Living and cooking in New York City, where countertop space is at a premium, one doesn’t acquire too much dedicated kitchen equipment. I have always viewed a stand mixer as a suburban indulgence (a comically tiny version of those industrial-size dough mixers in pizza kitchens), and besides, who hasn’t made a pie crust from scratch only to realize the best substitute for a rolling pin is an unopened bottle of red wine? But the exceptions New Yorkers do make to these restrictions are reflective of their individual cooking styles (mine are a Vitamix, a Baratza coffee grinder, and an ice cream maker). I can make more excuses, but let’s just have it out: Before I participated in this tournament, I did not own a mortar and pestle.
It’s not that I deny the distinction between fresh and dried spices, it’s just that most of the things I cook and bake call for powder, and bodegas everywhere sell salt and pepper dispensers with built-in grinders. As for anything that ever needed a good crack or a mashing, I never saw the need for an ancient stone tool taking up space in my cupboard, particularly when the aforementioned wine bottle would do in a pinch. I knew right away by looking at the covers of Diana Henry’s Simple and Asha Gomez’s My Two Souths that this would no longer fly—the former has that rustic, just-so vibe that just screams “farmhouse with no electricity,” and the latter says it quite literally in its subtitle: Blending the flavors of India into a southern kitchen. The inside cover page is a mortar and pestle next to some artfully arranged whole spices.
I dove into My Two Souths first, wary of complicated spice blends, and learned that Gomez found an unusual path to food-world renown. She is a fifth-generation Roman Catholic from the southern Indian state of Kerala, and grew up eating true port-city cooking from a kitchen where “kodampuli, asafoetida, and cambogia arose from cast-iron griddles and clay cooking pots.” She later moved to New York, attended Queens College, became a licensed aesthetician, and settled in the American South, Atlanta, where she opened an Ayurvedic spa. (Stay with me here.) While running the spa, Gomez began sharing her home-cooked meals with her clients. A resulting supper club of Indian-American fusion turned into a short-lived but widely acclaimed Atlanta restaurant, Cardamom Hill, which gave way to a “culinary event venue” and patisserie called Spice to Table.
My Two Souths asks for an investment upfront, in both ingredients and attention (and for me: a mortar and pestle). After the biographical introduction, there is a section covering the basics involved in creating the “sour, pungent, and camphoraceous” flavors of Keralan cuisine. Asafoetida and curry leaves sounded intimidating, but were not terribly difficult to track down, especially in New York. Ghee and coconut milk have entered the mainstream and can be found at most grocery stores. You can see why I thought Asha Gomez would be the complicated one—Indian food is famously alchemical, involving many dozens of spices in a single dish, but her recipes are surprisingly simple (with the obvious exception of curry and gumbo).
The book is organized like a chronological menu, from day starters to desserts and including “tea time,” though many of the plate lunches (pork vindaloo with cardamom cornbread, Kerala fried chicken and Low Country rice waffles) could work just as well for hearty dinners. Egg bhurji could easily be written off as “just scrambled eggs,” but it had three more ingredients than you’d ever get around to including, because when you’re scrambling eggs you’re probably not in the mood to chop shallots, jalapeño, and cilantro. Sometimes you just need that extra push to make your sad weekend breakfast into a confidence-building exercise.
I don’t tend to think of baked goods as breakfast items so much as breakfast desserts, but I had a go at some blueberry-lime muffins to give away to friends. The muffin batter turned out sticky and slow to cook, an issue that was easy to ignore because of the divine crumb topping—flour, sugar, butter, salt, cinnamon, and mace. I have never before had occasion to make that magical crumbly substance that tops coffee cakes, but now that I know its secret (butter), I am conflicted as to whether or not it should be legal as an ice cream topping (early research points to yes).
But the greatest coup of this entire exercise was Gomez’s Tellicherry buttermilk biscuits, which should frankly be The Standard Biscuit Anywhere That Biscuits Are Served. They’d go perfectly with and enhance any dish where plain biscuits are called for, from fried chicken to gravy to Thanksgiving dinner. Gomez advises doubling the recipe and freezing half; I heartily suggest tripling it. Pastry flour is absolutely required, but you will use it up in no time making many dozens of these biscuits. The combination of a fresh, fluffy baking-powder puff with the sharp heat of a cracked peppercorn is unbeatable—even the steam smells peppered.
For the most part, Gomez’s recipes are just simple enough: Her weeknight fancy chicken and rice is a true miracle of a one-pot dish, a descendant of arroz con pollo, with the rice restored to its signature Iberian yellow with turmeric rather than saffron. Cardamom pods and star anise give flavorful depth, and dried apricots, sliced almonds, and that worthy cilantro make for the most un-boring staple of a weeknight dinner. (It is crucial never to skip the cilantro, even when re-heating leftovers; a bright-green garnish will always give you hope.)
Sometimes, Gomez’s recipes seemed too simple, as though she might be leaving something out for ease of communication, or so as not to overcrowd the page. I would make her fresh thyme fish cakes again tomorrow if I knew how big to make them (the recipe said to “Form 8 cakes,” but they struck me as too large and I spread them into nine), and how much to brown them in the fryer versus in the oven. Still, any hot fish cake straight from the oven is delightful, though my own executions needed salt and pepper to taste. They also left me wishing for a creamy tartar sauce, perhaps shot through with more Keralan flavor.
Diana Henry’s Simple, on the other hand, has thought of everything—almost to a fault. Indeed, she has an entire offset section titled, “a bit on the side,” dedicated to sauces and relishes, which Gomez could have used more of. Nearly every dish has a cream sauce, like roast potatoes with watercress and garlic cream, or roasted eggplants with tomatoes and saffron cream. Henry has been in the business of “simple” cooking for over a decade—this book is a follow-up to what was published in the UK as Cook Simple and in the US as Pure Simple Cooking. (I would read an entire book on the subtle differences in US versus UK book marketing, from titles to cover art—Simple is rendered lowercase here, and uppercase there. The cover of the former has a vibrantly colorful photo of honeyed sausages with blackberry and caraway slaw, whereas the latter has has more muted pork chops with mustard and capers in a, you guessed it, cream sauce.)
I loved that Henry had an entire section dedicated to eggs, complete with a ballpoint pen doodle on a picture of a pale blue ovoid. But here is also where she lost me: The very first recipe in the book is for egg and salmon donburi, essentially a deconstructed salmon-avocado sushi roll with some scrambled eggs, down to the toasted nori garnish. This manages to be simultaneously simple and fussy, which is the general vibe of the whole book. Henry’s food is also unapologetically English. She writes that a salad of cucumber, radishes, and cherries with rose petals is “like eating a garden,” and compares the size of fregola to hailstones. She’s also funny, writing of creamy flageolets, “they’re not Michelin star but they’re satisfying, the kind of thing a chic-but-harassed French woman would make.”
And by the way, that blue egg was a Cotswold Legbar, one of her staples along with Buford Browns. Knowing your hens’ species is nice work if you can afford it, and Henry’s is the kind of simplicity that only money can buy. To be fair, she does acknowledge this in an aside:
"I care about the quality of the food I eat, and about its provenance, but I also try to be realistic about what people can afford. When it comes to flavor, though, there are some foods about which I cannot compromise: pork, butter, and eggs are the three I would prefer not to eat at all if I couldn’t get the best, as I know I will be disappointed with them."
I am all for spending a few extra bucks on very good staples, but where her recipes aren’t expensive, they can be complicated. The main investment that Diana Henry asks for besides a well-stocked larder is fuss. Her recipes on average have twice as many ingredients than Gomez’s. She’ll have you cut radishes into matchsticks; a subsection about “no-hassle appetizers” within the Salads chapter indicates that most of the salads are in fact a bit of a hassle. Her introduction also includes a subsection on “unusual ingredients,” like miso and pomegranate molasses. This is not home cooking as I’ve ever experienced it, but a certain kind of show-off home cooking—everyone has that one friend who actually uses kohlrabi and tamarind paste at home, but I am not that friend.
I have always subscribed to the theory that you order at a restaurant something you would not otherwise make for yourself, whether because of the unusual ingredients or complicated execution. Many of Henry’s recipes reminded me of ABC Kitchen dishes, especially the cumin-coriander roast carrots. (Don’t get me wrong; I love ABC Kitchen, but I’ll almost always pay a premium for someone else to do the fussing.) The carrots were actually riffed from an April Bloomfield recipe; in fact, a good number of Henry’s recipes are adaptations—she is a known and relentless tinkerer, testing hundreds of recipes per year. Melissa Clark wrote in The New York Times, “To say Ms. Henry is highly prolific is to understate the case.” Henry even adapted her New York takeout noodles from The Times and a salad from Food52 (hello). The connective tissue of this book is not so much an obvious theme, as with Gomez’s, but Henry’s ingenuity. After testing several recipes, I realized I’d rather invite myself over for lunch at Henry’s than make her food at home.
In her introduction, Henry writes that she thinks and shops for food in terms of building blocks, often with proteins at the center, though today, in the Age of Ottolenghi, we now lean more toward whole grains and vegetables. I had a difficult time finding a vegetable or salad recipe I wanted to make, because her dressings are almost always sweet, and include honey or superfine sugar, which is not to my taste. I settled on broccoli with harissa and cilantro gremolata. Her recipe calls for purple sprouting broccoli, with optional substitution or broccolini or cauliflower. I went rogue and used a big old head of plain green broccoli. A gremolata of lime, harissa, and garlic made for a beautifully well-rounded zest that also packed some heat. And I am grateful for the addition of harissa to my criminally understocked armory.
Overall, Henry’s flavors were big, as the subtitle promised, but her food was not effortless. The best stuff I made from Simple was more straightforward, with fewer ingredients and more focus—one twist rather than three. My favorites included orzo with lemon and parsley and a goat cheese and roast grape tartine. And so the winner here is Gomez, who showed me from first principles the origins of heat and spice on the most basic level: The sheer genius of coarsely pestled pepper folded into a basic buttermilk biscuit. What could be simpler than that?