The Piglet2011 / Semifinal Round, 2011



Yotam Ottolenghi and Jonathan Lovekin

Get the Book

Around My French Table

Around My French Table

Dorie Greenspan

Get the Book

Judged by: Gabrielle Hamilton

Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef/owner of Prune, which she opened in New York City’s East Village in October 1999. Prune has been recognized in all major press, both nationally and internationally, and is regularly cited in the top 100 lists of all major food magazines. Gabrielle has made numerous television appearances, including segments with Martha Stewart, Mark Bittman, and Mike Colameco. Most notably, she was the victor in her 2008 Iron Chef America battle against Bobby Flay. Gabrielle has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Saveur and Food & Wine and had an 8-week Chef’s Column in the New York Times. Her work has been anthologized in Best Food Writing 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. Her upcoming collection of essays, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, will published by Random House in March, 2011.

The Judgment

I'm not sure if I know as many horse racing phrases as I'll need to carry this metaphor through to the end, but I can at least start by saying "What a race!" I exhausted myself just watching. The one horse, Yotam Ottolenghi's new book called Plenty, is a compendium of his vegetarian recipes from his weekend column in The Guardian, with some added material. Yotam and his partner Sami -- a famously Israeli-Arab partnership expanding exuberantly in London -- have really started to percolate here in the States this past year, and their books were on a lot of people's kitchen counters this summer. The cover of this book, Ottolenghi's solo effort, is white and padded, like the soft books you give a teething baby to chew on while giving him a bath in the kitchen sink.

Also getting saddled in the paddock, Dorie Greenspan's new book, Around My French Table: More than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours, is her tenth in twenty years. Dorrie is considered widely to be the doyenne of baking and all things sweet in New York City, but this book declares new territory and has on its cover a romantically-lit shot of a chicken roasted in a heavy Dutch oven set on a neatly folded kitchen towel on a rustic farmhouse table.

As the two horses make their way to the gate, I wished I hadn't done as much food styling as I had before I opened my restaurant because I believe I detected in that cover shot of the chicken in the pot -- and throughout Dorie's book -- a few too many of the old tricks we used to use to get the chicken to look burnished "just so" and the vegetables and herbs to "glisten" and look cooked, but not "too cooked." In short, some of those tricks involved paintbrushes, q-tips and a few items from the dark brown condiments and cooking sprays aisle of your local supermarket. In any event, the shot is exactly reminiscent of a Gourmet magazine cover circa 1979.

I fixate on the covers and the design of both books -- as well as the food styling and photography throughout -- because it became a significant factor in my initial responses to them.

In Dorie's book, the styling and the photography were a considerable set-back for me. There's a shot of a cracker that's supposed to look like someone's just taken a bite out of it. No one has been near that cracker. In another, there are crumbs carefully arranged to look not carefully arranged. Salad Nicoise ingredients are nestled together hyper self-consciously to appear as if some avid cook was simply collecting her mise en place. Schmears of food on utensils are meant to look as if the shot were taken mid-meal and really, this food and that utensil were nowhere near anyone's actual meal. Check out the traces of cheese-topped onion soup left on the spoon in the shot on page 54. What is it doing there? No one has been eating that soup. Conversely, there's a shot of a piece of beef that's meant to look as if it has just, at that moment, been cut into, but the knife and fork are spotless. I really puzzled over it--it wanted to convey French food with all of its connotations of lusciousness, insouciance, and casual effortless elegance but somehow managed to come across as rigid, antiseptic and unripe. High and tight, I kept chuckling to myself page after page after page, hunting for even one photograph that let the food look real and delicious and appealing.

There is almost no sense in my trying to persuade you to my opinion about the photography and styling. This is distinctly an "a chacque un son gout" story. Dorie LOVES these photos, this styling, this strangely retro era of heavily-propped and aggressively-lit cookbook design. She effuses about it in her acknowledgements and said she burst into tears of joy when she learned she could work with this team on this book. Me, they killed the food. By the time they got it in the right tableau, the right crock, the just-so schmear and crumb and the light meter checked and the silver umbrella tilted another hair to the left, the food had long ago died. I wanted to cook exactly nothing from the book based on the photography.

I did not have this problem with Ottolenghi's book. Once past the odd and counter-indicative cover (you could not be certain that this is a cook book -- it could as easily be an interior designer's fabric sample binder), I reacted aloud -- an involuntary "oh" or "oh man!" or " mmm" and even a "holy shit!" at every single turn of the page. There are some photos of eggs in this book that will stop you in your tracks. Even collapsed roasted eggplants, still on their roasting sheet and just out of the oven, look appealing. The shots are taken of the food in its most alive moment -- the butter is foaming in the cast iron skillet of sweet potato cakes, the ice cubes are glistening in the green gazpacho, the pickled red pepper slivers veritably swim like live brilliant sea creatures in a tidal pool of pink-tinged olive oil. I've seen this in British books before, particularly in the food photography of Jason Lowe and the photographer who shot Nigel Slater's books Tender andKitchen Diaries -- the British really have something great going on there, and as a direct result, I yellow-stickied 22 things I wanted to cook from the book, just by looking at the photographs.

I find reading a cookbook's contents and deciding what to cook very similar to sitting down in a restaurant and deciding what to eat from the menu. I always want there to be a greater number of things I want than I can possibly eat, and I experience some anxiety when not too much sounds good or interesting. I had some of this anxiety with Dorie's book. I did not want to make, for example, her guacamole with tomatoes and bell peppers any more than I would want to make a pissaladiere out of a Rick Bayless cook book. I did not want to make sweet and spicy cocktail nuts, or tzatziki, or gravlax or dieter's tartine or cola-and-jam spareribs or pork roast with mangoes and lychees. I hope it is self-evident why I didn't. I did not want to cook anything with a silly name like Hurry Up and Wait Roast Chicken. And I decided not to cook any recipes that were introduced as someone else's, even though some of them sounded appealing.

Based on the yellow-sticky-memo-pad frenzy I went through with Ottolenghi's book, brought on by the photography of Jonathan Lovekin, it probably comes as no surprise that I penciled through the table of contents the way a handicapper marks up a racing form. I wanted to cook absolutely everything in Plenty. I couldn't wait to try Vine Leaf, Herb, and Yoghurt Pie. And Chard and Saffron Omelettes. And Saffron Tagliatelle with Spiced Butter, and Fried Butterbeans with Feta, Sorrel and Sumac, and Globe Artichokes with Crushed Broad Beans. And Parsnip Dumplings in Broth! Even the damned "Lettuce Salad" I couldn't wait to have at. Charging authoritatively to the front, Ottolenghi was already at the first turn, picking up speed and leaving Greenspan to eat track.

It started to look like a one-horse race.

I brought both books home from my day at the restaurant and set them on the kitchen counter, and went about the nightly grind of getting my boys adequately fed and bathed and into bed, where we all fell asleep during a chapter of Fantastic Mr. Fox. As is customary for me, I woke naturally at around 3 in the morning and got up to do some work during the peaceful, silent hours of the dead of night. But oddly, the boys woke up too, and Marco, the pickiest eater of all children of all time, the kid who makes me feel more inadequate as a chef than any Michelin-star system, said-out of the blue, "Mama, can you make me some of that French appetizer we had once?" I can't possibly explain it, but my kid-at 4 o'clock in the morning was wide awake and asking for gougeres. Which happens to be the first recipe in Dorie's book.

And they were superb.

Her pate a choux uses milk and water and a fifth egg, giving the cheese puffs an ever so slightly custardy moistness where a pate a choux commonly made with only water and 4 eggs can be prone to dryness. The recipe is clear and well-written. The headnote is charming and friendly. The yield is announced at the top of the recipe. There are sidebars with excellent advice about how to store and serve the gougeres and even a lively and lovely short paragraph at the end about the classic drink accompaniment: a kir. In an early-morning instant, Greenspan was gaining fast on the outside!

The following day, I made her Cheez-it-ish Crackers, even though I found the name irksome. These were delicious. The dough is quite short and nicely salty and perfectly cheesy and even though it was ten o'clock in the morning I really wanted the coupe de Champagne she wants you to serve with these little treats. This was another well-written, very clear recipe which even takes the care to remind you to cook your second batch of the crackers on a cool sheetpan, and not on one still-hot from the first batch. A side-note feature she employs throughout the book, called Bonne Idee, here offers you an alternative method for forming the crackers, which I used, with fine results.

I next made her Sardine Rillettes and ended up with a bright, tasty spread for warm toasts that I will happily make again. I liked very much her idea of mincing the shallot and then rinsing it, to soften its inherent raw bite. Greenspan had paced herself a legitimate half-mile and was now launching her bid!

From Plenty, I started with Ottolenghi's Vine Leaf, Herb and Yoghurt Pie. Even though I was eager to get started, I took the time to translate the recipe from grams to ounces, which you will need to do throughout the book, obviously, as it is British. This is an interesting recipe originating from the Turkish part of Cyprus in  which you make a seasoned paste of yogurt, herbs, pine nuts, lemon and sauteed shallots, and then bake it encased in a thin "crust" of grape leaves. I used jarred leaves which come in brine and followed the step of soaking them in boiling water for ten minutes before assembling the pie, but even so, the tartness of the yogurt in tandem with the astringency that the grape leaves impart and the further brightening by the addition of both lemon juice and zest made the experience rather austere. I had done a bit of recipe testing in my cooking career before I opened a restaurant, for both magazines and books, and I was taught to both bring everything I knew about cooking to the project and simultaneously leave everything I knew about cooking at the door. In testing, you want to see what the writer is bringing, not what the tester is bringing. So, I noted his propensity for tartness and acidity and moved on to Chard and Saffron Omelettes.

These are rather thin whole egg omelettes made lively and attractive with a generous amount of chopped fresh herbs stirred into the beaten egg before cooking. The omelettes are then filled with a swiss chard and cooked potato mixture and a dollop of crème fraiche. They are mightily good-looking but lack deep flavor and deep satisfaction. I'm just the tester and not the writer but I will mention to you that there is no butter in the recipe and it really could have used some, both in the cooking of the swiss chard mixture and in the cooking of the omelettes. Without it, the omelettes lacked what I can only describe as savory deliciousness. I remember eating a purely vegetarian diet for the 3 months I once spent in India and I never missed the depth of meat flavor and never felt that particular vegetarian unsatiated hunger phenomenon because Indian cooks use so much ghee and such a satisfying combination of many spices. So far, this was not the case with Ottolenghi's vegetarian recipes. They lacked savory deliciousness. And I'd already put my twenty dollars on him!

In pursuit of that satiated feeling, I next made the Avocado, Quinoa and Broad Bean Salad because I knew the fat from the avocado-in concert with the beans and the grain-would do the trick. And I made the Black Pepper Tofu in search of the deep flavor I was still wanting, after the inadequate spice of the first two dishes. The Avocado Salad was tasty and good-looking but under-dressed and under-seasoned, while the tofu was abundantly spicy and flavorful, with nice crispy chunks of tofu but a marked shortage of sauce. There was not one teaspoon extra to spoon over rice, should I have made some as his head note recommends. Coming into the homestretch, I began to think that Ottolenghi's book was long on style but short on substance. And that Greenspan's was possibly just the opposite, and now emerging in the race as a more significant work, with provably sound and legitimate technique. I'm almost out of horse racing terms, but I think "neck and neck" applies!

At this point, I became a little possessed, like someone in the stands, up on my feet, agitated and yelling at the race. Quickly, I'll just say that I started cooking madly from both books to see if a clear pattern was emerging, and a clear winner. I made Dorie's Beef Daube, and I browned every cube of meat meticulously, without overcrowding, but it turned out grayish and the ratio of carrot to beef was off-kilter and it was only good, not excellent, and I asked myself why I would make this Daube when I could make Julia's or Jacques' or better yet, Madeline Kamman's, whose books I already own. I made her Simplest Breton Fish Soup, and even after I added all the things she recommends in the Bonne Idee sidebar, it still was only good and had a thin, wan character that the vinaigrette and toasts could only do so much to augment. I made Ottolenghi's Parsnip Dumplings in Broth, and while the broth was in fact filled out somewhat by the clever addition of prunes, it was not delicious enough to keep me from considering why I wasn't just cooking from Madhur Jaffrey's or even Deborah Madison's books, which I already own. Ottolenghi doesn't tell you, but this tester will, that waxy parsnips don't always share a cooking time with floury potatoes, so be sure to cut the parsnip in smaller pieces than you cut the potatoes so that they will go through the ricer together. His recipes don't take that kind of care. The Crusted Pumpkin Wedges with Soured Cream I made with these gorgeous, almost red kuri pumpkins we've been getting from our farmer, and while I had now gotten accustomed to Yotam's immoderate use of lemon and lemon zest and all the tangy acidic creams, I still wished there had been some butter in the recipe to bring the whole good idea into balance. I made the Lettuce Salad with the semi-dried tomatoes and liked very much the combination of the elements of the salad-spring onion, radish, red endive and capers -- and the way that the little bit of juice left in the tomatoes became part of the dressing -- but it too had a somewhat stern acidity. I was a cook in a restaurant in Turkey for a period of 11 months when I was in my twenties, and I feel like I have some at least rudimentary comfort with a flavor profile that often draws on lemon and sumac and yogurt and Persian dried limes -- it's not that Ottolenghi's austere and over-bright palate is foreign to me; it's just that his recipes are not quite careful and not quite balanced.

I made Dorie's Salted Butter Break-Ups, which were a tasty and solid little pick-me-up when you slump in the afternoon. Her crème brulee was perfection: a tender custard with a spare spoonful of bitter orange marmalade spread in the bottom of the ramekin that I will make again. I made her tasty and light cauliflower-bacon gratin. And even though I'd decided against cooking her friends' recipes, the spirit and intention of the book kind of beg you to because she wants to show you how she's eating in melting-pot France these days, at her own home and at the homes of her friends as well. And frankly, I had pretty much exhausted the very short list of things I was interested in cooking from the savory sections of the book. I could not bring myself to try anything served in a brandy snifter or a martini glass or with the words Vanilla Vegetable Salad in the title. But Marie-Helene's Apple Cake turns out to be so very very good, and I am glad I made it.

Ironically, a few sentences from Dorie's introduction to her own book started to guide me in cooking from Yotam's, and -- despite my fears that he was all early speed and no finish -- pushed Plenty past the wire by a nose and into the winner's circle. "Just about every time you cook or bake," she writes, "You've got to make a judgment call -- it's the nature of the craft ... I trust your judgment, and you should too." Which is what I will do from now on with every one of the more than 100 interesting recipes in Ottolenghi's book. I will use my judgment and bring everything I know about cooking to the project to coax the deeper flavor, the greater savory deliciousness out of his fantastic ideas, and at the end of the day, I will have a book on my shelf from which I will really want to cook, instead of a book that contains over 300 recipes of which barely a dozen will inspire. Plenty's ideas and my judgment became the right match; all this horse needs is a jockey.

And the winner is…



Get the Book

Do you Agree?


petalpusher March 10, 2017
I didn't know the Piglet existed in 2011. Or this website. I own both and cook from both and love these books. The judge is so jaded from her own great experience, she comes off sounding petty. I wonder if she's more magnanimous these days. I hope so.
Lynne F. December 1, 2010
I actually agree so much about the photography in AMFT, it was too conventional and contrived, a letdown for me which I even talked about when I reviewed the book on my blog. That said, I have been cooking from Dorie's book and everything turned out so nice. While I don't own Julia's cookbooks (okay, don't shoot me here people, I'm Québécoise and French cooking is second nature here, you don't NEED Julia), I enjoyed having a book full of classics if only for reference, plus some new ideas. It's comfortable, reassuring and that in turn leads you to want to try the recipes. As for Plenty, it was on my to-buy list and this review pretty much scared me out of it. I am not a chef, just a good cook, and having to figure out "oh, a bit of ras-el-hanout here would be nice", well that's fine once in a while but not everytime you try a new recipe. Food for thought, as the cliché goes.
gluttonforlife November 29, 2010
Gabrielle Hamilton writes like she cooks: with originality, brilliance and total command! Once you get over thinking that cookbooks are to be followed to the letter, it makes perfect sense why Plenty appeals to an adventurous, ambitious cook. I can't wait to get my vegetable-loving hands on it!
thirschfeld November 29, 2010
While I am positive Plenty will have a spot on my cookbook shelf I still have to ask what is The Piglet judging? Is it the cooking abilities one brings to a book or the book in and of itself? Is it how inspiring a book can be or is it that the book itself has recipes that work? Inspiration is such a personal thing that is really intangible to others outside of the self. I am just not sure that is good criteria.
beejay45 March 1, 2016
"Gabrielle Hamilton writes...with originality, brilliance and total command!"
Eh, not so much.
"a chacque un son gout" should be "chacun à son goût"
counter-indicative should be counterintuitive
Brilliance? Total command? But certainly with verve and panache.

I've never owned one of Ottolenghi's books, but I've followed many of his recipes online. His skills seem, to me, like the Emperor's new clothes. He slaps any old name on something, whether it fits or not. His ingredients are not always as well thought out a they could be, and his recipes aren't all that. Perhaps when he's doing the cooking, as in his own businesses, all the magic comes together, but he doesn't seem to be a friend to the home cook.
Queen O. November 28, 2010
I am not a previous fan of either author, or the reviewer, so this reaction is based solely on this article.

Frankly, I found it hard to wade through what seem more like a rant about the photography, food styling & premise of Ms. Greenspan's book to get to the substance of the content of each.

I am a good, but not professionally trained cook and I certainly do not have a year's experience in a similarly themed food culture. So in no way, could I recommend Plenty based on this review. As for 'Around My French Table' though, in spite of the reviewers dislike of the book in general, it is atleast a 'perhaps yes'.

So I have to disagree with the outcome.
ErinH November 28, 2010
Gabrielle Hamilton, you are fierce (I mean it in a good way). I don't agree with everything you said, but man, do I love to read your writing. Rock ON.
thirschfeld November 28, 2010
I, too, like inspiration. I often thumb through lots of cookbooks only to be uninspired. Having said that inspiration doesn't come from ingredients and photographs alone. While a recipe may be inspirational on paper if the recipes aren't at their full potential than the recipes themselves are incomplete. In the end the taste of a complete recipe is what is inspiring and to go through the process of making a recipe only to be let down in the end isn't very gratifying. No I have spent time writing recipes and I also know how hard it can be and that is why seasoned veterans like Greenspan, Wells, Wolfert etc etc are so good. They have honed their craft by years of experience. Now what is inspiring to one may not be inspiring to another but I don't think that makes one cookbook lesser than another.
rlanford November 28, 2010
I agree totally with the reviewer. If you own a well stocked library of French and classic cookbooks -- I do -- Dorie's book is not inspirational. This is a sentiment I have seen echoed in other reviews. Plenty, on the other hand, pushes the boundaries; what a creative cook. Amanda Hesser's new book provides in one volume a collection of recipies -- classics for good reason -- that I will squeeze into an already crowded bookcase.
alaparc November 28, 2010
The premise of this food site is sharing, inspiration and teaching for home cooks - right? While I found the review a great read, it seems that Dorie's book wins on the premise. I have to agree with Bevi and thirschfeld - I will pass on this book as I don't have the time and experience to apply a chef's sensibilities to improve a recipe.
Bevi November 28, 2010
I love Plenty, but am disappointed that Dorie did not win this round. The issue of ingredient conversions and general user friendliness should be considered more carefully. I like a book that is not overwhelming to people who enjoy spending some time in the kitchen but may not, as Tom says, apply a chef's sensibilities.
Mmmolly November 28, 2010
This is well-written and provides enough detail that I can make an informed decision, so it is not entirely bad. But I pity any cookbook buyer who might buy Plenty over French Table based on seeing the result: I'd think most cooks would prefer the book with recipes that work. I don't object to her downgrading it for its food photography and cutesy recipe titles, but how can she declare the other a successful cookbook on the grounds that with her cooking expertise she can change the recipes so they're good?
Rivka November 28, 2010
I think this raises the question of why we buy cookbooks. I appreciate a cookbook whose author has put the recipes through the requisite testing to make sure they're perfect, but I *look* for cookbooks that seem inspirational, offer new ideas, and push the envelope of their cuisine. I, like GH, flipped through Dorie's new book and didn't feel compelled to make nearly any of the recipes. By contrast, Plenty has interesting ideas and flavor combinations that have never occurred to me. When push comes to shove, I'd rather a cookbook of imperfect but interesting recipes than perfect but boring recipes.
gluttonforlife November 29, 2010
What Rivka says makes perfect sense to me!
Heena November 27, 2010
I must begin by saying that I don't own Ottolenghi's book, have not cooked from it and don't personally know whether it's better than Dorie's book. However, to me this review seemed as if the author had formed an opinion from the get-go and then arranged the arguments to support that opinion. I have only an amateur's experience in food styling and photography, so I will not comment on that part of the review. However, in my humble opinion, I do know how to cook. And if a review suggests that almost all the recipes from one book are expertly written and turn out brilliantly while from the other produce results that look great but fail to satisfy without augmentation, then I know which one I'm going to buy. And if in testing, you want to see what the writer is bringing, then doesn't skipping a recipe based solely on its name or presentation defeat the very purpose?
On a more personal front, I have cooked recipes from Ottolenghi's previous book and they are inspiring, I also own Dorie's Around My French Table, have cooked a lot from it and I haven't been let down by a single recipe yet. I love her warmth and passion for cooking and sharing that shines throughout the book, the meticulously written recipes and the stories that surround each.
To conclude, while I cannot comment on whether Ottolenghi's book is indeed superior, I wish the tone of this review was different, While recognizing that no review can be completely unbiased and that one's personal preferences always influence the decision, "yelling at a race" to urge your horse to win, would not convince me of the same.
Heather |. March 13, 2017
coming back to this review after Dorie's Cookies got called out for its photography/design. anyways, agree with what you're saying; how did the book with meh recipes come out on top of one with (mostly) solid recipes? not sure how that worked.
Midge November 27, 2010
This is why I love the piglet! Really looking forward to Hamilton's book.
Hilarybee November 27, 2010
I own both books. I appreciate Gabrielle Hamilton's perspective, but I do not love Plenty. I don't even like it a little. I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, and thought Plenty would be ideal. I find you really have to play with the recipes- adapting, adding here and there. I am not a chef, and perhaps the instructions and ingredients in Plenty are out of my league. In the end, I turn to Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian when I'm in a tight spot. Dorie's book, on the other hand, is wonderful. I love the tone of her writing, her clear instructions. Her book is accessible, and I appreciate that about the book. She uses a combination of ingredients I would describe as fancy, and ingredients that are easily sourced and inexpensive. When I cook meat, I want to use a tried and true recipe. I usually turn to either Dorie's book or The Art of French Cooking. Dorie introduces short cuts that I would never think of myself. I recently made Dorie's Beef Daube for my whole family. It did not turn out gray at all, and it received rave reviews from my relatives.
luvcookbooks November 27, 2010
my, what an interesting review and once again, i want to buy both cookbooks even though i own all the other cookbooks Ms. Hamilton mentioned as alternative sources in the review. maybe i do need therapy.
mcs3000 November 26, 2010
It's always a treat to read (or eat @ Prune) anything by Gabrielle Hamilton. Thank you! btw: really enjoy "from the booth" included with each review.
mcs3000 November 28, 2010
Like DH's review so much I read it again. I should also say: Dorie remains one of my all-time favorite cookbook authors.
Very interesting and well-conceived article but I am left wondering if my judgment/experience as (simply) a home cook is up to the task of guiding successful results from the recipes in this book.
thirschfeld November 26, 2010
I have had such high hope for Plenty. I made the eggplant with buttermilk dressing and it was so beautiful on the plate with the austere white dressing and the beautiful pomegranate seeds sprinkled across the top. The first bite fell flat. I went back, added more
salt, za' atar and things got better. I guess what I am getting at is unless you apply a chefs sensibilities to the recipes they may not be as satisfying as they could be. Where it seems like Dorie's experience shines through in her recipe writing.
Rivka November 26, 2010
Gabrielle Hamilton, I love you. You epitomize my feelings about Dorie's book. Well said! Also, I would like to marry Prune. Kthanksbye.