The Piglet2013 / First Round, 2013

Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home

Asian Tofu

Andrea Nguyen

Get the Book

VS
Jerusalem: A Cookbook

Jerusalem

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Get the Book

The Judgment

Faa9a154-6d7b-4323-b367-f31618edb604.marco_canora

By Marco Canora

While it may not be fair or wise to judge books by their covers, those of Asian Tofu and Jerusalem: A Cookbook give some blunt clues about what’s inside. Asian Tofu is a study in subtlety and minimalism — six squares of bean curd, representing a range of neutral tones, are laid out against an austere-looking slab of weathered wood. The title by itself has an academic ring to it and if it weren’t for the gimmicky tagline at the bottom — “Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home” — you might mistake this cookbook for a textbook on the history and cultural significance of the food. Jerusalem, on the other hand, pops with the saffron yellow of egg yolks and the fiery red of cherry tomatoes. The effect is lush. The featured dish, served on a bed of ground lamb, looks homey, framed as it is by a cast-iron skillet. Something you could whip up and serve to a crowd of hungry brunch guests. So you might think that this book is going to encourage a more inspiring, improvisational approach.

But before we get into the merits and shortcomings of each book, one thing they have in common: both require you to seek out and spend a good chunk of change on ingredients that you are unlikely to find at your local market. Dried shrimp (Asian Tofu) and Sumac (Jerusalem) have yet to make it to the aisles of Whole Foods Market and even after visiting some specialty markets in my Manhattan neighborhood, I had to make do without either, which was frustrating, especially since neither author recommends any substitutions or discusses the impact that omitting obscure ingredients might have on the final product. 

Within 24 hours of the books arriving at our home, I found Jerusalem had made its way to my wife’s bedside table. No surprise there. She likes to read cookbooks in bed and quickly cozied up with the sexier of the two. A few days later, we were experimenting with Swiss Chard Fritters, a total crowd pleaser that will no doubt be put into our regular rotation. Then, there was an attempt at Turkey & Zucchini Burgers with Green Onion & Cumin. While my wife pronounced them delicious, I found myself overwhelmed by the heat after one bite and not being a fan of cumin or cayenne pepper, two of the key components, I decided to steer clear.

After these first forays into Jerusalem, we decided to sit down to a proper meal of Roasted Chicken with Jerusalem Artichoke & Lemon, Chermoula Eggplant with Bulgur & Yogurt, and Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za’atar. In making the chermoula, “a powerful (read: crazy spicy) North African paste that is brushed over fish and vegetables,” you are instructed to mix together crushed garlic with several spices, and, get this, “two-thirds of the olive oil.” Normally, this instruction would seem like no big deal, except that the total amount of oil for the entire recipe was 2/3 cup, so now in the midst of measuring out a bunch of spices, I need to do middle school math in my head (“What’s 2/3 x 2/3?”) or eyeball it — both annoying options. 

When it comes time to plate the various components of the dish, the instructions advise to “spoon the bulgur on top (of the eggplant), allowing some to fall from both sides. Spoon over some yogurt, sprinkle with cilantro, and finish with a drizzle of oil.” Confession of a neat freak: the whole messy assemblage left me feeling unsettled. The same could be said for the butternut squash recipe, which involves fewer ingredients but features no mention of what to do with the normally leathery squash skin—peel it off and discard? Scrub it clean and attempt to chew it? Details, details. The final dish was earthy thanks to the za’atar-inflected tahini sauce but otherwise not particularly exciting.

Another issue with Jerusalem is that you really need to read each recipe in its entirety before you begin to get an accurate sense of the time needed to prepare it. In the text for Roasted Chicken with Jerusalem Artichoke & Lemon, you learn in the last sentence of the second paragraph that the dish should be marinated in the fridge overnight. In the same sentence, “at least 2 hours” is deemed acceptable, but in this instance more time contributes more flavor, something that might have been better mentioned in the header. 

Still, when the meal was over we agreed that the chicken and eggplant were winners. So, what Jerusalem’s recipes might lack in precise instructions, they usually make up for in interesting and intense flavors. It’s a fun book to flip through -- the pictures are true food porn and the text doesn’t waste time making its points. It’s the opposite of intimidating, but for cooks who crave more guidance, it may sometimes disappoint.

While the headnotes in Jerusalem tend to be chatty, those in Asian Tofu border on didactic. There is a four-paragraph lead-in to the recipe of Hakka-Style Stuffed Tofu! The recipe itself is laid in 7 steps, each comprised of a couple paragraphs highlighting the exact time, often down to the second, needed to complete certain tasks. While wading through all the text may seem arduous, the author anticipates any question or hesitation the cook might have. And the resulting little pork-filled pockets in savory-sweet broth go fast. My wife and I nailed 3/4 of them before we even sat down to dinner.

Next up was a dish called Simmered Greens with Fried Tofu, a riff on the creamed spinach dish that is a standby on most Indian restaurant menus. While soy might seem like a questionable substitute for fried cheese and the greens mixture does not call for any cream, the dish still ended up having a surprisingly rich consistency and great flavor. And just in case you entertain any doubts about how long to cook the greens, the recipe suggests “5 to 7 minutes, until the greens have wilted and just cooked through.” In need of additional verification? The author notes, “They will turn bright green and collapse to one-fourth to one-third of their original volume.”

If I had more time on my hands, I would have liked to follow the Homemade Tofu Tutorial that the book opens with, but in the end, I gave in to my relentless craving for noodles and made the Pad Thai with store-bought baked, pressed tofu. Making this dish at home is tricky as it requires a stove that produces a lot of heat and mine just isn’t up to the task. The recipe advises divvying up the ingredients into two batches so as not to crowd the pan, which is a smart tip if you are looking to maximize heat. In the end, the dish rivaled some of the best pad thai I’ve eaten in restaurants. The only shortcoming was the final chewy consistency of the noodles, which I soaked as instructed. I would have appreciated a note about how to assess the noodles’ readiness and was a bit surprised that the normally-thorough author gave no indication here.

So, after all this cooking and critiquing, how to pick the winner? My criteria in the end are simple. I’m a stickler for clarity, so whether I’m writing a recipe or attempting to follow one, I expect the communication to be full of specific and relevant details laid out in an easy-to-comprehend manner. It drives me crazy when cookbook writers assume too much. Even though I have more than 25 years of experience working in professional kitchens, I don’t want anyone taking for granted that I know how to execute their recipes from just a list of ingredients and a few general pointers about how to combine them. Jerusalem did just that on a number of occasions while Asian Tofu left no stone unturned when it came to detailing exactly what the home cook should be doing almost every step of the way. 

The truth is I wanted to like Jerusalem more than I did -- its recipes are for the most part healthful and center on vegetables from every season whereas Asian Tofu calls for lots of sugar and salt-laden condiments to liven up its soy-centric dishes. But ultimately, the choice wasn’t that hard. When telling anyone how to make something, clarity and specificity should trump everything else. And so, Asian Tofu, you take home the gold.

And the winner is…

Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home

Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home

Get the Book

Do you Agree? (85 comments)

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar
23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar
23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

over 1 year ago NBG

You'll find dried Sumac powder at Sahadi's in Brooklyn, or at Kalustyans in Manhattan.

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

almost 2 years ago Kylie

Shocked! And doubly shocked because I know the outright winner at this point. I love Yotam Ottolenghi! His Mediterranean TV series in UK was top tele. But hey I like the pig book - brave tour de force.

513d6096-fb21-4f49-a79f-aa949930ba14.staceys_snacks180

over 2 years ago Stacey Snacks

I think that JERUSALEM is the best cookbook of the year.....though I do agree with Marco, Ottolenghi's instructions are never precise and he uses too much saffron or way too much olive oil. You have to be a confident cook and do your own thing, but I realize that is not what a cookbook should be.
I recently had a dinner party and made everything from Jerusalem. This was all new to me (Middle Eastern cooking), and everyone loved EVERYTHING. Everything I've made has come out amazing, however, I did have to do my own tweeks here and there. It's my new favorite cookbook, second to Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Thanks!

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

over 2 years ago CaroleMarie

The Whole Foods in San Francisco has sumac, as well as a lot of other markets. Suzanne Goin uses it in several recipes in Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Now that I've been cooking with it awhile, I wouldn't be without it!

8bbce907-3b5e-4c8c-be5c-c64e6c780d63.birthday_2012

over 2 years ago luvcookbooks

Meg is a trusted home cook.

Luv both authors, own Jerusalem and aim to own the tofu cookbook. Some of the Ottolenghi recipes I have made are so vibrant they light up the entire day and Andrea Nguyen is my favorite guide to Asian cooking. I am not sure what it says about me that I am not testing either cookbook and have three packages of sumac (2 gifts) and a bag of dried shrimp in my pantry, all appearing without seeming effort on my part.

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

over 2 years ago pbf

You live in NYC and can't find sumac? Perhaps not in your corner Korean fruit stand, but I know of several places -- including Kalustyan's. It isn't hard to find in the suburbs either. No excuse not to have it in your kitchen spice cabinet for adding a dash of lemony zest to all sorts of things. So I'm not sure how to judge your judging of these two fabulous cookbooks -- both of which I have and have used most successfully. Since they are so different in what they are trying to do I almost think that trying to "pick a winner" is to miss the point of each cookbook. Andrea's book is trying to teach us about a topic that most Westerner's don't know very much about and so the somewhat scholarly tone and the detailed directions give a sense of accessability to the recipes. Ottolenghi/Tamimi's book is trying to give a sense of the richness of all the different food cultures that mix so successfully in Jerusalem, but which are actually much more familiar to most people and therefore make room for a bit of variation and individuality on the part of the cook. I don't know any two cooks who would make shaksouk (spelling?) the same exact way even though it would be instantly recognizable as the same basic dish. So their recipes give a bit of room for that kind of interpretation.
In any case, both are great cookbooks -- why choose? Get both and cook from them!

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

over 2 years ago nutcakes

"not being a fan of cumin or cayenne pepper" pretty much should disqualify a judge, especially one who decided to try a recipe with those ingredients in it and even mention it to us.

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

over 2 years ago zalmine

I agree!

513d6096-fb21-4f49-a79f-aa949930ba14.staceys_snacks180

over 2 years ago Stacey Snacks

I agree! and you can't find SUMAC? I live in Jersey, and I could find it! ha!

F61b7636-ffce-4056-a3f7-74eaca9f6f96.open-uri.4355

over 2 years ago Dina Moore-Tzouris

Just picked up the sumac at dean and deluca on broadway in soho. They also had za'atar and tons of other middle eastern spices.

681c1299-1e21-41a8-a04e-9f56c5145780.stringio

over 2 years ago Yosefa R. Huber

I'm just surprised you can't get sumac at Whole Foods. I like to pick it fresh and suck the tart purple pollen off the berries. Come to thing of it, I guess I only ever picked it in Jerusalem. You'll have to come visit.

Bceb7892-21ca-4308-9e14-8c1a52b007ac.20150210_140747

over 2 years ago Shalini

Thank you for trying out so many of the recipes in each cookbook, you took your reviewing seriously and did a thorough job! We don't own the Asian Tofu book but have Jerusalem, as well as the other Ottolenghi cookbooks. This one is more complex than Ottolenghi, yet more accessible than Plenty. We've made the turkey and zucchini burgers and everyone loved them, including our little boy. You don't have to put so much chilli in. Looking forward to trying the eggplant with bulgur and roast chicken!

E80460ed-71d7-4372-b155-4cd0371bcde1

over 2 years ago Tippy Canoe

The Asian Tofu book looks terrific, but to have a reviewer with a dislike for cumin and cayenne review a book on Middle Eastern cooking seems unfortunate. I have cooked many dishes out of the Jerusalem cookbook. All have been magnificent. I had expected that this one would go all the way to the last round. It is a fantastic cookbook.

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

over 2 years ago SeeSee

The two cookbooks seem too different to even compare. I LOVE Jerusalem. I haven't cooked from it extensively but I've had no trouble with the recipes I've tried and find them to be complete and thorough. And it is enjoyable just to read.

94ba93be-5cbb-4528-bd9c-9f6c6b21e893

over 2 years ago pcrbarrett

I love Jerusalem - great follow up to Plenty and thin it wins handily!

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

over 2 years ago StevenHB

You're in Manhattan and you can't find dried shrimp in Chinatown? Really?

And there must be more than a couple of spice shops on your island. Sumac was too hard to find?

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

over 2 years ago ninadora

I love the ottlenghi cookbooks but I always have issues with the recipes. I completely agree that there are issues there and I love hot peppers and cumin. I still think the books are worth buying I just wish they were tested more rigorously.

472541ea-fe64-4993-9e87-b4591136d220.zora_margolis

over 2 years ago zindc

Marco Canora, who doesn't like cumin or hot pepper, should have disqualified himself as a judge of anything involving Middle-Eastern cuisine. And I also disagree with those who appreciate his methodology concerning recipe trials. He appears to have put little effort into searching for "obscure" ingredients and so prepares the recipes without them, then prefers the cookbook that is more specific and precise about directions and amounts. How do you ding a recipe for lack of precision when you have not prepared it as written? Lastly, minute precision is a criterion that may be most relevant in a cookbook aimed at novice or beginning cooks, but flavor, complexity, authenticity and creativity matter more to many of us who have been at it for a while.

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

over 2 years ago paseo

I do have to agree with all you say in your comment. I have and really appreciate both of the reviewed books, and really can't quibble with the outcome. It's apersonal opinion, but I don't feel that he worked very hard sourcing ingredients which I can get easily in Camden, Maine for Pete's sake. And for someone who has written a cookbook himself, I was amazed that he hadn't read the entire recipe before starting. In the end it makes me wonder how happy he would be about such a lazy review of "Salt to Taste".

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

over 2 years ago ninadora

yeah, what "gourmet" market in Manhatten doesn't have sumac these days? I live in NYC and sumac is available all over. Agree about the recipe issues though. I always find them under tested and problematic.

E80460ed-71d7-4372-b155-4cd0371bcde1

over 2 years ago Tippy Canoe

I agree. I live in the small city of Bellingham, Washington, and can purchase sumac at more than one local grocery store, including our general food co-op.

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

over 2 years ago ericarw

very well written review! Canora clearly put effort into his judgement, much appreciated.

120fa86a-7a24-4cc0-8ee1-a8d1ab14c725.me_in_munich_with_fish

over 2 years ago petitbleu

I've been wanting to check out Asian Tofu--this is a great excuse! However, I have to say that I LOVE Ottolenghi's cookbooks thus far--both of them have been used extensively in our kitchen. Yes, Yotam calls for some ingredients that are somewhat hard to find, but a quick trip to an ethnic grocer takes care of that.

C1aa93d7-c7a4-4560-aa6d-6dca74cc98ca.smokin_tokyo

over 2 years ago BoulderGalinTokyo

Well thought out review, with great examples of Mr. Canora's trials of the recipes. Really respect his view compared to the previous Piglet challenge's review.

23b88974-7a89-4ef5-a567-d442bb75da04.avatar

over 2 years ago ATG117

Definitely called this one wrong, but really enjoyed the review. I can agree that cookbooks should have specific directions, even if I would prefer to cook from Jerusalem.