I live in New York City, so people don’t believe me when I tell them that I don’t eat out. Well, my claim is not entirely true. On most mornings, I go to my local diner for breakfast—two scrambled eggs, two pieces of turkey bacon, and coffee. I read my digital New York Times and get briefed on the nation and the world, something that I wouldn’t indulge in if I were home. Anyway, I’m getting off topic.
Back to not eating out… I love to cook. It’s therapy for me. I pour a glass of wine, roll up my sleeves, and go at it. I live alone and tend to cook for just that particular night. This means that I’ve taken many recipes and adapted them as single-serving meals. I’m all about comfort food: meatloaf (I use a recipe of Craig Claiborne’s that calls for flattening the meat mixture into a one-inch-thick rectangle, covering it with grated cheddar, and rolling it up like a pinwheel—delicious and so easy!), chili (yes, I use a seasoning packet), roast chicken (easy and always good), and pasta (myriad combinations of shapes and sauces).
You can see that "easy" is appealing to me. And it’s not just about easy recipes, but easy ingredients and easy cleanup, too. When it comes to cleanup, I’ll admit to being a trifle OCD; that is, I get unnerved when there’s a mess anywhere in my apartment, especially the kitchen. I’ll also admit that I clean any used pots/pans/dishes and utensils before I eat. And, although I have a lovely dishwasher, I wash my dishes in the sink, dry them, and put them away each night. I couldn’t have a sound night’s sleep otherwise. (And, yes, the first thing that I do each morning is make my bed.) I’m laughing to myself—all of this probably accounts for why I live alone!
Now, a little about my tastes. I never use salt. Period. I think I must have an over-salted system, because neither the need nor the desire to add it ever occur to me. And does salt have a shelf life? I ask this because I’ve had the same salt cellar for at least ten years. (Google tells me, “If it’s in an air-tight container and in a dark place, then it can last for years.” Phew!) Second, if a food comes from water, then I’ll only eat it if has had or still has a shell; I get squeamish with fish. And no organ meat for me: in my mind, offal is awful.
So as a judge, I’m rather specific. But I am who I am. All this being said, with Bangkok and BraveTart in hand, I was excited to try something new.
I love Thai food, and Bangkok by Leela Punyaratabandhu is a gem. She opens with a fascinating and very personal history of Thai cuisine. Her writing allowed me to almost smell the food markets and taste the ingredients. Likewise, each recipe has a substantial narrative filled with cultural context, tips and serving suggestions, and smart advice to avoid potential missteps. Additionally, the photographs of Bangkok and its environs, along with the plated dishes, are stunning. This book makes a perfect gift for any cook, anyone traveling to Thailand, and anyone who is a fan of Thai food.
As discussed, I’m a fan of Thai food, and Bangkok has only enhanced my appreciation of it. For one, Punyaratabandhu’s cultural and contextual material tells you everything you should want to know about what you’re eating. Two, the incredible care and finesse involved in preparing Thai food make it all the more gratifying to eat.
Let me begin by sharing the first recipe that I made, 24-hour Chicken Matsaman Curry. Upon reflection, this dish is hugely ambitious and I was foolhardy to attempt it. But things happen for a reason and executing this recipe taught me loads. At the top of my learning curve was the following: listen to Punyaratabandhu and obey. I didn’t. She says that this recipe cannot be scaled down. Ha!, I thought. She doesn’t know me and my proclivity for downsizing almost every recipe that I encounter. Second, don’t assume that you can make substitutions for ingredients or leave them out altogether. I did. Third, don’t alter the cooking directions. I did this, too. Specifically, I broiled instead of fried the chicken to brown it. (I don’t fry—spattered oil everywhere.)
The recipe calls for 16 chicken thighs, which I downsized to four. Correspondingly, I basically cut every other ingredient by 75%. This “cutting” proved to be a regrettable rationale; for example, two tablespoons of galangal became zero. Likewise, I made substitutions for other ingredients: cardamom pods (I used powder and guessed the amount), lemongrass with purple rings (I used the lemongrass that I could find, sans purple rings), and mace blades (I used ground nutmeg). Unable to find palm sugar at both my fabulous local specialty food market and in Chinatown, I left it out.
Let me fast-forward: The dish as I prepared it was just okay from my point of taste, but not something that I would serve to guests. My radical tweaks ended up diminishing the desirable sass and gusto from Punyaratabandhu’s original dish. But I learned loads, as I said earlier—namely, not to tweak. I also learned that the Internet has all of the ingredients you need—cardamom pods, galangal, and mace blades. However, the prices can be dear….
So, going forward, I searched Bangkok for recipes that I had the ability to make.
This led me to Poached Chicken on Rice with Soy-Ginger Sauce. This was my second recipe and with very few exceptions I followed it literally. I had never poached a chicken, and Punyaratabandhu’s directions were excellent in guiding me, though also a bit labor-intensive (thankfully, I work from home). While preparing to make the sauce, I misread the recipe and thought it said, “chop the ginger, garlic, and chiles into pieces about the size of a matchstick.” No, it said “match head.” I had already chopped them into matchsticks, and it struck me as self-flagellation to make them that much tinier, so I just cut the matchsticks into thirds. The thirds were small enough. And I bought some Thai seasoning sauce in lieu of Thai “thin” soy sauce, since my local store had only the former on hand. Making the rice was relatively easy.
Having not come across a winter melon in my shopping excursions, I dared not substitute it with anything else. But when I understood that this melon was a companion to a sipping broth, I said “forget it” to the sipping broth; it was a mere enhancement and not a necessity. But then I felt guilty of cheating, so I sought redemption in trading out the recipe’s simple, unadorned sliced Cucumber Garnish for something a bit more involved from Punyaratabandhu’s repertoire. Her Cucumber Relish was the easiest of all the recipes I tried, though I’ll confess that I don’t remember what chiles I used. They were the chiles at the market. And they worked, at least for me.
Verdict: I loved the poached chicken. It was succulent and tasty and made for a winning textural counterpart to the rice, which was also tasty. For me, the cucumber relish really made the dish into a triumph. It brought spice and zest to everything. Finally, owing to the fact that I had a 3.5 pound bird, I ate this over several nights. The second night, I heated the rice, but served the chicken cold from the fridge, as I did with the relish. A new level of deliciousness! I had it cold from then on.
Next, I made the Spicy Corn Salad. This salad piqued my curiosity, but also presented a challenge, because corn isn’t in season. I bought frozen cobs and treated them as fresh, but the kernels did not hold together well when slicing down the length of the cob. I opted for frozen kernels instead and just let them be what they are. Likewise, the green beans I bought frozen. I was respectful to all of the other ingredients, though, and mostly to the method. Frankly, I really believe that Punyaratabdandhu’s directions to chop many ingredients down to the size of match heads is excessively labor intensive and does little to enhance flavors or presentation (says me, the person using frozen foods—ha!). I roughly sliced and diced everything, and all was well.
I enjoyed the flavors and textures of the spicy corn salad. I’m eager to try it in late spring/summer when fresh ingredients are available. We’ll see if there’s a palatable difference.
Bye for now, Bangkok!
On to BraveTart by Stella Parks. By practice and taste(buds), I am neither a baker nor a dessert person. (Full transparency: I lack the self-discipline to control my intake of sweets; that is, one Krispy Kreme donut is too many and a dozen aren’t enough, so I tend to stay away altogether.) I’d just left Bangkok behind—I’m terrible at multitasking, so I couldn’t work from both books simultaneously. BraveTart took me right back to my childhood and conjured all of the treats I loved. The book triggered some of my fondest memories. Furthermore, the clarity of Parks’ writing, along with the fantastic “troubleshooting” tips or “key points” that accompany each recipe, made execution fulfilling and…fun! I felt like I was in high school science class finishing a fabulous experiment before the bell rings. What really sent this book over the top for me was the history that Parks provides. Making these recipes made me feel as though I was part of a great and distinguished legacy. And who knew that the falling price of chocolate at the beginning of the twentieth century would be responsible for its eventual ubiquity?
When I first perused BraveTart, I made the decision to stay away from candies and ice creams—too complex and/or too equipment-needy for me. I decided to stick with pots and pans and baking sheets that I already own. Wait a minute, what am I saying? I went out and purchased a stand mixer and a stainless steel saucier, along with a flour sifter, a piping bag, and parchment paper. After that, I figured that enough was enough.
I started with the Silky Chocolate Pudding. Confession: I really wanted to make the DIY Banana Pudding, but the recipe called for the amalgamation of three other recipes in the book, and I couldn’t cope with that. I love banana pudding, but…
Then I saw the Silky Chocolate Pudding, which didn’t require venturing off the page. Prior to this experience, the only pudding that I had ever made was Jell-O Instant. Diving into this recipe, I thought that I must be a glutton for punishment. But no! It was easy-breezy to execute and exceptionally good. It was a Mona Lisa compared to paint-by-numbers (Jell-O). I hit neither snags nor hiccups. However, Parks’ assertion that “any percentage [of milk] will do,” eluded me. Really? I used whole milk thinking that this recipe is so rich, why dilute it? In any case, I chilled the pudding for half a day and fully intended to eat one serving a night for four nights. HA! I ate three portions in one sitting, accompanied by a bottle of champagne. I’ll repeat: exceptionally delicious and sublime.
May I also add that a stand mixer is really easy to clean.
Next, I tried my hand at Homemade Fig Newtons. I was hesitant about trying this recipe, because Fig Newtons are my very favorite cookie. And if it’s not broken, why fix it? When I scanned the recipe, the real seduction was the no-cook filling and my belief that it would be fairly easy to execute. It was…and it also wasn’t. My first attempt was a bust; the Mission figs were so sticky that they adhered to the blades of the food processor. Despite my repeated scraping, they just wouldn’t amalgamate with the applesauce (I chose sweetened) and orange juice. I started over with new ingredients, this time adding the figs a few at a time, whirring until they were fully blended before adding more. Success! The dough was no-nonsense. But I didn’t understand the rationale behind taking a 15-inch square of dough and cutting it into four 3 ¼-inch-wide strips. I cut five 3-inch strips, thereby reducing the math challenge and yielding more cookies.
After baking, as throughout, it’s very important to heed Parks’ directions: let the cookies rest for six hours so that the steam can bring moisture back into them and allow them to “mature.” I snuck a taste right after they left the oven, and what I tasted was a dust ball. But, true to Parks’ recipe, after six hours, I had Fig Newton heaven. Divine.
Next, I wanted to diversify my BraveTart experience by making a cake. I jettisoned my first two choices. Effortless Angel’s Food Cake sounded anything but. The tips and troubleshooting scared me away. So, I turned to White Mountain Layer Cake with Marshmallow Buttercream, but after reading Parks’ note about the importance of the ingredients being at a certain temperature, I fled. I decided to attempt something a little less inhibiting.
The Buttermilk Biscuits with Strawberries and Cream caught my eye. This is Parks’ version of strawberry shortcake. It’s a dream to make and even dreamier to eat. However, I took a huge risk: it’s winter and there are no fresh strawberries to be found in New York City. So, I used frozen ones and loved the result (though I don’t have a fresh strawberry version with which to compare it). Parks’ whipped cream was perfectly foolproof, with just the right amount of sweetness.
Regarding the biscuit preparation, I was a bit concerned that I don’t own a cast iron skillet, because Parks recommends one. But she says that a cake pan can be substituted, which is what I did. In troubleshooting, she also writes that these biscuits turn brown quickly and to let them bake longer than you’d expect. She’s right—the tops of my biscuits ended up looking burned. The bottoms, however, looked fine. Accordingly, when I halved the biscuits, I used the tops as the base of the eventual assemblage.
This dessert is the ne plus ultra of comfort food. It’s delicious and the single servings make presentation so easy and impactful. I can’t wait to serve it to guests.
Bangkok and BraveTart are both exquisite books: beautifully designed with gorgeous photographs; comprehensive and captivating narratives; fascinating histories; and easy-to-follow recipes.
From the point of departure of a Thai food novice (me), Bangkok’s recipes were very challenging to execute. I needed to source many ingredients that I don’t usually have on hand and I needed to eliminate recipes with proteins and/or cooking methods that are anathema to me—specifically, fish and frying. But I loved the poached chicken and the cucumber relish so much, along with their relative ease of execution, that I’m going to scour the book for other recipes that call out to me. I’m certain that there are many more. Besides, the book is so stunning and inspiring to peruse.
BraveTart was no walk in the park, either. It was particularly challenging for me because I have never been a baker. And, as I stated earlier, I stayed away from the chapters on candies and ice creams. However, I loved the tastes of the desserts that I made and I’m very eager to try more. Stella Parks has completely converted a heretofore-resolute non-baker. How’s that for an achievement?
The judging process is nothing if not extremely subjective. I know this only too well from my many seasons of disagreements with the judges on Project Runway. (Contrary to scuttlebutt, I have absolutely no voice in the judging. In fact, the few times that I have asserted my opinion into the judges’ circle, I’ve been dismissed by them!)
In this Piglet judgment process, I tried to tame my visceral instincts (which tend toward the familiar—my comfort zone, so to speak) and embrace the aspirational (the less familiar and more sophisticated). BraveTart took me back to my fonder memories of childhood, but Bangkok took me to a place where I’ve long aspired to go. Through both books, I experienced recipes that produced delicious and memorable results. And so I felt very conflicted.
But in the end, I chose BraveTart, because, quite frankly, it speaks to my food-soul in a very special way.