The Piglet2018 / First Round, 2018

Autentico vs. Bangkok


Rolando Beramendi

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Leela Punyaratabandhu

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Judged by: Garrett Oliver

Garrett Oliver is the brewmaster of The Brooklyn Brewery, the author of The Brewmaster's Table, and the editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer. He was a founding board member of Slow Food USA and later served on its International Council. A veteran host of more than 1,000 tasting events in 18 countries, Garrett was the 2014 recipient of the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional.

The Judgment

Scene One: I am all thumbs, or rather, at least my thumbs actually work. Unlike my right index finger. That finger, wrapped up in a fancy splint, is useless. Stepping in, its neighbor—a heroic thumb—unlocks my phone. There’s an email from Piglet. It seems that I owe them something. Uh oh. It’s now four days before Christmas, and I have cooked precisely no dishes for the cookbook competition. The books have arrived, one Thai, one Italian. I have no excuses. Expletives. My finger, which remains a disconcerting gray-blue color, has been broken less than a month by a vengeful wooden 1970’s-era cheeseboard. I can barely tie my shoelaces. Still, I had promised to cook. And the cheeseboard must not be allowed to win.

2018 0206 autentico vs bangkok 3x2 ty mecham 001

Scene Two: Autentico by Rolando Beramendi. My love for Italy runs deep, a river stretching back 20 years. I’ve spent at least two weeks there every summer since the late 90s, when I joined the Slow Food Movement and helped the organization get going in the United States. Autentico: Cooking Italian, the Authentic Way is the full title and quite a claim, I think. I try to stave off a vague annoyance. (Doesn’t “Autentico” sound like an Italian-ish restaurant chain?). “I cook to break preconceived notions of what food should be—no overcrowded plates, no recipes with too many disparate ingredients, no out-of-season ingredients, no need for a lot of equipment,” the author’s introduction reads. The recipes seem to say differently, but no matter. His photo reveals a pleasant-looking fellow wearing an expensive-looking jacket while standing in a farmhouse stacked high with suspiciously photogenic monster truck tires. I sigh. “I’m sure he’s a very nice man,” I tell myself, and get cracking.

Staying away from dishes about which I have strong ideas, I select three: Agnello Dolce Forte (Sweet-and-Strong Lamb Stew), Risotto Verdissimo (The Greenest Risotto) and Tonno Alla Pantesca (Pantelleria-Style Slow-Braised Tuna). Photographed by Laurie Frankel, the book’s images are ravishing, and having written books myself, I’m jealous of the quality of the printing.

First up, the lamb. The recipe features shoulder meat bolstered by an array of herbs and spices and reminds me of Moroccan tagine. As I’m driving in downtown Brooklyn to load up on produce, a miraculous parking space opens up and boom, I’m in. Butcher, check. Supermarket, check. The famed Middle Eastern spice shops of Atlantic Avenue, check. And what trips me up? Can you believe candied orange peel? Dried mango, dried papaya, dried banana, dried coconut—entire sections of dried and candied fruit lay before me. No orange peel. I decide to candy the peel myself. 

The instructions for the dish are short, solid, and pretty clear. It’s built on 3 cups of soffritto, a mirepoix-like mix of finely minced carrot, celery and onion cooked down in a sea of olive oil. As I move through the recipe, the house starts to smell good, and then fantastic. I decide that mashed potatoes sound like a better accompaniment than the rice, lentils or polenta recommended, so I cook both the potatoes and some rice, just in case. The stew, my guests agree, is brilliant—really delicious. Too much olive oil, perhaps, but I can forgive that. And he’s even right about the rice; it does work better. I’m impressed. All the flavors fall into place, the dish looks exactly like it does in the photo, and yes, as he claims, it is indeed even better two days later.

I love Thai food for sure, but the Thai book is in for trouble. One recipe down, five to go.

Scene Three: The sky, they say, is falling. Something they call a “bomb cyclone”, is about to descend upon New York City. It’s going to decimate us with 4 to 6 inches of sleet! It’s going to bury us under an 8-inch slab of ice! I’m unimpressed, but I also have an excuse to stay home on a Thursday.

Ambitiously titled simply Bangkok, the book opens with a highly evocative description of author Leela Punyaratabandhu’s upbringing in the eponymous city. I didn’t come here for the travelogue stuff, but she’s very engaging, and her filmic sense of scene is inspiring. David Loftus’ photos, which are also beautiful, look less composed than those in Beramendi’s pages—they seem like an invitation to a beautiful and colorful new world. I head into the recipes. Bangkok turns out to be awfully specific about ingredients. Duck eggs? “Young” galangal? Coriander roots? Sawtooth coriander? But I am not discouraged. I pick three dishes: Khai Phalo (Caramel-Braised Duck Eggs with Pork Belly), Tom Kha Kai Klan (Braised Chicken in Coconut-Galangal Cream Sauce), and Bami Tom Yam Kung Nam Khon (Creamy Tom Yam Noodle Soup with Shrimp).

Once again, I go shopping. Fortunately, there’s a tiny place in Chinatown in Manhattan called Bangkok Grocery Center and it’s reputed to have everything. The genial storeowner is enthusiastically helpful. His coriander has no roots (but the book says stems are acceptable), and I take whatever galangal he has, young or old, choosing the smoother looking knobs. He even has the sawtooth coriander, an elongated leaf with finely serrated edges. But there are no duck eggs.

Thursday morning, as predicted, the “bomb cyclone” attacks us with its wintery mix, and I get two Bowie albums going. I have all day, and I’m gonna do it, all three recipes. Punyaratabandhu’s instructions are colloquial and they’re both specific and loose at the same time—she tells you exactly how she wants it done, but thankfully also lets you off the hook or offers a substitution if you can’t get an ingredient. For example, fresh shrimp tomalley (which she knows perfectly well you can’t get) is “optional, but recommended” in the shrimp dish. You can swap evaporated milk for coconut milk—plenty of Bangkokians apparently do (I go for a blend).

The most intriguing cooking method of the day involves the braised chicken. In Thailand, the dish translates to “chicken [cooked] underneath water,” “three-water chicken,” or even “distilled chicken.” This involves cooking it in a Dutch oven under very low heat, a barely visible ring of flame, with a chamber full of ice serving as the lid for your pot. The aromatic steam from the pot rises up, condenses on the cold surface, and falls back onto the chicken. If the chicken itself isn’t “distilled,” some of the braising liquid certainly is. When all your ice has melted three times, you’re done, hence “three-water chicken.”

After about 90 minutes, I run out of ice. Thankfully, the “bomb cyclone” provides. I transfer the snow into a heavy African cast iron-bottomed pot and keep going. The chicken, despite my doubts, is a marvel. It falls off the bone and is ludicrously juicy and aromatic. The shrimp noodle soup is suitably fiery and reminiscent of great Thai meals I’ve had. And finally, the caramelized (chicken) egg with pork belly turns out to be truly one of the better dishes I’ve ever cooked. I’ve always wondered how to get that sort of flavor from working with palm sugar (it’s all about balance between sweetness, sourness, funk, and salt), and now mastery seems mine. As instructed by Punyaratabandhu, I eat the leftovers the next day for lunch, at my desk at the brewery. My colleagues are jealous. Now I’m getting smug. Four recipes down, two to go.

Scene Four: Back to Autentico, and please now receive my sad confession: This will be my first time preparing risotto. It will start with a “cracking” of the rice in olive oil over high heat before stirring in the broth—the broth I will make by stewing kale, parsley, leeks and “leftover greens,” which I have interpreted as “organic garden mix salad” (red oak leaves picked out). The broth turns out only mildly green and I wonder why it’s not greener. I start stirring, paying close attention to the instructions, but they’re not quite explicit enough. Beramendi leaves me guessing on some key details, like the tooth of the rice and how creamy it ought to be. Even after I add the necessary kale, it’s not that green. It looks like risotto with a lot of spinach in its teeth. There’s no picture, so I can’t be sure. But it’s certainly not the “greenest.” Optics aside, the risotto is good. Is it the best? No. It’s merely “nice.”

Beramendi neglects key details in the recipe for Tonno Alla Pantesca (Pantelleria-style slow-braised tuna), too. I read it five times, looking for a temperature for the oven. The author gives none. He simply instructs, “bake for 20 minutes,” and then “bake, uncovered, until the sides of the pan have a nice, almost burnt crust and the tuna is cooked through, about 10 minutes.” That’s 30 minutes altogether, and the tuna is only, as I was instructed, an inch thick. I notice the picture does not appear to show “an almost burnt crust.” Suspicious, I settle on a “medium” temperature of 350° F and hope it won’t be too high. The sauce itself is good—reminiscent of a sharp puttanesca, but I realize it‘s never going to completely cover the fish like it’s supposed to. My tuna is dry, and it’s hard to see how it wasn’t going to turn out that way. Have you ever over-cooked a tuna steak? Like for 30 minutes? Well, there you go.

I do love Italy. I’ve never been to Thailand, though it’s at the top of my list. I’m sure the author of Autentico is a good guy. I want his jacket and bits of his life. I’ll definitely cook his lamb stew again. But the author of Bangkok is more fun to hang out with; her descriptions of life in that city are like paintings; she isn’t judging me; her recipes work and the food was totally slammin’. Next time, I’ll find the damn duck eggs. 

It’s Bangkok.


And the winner is…



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Do you Agree?


kak6154 April 13, 2018
Reading these reviews is such a treat! Thanks to all who contributed!
Tamio888 March 11, 2018
Great review, Garrett!!!
For duck eggs, check out the Duck Lady at George's Meat Market, NW corner Eldridge and Grand.
She has the best cooked ducks in the city and always has trays of duck eggs available.

Keep on keepin' on...!
Joan O. March 8, 2018
I'm lovin each of these reviews. This was another one that pulled me in and kept me entertained to the end. Great review.
zooeybechamel March 7, 2018
Great review! Man, you were truly committed to the challenge and it was a joy to read. Thank you. Hope the finger is doing better.
It kinda sucks though, because I had a lot arguments to persuade myself into getting another italian cooking book, and now I kinda don't anymore...*sigh*
delbor March 7, 2018
I came away from reading this with the opinion "none of the above".
Phaedra March 7, 2018
Me too!
Suzanne March 27, 2018
Me too too!
Suzanne March 27, 2018
But I felt the reviewer gave it his very best effort and was even-handed. March 7, 2018
This contest is depleting my bank account. But stocking my cookbook collection... a fair trade off? Probably.
aacers March 7, 2018
What a great review! Especially taking into consideration 1) broken finger, 2) Bomb Cyclone(!), and 3) exotic ingredients. Well done!
Garrett O. March 7, 2018
Natalie, I’ll blame it more on a major case of “bella figura”, but I definitely hear you.
Natalie March 7, 2018
Yes, definitely. It just feels a little sneaky to me, like false advertising.

(By the way, your review was very enjoyable to read. Nice work.)
Susan S. March 12, 2018
It’s not really sneaky, but it’s definitely a problem. Since the changes a food stylist makes on set are usually an improvement on the presentation, they should be agreed upon if the author is present, and then incorporated into the recipe, so the reader can expect the same results. It is a little bit of a cheat, I agree, but can be avoided if someone takes the time to take careful notes and make the necessary edits before the book goes to press. Everyone expects dazzling photographs, and every recipe is not dazzling visually.
Natalie March 7, 2018
Something I noticed, which Garrett briefly mentioned, is that in Autentico there is a maddening amount of discrepancies between the photos and recipes. Unpeeled tomatoes when peeled are called for; herbs used as garnish that aren't in the recipe; a beautiful prawn that isn't in the ingredient list perched atop the pile of what you're actually making. It feels lazy or dishonest or something.
Susan S. March 16, 2018
I responded to your comment, but I’m the wrong place! See above ⬆️
SandraH March 7, 2018
Thank you for such a fine review! I learned a lot about Thai food, which I haven’t cooked, and both cookcooks just from reading Mr. Oliver’s judgement. Now I want to take a look at Bangkok.
Garrett O. March 7, 2018
Ms Punyaratabandhu definitely says that many Thai people consider condensed milk an acceptable substitute for coconut milk. And if you look at the recipe, the sauce/soup is strongly flavored by citrus, herbs, spices and fish sauce, so the coconut flavor really is playing second fiddle to other flavors anyhow.
Rhonda35 March 7, 2018
Any book with photos by David Loftus gets my vote - his work is incredibly beautiful.
AntoniaJames March 7, 2018
Fair, informative and interesting. Thank you, Mr. Oliver. ;o)
Carla S. March 7, 2018
For me the issue is having time to find more exotic ingredients.... and I live near gourmet ghetto in Berkeley CA
Greenstuff March 7, 2018
You shouldn't have much of a problem! Most everything mentioned in the review can be found at Berkeley Bowl--certainly those elusive duck eggs! And when you do have a bit of time, I highly recommend a little field trip over to the Southeast Asian markets in Oakland,
alygator March 7, 2018
Garrett Oliver wrote perhaps my FAVORITE Grub Street Diet in NY Magazine so I was super excited for his Piglet review. He did not disappoint. Funny, well written and well tested! I loved his choice of recipes to try from each book. Much more ambitious recipes than I'd be able to tackle. Color me impressed. I have Bangkok and agree that it is gorgeous - now I just have to cook!
LLStone March 7, 2018
Thanks for the Grub Street Diet tip - it was a great read! The review was also excellent.
alygator March 7, 2018
Julia Turshen (Small Victories!!) also had an awesome one.
Jesi N. March 7, 2018
Standing ovation to Garrett Oliver for his enthusiastic approach to sourcing ingredients. I loved that when he couldn't find candied orange peel, he made it himself-- that's the can-do spirit we're looking for! :)
Victoria C. March 7, 2018
A few months ago, I picked up Authentico in the store and looked through it. It is beautiful, and I was tempted, but I didn’t go for it because I have over one hundred Italian cookbooks. So I was interested to see that it made The Piglet lineup of best sixteen books of the year. Now I would get a good idea if I should give into temptation.

Bangkok in the lineup didn’t interest me at all. Except for the inauthentic-but-delicious Thai Chicken Curry in The Frog Commissary Cookbook, in which (seriously) béchamel sauce is used instead of coconut milk, I don’t make Thai food at home. The person I eat dinner with doesn’t like it. He can’t stand coconut milk because he hates the way it tastes, and he can’t stand fish sauce because he hates the way it smells. I can sneak fish sauce into dishes; it can add excellent umami essence and in a dish does not taste the way it smells. But I can’t get away with that with coconut milk. Therefore, I am VERY INTERESTED in the comment in this review that says Bangkokians use evaporated milk in place of coconut milk. Did I read that right? Can I do that all – or most - of the time? Help me out here.

I liked this review and was persuaded by the result. I thought at the end of it I would want to go ahead and get Authentico, but instead I’m interested in Bangkok (especially if the evaporated milk thing is correct).

And that’s why I love The Piglet.
Ouan C. March 8, 2018
Definitely you can use evaporated milk in Tom Kha Soup and the like. For Thai Curries you sauteed the curry paste in a little oil (say, 2 Tbsp on medium heat) until fragrant then add evaporated milk and it will turn out almost like coconut cream/milk. You should try & good luck
Victoria C. March 10, 2018
Thanks so much for this. I will definitely try it!
Lorelee March 7, 2018
So far I’m convinced but will definitely wait for mire reviews as I love Italian food
Incohatus March 7, 2018
Ironically, while I’m totally convinced by his review, Autentico is the one I’m more likely to buy. Bangkok sounds like a fascinating education in Thai food culture but not something I’d ever be able to practically use... I appreciated his selection of recipes and fair assessment of both books!
bwolff April 5, 2018
I'm surprised no one noted that Bankok is Ms Punyaratabandhu 2nd book. She emphasizes home cook's approach to Thai food and is, in my opinion very successful. Her dishes are excellent and approachable. Worth investigating her site She Shimmers.