The Piglet2018 / First Round, 2018

Kaukasis vs. King Solomon's Table

Kaukasis

Olia Hercules

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King Solomon's Table

Joan Nathan

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Judged by: Stephen Satterfield

A1620e6e 9a01 4184 a644 87f93b7cb670  stephen satterfield shot by dijon bowden

Stephen Satterfield is a food writer, publisher, and multimedia producer. He is the founder of Whetstone Magazine, a quarterly print publication on food origins and culture. Before his career in media, he spent a decade as a sommelier and restaurant manager at fine restaurants nationwide. He is a pizza and french fry evangelist. 

The Judgment

King Solomon’s Table and Kaukasis spotlight Jewish and Eastern European food, respectively. Each exhibits an intimacy in storytelling and asks the reader to invest in its dishes’ historical and geographical context. Both books are notable for their authors’ personal affinity for the places they write about.

Joan Nathan is a well-known and (rightfully) celebrated cookbook author. She’s an unmatched intellectual on Jewish food, with a process more akin to cultural anthropologist than cook. At 74, she’s accumulated a lifetime of stories and recipes from cooks across the global Jewish diaspora and shares them in the pages of her 11th title, King Solomon’s Table.

 

In 1986, at the age of three, Olia Hercules, a London-based food writer and stylist, went on a life-changing family trip. It was a twenty-six hour car ride from her native country,  Ukraine, to Azerbaijan—a former Soviet republic bound by the Caspian Sea and Caucasus Mountains (for which the book is named). This journey was both the impetus and inspiration for Kaukasis.

The first recipe I chose to cook from King Solomon’s Table is Azerbaijani Kakusa with Swiss Chard and Herbs. It’s how Nathan begins the book, and seems like the logical choice to compare apples to Azerbaijani apples. The kakusa, a cooked egg concoction, is conceptually straightforward. I am comforted by its familiarity.

This one is overloaded with bitter greens, added after you sauté onions and herbs in oil. Which is sorta my issue with the recipe. It assumes that all greens contain liquid, which, in the case of my chard—the ingredient named in the dish—it did not. Chard is liquidless. It needs more braise than sauté. Even though my leaves were destemmed and cut into formal squares, the residual steam of the allium mixture was not enough to cook them through. My chard situation still needed a considerable douse of water. Otherwise, it would’ve burned before it finished cooking.

I’m given the same instruction for chard as for its suggested alternative, spinach, as if the cooking methodology for one applies to the other. It does not. Under different circumstances, this omission would’ve rendered a simple and gratifying dish unpalatable, with greens unevenly cooked. I cook with all of my senses, and have the confidence and recall of one who’s done so for years. In other words, I knew what to do. By making the requisite adjustments, I was able to enjoy a dish that was everything I want from frittata and quiche, but never get from either.  

 

On the other hand, a very redeeming and worthwhile recipe in the book is an uncomplicated and impeccable carrot salad (“Indian-Israeli-Style”). It goes like this: in a food processor, pulse carrots, garlic, hot pepper, and herbs. Scrape it all out in a bowl, and add lime, julienned green bell peppers, olive oil, and chopped pistachios. Mayonnaise, we’re told, can be added as an alternative to olive oil. I scoffed at this “choice” and coated the carrots in slightly more than the recommended 3-4 tablespoons oil.    

The results would be delicious as a salad or condiment. But I wasn’t feeling the bell pepper addition. Following instructions, I cut them into strips—an aesthetic and functional burden on the dish. (My preference would’ve been to dice.)  Still, overall, the recipe is a surprisingly delicious foundation that you’ll be grateful to build upon.

On to Hercules’s Kaukasis. The Soviet occupation of that titular region (i.e. Caucasus) was catastrophic for its food culture, erasing the ancient and nuanced regional traditions in favor of homogenous industrial food. Farms were destroyed and many recipes—buried in the minds of elders—were lost. This book feels like an earnest reclamation of that missing history. (This was also the impetus for Hercules’s first book, Mamuska.)

There’s a succinct introduction, and then straight to the recipes. The ingredients are mostly recognizable and in some cases, I found the components easier to prepare than pronounce. There are sauces and condiments that build from prior sections of the book.

As a native Georgian (of the U.S. variety), I was particularly taken by Hercules’s fermented green tomato. Our tomatoes have no problem ripening in the summer, but harvesting them early, cutting them into rounds, dipping them into an egg wash, and dusting them with floured cornmeal before frying has been the breadth of my relationship with green tomatoes. As a fermentation enthusiast, I found Hercules’ green tomato pickle simple but revelatory. It’s a new favorite condiment.

To make it, you flavor a salt water brine with peppercorns and bay leaf, then bring it to a boil. The tomatoes are quartered in a way that they just barely remain intact. Sliced garlic cloves, chili, and celery leaves (could be subbed with parsley, I think) are stuffed into the incisions. The stuffed tomatoes are crammed into (sterilized!) jars and the infused salt water poured over the top. Now, because it involves fermentation, this recipe takes two weeks to prepare. But on the bright side, you’ll have a ridiculously delicious condiment for at least twice that long, that can be enjoyed with meats, cheeses, in white beans, on toast, on khinkali. It’s a hell of pickle.

I’m a little sheepish about my next recipe selection: Cauliflower steak gratin. Considering this is such a cool cookbook, full of dishes that most of us know very little about, my pick might seem a little lethargic. If I were to artfully defend myself, I might cite a tenet from my own culinary doctrine: The simplest things done best are the most appealing. I find joy and wonder in extracting divine flavor from the ancient and rudimentary.

 

But also, I’m busy. Most of my home-cooked meals lack industry, and that’s what I like about them—and why I chose this simple and familiar cruciferous dish. The recipe begins with a skillet-searing of the vegetable “steaks” in a combination of butter and vegetable oil. I like to do the same, except I’ve always done it in brown butter, and where I might pair it with hazelnuts, Hercules brings in cheese, raclette or Ogleshield, specifically; it may be cumbersome to procure, but it’s melty and worthwhile. You incorporate it into a mixture of egg, garlic, spices and—if you wish—sauteed onions, then you pour it on top of the seared “steaks” (now in a gratin pan) and send it to the oven. I opted in on the onions and am convinced their residual heat helped to soften the cauliflower as it cooked, the same way it did in Nathan’s kakusa.

Now, I have been to the Republic of Georgia twice, and I really like Georgian food. Because of this, I wondered if this book would justly capture the immense charm and character of the region. I know I struggle to. I’m happy to report it wildly exceeded my expectations. The selection of dishes goes beyond Georgia to represent other bits and pieces of Caucasian cuisine like Ossetia and Romania. Hercules is a chef and a food stylist, and it’s her recipes, in tandem with her arresting imagery and enchanting dedication to the food of Eurasia, that give Kaukasis a special feeling. The combination captures the contemporary gastronomic revolution of the region, which, as is the case worldwide, defined by young people reclaiming their traditional foodways, in kitchens and on farms, and with respectful liberties, making it their own.

Of course, Nathan set the bar on respectful culinary excavation years ago. It’s thanks to cookbook authors like her that Hercules has a foundation upon which to build, update, and personalize. When it comes to dissementing the historical context of her vast geographical and cultural purview, Nathan is lavish. This is fascinating, but if unencumbered utility is what you fancy in a cookbook, you will not be charmed by the deviations in King Solomon’s Table. At times, Nathan’s display of knowledge becomes an avalanche. It is so expansive, that the book can swerve, crashing into historical narration that can be hard to follow. No doubt the web of recipes and stories connects more precisely in her deeply wrinkled brain than on the pages. If I’m exposing my own intellectual ineptitude in this critique, I am prepared for the negative remarks. I’m not confident I can discredit your analysis.

I hate to pass on such an iconic food scholar as Nathan, but I’m going with Olia Hercules's Kaukasis, which feels like a rewarding cookbook addition for even moderately engaged home cooks.

 

 

And the winner is…

Kaukasis: A Culinary Journey Through Georgia, Azerbaijan & Beyond

Kaukasis: A Culinary Journey Through Georgia, Azerbaijan & Beyond

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Do you Agree? (27 comments)

user avatar 23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Are you channeling your best self with this comment?
(If you're not sure, check out our Code of Conduct.)

user avatar 23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar
87481f22 830b 4c5d 9b07 e6504a3b3286  40124 100630983341495 1559440 n

Mr. Satterfield's informative yet soothing writing style has been resonating in my head. I will subscribe to Whetstone Magazine. Meanwhile, I suggest the commentators below who mentioned bias read Whetstone's "About" page, which ends: "This diversity accelerates our knowledge and empathy. Whetstone is unequivocally and gratefully a better publication because of it."

76f59050 cd9f 4ac7 8cfd b71d8e232f41  fullsizeoutput d74

I don't think I've read such a grammatically beautiful and elegant essay in many years, and certainly never on the web. He's convinced me, but I think I might need both cookbooks!

Ed83541d 859c 43d6 90ad 1f8163d7cde5  532719 3658538260807 1195156242 32905581 1657496368 n 2

Thank you, Stephen Satterfield, for this excellent and fair review of two fascinating books.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

The reviewer seemed biased to me, perhaps overly critical of Nathan at the outset, perhaps wanting to take down a giant of the field. I agree with others that the matchup was unusually helpful, and also agree that I was surprised that he seemed to base his review on a small, and possibly not representative, sample of recipes. What gives?

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

This review was great in my eyes, especially because of the reviewer. Satterfield was very respectful of both authors and unbiased of their culinary backgrounds. He was specific when necessary (like his critique of the substitutes offered in Nathan's recipes, or the cultural context both the authors present), and I believe chose the recipes well as a chef and home cook. Approachability with home cooking is very important to me, so recipes that are straightforward and still interesting can make or break books on my shelf. I def appreciate the information on both and keeping this review concise by NOT TALKING ABOUT EVERY OTHER SINGLE RECIPE YOU (most likely) TRIED OUT. Thanks :)

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I wonder why The Piglet Gods chose Kaukasis and not Tasting Georgia, which is wonderful and has great reviews?

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

First of all, I wait all year for The Piglet! I get my hands on almost every book reviewed, and purchase most. It's my favorite Food52 column, hands down. But this review and reviewer were very disappointing.

So he made a frittata ( or as he puts it "a cooked egg concoction") and a salad from the first book, and a green tomato pickle and a cauliflower steak from the second book. Are these really representative of these two cookbooks and the cuisines they cover? No real main courses? No desserts? Is he an ovo-vegetarian? Was he too busy to give these books the reviews they deserve? He does confess to being a lethargic home cook whose meals lack industry. Why exactly was he chosen to be a Piglet reviewer? Why exactly did he agree? Mostly I blame my disappointment on Food52 for selecting this reviewer, not having higher standards for the reviews, and for allowing this review to be the definitive statement comparing these books!

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Hey, what happened to the bracket and why can't I find a link for it anywhere?

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

here is the link:
https://food52.com/the...
(I had a devil of a time finding it also)

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Thank you! I could have sworn it used to be in the top right corner.

8f5038ed 8aca 4d33 aef7 8a0ce63adc40  img00019 20100929 0432 1

It used to be there. The editor didn't think think it was a priority, I guess.
@nancy - thanks for the link.

8f5038ed 8aca 4d33 aef7 8a0ce63adc40  img00019 20100929 0432 1

Ugh! It'sand those silly graphics! I can imagine the food52 office High-fiving on the animations while basics like the bracket were deemed unnecessary. Frustrating.

4798a9c2 4c90 45e5 a5be 81bcb1f69c5c  junechamp

I was surprised by the results of this matchup, mostly because the judge didn't cook much from either of them. How can two recipes be enough to evaluate either book? especially when they seemed to be so similar to each other?
When I evaluate a cookbook, I look for recipes that scream at me, "Make me! Make me!" Particularly in the case of "King Solomon's Table," the reviewer did not sound like this was the case for him.
I'm very familiar with Joan Nathan's work, and this seemed unfair.
However, his review did make me interested to explore Kaukasis.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I just wanted to mention a typo. It's Mamushka nor Mamuska! Just want to make sure people buy the right book :)

Be3ab7fe d533 4bc8 8658 87caa9c9ee40  fb avatar

Are people over the last day getting error messages every time they load any Food52 page the first time? It loads fine the second time.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Another good review. Another thing that I love about this years Piglet is that the first round match-ups make so much sense. Food 52 is comparing apples to apples in all the pairs. BRAVO!

84baef1b 1614 4c3d a895 e859c9d40bd1  chris in oslo

That’s going to change fast! In Round 2, Kaukasis (which I picked up today!) goes up against Bravetart. Forget about those apples!

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I loathe the animations on the books.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I like this review. The writing is excellent; Chef Satterfield made it very personal and explained who he is as a home cook, which drove the choices he made for what recipes to cook. Now I am curious about Kaukasis, a book I previously had no interest in – not even enough to thumb through on the cookbook table at my local store. Thanks

549d9fb3 53ef 4170 b68e 8bae2e055be7  dsc 0048b

I think I'd go with Kaukasis in this match up as well, but how shall we interpret the use of "deeply wrinkled brain?" Can we assume this is a compliment to Ms Nathan, meant to indicate that her brain is so full of information? Or, does it bring to mind an aging of the brain, and, therefore, of the person?

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I think he was referring to the theory that the brain acquires more wrinkles (or "folds") when you learn something, hence a deeply-wrinkled brain would imply a lot of knowledge. But yes, the wording pulled me up short too.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I am most likely A LOT older than most people commenting here, and I didn't take it as a pejorative comment. Even if one didn't have the definition at hand, in context it seemed to be a compliment.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I’m confident that the use of “deeply wrinkled brain” was a reference to the authors extensive knowledge and experience. I am sure only respect for the author was intended.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

If I remember my high school biology correctly, the idea is that the grey matter, the "thinking" part of the brain, is layered upon the more massive white matter. The more convoluted or wrinkled the white matter, the more surface area available for grey matter. So yes, "a wrinkled brain" would be another way of saying "very intelligent". The jury is still out on whether the same rule would apply had he used the term "convoluted brain" :-)

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I was really excited for King Solomon's Table, and I absolutely love the intensive history section at the beginning of the book. However, I had trouble finding my way into the recipes, for reasons I couldn't quite articulate. Stephen Satterfield hit the nail on the head. I haven't yet gotten my hands on Kaukasis, but it's clear that I need to.

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I appreciated this review for its thoroughness and tone and for the fact that it was obviously written by someone who does a lot of home cooking but can bring a professional's eye to the situation. Bravo, Mr. Satterfield! And hurray for Kaukasis, a personal favorite this year.

833bd169 d76a 458a ab46 ea1d7ff5bc33  kp

I bought a copy of Kaukasis over the weekend - I had been wanting it for a little while and when I saw that it was one of the contenders for this year’s Piglet, I bought it. Love this style of food and the flavours. Glad to see it advance to the next round.