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The Piglet2017 / Semifinal Round, 2017

Samarkand vs. Taste & Technique

Samarkand

Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford

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Taste & Technique

Naomi Pomeroy & Jamie Feldmar

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Judged by: Marlon James

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Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970 and is author of three novels. His most recent, A Brief History of Seven Killings, was the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize, The American Book Award, The Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize for fiction, The OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean fiction, The Green Carnation Prize, and the Minnesota Book Award. His first novel, John Crow's Devil, was published in 2005 and his second, The Book of Night Women was published in 2008. His short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, and Harpers. He lives in Minnesota and teaches at Macalester College.

The Judgment

I once got into an argument with a female novelist who shall remain nameless. At least I call it an argument, but it was really just her having tons of fun at my expense. I was doing that thing that she claimed only men do: calling one novel my favorite and another the best. “You men and your stupid bullshit about favorite versus best,” she said.  She was totally right, of course, but it hasn’t stopped me from doing it. (Hatful of hollow—fave! The Queen Is Dead—best!) And now, here I am passing that same kind of judgement over two cookbooks. No, I’m not yet saying which is which, because then you wouldn’t need to read the review. 

So it’s weird. There were times when I was totally frustrated by Naomi Pomeroy's Taste & Technique, written with Jamie Feldmar. There’s even a recipe, a relatively simple one for Porcini Braised Chicken Thighs, that I tried three times—and sort of failed three times. On my third try, I told my guests that it was blackened chicken in a white wine, carrot, and celery sauce, which they totally bought. They also loved it, which is saying something good, but not necessarily for the book. Other recipes I tried: Hazlenut and Wild Mushroom Paté (success!); Kale with Quick-Pickled Apple, Gruyère Crisps, and Creamy Dijon Vinaigrette (easy-to-make vinaigrette, but my cheese guy, who has been in this for years, had no idea what cave-aged Gruyére was); Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Pickled Mustard Seeds, and Lamb Scallopini.

 

And yet I found myself picking it up often for the same reasons I just as often put it down. This is what we talk about when we talk about intimidating cookbooks. The subtitle says “Recipes to elevate your home cooking,” but it is not that kind of book. Home cooking has to always take into consideration the realities of the home, chief of which are limited budgets and limited time. And yet Taste & Technique, while sensitive to both, is still not too concerned with either. These recipes demand time and patience. They call for ingredients that are sometimes out of reach for ordinary cooks, like the aforementioned cave-aged Gruyere, and juniper berries, which you can’t always find at your local Whole Foods. And they require a vigilant eye on several details of the process which of course leaves too many areas for a dish to fail—or rather for the cook to simply say “fuck it” and come up with something close. (Or rename the dish.) I get the feeling from its prose style (very exact in its requirements and instructions), that improvising out of necessity—essential in any budding cook’s developing of her own style, or at least saving dinner—would not be cool with the writers of this book.

Also, with the attention and care each dish demands, it was difficult to cook more than one dish at a time, and I had help. Taste & Technique is a cook’s cookbook. It’s no surprise that Pomeroy’s training came from reading cookbooks, meaning, reading other cooks. I get it—I have been called a writer’s writer and it’s a compliment. But it’s a compliment that comes at a cost. I set out to be a reader’s writer, not a writer’s; and this book sets out to elevate home cooking, not Momofuku’s. When I pictured myself, the ordinary cook, who had seven guests coming over in 3 hours, I frequently abandoned a dish midway and just added whatever was in the kitchen. But when I imagined myself as a potential chef (maybe for Momofuku) with time on my hands, Taste & Technique became revelatory. I couldn’t see these dishes in a regular family kitchen—people simply don’t have that kind of time. But I could see it as essential reading for any good cook who wants to become great.

Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus, by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford, already assumes you’re great. But great in the sense that you’re a culinary adventurer and are attracted to newness more than anything else. It’s food as adventure tour. The book’s introduction compares Samarkand to Babylon, and Rome, highlighting its exoticness. In many ways, cooks are the original orientalists, cultural appropriators with a free pass, sampling and incorporating the food and flavors of other countries and peoples, but not much else. But so what? Food in itself is the result of culture copulations and clashes. Even salt was once an exotic flavor. So as Turkish, Afghan, Russian, and Chinese cultures clashed, they also cooperated and the results are the dishes in this book.

 

Samarkand had a radically different mission from Taste & Technique. It seeks out to demystify food to an audience that has become both more and less adventurous as it has become more and less aware. Everybody wants a burrito, as long as it’s Chipotle. Everybody wants some spicy fish paella, as long as you go easy on all those spices. But the bigger mission of this book is to prove that foreign food is both exotic and not exotic at all—meaning it’s both a world away and right within the reach of your own kitchen. Or more simply, that something new is right at your fingertips, waiting to become something regular. A book like this, at its best, can shift your normal.

 

Or at the very least, it allows you to stop and marvel over titles like “Mountain Jew Omelet.” The staple dish is called khoyagusht, which sounds like something that would send you running to Denny’s instead, but is really just butter, onions, turmeric (so paleo), paprika, chestnuts, and eggs. You will serve your friends Tarragon soda, as I did. You will wonder, as I did, why everybody isn’t sprinkling every single meal with Adjika, a spicy pepper paste from Abkhazia which I made as part of the Spicy Meatballs with Yogurt dish. It’s a wonderful book, but it’s similar to an absolutely wonderful date, where despite having a great time, you don’t wake up wondering where he is and when you’re going to see him again. Which meant picking back up Taste & Technique.

In Taste & Technique, cooking comes across as more science than art. This is not a bad thing. Artsy fartsiness and faux exoticism has killed many a cookbook. People are simply looking for formulas that produce tasty food that their friends will like. But technique in this case also means practice. You can be assured that you will get none of these dishes perfect the first time—that’s the point, and ultimately what the book does very well. It elevates ordinary cooking into something way more than ordinary, through practice. The cook in me that just wants some magic to happen between the time my friends say they are coming over and when they actually do might find himself making only the kale salad. The cook in me that knows deep inside is a James Beard Award winner picks something out of this book, keeps his mouth shut about all the foraging he will have to do, sets aside all other concerns in the world, and starts cooking, hoping that this time the result will be something spectacular. Or if not, then something I can rename to something else, and totally blow my friends’ minds away.

My winner is Taste & Technique.

And the winner is…

Taste & Technique

Taste & Technique

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Do you Agree? (61 comments)

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5 months ago Sandy Brown Jensen

I've cooked my way through much of T & T and learned a lot. I didn't find it difficult or unclear and all ingredients were actually easily found at my local Whole Foods, including juniper berries.

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5 months ago Lindsay

I have prepared several of the recipes from T&T and was not impressed with any of them. Very surprised it was the one selected.

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5 months ago Jaye

Reading the new comments since Monday, I have to agree with Inko. The review made me want to get Samarkand and not T&T.

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5 months ago Veronica

I was surprised Samarkand didn't win. It has introduced family and friends to a whole new world of culinary delights. We can only thank Eleanor and Caroline for writing such a user friendly cookbook and congratulate them on reaching the semis in such a hotly contested competition. Thanks to the Piglet, I will now be adding Taste of Persia and My Two Souths to our bookshelf.

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5 months ago Sipa

If his cheese guy doesn't know what cave-aged Gruyére is he needs a new cheese guy. I can get cave-aged Gruyére at Trader's Joe and my local chain grocery store.

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5 months ago MelMM

Can anyone tell me when the final will be posted? I can't seem to find that information anywhere on the site.

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5 months ago cookinginvictoria

It will be posted on Monday, March 20. We will all be in suspense until then!

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5 months ago Ileana Morales Valentine

Thank you! I couldn't find this anywhere either.

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5 months ago Shalini

What! I have to say, this is a pleasurable review to read. Full of suspense, with a derailing twist! As for which book I would want to try, I'm not sure. I know what cave-aged Gruyère is, and do have juniper berries. I like tasty dishes, of course. But what would we use long-term more?

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5 months ago Inko

I loved the review, but it made me want to get Samarkand not T&T!

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5 months ago Monica S.

I read the review twice just because I liked the writing so much! Interestingly, though, it made me decide to pass on BOTH of the books in the review...

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5 months ago Carol Dunn

Alas, I have loved reading the reviews of each cookbook round and even more the comments by fellow cooks after. I am new to the Piglet and only recently decided it was time to up my game in the kitchen. My spouse being assigned to Germany and me choosing not to work here has left me the time to amuse myself with culinary education. I am so laughing at my own comments right now. The child is grown and it is just us. So, when I discovered the Burnt Toast podcast, I also discovered the Piglet. This is the first year I have followed from the beginning. I could not comment on individual cookbooks but do have an overall comment. I want to own all of them and learn all I can. However, when someone comments about the reviewer not being able to fine ingredients, well, try doing that in Germany. While to me most things spice wise are easy to order online (even other ingredients), items such as cave aged Gruyere is not so easy here. I would find that easier to find at home in my little town in Wisconsin. So, we should all keep in mind that depending on what part of the world you live in, ingredients will be different and that is not the reason for any cookbook (or recipe) to be discounted. I want all the cookbooks but still need to learn some science of cooking along the way.

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5 months ago Lola Giff

In what remote village do you live in Germany?! Of course, you can find any sort of spices and any sort of cheese in Germany. This must some sort of joke.

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5 months ago Victoria Carr

Carol Dunn, If you don't already "know" Luisa Weiss, who lives in Berlin, you should head over to The Wednesday Chef, specifically "about," and "meet" her. http://www.thewednesdaychef... Peruse her posts, and check out her Berlin blog at the top of The Wednesday Chef site. She has written a memoir, My Berlin Kitchen: Adventures in Love and Life and a cookbook geared for American bakers, Classic German Baking, which I can attest is great. I'm sure if you got in touch with her, she would have some tips for you, and I think you would enjoy her memoir.

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5 months ago Laura Grahame

To Carol Dunn- you should also check out Meike Peter's blog Eat in my Kitchen and her new cookbook of the same name which is featured in the readers choice section of the piglet. She also lives in Berlin, is super sweet, and would definitely advise you on where to find ingredients.

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5 months ago Eliza Bennett

Look for Höhlengereift for the gruyere. Produced in Switzerland so not far away.

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5 months ago garlic&lemon

I really appreciate how much effort Mr. James put into evaluating each of the books. Cooking 1 recipe 3 times! Wow, that's giving a cookbook a thorough try. I also liked his assessment of what home cooks with busy lives who do not have hours to cook can learn from T & T. Fair, thorough, great writing. Still, after I checked it out from my public library during the first round, I did not decide to buy it. Although it was knocked out in the first round, I am enjoying Deep Run Roots so much on many levels, including learning how to elevate my cooking. That is a library-try that I have just ordered. The Piglet rocks.

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5 months ago Maura

How interesting as last night, for a dinner party of 8 I made those porcini chicken thighs along with the crispy cauliflower and fennel gratin, all from T&T. Yes, they are more involved, I didn't cut any corner making stock (which I always have In the freezer), the garlic paste, anchovy paste, and course bread crumbs. I also made a tried and true carrot ginger soup with a lime crime fraiche/turmeric and ginger oil. And also a salt crusted Atlantic char for the guest who doesn't eat meat. My guests raved about every dish, and I knew ahead this would be an all day affair in the kitchen. I don't quite understand why your chicken didn't turn out, the only thing I would do differently next time would be to knock off 15 minutes while in the oven before final crisping. I'll be making many dishes from T&T. That said, having traveled extensively I LOVE Samarkand, both of these are winners and with having in my library.

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5 months ago Rick

I'm surprised. I bought T&T because of an earlier review and it's quite fun to read and plan (and try) but I thought Samarkand would win this because it T&T is for cooks who have some experience and want to elevate their game and thus can be seen as a bit technical and fussy, while Samarkand does that thing we all like, bring us new and tasty food. Of course, being without much will power, I've now ordered Samarkand too. Nice review.

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5 months ago Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

It’s been interesting in this year’s Piglet to see what ingredients different reviewers find exotic.

I walked up to my local Whole Foods this morning. As expected, the cave-aged Gruyere was piled high, right next to all the other cheeses from the Alps. And there were the juniper berries, easy to locate in the alphabetized spices.

Partially, it’s a proliferation of ingredients. Walking home, I was thinking about how much my mother, gone for more than 30 years, would have reveled in the availability of Swiss and other European cheeses. She was the only person I knew who could make cheese fondue from American grocery store Swiss and not have it separate.

On the other hand, juniper berries? Mom could run down to the A&P for them. We may have been limited to iceberg lettuce in the grocery stores of my youth, but we had a few more ingredients than you’d think.

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5 months ago Brittany

This is the first review that made me want to drop everything and run, not walk, to my local bookstore and purchase the winner. I'm very thankful for the author's willingness (and ability) to understand the reasons why a cookbook might be more involved rather than complaining about how much time it takes and the ingredients required. I wasn't interested in Taste & Technique, but Marlon changed my mind. Thank you for this well-written review! I am still not-so-secretly rooting for My Two Souths, and their upcoming face-off is giving me more anxiety than any cookbook tournament ever should. What can I say, I love the Piglet!

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5 months ago petalpusher

If you have 3 hours to cook for seven guests coming over, you are not going to try a bunch of new recipes. Only a rookie would put themselves through that. But did you say you had help? I would rather have 7 hours to cook for 3 new friends.

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5 months ago Jaye

I have been rooting for Samarkand all the way and am so sorry they did not get into the finals, congrats Caroline and Eleanor nonethless for reaching the semifinals. I will certainly get your book to try some of the exciting recipes. I agree with comment from LittleKi and Ronni regarding the cookbook.

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5 months ago James Felder

Cool review. It doesn't make me want to use T&T over Samarkand, but I guess that's the point of his intro.

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5 months ago Sandra

I read through every page of my library copy of Taste and Technique and may stand humbled - I want to try many of the dishes, no, the meals suggested. I am now dreaming of - gasp - hosting dinner parties. LOL. Blast you Piglet for busting my book budget once again.

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5 months ago Jesi Nishibun

As a former cheesemonger, I can't fathom that any cheese guy worth his salt would be thrown off by cave-aged Gruyere, even in Minnesota (maybe not an artisan cheese mecca, but certainly not a cheese desert, either). But since this didn't seem to deter our excellent judge, I won't complain. :)

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