The Piglet2018 / First Round, 2018

Dinner vs. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

Dinner

Melissa Clark

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Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

Samin Nosrat

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Judged by: Brett Martin

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Brett Martin is a Correspondent for GQ and the author of Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution. He is a two-time James Beard Award winner and six-time contributor to Best Food Writing. He lives in New Orleans.

The Judgment

Who will speak for the poor recipes? The devalued, the demeaned, the dime a dozen?

On the one hand, they’re everywhere—a million results awaiting the most obscure search. On the other, a segment of the cooknescenti would have you believe that to use them is but one moral and aesthetic step away from microwaving a frozen French-bread pizza—that the only true cooking Nirvana lies in leaving the marked road for the wilderness of instinct and improvisation. What’s a guy who wants to cook dinner to do?  

That’s the inevitable question occasioned by the meeting of these two books—Dinner: Changing the Game, by Melissa Clark, one of the most prolific and talented recipe writers of the past twenty years, and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by the legendary cooking teacher Samin Nosrat, which offers the MacGyver-like promise, “Learn to cook delicious meals with any ingredient, anywhere, at any time—even without a recipe.” The italics are mine, but the question remains: To recipe or not to recipe?

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In his introduction to Nosrat’s book, Michael Pollan puts a fine point on it: “A well-written and thoroughly tested recipe might tell you how to produce the dish in question, but it won’t teach you anything about how to cook, not really. Truth be told, recipes are infantilizing.”

Truth be told, this is bullshit.

I get it: Following a recipe can, like following Waze, leave you at your destination without any sense of how you actually got there. But while I am personally interested in The Journey, I’m not prepared to dismiss those who simply want to arrive. Pollan can at least be credited with the neat trick of out-condescending something he’s attempting to label condescending. I feel a thousand times more infantilized by his blanket proclamation than by, say, the inclusion of “1/4 teaspoon salt” in a recipe, or a suggestion for the number of tablespoons of oil I might need to cover the bottom of my pan. Those are things more experienced cooks can breeze over, but they remain of use to the more timid or even, god forbid, those with other things on their minds.

Of all the reasons I cook—professional curiosity, familial responsibility, meditative pleasure, straight hunger—the biggest is the simplest: Many days (most days, really), it is the only thing I can look back on as having done remotely well. At any given moment, I can trace an almost direct correlation between the energy and imagination I bring to kitchen and my mental health.The barrier of entry for that fundamental pleasure and comfort should, I’m convinced, be as low as possible. And, in fact, there’s a handy invention to compensate for the varying levels of curiosity, time, interest, fear, and experience of home cooks: It’s called a recipe.

That said. Let me begin again.

I love both of these books. The month or so I spent cooking from both of them was one of the most consistently stimulating, illuminating and delicious I’ve ever had. I think my girlfriend, who shared most of the food, would agree, though I want to stipulate that our daughters were completely useless: The one-year-old eats anything put in front of her with feral gusto, thus making her crap as a critic, while the three-year-old will try nothing that is not pizza, fish stick, chicken nugget or, oddly, string bean. Her sole contribution to this project occurred when I was flipping through Dinner, came upon “Pizza Chicken” and mused aloud, “That sounds silly.” From the depths of the couch, a voice piped: “No it doesn’t.” (She was right; it’s good.)

You could think of this match-up as the New York Times Bowl: Clark writes the long-running “A Good Appetite” column for the paper’s Food section, while Nosrat recently became a columnist for the Magazine. It is also an East Coast-West Coast showdown. I have always thought of Clark, who co-wrote the Franny’s cookbook, as Park Slope made flesh: progressive, kid-friendly, and competitive in the way that might see Dinner as a Game ready to be Changed.

Her suggested list of ingredients to always have on hand—sumac, za'atar, pomegranate molasses, kimchi, sambal oelek—is a sign of both how remarkably far the American palate has come in the past twenty years, and of an author accustomed to easy access to Fairway, Whole Foods, and corner bodegas that are better stocked than most supermarkets elsewhere in the country.

Nosrat, on the other hand, exudes pre-tech-boom Bay Area bohemianism. Recipes pop into her head on the way home from surfing. She mentions her time spent in the kitchen at Chez Panisse the way a Harvard grad manages to work his alma mater into every conversation. (She has the decency not to refer to it as “Berkeley.”) And of course her evangelism for an Eden in which everybody’s ear is attuned to the distinct sputter of a roast chicken at its precise moment of perfect doneness is of a piece with free-spirited, and free-time-filled, Californian utopianism.      

It’s true that Clark’s is the more conventional cookbook. I’d say it was the squarer one, were it not so stolidly rectangular. This is the other response to recipe ubiquity, turning recipe books into coffee-top objets. One might think it was a museum catalog, complete with lavish full-bleed photos. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is, on the other hand, more like a graphic novel. It signals its difference by eschewing photos altogether, in favor of white space and doodly illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton. If Nosrat would rather not tell you exactly how to make a dish, she’s certainly not going to show you what it’s supposed to look like at the end.

 

Dinner is, lest the title leave any ambiguity, a guide to what to make for that meal, usually quickly, and nearly always with a favorable ratio of effort to impressiveness. There are a few recipes that could come straight from a list of Allrecipes.com top hit-getters, like that Pizza Chicken, or a casserole of breakfast-sausage, eggs and cheese(also delicious). The book is, for the most part, breezily international, with special emphasis on Middle Eastern and Asian flavors and with little pretense of authenticity. This is one part of how the definition of “American Food” expands. I don’t mean it as an insult when I say that you could convincingly read the table of contents of Dinner as a TGI Fridays menu sent from fifteen years in the future.   

Nosrat takes on a completely different mission, which is, in the span of one volume, to provide a universal culinary education. Of its eponymous subjects—the pillars, she asserts, of all cooking—salt is listed first. All I want from life is to someday believe in something the way that Nosrat believes in the power of salt. It is, for her, both science and miracle, by the pinch and the palmful (more often the latter). Aside from its culinary value, Nosrat’s salt section serves as a perfect introduction to her approach: Be Bold, Taste Often.

There are times when the book overpromises. I’m not sure how a page that guarantees “Everything You Need to Know To Improvise A Braise” does so, unless you go seek out recipes for the international range of braises it lists. MacNaughton’s illustrations occasionally seemed to me too cute by half, designed more with information-graphics geeks in mind than actual cooks.  

But for the most part, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is remarkable. Revelations big and small abound. In the “Acid” section, Nosrat quickly expands that category beyond the expected citrus and vinegars, showing how ingredients like dairy and fish sound similar, or complementary, notes in a dish. She illuminates connections between disparate cuisines that suddenly seem obvious—as in a spread showing international aromatic flavor bases, from the Creole “Trinity” to French mirepoix to West African ata lito, a puree of red onion, tomatoes and bell and scotch bonnet peppers. In one, small, captionless, drawing by MacNaughton, which illustrates the remarkably easy step of removing the bone from a chicken thigh, Nosrat provides a magic solution to the eternal quandary over whether to use whole thighs or the boneless-but-skinless option. It, and the attendant technique of cooking the deboned thighs slowly, beneath the weight of a cast-iron pan—dubbed “Conveyor Belt Chicken” because that is how you’ll want it delivered to your mouth—is something I expect to use for the rest of my cooking life. I’ll pair it often with Nosrat’s recipe for Caesar salad, a satisfying rebuke to dry, flavorless versions served in airports across the world.

 

Yes, there are recipes. Good ones. Sure, Nosrat would prefer you use that Caesar dressing to teach yourself about acid and salt, adding element by element and evaluating the subtle interactions between them at every step. And it’s a cool exercise. But so is following the traditional recipe at the end of the book. I’d say the same about her versions of linguine with white clam sauce, both of which will make you wonder how it ever came to be the watery mess you find in some Italian-American restaurants.

These two books make splendid companions. One night, I found myself without a lime while making Clark’s Thai-Style Shredded Tofu with Brussels Sprouts, a surprise hit in my house. I cast my freshly Nosrat-ed mind around for another acid component, remembered I had some clams, and ended up adding both their broth and flesh, creating a completely different and, I have to say, pretty wonderful dish of my own. For several of Clark’s chicken recipes, I used Nosrat’s “Conveyor Belt” technique. And Clark has much to contribute to the acid conversation, too: a suggested drizzle of apple cider vinegar brought out dazzling new flavors in her lamb stew.

Of the twenty or so recipes I cooked in Dinner, each imparted a lesson or inspiration. I’ll be using Clark’s technique for a tamago-like Japanese omelet for a long time—likewise, shredding tofu with a box grater so that it cooks up, amidst those Brussels sprouts, as a fluffy, nutty bloom. My inner alarm bells were going off throughout making Harissa Chicken with Leeks, Potatoes, and Yogurt, the cover image of Clark’s book and one of several recipes in which calls for heaping nearly all its ingredients on one sheet pan. I doubted all the elements could possibly cook correctly, without burning or steaming. I was wrong. That dish’s yogurt sauce—an absurdly simple mixture of yogurt, garlic, lemon and salt—became an instant staple.

And yet, and yet. In having to decide which of these two books to advance, I can’t get away from the specialness of Nosrat’s, its scope, its freshness, its idiosyncrasy, its wit. What Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat does, ultimately, is make explicit what good recipes do implicitly: That is, illuminate some previously obscure, dusty, or scary, area of the grand culinary mansion—sometimes a corner, sometimes a whole wing, but always a new place to frolic. Just as it was a beautiful complement to Clark’s book, I’m convinced it would enhance and illuminate any volume it was placed next to, like…well, like salt does to whatever ingredient it encounters. Simply put, it is the first Joy of Cooking or How to Cook Everything of the Google age.

Who will speak for the recipes? I will!

But today I’m choosing Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.  

 

And the winner is…

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

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Do you Agree? (60 comments)

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user avatar 23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar
23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Now that The Piglet is over I can say with certainty that this was my favorite review. I bought SFAH as a result, and upon rereading this review I'm going to order Dinner as well. What a wonderful compliment to each author that this reviewer so thoroughly cooked from these books. I'll be on the lookout for Brett Martin.

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Game-changer...both are terrific but Salt....teaches cooking and tasting

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I haven’t received SFAH from the library yet and look forward to comparing it to Dinner which I just went through. I now have a list of 10 recipes to make from the latter - dinners I am excited about eating and that don’t look like they will need a weekend afternoon to prepare. I will likely buy dinner, but I may be sold on the winner of this match up too. I think it was unfortunate these two books met up in the first round.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Do I agree? Totally irrelevant to me, as I have not read 'Dinner'. But what a delightful read, and a fabulously written review. In addition to the beautiful writing, it was obvious that he had thoroughly immersed himself in each book. Even if one disagrees with his decision, there can be no faulting the way he got there.

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Yes, Yes, yes...totally agree. SFAH is a book for the ages.

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Excellent review! I've looked several times at Dinner and thought that though I'd be sure to find a number of recipes I'd make over and over, it just didn't seem to add something new to the bookshelf. Conversely, I've passed over SFAH several times because the cover didn't look very interesting. Shame on me for judging a book by it's cover. But I'm ordering SFAH right away. It sounds a bit like Judy Roger's Zuni Cafe was for me...a revelation about salt and finesse.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Both books have been ordered, and I am anxiously awaiting their delivery later today, entirely due to this fantastic review. Bravo, Mr. Martin, for undertaking such a thoughtful and thorough evaluation. I only hope I enjoy both books as much as I enjoyed your crisply worded account. Thank you.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

The Cardamom Almond cake from SFAH ranks with Diana Kennedy's Gingerbread as one of the most perfect desserts of all time.

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I'm a big Melissa Clark fan. She has taught me many things, for which I am appreciative. However...SFAH isn't just my favorite cookbooks of 2017; for me, SFAH belongs on any list of the top books of 2017, period. I can't stop talking about it. I can't stop giving it as a gift. Back in the early 80s, I read the Tassajara Bread Book (remember that?), and it changed the way I baked. I expect that SFAH will change my cooking (and the way I approach the cooking of friends and restaurants) for decades to come.

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I ordered SFAH the day I read this review. Now it’s Friday afternoon and I’m curled up reading with a cup of coffee and my new book and I couldn’t be happier!

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I really, really wanted Melissa Clark to win - her book is far too good to go down in round one!

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Excellent review, as a group this first round of reviews is a vast improvement over some of the reviews from the last Piglet. I have both books and love them equally. It would have been difficult to make this choice.

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I own both books and I am a longtime fan of Melissa Clark but SFAH is an absolute revelation that has taken my cooking to new levels of mastery. And I do really love a recipe and the sense of security it gives me but thanks to SFAH, I have a new level of confidence of how to balance flavors in cooking that is making me so happy. I feel like a rockstar in the kitchen now. FYI: SFAH is also available ias an audiobook that is narrated by Samin Nosrat herself. Maybe I am a total nerd, but I enjoyed it as much as a novel. I love the enthusiasm in Samin's voice and now I just want to be BFFs with her. Thanks to Brett Martin for such good on point writing-- a real pleasure to read.

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Excellent review--it's my favorite I've read thus far this year. Both of these cookbooks have been on my radar, but others have taken priority. Thanks to Brett's honest writing and hitting of high notes, I'll be making both of these a priority soon. And like others, I'd love to read more of his work.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Thanks for the great review. I just bought the book. Thanks for bringing the book to my attention. I'm sure that most of your readers well outclass me in the kitchen, but I love to learn the "nuts and bolts" of things and look forward to reading this book. Also love the idea of comparing cookbooks in a March Madness kind of way.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I 100% agree! I have both books, and I have earmarked both to the point that I can never make all of the recipes I've marked! However, SFAH TEACHES one how to improvise.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Excellent review! But now I guess I gotta buy both. And, like emcap before me, I need to read more Brett Martin. Thanks for that, too.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

What a wonderful review! If it has convinced me of anything it's that I should read more of Brett Martin's work. He really managed to pique my curiosity about both of the books. I can't wait to see how the winner fares in the rest of the competition. This year's competition is off to a great start!

8ff9a676 5d6e 4f83 8d3b ed94114a2052  stringio

What a fantastic review... And I especially loved his observation about Michael Pollen, whose assertions about recipes really stung when I read the introduction to SHAH! Initially, I couldn’t understand why these two (great) cookbooks were being paired up, but Martin’s points of contrast made me look at them differently. Ultimately, I agree with his decision that SFAH makes a perfect companion to any cookbook and should therefore advance. What a surprise!

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Wow Mr Brett Martin. You just set the bar higher. Wonderful review. !!!