Pre-Piglet, I’d never been a person who kept one of those little memento booklets noting the menus and guests at a dinner party. Now, I am. Last night, we hosted a party that warranted the beginnings of such a record, utilizing recipes from both Nigella Lawson’s At My Table: A Celebration of Home Cooking and Alon Shaya’s Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel—both of which shall remain in my kitchen rotation.
I’d already used recipes from Nigella’s book (we’re on a first-name basis, right?) on the nights leading up to the dinner party. They're midweek-cooking friendly, producing the kind of comforting food you can enjoy on the couch, watching Netflix. In the Tomato and Horseradish salad, a bracing horseradish dressing woke up some early spring cherry tomatoes; and sharp blue cheese with farmers’ market radicchio, walnuts (subbed, at Nigella’s suggestion, for chestnuts), and a citrusy dressing, in the Radicchio, Chestnut, and Blue Cheese Salad, showed up the veggie burgers we ate it with.
At My Table is packed with these sorts of memorable combos and tricks, to adopt, adapt, and keep up one’s sleeve. Nigella is practiced at this—her introduction made me feel warm and nostalgic, as I remembered my years as a college student, when I strived to be a Domestic Goddess like her. I'd spend evenings stirring risotto with lemon and Parmesan, sipping a spritzer made with Two-Buck Chuck. Years later, At My Table generously delivers similarly warm, nourishing, and basic (in the best way possible) recipes that never fail to answer the very question: “What are we going to eat?”
My first impression of Shaya was perhaps less affectionate. If At My Table feels like it’s really all about your table, Shaya, by New Orleans chef Alon Shaya, is clearly all about him. It’s a memoir-meets-cookbook, somewhat in the spirit of David Chang and Peter Meehan’s Momofuku. And like Momofuku, the recipes in Shaya require a bit of doing, by way of ingredient sourcing and prep. But the payoff is considerable, with recipes (and ingredients) that might change one’s cooking game forever. If I paged through At My Table, flagging dishes to make that very night, recipes from Shaya were reserved for the weekend. At My Table made me think: Maybe we don’t need takeout tonight. Shaya made me think: We’ll have to have a dinner party on Saturday.
Here was the menu, for eight people on a rainy Saturday in L.A.:
- Nigella’s Spicy Marinated Lamb Chops with Preserved Lemon–Mint Sauce
- Shaya’s Spanakopita with Collards & Jalapeños
- Shaya’s Tzatziki
- Shaya’s Beets with Tahini
- Nigella’s Sticky Toffee Pudding
- Lots of wine, both orange and red (the standout was Ruth Lewandowski’s Boaz Carignan)
- Scotch, to sip with dessert
Some notes on the recipes:
- I’ve used the same tzatziki recipe my whole life, which requires salting and “sweating” cucumber slices. This one calls for dicing the cucumber instead. It’s less fussy, and it’s better!
- Though the introduction says Bulgarian yogurt is thinner and more sour than Greek, it doesn’t provide an idea for a substitute in case people can’t find it. I found it—along with many other ingredients for Shaya’s recipes—at the wonderful Tehran Market on Wilshire. If you live in L.A., this place is a gem. If you don’t, this book may inspire you to find a local Middle-Eastern market.
Lamb Chops (At My Table):
- I didn’t have preserved lemons on hand, and so used Mark Bittman’s recipe for the quick version, which may be why my sauce didn’t look as beautifully emerald as Nigella’s does in her photo. (Side note: Both At My Table and Shaya call for preserved lemons as an ingredient in recipes, but neither includes a recipe for them. Just sayin’!)
- I never would have thought to cook these lamb chops in a cast-iron pan, and holy wow, they were amazing, with a perfect char and pink centers. I might never cook lamb chops on the grill again—or if I do, it’ll be with some cast-iron on top.
- I love that she uses the word “squidge” to describe how to interact with your chops once they’re in the baggie with the marinade—and also that you only need to marinate for 30 to 40 minutes. Squidge!
- I’d never made spanakopita before. It’s a multi-step process and a bit time-consuming, between cooking down the greens and cooling them, then cooking the onions and pine-nuts, then brushing each layer of phyllo with butter while assembling the pie. The instructions were crystal clear, but I would have loved a note estimating how long it would take.
- This recipe calls for 2 full jalapeños—I only used half of one, and was happy. Otherwise, I followed the instructions.
- It also calls for Bulgarian feta, which I found, again, at Tehran Market. The recipe (and book) does not say what distinguishes Bulgarian feta from regular, or what a solid substitute would be.
- Last, it calls for collards, but invites us to “feel free to use any big leafy type of winter greens,” in addition to mustard greens. I used mostly red chard, and some leftover greens from the…
Roasted Beets with Tahini (Shaya):
- I delegated this to my husband, and we’ve since renamed the recipe “Beets by Corey.” He’s a less experienced cook but found the directions easy to follow. The results were delicious, and Corey says he’d make these again for a potluck. Luckily, we have leftover tahini dressing—which has a solid amount of heat, thanks to the Aleppo pepper—in the fridge.
- Speaking of Aleppo pepper, this was another ingredient I found at Tehran Market, but Shaya doesn’t say what distinguishes Aleppo pepper from other chile flakes, and doesn’t provide a substitute if Aleppo pepper is not available.
Sticky Toffee Pudding (At My Table):
- A former Londoner at my table ate this with gusto, and declared it a “proper sticky toffee pudding.”
- This is classic Nigella. It’s totally unfussy to prepare, and such a sensory joy to consume. The warm sauce soaked into the cake (she calls it a “sponge,” but mine wasn’t so fluffy), and this contrasted so well with the dollop of freshly whipped cream that goes on top. After the dishwasher was loaded and most of the guests were gone, I served myself seconds and ate it standing up in the kitchen, which felt like a real “What would Nigella do?” moment.
I loved both of these books, and both keep their promises. At My Table is full of reliable recipes for weeknight dinners or easy entertaining, and Shaya reads like a recipe-packed memoir by a multifaceted chef drawing together a great many influences—cuisines of Bulgaria, Italy, Israel, and New Orleans (where one of his restaurants is located) among them.
Despite my unending love for Nigella, Shaya wins this round. I didn’t necessarily need (or read) all of the autobiographical pages at the beginning of each section of the book, but they didn’t detract from the recipes—none of which failed. Shaya inspired us to go out and get new ingredients to try making things we never have, and it rewarded us for doing so. The page with the spanakopita recipe is already well-loved and oil-spotted, and I doubt it will be the last with that fate.