased them (used of course). Stupidly, I loaned them AGAIN and will likely re-repurchase them! The stories in ALL THREE are enchanting. I believe that each chapter ends with a fantastic recipe.
Reichl also wrote a Novel which I DEVOURED... read it in 2 days and NO sleep: Delicious: A Novel.
I loved the story and the gingerbread recipe (a bit of a main character of the book) is my older daughter's favorite indulgence. The reviews were not kind to Ms.Reichl (shame on them) but It was just great, especially if you were a reader of Gourmet magazine.
I preordered My Kitchen Year, but have not read it yet; I need the time to sit down and savor it the way I did her first 3 memoirs (or, autobiographies). She is my favorite food writer and I appreciate her vision, passion, experience and palate.
Check out the books- I promise PROMISE you wont be disappointed!

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9 months ago Leil

I completely agree about Ruth's writing!!

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9 months ago Alexandra Holbrook

Thank you for your review! I hesitated buying "Delicious!" when it came out based on negative reviews, but bought a copy this week based on your post (and tempted by the Ginger Bread recipe). I'm half way though it now, and LOVING every page! Thank you! :)

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9 months ago paseo

Liked both books a lot but would also give the nod to My Kitchen Year for the recipes alone. However, I do wish the publisher had bound it better. It is so tight it will not lie flat and is nearly unusable. If it weren't so good, that would be a deal breaker for me.

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9 months ago Malia

I completely agree about My Kitchen Year--everything's been delicious so far, but the binding makes using the book really, really difficult. Heavy things trying to hold down the pages actually get launched off and there is no clip I own big enough to hold the pages open.

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9 months ago Nancy Mck

I have made a few recipes from this book and they were okay, but I agree about the binding. There is no way to keep it open. I considered donating it, but then I realized that anyone who ended up with it would have the same problem. My solution: a box cutter. I cut the page I want out of the book, make the recipe and then insert it back into the book. No need to respond and tell me how idiotic that seems. I already know.

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9 months ago paseo

Not idiotic at all! It's a great idea and certainly makes it more usable and, after all, it's your book. An idea I am copying - thanks

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9 months ago monica

Another option is to take the book to a print shop and have the book drilled for a 3-ring binder, then have the spine sheared off (everyone did this with our 2-inch-thick paperback-bound lettering textbooks back in design school).

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9 months ago beejay45

May I suggest Kindle et al? I have a Kindle but use Kindle for PC more. I now tend to buy the Kindle version of the cookbooks I want simply because, after many years collecting cookbooks, I am overwhelmed by their sheer volume.

Anyway, with either your reader or your PC, you can look at the recipe, hands-free. Also, and I'm not sure if this is still true, but...if you do buy the print book, the ebook is free, so you can have both.

Oh, and this is key, since formatting books with lots of images for ebooks can be rather hit or miss, at least with Kindle, you can download a sample of the book for free and check if it's going to be an improvement over print.

Very much liked this review -- personality and food info. Great.

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9 months ago James Van Dyk

Wonderful review!

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9 months ago Suzanne

I love these reviews! This is the first time I've read/followed The Piglet competition. Really fun!

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9 months ago Bunnee Butterfield

Loved the review - the humor and the personal nature of the testing process. I might have to look at My Kitchen Year - no fan of Reichl but the recipes sounded really good.

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9 months ago Annie Plotkin

I already own My Kitchen Year and I completely agree it's a wonderful cookbook! The recipes are simple and delicious and the stories scattered throughout are fun to read.

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9 months ago SpringUp

Great review! Can't wait to get my hands on both books.

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9 months ago LC's Kitchen

I just finished reading (and salivating over) this book last night! I want to cook everything in it--in fact Lamb Chops and Brussels Sprouts (page 304) TONIGHT!

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9 months ago Katy Bee

LOVE Ruth Reichl! I need to get this book :)

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9 months ago Fresh Tomatoes

That was a great contest and write up. I hadn't given My Kitchen Year much consideration, I'll see if I can get my hands on a copy to test out. Thanks! Love Piglet!

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9 months ago helicopterina

YES - this is an amazing cookbook and a wonderful read. And it just 'feels' good to page through it and meditate on the pictures and narrative and food dreams it inspires. THANK YOU, RUTH REICHL.

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9 months ago Joan Osborne

I love Seven Spoons and have cooked quiet a bit from it. Sorry to see it didn't make it very far. I'm also a fan of Reichl but haven't had the pleasure of looking or cooking from this book. Great review and I love how many recipes were tried in the process. Guess I'll have to take a peek into the winner and do some cooking as well. Love the Piglet and it looks like it's off to a great start.

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9 months ago Shalini

I'm happy with this. I love Ms. Reichl's nonfiction writing, and her recipes from her memoirs and Gourmet have panned out on our family. Ms. O'Brady I like for different reasons: a fellow Canadian of South Asian descent, she writes well and with a concious. I am late to checking out her recipes but have enjoyed her writing in her blog and The Globe And Mail.

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9 months ago Bear

Now we're talking! What a great review. Let's hope this sets the standard for the forthcoming ones...

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9 months ago LittleKi

This is why The Piglet is worth reading. I honestly wasn't too excited about any of the books on the list, which is why these reviews are so great. They make me want to try new things and buy all the books!