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.
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.