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.