A funny thing happens when you share with your friends and family that you are part of a cookbook competition: They all start to tell the truth. In my first attempt at a recipe from Taste & Technique—an easy one I might add, the mushroom quiche— the reviews came in quickly, and honestly, they were not raves. Usually when my family sees me cooking a meal for over two hours, (too long for a quiche, but I’ll get back to that), they compliment me. The food is unquestionably delicious and I’ve done it once again, they’ll say—I’ve brought home the proverbial bacon and fried it up in a pan. Not so when when a competition is in the works. The first reviews came from my father, who was visiting from New York: “I’ve had better, but mushrooms aren’t my favorite.” Okay, if this is what honesty looks like, I can’t say I’m a fan. The next review came from Sam Sifton—oh no, wait, it was my twelve year old daughter. “I really preferred the quiche Lorraine you used to make.” But honey, you’re a vegetarian now—you wouldn’t even eat that. “Still, this isn’t as good.” Well, the first recipe taught me two things: Bacon makes things better, and vegetarians are kind of assholes.
When Lena and I agreed to take on this job—and really, to call it a job is sad, as I was literally so flattered I almost died and then I sent in a photo of my cookbook shelf as a CV that literally no one asked for—we had a deal. The deal is, I cook, Lena eats.
You might know a few things about Lena, like that she’s a hugely talented writer, actor, and director. You might know she’s a godmother. But here is one thing she can’t do: Cook. I mean, she can barely make toast. I actually think she can’t make toast—I was being generous. But she is the most delightful eater. So I promised to take on the cooking duties and she promised to answer the ten online questionnaires for Girls Press. A job, by the way, she can do in her sleep and I can dread for months.
She kept relatively quiet on the quiche. This is a sure sign there was a problem. If Lena is not pretending my food is good, who will? The answer is no one. And the worst part is that I loathed making this quiche. For me, quiche is a pantry food, whipped up at the last minute with only the chilling of the dough to slow you down. For Taste & Technique, there are ten steps where there should be five. You want me to squeeze out the mushrooms after I’ve chopped and sautéed them in butter? I did it because this was my job, but honestly, if it made a difference, the critics of the Hollywood Hills could not tell.
The Taste & Technique rib eye was another story. All of the guests, including Ms. Dunham, said it was some of the best steak they had ever eaten. The fried shallots were delicious and I would put them on anything. I would probably put them on ice cream—they were that good. The technique itself for the steak, as the book promises, is very successful; I’ve never cooked such a perfect steak. That said, Pomeroy and her co-writer Jamie Feldmar ask us to brown the steak, take it out of the pan, let the pan cool, wash and dry said pan completely, and then brown another steak. And she doesn’t outline why, exactly, I need to get rid of the old steak’s pan drippings. I’m just not that person. Even for the best steak I’d ever made.
I moved on to My Two Souths. The title and book are a combo of Asha Gomez’s upbringing in the South of India, and Atlanta, the second South, where she now lives with her family. The pages are filled with cozy stories of her childhood as well as her current life in Atlanta. The recipes are simple and straightforward. (The hardest thing you will have to do is source a few ingredients from a cool Indian store.) Gomez’s rice and chicken is as casual a dish as you can throw together, yet the novel spices (star anise, turmeric) bring it to the next level. It was reminiscent of the recipe for cardamom chicken in Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem (a fav on my cookbook shelf)—chicken and rice taken to a new place, in one pot no less. I was thrilled. And the home critics loved it too. Lena said it smelled and tasted like the parts of India she loved visiting, and my ten year old ate a full two servings. My boyfriend actually saved some for leftovers—and you should know this is coming from a man who throws away Chinese food before it’s even cold.
Gomez’s beef stew takes everything you already know (beef stew is standard, almost no-recipe cooking) and it does two simple things: It adds turmeric and ginger, and then it asks that you stir in coconut milk at the end. That's kind of it—which is gloriously liberating in that you could go off-script if you want to, and, better, it gives you tricks to take with you and apply to other things. I basically learned to cook by reading recipes for beef stew in different cookbooks and learning the common elements. This one is a perfect beef stew base with an Indian flair.
But I have a gripe: The baby onions in the beef stew’s photo are seared—their flat side is all gorgeously charred, which, the way the recipe is written, is physically impossible. You are supposed to take a raw onion and dump it into a hot soup. According to science, you can't get that char you see, and that is a food styling thing I really don't like: Cookbook photos already look better than my food will, but there is no reason to go on making them seem even more unattainable. Plus, my stew’s color was a lot murkier than the photo's. But I ate it all anyway.
The thing is, the premise of Taste & Technique is to make restaurant quality food at home. And honestly, for restaurant food I want to go to a restaurant. The gorgeous duck confit on the cover is tempting, all glazed and stunning and all you’d want to eat. Reader: It takes 3 days! I just couldn’t do it. I know people who would. I bet my dear friends and world class home cooks Gary and David would make it. And trust me, I would eat it. And I will as soon as they invite me over.
But the simple, delicious recipes of My Two Souths—oh, how my kids loved the crepes—beckon. I want to jump into the photos with the the author and her son shopping at the farmers market and I want to join their dinner party afterwards. Really, really good food and realistic to pull off is what I look for in a cookbook—that’s how I know I’ll use it again. That’s what My Two Souths offers.
And as far as Taste & Technique, I really do get it: It’s brilliantly researched and written, beautifully photographed, and does exactly what it says it will do. It elevates your home cooking to restaurant quality. And that is right for so many. But in this case, Taste & Technique, it’s not you. It’s me.