The Piglet2013 / Quarterfinal Round, 2013

Roots: The Definitive Compendium with More Than 225 Recipes


Diane Morgan

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The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Deb Perelman

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Judged by: Bryant Gumbel

Bryant Gumbel is well-known for hosting the 22-time emmy-award-winning show "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel," HBO Sports' monthly magazine-style program that explores the issues, controversies and personalities that are prevalent in the world of sports. His work there ranged from a report on the troubles in horse-racing’s Jockeys Guild, which earned him an award for “Outstanding Edited Sports Series/Anthologies,” to compelling interviews with NFL star Plaxico Burress and pro-golfer Phil Mickelson. In addition, Bryant has reported on underground topics such as the largely unknown world of women’s bodybuilding and excessive drinking at NFL games.

Gumbel hosted "NBC TODAY" for 15 years, longer than anyone in the show's history; he also hosted NBC's "Public Eye" and "The Early Show." Honored countless times for outstanding reportage and promoting diversity in the entertainment industry, Gumbel is one of television's most accomplished broadcasters.

The Judgment

"Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door."

Incorrectly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, this well-known mousetrap quote has come to stand for innovation and creativity -- an homage, if you will, to the idea that he who does something best will ultimately win. To which I say: hogwash!

In the worlds of sports and television (the only two fields to which I can lay claim), being the best at something rarely correlates to winning. If it did, Dan Marino, not Joe Montana, would have won multiple Super Bowls instead of none, and Masterpiece Theatre would consistently draw more viewers than Honey Boo Boo, Snooki, or any of those other inane reality characters who've unfortunately wormed their way into mainstream popular culture. Popular culture -- now there’s an oxymoron. But I digress.

Subtitled The Definitive Compendium, Roots is a thorough and complete volume, detailing anything and everything one could possibly ever want to know about root vegetables. The 225 recipes within its pages stamp Roots as an encyclopedia for those who want one dedicated to such a specific subject, but also for home cooks; some of the recipes I cooked were simple and accessible.

The Butter Mashed Yukon Gold Potatoes with Parmesan were both easy and quick, and most importantly, delicious. The Horseradish Sour Cream Dip was a good alternative to your run-of-the-mill dips, the fresh horseradish introducing a different, subtle flavor to the whole dish. Spicy Thai Pickled Carrots, again: quite good, and a great payoff for such simple steps.

However, the majority of the recipes in Roots do require a degree of expertise and experience that will, I believe, challenge all but the most ardent of amateur cooks.

Morgan's recipe for Chioggia Beet Carpaccio for example, produces a dish that while very good and attractive, asks the reader to fry cheese -- a challenge for even accomplished home cooks. Further, it asks for beets sliced to a thinness matching the depth of Ann Coulter's intellect, a task I found near impossible.

Perhaps most importantly, Roots asks a lot of readers when it comes to sourcing ingredients. Unless your local market routinely stocks vegetables like crosne, malanga, galangal, scorzonera, or burdock root, Morgan's book is probably not the book for you.

By contrast, Deb Perelman's The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook reads like it's being told by a close friend. As she herself notes, Perelman is not a restaurant owner, or a chef -- hell, she never even waitressed. She is instead, what many people (myself included) quietly profess to be: a curious person who likes to cook. And she enjoys the whole process while coping with a lack of professional education or environment.

Perelman's own kitchen is quite small, a stark opposite of her imagination and her enthusiasm. Though it is precisely the latter that at times leads her to overreach. Her recipe for Tiny but Intense Chocolate Cake, for example, produced a cake that was neither tiny nor intense. And her Roasted Tomatoes and Cipollini Onions with White Beans made for a beautiful photograph in her book, but all efforts to match it proved futile. Her recipe, for me at least, produced instead either nicely browned onions with tomatoes that had turned to mush, or nice tomatoes paired with onions that appeared to have never seen the inside of an oven.

Such missteps are, however, quite rare. In the main, Perelman's offerings produced some dishes that were at once incredibly simple and unpretentiously luscious.

Mustard Milanese with an Arugula Fennel Salad was a hit as the main course for a small dinner party. Her Tarragon Oven Fries were so simple and basic that even a guy like Lance Armstrong wouldn't feel cheated. And the Harvest Roast Chicken with Grapes, Olives and Rosemary made me feel like I'd produced something extraordinary, when in fact I'd merely followed a few steps that are exceptional only in their simplicity.

Whether you're a cooking beginner, a kitchen hopeful, a food enthusiast, or even a chef, her book won’t disappoint. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook seems well-suited to rewarding a variety of readers with commensurate levels of enthusiasm and/or expertise. In the end, Deb Perelman hasn't necessarily written a better cookbook than Roots, but in writing one that's more readable, user-friendly, and ultimately, more enjoyable, her cookbook is the clear-cut winner. To hell with better mousetraps!

And the winner is…

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

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Do you Agree?


BoulderGalinTokyo February 26, 2013
Funny, funny, review. Since any cookbook I buy are bought sight unseen from Amazon, I'm liking the piglet more and more.
Naomi M. February 26, 2013
I buy about half from Amazon, half from Barnes and Noble. They cost a lot more at B&N, but I treasure being able to have a huge selection of books to look at and decide, and they won't be able to offer that if we don't support them too. But if you don't have access to a bookstore amazon does a great job with their looks inside books and customer reviews.
WME February 24, 2013
I don't know which I enjoyed more; the recommended cookbook, or the hilariously poignant review Mr. Gumbel put forth. A must add for any of us home foodies, and when is the next Gumbel review released? Bravo!
luvcookbooks February 24, 2013
Worth reading for the Anne Coulter comment alone. More fascinated with Roots, although I followed the argument in the review. Interestingly, can find almost all the vegetables mentioned in the review at Whole Foods.
The F. February 20, 2013
Excellent review! I'm liking Round Two judges more than the previous round. I have been a huge follower of SK for several years and have made several recipes from her new book. I'd agree with Gumbel's comment..."She is instead, what many people (myself included) quietly profess to be: a curious person who likes to cook. And she enjoys the whole process while coping with a lack of professional education or environment." That said, it's difficult for me to choose between these two books as I believe they are focused on two different audiences. I just recently picked up Roots after discussing it with James Beard recognized Chef Antonio Campolio. So although I love the SK cookbook, I love Roots too for different reasons and can't wait to plant some root vegetables this year in my garden!
Diane M. February 20, 2013
In response to The Fiery Epicurean, I completely concur. I wrote Roots as both a reference book and cookbook, wanting a reference book on roots for professionals and desperately wanting home cooks to learn more about roots. I love Smitten Kitchen, Deb is great, and she really delivers to her audience. I did feel like a bad match up to me because the audiences are indeed different. All is fair and fascinating in this tournament! Thank you for your kind words.
Inko February 26, 2013
I just ordered a copy of Roots. I had not heard of it before the Piglet. Even though it lost the round it won my interest and I can't wait to cook from it. Another factor in my wanting to buy it was your grace in this competition. Thanks for both.
sel E. February 20, 2013
A very thorough and fair review to both cookbooks. Love it.
Julie N. February 20, 2013
Great review!!! Well written, fair, and gives real insight into the experience with both cookbooks.
mcs3000 February 19, 2013
Home run review. The only thing that would have made it better is if Bryant Gumbel read it. He has the best voice in broadcasting. Love, love Real Sports.
mainecook61 February 19, 2013
This review is fair to both books. It's also sensible and manages to avoid the culinary name-dropping (meatballs in the Dolomites, see Round 1), food magazine prose, and preening self-regard (see the Smitten Kitchen review in Round 1) of some of the earlier reviews.
Sauertea February 19, 2013
Well as a fan of Real Sports and the Smitten Kitchen, I was anxious to see how this would turnout. I really enjoyed the review. I have tried the leak fritters from the Smitten Kitchen and they were very good. I am anxious to try more.
Naomi M. February 19, 2013
Well, I thought the point of roots was to get people to try odd root vegetables they might not have heard of before to have greater diversity in their diet. Burdock root is delicious! Sounds like a lot of the Smitten recipes did not work to me. But I enjoyed your review and your efforts!
peach49 February 19, 2013
I agree with dymnyno, esp about the humor
jwlucas February 19, 2013
I find it unfair to criticize a "compendium" for being more complete than what your local growers grow. Still, while I believe Roots is a terrific book - and my husband was thrilled to receive is as a holiday gift - I feel sure I will use Smitten Kitchen more often.
Avalon F. February 19, 2013
That Bryant Gumbel is a pretty proficient writer! I already love the "Smitten Kitchen Cookbook", so it would have been hard to convince me that "Roots" was the winning book anyway. However, now I'm curious about all those underground vegetables, and I need to try frying cheese. Thanks Bryant, for a nice, concise review.
Michael M. February 19, 2013
Books are written with different target markets in mind. Not sure I understand the need to downplay one over the other when they are obviously directed at different people. Pretty sure the way we ended up with Honey Boo Boo is that the media feels the need to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. Mr. Gumbel is no exception.
fiveandspice February 19, 2013
Books are indeed written with different target markets in mind, and of course you can't really compare apples with oranges, but Mr. Gumbel is simply doing what the organizers of the Piglet asked him to do, which is find some way of choosing. The Piglet, by its very nature of pitting wildly different cookbooks that are all remarkable specimens against each other, sets up an impossible task for all of the judges in all of the rounds. But, don't forget that it's just for fun. And, all of the judges so far, and certainly Mr. Gumbel, have done a remarkable job of describing the things they loved and the things that didn't work for them in each book, and laying out which criteria they themselves wound up using to pick in the end. That's not reducing something to its lowest common denominator, and they aren't saying anyone has to agree with their criteria either, just that that's what they used. I think we need to enjoy the whole Piglet competition for what it is, all great friendly good fun.
Kenzi W. February 19, 2013
I couldn't have said it better myself.
paseo February 19, 2013
Bravo, fiveandspice. I liked Mr. Gumbel's review very much and thought your comment was right on the money.
DCgal February 19, 2013
I thought Mr. Gumbels' review was thoughtful and witty. And in the end quite fair. By the nature of a review it comes down to personal preference.
garlic&lemon February 19, 2013
Bravo fiveandspice! I wondered what type of reviewer Mr. Gumbel was going to be (I was a bit afraid, to be truthful)but he acquitted himself quite well. Enjoyable and fair review!
Julie N. February 20, 2013
Yup. Agree with fiveandspice. We need to understand Piglet for what it is.
dymnyno February 19, 2013
The Smitten cookbook is perfect for Mr Gumbel. I occasionally read SK blog and enjoy that her recipes while not inventive are a creative expression of old favorites that we may have forgotten about. She makes us feel if she can do it, anyone can! Gumbel sounds glib but I find his humor sophomoric.
Sasha (. February 19, 2013
Great review! Made me hungry for the Harvest Roast Chicken. I love a recipe that is "simply" delicious.
Coni P. February 19, 2013
Smitten Kitchen is one of my a favorite food blogs! Easy to read and understand - every recipe I've tried was delicious!
Hilarybee February 19, 2013
Wonderfully written! Bravo. SmittenKitchen cookbooks is one of my favorites this year. I agree with LaCeleste- Bryant should buy a mandolin. A cheap and useful kitchen tool.
ChefJune February 19, 2013
I've loved Bryant Gumbel ever since his aunt lived down the hall from my sister. This piece certainly intensified that. Who knew he could cook?
This was a funny, charming review, even though he didn't pick my friend Diane Morgan's book. How thoroughly enjoyable!
Chelseyei February 19, 2013
This is the definitely the best written review. I enjoyed reading the whole thing and did not roll my eyes once!