The first rule in writing is to avoid cliché at all costs, but despite my better judgment, I’m going to begin with the Grand Poobah of life’s clichés: Both of these books are winners. Truly. It was hard to pick. I could save us both a lot of time and tell you to hurry over to the Food52 shop and buy them both, but I have to keep on because the fine folks at The Piglet are making me pick a winner.
As the author of three, I know firsthand the effort that goes into making a cookbook; it is grueling, humbling work and once you emerge from the long, dark winter that is recipe testing and headnote writing, you hold in your hands something tangible, something with weight and scent, something that you hope will inspire people out there to get into their kitchens more and cook for people they love. I come to cookbook reviewing knowing this—feeling it deep down in my soul and my belly—and so I bow down to anyone who takes on this work.
Both Modern Jewish Cooking, by Leah Koenig, and A Bird in the Hand, by Diana Henry, made me want to cook more and left me feeling uplifted about food. As far as I’m concerned, this is whole the point of writing cookbooks. Both authors get a slow-mo high-five from me.
Let’s start with Modern Jewish Cooking. For a goy like me with a fondness for the culinary happenings on the Jewish calendar, this book resonated big time. It answers the call for a modern tome on the subject—in this case, a book on Jewish cooking for the contemporary home cook with plenty of historical anecdotes. The classics are all there: You want borscht? You want kugel? You want to bust out some matzo brei? You got it.
Beyond the classics, there are dozens of recipes for dishes like Grilled Salmon with Orange and Herbs and Mushroom-Goat Cheese Tart, the ones that, I’m guessing, drive the “modern” angle. These recipes were a bit lost on me, not because they weren’t good recipes, but because they felt like filler, wedged between the classics (Bagels) and the classics re-invented (Pomegranate Molasses Meatballs). If anything, I wanted a more boiled-down version of what the book's title promised. The idea of modern classics works for me, and those recipes were all killer. I cooked and loved her Classic Chicken Soup; her fattoush, and her rugelach. I don’t need the extras.
One of the most exciting things I made from Koenig’s book was the Spinach-Matzo Lasagna. It was news to me that “matzo lasagna has quickly and emphatically entered the Passover mainstream.” Perhaps I dwell more on the Passover fringes, but this was my first matzo lasagna—and one I will make again and again, Passover or not. Brightly flavored thanks to onions, garlic, spinach, parsley, and marinara, this dish works anytime of year and for any occasion. I took it to a family with a new baby and there was gratitude all around.
And the last chapter of the book is a terrific add-on: It’s a guide to Jewish holiday foods with menus, including Friday Shabbats in every season, plus Purim, Passover (with Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Vegetarian seder menus), Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Hanukkah.
Now let’s talk chicken. When I signed the dotted line to become a Piglet judge, they asked me if I had any conflicts of interest. I don’t know Diana Henry or Leah Koenig so I quickly said “no.” But then I got A Bird in the Hand and quickly realized I might be biased based solely on my deep and sometimes dark romance with chicken.
A book that has “chicken recipes for every day and every mood” is made for me. In certain circles, I am known for my chicken; I can roast a bird blindfolded, upside down, and drunk, but yet I still found inspiration and new tips and tricks in this book. With 120 recipes and a peppering of little essays like “Chicken Loves Booze,” A Bird in the Hand is practical, but also a really fun read. Bedside, beachside, poolside reading.
The photos complete the scene, and I quickly Googled photographer Laura Edwards to put her on the short list for my next book. I’ll have to travel across the pond, but maybe it’s worth it. Forget schmaltz-splattered pages, I was already marking this book with my own drool. The cover alone… I want to romp around in that blooming thyme and drumstick bacchanalia.
One of the things I love most about this book is how unapologetic it is: It really is only chicken recipes. No cocktails or desserts that might go with chicken. It is all chicken, all the time. The chapter layout makes sense, beginning with “Suppers: Dishes for Every Night of the Week” then moving through chicken salads, grilled and barbecued birds, and finally “Remains of the Day: What to do with the Rest of That Bird”—extremely useful recipes, and each total mealtime turn-ons.
My home team loved everything I cooked out of this book; we had dinners and lunches for more than a week. My favorite dish might have been the Chicken Fatteh, a layered dish with pita, rice, and yogurt, along with herbs “to make it sing.” The chicken is shredded and the dish is garnished with pine nuts and spices. There are about seven hundred ingredients, but it’s worth the effort.
I also went bananas for the Vietnamese Lemongrass and Chile Chicken. Faster to throw together than the Fatteh, this dish delivers every flavor I love: sweet, spicy, toasty and fresh. And the method couldn’t be simpler: I marinated the chicken after dinner one night, then threw together the dish the next night. We ate it over some leftover brown rice and I felt like a champ.
One cold, dark night I reached for A Bird in the Hand for some comfort and found the Ginger-Chicken Meatballs in Broth with Greens. My team was requesting my Italian Wedding Soup (meatballs… broth… egg… cheese… goodness) but I made them Henry’s idea of an uplifting, head-clearing supper. The meal came together in less than an hour and the winter blues took a temporary hiatus.
Make no mistake, I have love and admiration for both titles and will keep both of these books on my shelf close enough to reach for them often. But with the Piglet people demanding I select a winner, I tip my cap to A Bird in the Hand because I could, in fact, eat these recipes every single day.