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The Piglet2018 / First Round, 2018

Onions Etcetera vs. The Pho Cookbook

Onions Etcetera

Kate Winslow & Guy Ambrosino

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The Pho Cookbook

Andrea Nguyen

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Judged by: Bonnie S. Benwick

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Bonnie S. Benwick is deputy editor of The Washington Post Food section and responsible for all of the newspaper’s tested recipes. She writes the weekly “Dinner in Minutes” column and a monthly recipe column for The Washington Post Magazine. In 2013, she edited The Washington Post Cookbook: Readers’ Favorite Recipes. Since The Post moved into its new digs in 2015, she has managed its Food Lab.

The Judgment

It occurred to me about halfway through my dive into this matchup that each book could be viewed through a pizza lens—and how often can anyone say that about anything other than pizza? Stay with me; I promise not to belabor the point.

Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook is deep dish. At 300-plus pages and sized like a rectangular pie that serves two and gets devoured by one, it tastes familiar and lovable. The Pho Cookbook, on the other hand, is thin crust and D.O.C. all the way—authentic, with attention to components and process. Its profile is slender, yet complete.

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The pizza metaphor gives way to the state of my relationship with cookbooks in general: As long as they keep coming, I will keep reading. I have prepared thousands of their printed recipes, and I admit to a penchant for spiral-bound collections from Temple sisterhoods and such. Have I ever met a cookbook I didn’t like? You bet your fine-mesh skimmer I have. But even then I can appreciate the effort. Mostly. 
Both books are single-subject, a format that serves those who have logged lots of time at the cutting board, especially. I think the single-subject genre might be the saving grace of cookbook publishing, because those experienced cooks—the demographic that tends to purchase such recipe collections—often tell me they don’t need one more volume that features the same mussels marinière and molten chocolate cakes. 

In Onions, co-authors Kate Winslow, a former Gourmet editor, and photographer Guy Ambrosino have put together a solid work. His images are straightforward and kind of cheerful. Ingredients and dishes match what’s written, and you have to trust me when I say that is not the case in a dismaying number of titles published each year.

Winslow styles food simply and knows how to write a recipe: She understands that proper sentence construction doesn’t have to suffer from recipespeak. Attention Is Being Paid to the brevity of ingredient lists these days, which seems to be equated with ease of execution. Onions wins on that score, with an impressive array of creations that clock in under the magic total of 13 (as in, Ina Garten magic; the Barefoot Contessa has said that’s a limit for her). 

Koshary, an elementary bowlful of lentils, rice, tomato sauce, and pasta, starts with your typical chopped onion sauteed in olive oil and finishes with drizzle of minted butter—and it becomes extraordinary. Red Onion Blossoms are a treat to make and to present: Scored from top to just short of the root ends, they are dressed with oil and vinegar and roasted upright in foil packets. They relax on the plate as pink-and-white-petaled flowers. 

I was buoyed by the Perfect Shallot Vinaigrette, because it’s almost identical to the one I make at home. Pearl onions really are the right size for skewering (see savory Beef and Onion Anticuchos) and equally a pain to prep. The authors concede the latter point and offer a quick-boil method that helps the peels slip off. As many times as I have scored or trimmed the root ends, delaying that step until after the parboil was a “D’oh!” moment for me.

I had to prepare for Pho. I read the front matter, and read it again. I filled my downstairs freezer with lamb neck bones and beef knuckle bones and a pig’s trotter. I plotzed a little over acquiring Chinese black cardamom, which is different from Indian black cardamom, only to discover that not too many recipes in the book call for that smoky spice. (Need some? Email me.)

BTW, are you unsure about your pronunciation of the dish? “Faww” works when there are no diacritical marks. When a little horn is attached to the “o,” pronounce it “fuh.” So says author Andrea Nguyen.  

I had made a few pho broths before, but in this book Nguyen is teaching a master class that ninth-graders can comprehend. Since she emigrated from Vietnam in 1975, the respected Bay Area cookbook author and culinary instructor has seen her country’s best-known soup become a kind of standard in America. The more she has researched the dish, the more willing she seems to expand the pho playing field.

We as home cooks benefit from this. Nguyen is respectful of our time without diminishing quality. Yes, you can use a pressure cooker. Sure, you can freeze the broth, and, with cooked proteins and tasting additions, assemble a weeknight bowl in 10 or 15 minutes. Yep, you can use the thinly sliced, rare roast beef from the deli counter. I have done this.

I love that the first ingredient of her glossary is...water. As in, follow the cooking-with-wine rule that you ought to use something that you’d drink on its own merit; I went with filtered. Nguyen unlocks keys to the pho kingdom with her exposition on parboiling bones, just so, and then rinsing them. You’ve got a 100 percent chance of producing a less-cloudy broth if you spend an extra 5 or 6 minutes this way.

Pressure Cooker Chicken Pho is a damn fine method for poaching a whole bird, so tenderly, in record time. Vegan “Beef” Pho can offer a ton of umami flavor,  provided you are good to go with an MSG’ed Maggi Seasoning sauce; the author recommends Bragg’s Liquid Aminos as a substitute but I didn’t try that. I almost preferred the meatless broth until I spent about 5 aromatherapeutic hours with Saigon-Style Beef Pho, my personal fave of the lot.   

None of those recipes makes buckets’ worth; most are built for four servings. This is a good thing, even factoring in the length of time some of them take to produce. Pho is at its peak just when it’s done.
As for that expanded playing field: How about Chicken and Pho-Fat Rice? The hyphen is my own, to clarify that the fat is harvested from a chilled broth—although you can use canola oil instead. You get to use white- and dark-meat chicken left over from the pressure cooker pho mentioned above, unless you have been too generous in giving that to the yowling cat of the house. And Nguyen’s Homemade Hoisin is so good, it’s hostess gift-worthy. 
Even if you know you will not attempt her phos in the near future, here’s what you can do: Use the flat side of a chef’s knife to smack 2 garlic cloves so they stay intact but their skins fall away. Pop the cloves in a jar with 2 red Thai chiles, 1/4 cup plain rice vinegar and 1/2 cup water. Seal and refrigerate overnight. Taste the next day and add water or vinegar if the garlic or chile is too harsh.

Mazel tov! You have made her Garlic Vinegar, which will keep in the refrigerator for months. Sprinkle this vinegar into your next bowl of pho. Or over pan-fried noodles, or fried rice. Or a shoe. I am hooked. 
You might expect that seeing bowl upon bowl of broths and their add-ins could diminish Pho's skim-through experience. Not the case. Visuals, captured by John Lee in the studio and Karen Shinto on location, include street scenes in Vietnam, ingredient shots, pho-related salads, sides, and condiments.

With its larger format, Onions wins on looks. Dishes are shot to highlight the food. I didn’t need to see each allium pictured in its raw state, but I get why those photos were there. 

The Piglet decision came down to this: Which cookbook taught me more? Andrea Nguyen’s Pho. But I retain the right to view Onions through my pizza lens any time. 


And the winner is…

The Pho Cookbook

The Pho Cookbook

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Do you Agree? (24 comments)

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6 days ago Transcendancing

Great review of both books!

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8 days ago zora

Great work, Bonnie! I so appreciate Piglet reviews when they are drawn from a deep well of knowledge and experience, carbonated by sparkling wit. Who wants to read a cookbook analysis from someone who doesn't cook? More Bonnie!

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9 days ago Nancy

Nancy is a trusted home cook.

Great writing! Made me laugh, want both books, even though I know how to cook onions and don't know how to make Pho (or faw)....:)

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9 days ago Sandra

What does D.O.C. Stand for? I couldn’t find it online, my mellenial daighter didn’t know it and I am still scratching my head. Maybe because we are deep dish fans....

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9 days ago sexyLAMBCHOPx

Chops is a trusted home cook.

I read it as "D.O.P." seal (Protected Designation Of Origin).so in her usage the real deal, authentic and D.O.S. was an error.

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9 days ago Nancy

Nancy is a trusted home cook.

DOC is an Italian wine designation for, roughly, controlled origin labelling.

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10 days ago Chocolate Be

We also own all of Andrea Nguyen’s books and cook from them often, couldn't live without them. We often stay in Airbnbs for lengthy periods, so as well as the hard copies, Ms. Nguyen is always with us via Kindle. So many kudos are due her for the clarity of her writing, her enthusiasm, her willingness to provide alternative ingredients, and last but decidedly not least, the end results, which are unfailingly delectable.

Excellent review.

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11 days ago Joan Osborne

Such wonderful reviews this year and this one didn't disappoint. I need to visit these two books.

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11 days ago healthierkitchen

Well done, Bonnie! I hadn't read either of these two yet, and both sound compelling in their own way.

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11 days ago Melina

I am sad to see Onions drop out so soon, I have really been enjoying the recipes from this book. I also like the way the author gives a lot of information on each "family member".
So far the reviews have been great! Everyone takes their task seriously and actually cooks from the books. There is also more focus on the books rather than the reviewer. Bravo, Piglet!!!

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11 days ago Incohatus

Huh, it strikes me that while both are single subject cookbooks, onions are such a versatile ingredient that the cookbook could actually have a pretty wide scope while a pho cookbook is variations on a more focused theme? I guess this is the kind of cookbook you pick because of its narrow focus...

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11 days ago Jesi Nishibun

This is kind of how I felt about Onions Etc. Alliums are the foundation of so many recipes that its possibilities are endless. It's about as single-subject as a book focused on, I don't know, salt. Or fat. Or acid. Or heat. ;-)

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11 days ago mcs3000

This line from Bonnie's review sums up how I feel about Andrea's books and recipes from her blog: "in this book Nguyen is teaching a master class that ninth-graders can comprehend." After hearing Andrea speak at Omnivore Books, I was inspired. When I came home and made some recipes from her book, I became a fan for life. Andrea's recipe writing is the gold standard. Investing the time and money to make her recipes are worth it. I own all of Andrea's books. Bonnie mentions: "Nguyen’s Homemade Hoisin is so good, it’s hostess gift-worthy." True. I never really liked hoisin sauce until I made Andrea's.

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11 days ago tcamp

Both books appeal to me but I love The Pho Cookbook so happy to see it prevail. As Bonnie points out, the recipes go beyond "just" pho. In fact, the Pho Chicken Salad recipe from it is my son's favorite meal and a household staple.

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11 days ago LaCeleste

Clever review. I liked the "seasoned old vet" vibe to it.

What happened to the featuring of recipes from the winning book that was in play last year? I remember it had a slight spoiler kink to it, but it was so nice to get a teaser of the books!

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11 days ago cookbookchick

Bonnie, I was delighted to see you named as a judge for this year’s Piglet! You have done us DC gals proud. Thank you for a great morning read and a good excuse (as if I needed one!) to add two more cookbooks to my collection.

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11 days ago E E Faris

Oh, Bonnie Benwick is the best. I love reading her work (and cooking it) in the Washington Post. You can trust her. I am burning to cook some Pho now, I've always been interested in it but it seemed too daunting.

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11 days ago Jesi Nishibun

Awww... I was ever so slightly pulling for Onions, just because I am full-on obsessed with alliums, and I loved the last chapter about the lesser-used ramps, garlic scapes, etc. Solid review, though-- and I'm all for cookbooks that demystify foods I've only ever eaten in restaurants.

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11 days ago Girlfromipanema

Yes, the Piglet is back to its roots- cooking from the books. Thank you Bonnie for an amazing review.

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11 days ago alygator

AWESOME review!! Piglet is so rocking this year!

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11 days ago jksfgc

"Sprinkle this vinegar into your next bowl of pho. Or over pan-fried noodles, or fried rice. Or a shoe." This is my single favorite line of any review, possibly ever. Well done!

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11 days ago James Felder

Lovely review! It made me interested in both books, and the reasoning on the winner made sense to me.

Where's the bracket?!

Even though the Piglet link is at the top of the Food52 homepage, they're not featuring photos from it on the top story?

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11 days ago Erin

This should get you to the bracket, I hope :) https://food52.com/the...

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11 days ago James Felder

Thank you! I've bookmarked now!

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