When I was first asked to be a participant in the Piglet I was thrilled, as I love to cook and am a sucker for a good cookbook. Let it be known that I love all types of food and am very adventurous when it comes to eating, though I am somewhat limited by an allergy to cow’s milk and must either adapt certain recipes or avoid them altogether.
There is no doubt that because of my Italian upbringing and my mother’s extraordinary prowess in the kitchen, I have a real affinity for Italian food, and this is therefore the mainstay of what I choose to cook and eat. I suppose if I were to list my gastronomic preferences in order I might say Italian, (a generalization I know), then Southern French.
Japanese would be my third choice, and, although I have never tried my hand at it, I am more than happy to eat it as often as possible. Its straightforward freshness, cleanliness, artful display, and the lightness it brings to one’s being are irresistible. I find myself craving it and seeking it out often.
My fourth choice would be British. Yes, British. I recently married a Brit who happens to be an extraordinary cook, and I’ve spent a good portion of the last two years in London. The quality and diversity of restaurants in London -- and the food scene in general -- is thrilling to any greedy gastronome. But the quality and diversity of British chefs and their interpretations of classic British cuisine is of particular interest to me.
Although I was hoping to be presented with either a French or Italian cookbook to test, I was more than happy to be presented with Japanese Farm Food and A Girl and Her Pig. Actually that isn’t completely true. I was happy but daunted by both, particularly Japanese Farm Food, which was the first to arrive.
I perused its pages at arm’s length, cursing the fact that there was very little in my larder that resembled the ingredients necessary for every recipe. I pressed on, interested but wary. The more I read, the more I found myself tearing the book to shreds. Not literally, but literarily and aesthetically.
I became more than angry, for instance, about the pages on rice growing, (as the author and her husband are organic farmers, they grow their own rice), and although I found the subject interesting, I grumbled.
I believe I said something to my wife like, “Look out the window. Do you see a “f…ing rice paddy out there? I mean, yes, we have wetlands but this is hardly the Po valley! How does this information help me as a cook?!” She ignored me as usual. My ire grew.
Further into the book I became practically apoplectic when confronted with photo after precious photo of the family’s home, children, woven baskets and various, personal bric-a-brac. I wanted, I needed, more photos of the prepping and cooking process, and particularly of the finished dishes.
A recipe for Natto Rice shows a picture of people in a rice paddy, (okay, fine), as well as a close up of a green frog, (why?). The Stir Fried Snow Peas with Salt was accompanied by yet another photo of the family dog lying lazily on a doormat. Unless he was to be butchered and this was the “before” picture, I had no need for this image. The same goes for the frog.
After ranting and raving a bit longer, much to my wife’s dismay, I decided to buckle down and get to work testing some recipes. We live in Northern Westchester County where there is no Asian enclave, as there is in Manhattan, so there is a limited amount of Asian foodstuffs. But there was a small grocery run by a Korean family a few miles away that carried a fair amount of what was called for. Having chosen our recipes, my wife and I drove there, and fortunately finding everything we needed, we stocked up.
Upon arriving home I dusted off the old wok and set to work. My first recipe was the Stir Fried Snap Peas With Miso and Red Pepper.
Now, when I cook from a recipe I have a tendency to doubt certain steps or measurements for no other reason than I think I know better or just to suit my particular tastes, saying things like, “That is way too much butter! Disgusting! Whoever wrote this must be dead from a stroke! I’m using half that!” Or, “Oh, I hate f…ing coriander!” There are the rare occasions when my arrogant instincts are spot on, but more often than not, it is evident that for the dish to be successful, my following the recipe would have been wise.
Therefore, I was determined to follow each recipe to a T. And so I did. And I am glad of it. The snap peas were extraordinary. Coated with a smattering of the sake-miso paste and pepped up by the chiles, they positively danced in your mouth. I devoured them while my wife was making the marinades for the Teriyaki Chicken and the Japanese Style Steak.
A while later, after the children had set the table and I was well into my second martini, (with a hint of sake: an attempt at cultural consistency), we started to boil the newly procured sushi rice and cook the chicken and the beef. After the steak was baked and had rested, we seared it in a cast iron pan. Then we cooked the chicken thighs. (The recipe called for “skin on”, but after defrosting what we had, we realized they were skinless, someone’s attempt to “buy healthy.” We marinated them anyway.)
The directions and timings were perfect and both dishes were delicious. We did find that we wanted a little more sauce with the chicken as it had absorbed so much of the marinade, so we added to the leftover marinade, reduced it and poured it over the chicken before we served it.
All in all the meal was a great success and I was embarrassed by my initial reaction to the book. It really is lovely, though I’ll still insist that more photos of the process, as well as of the completed dishes, as points of reference would have been invaluable to the home-cook and, frankly, necessary in making this more than just an interesting, educational cookbook. In short, “Lose the dog.”
I approached April Bloomfield’s book with relish. (I will avoid the cheap culinary joke that sentence begs). To be fair, I have eaten at a couple of Ms. Bloomfield’s restaurants and have enjoyed them immensely, though I will admit to having had a few dishes that left me a bit flat. For both reasons I was very curious to discover why and how she does what she does.
The first recipe I chose was the Goat Cheese Soufflé. As goat and sheep cheese are the only cheeses I can eat, I was very excited to do something new and “fancy” with them. I have never made a soufflé -- mostly because they usually call for so much milk and cheese and they’re intimidating -- but this one seemed very doable. I enlisted my son’s services, (he is also lactose intolerant and I thought he would like this dish), mostly for the grinding, folding and whipping steps. Although he was quickly bored and easily tired by the whipping and folding, everything went swimmingly. I did, however, have to tear the mini food processor out of his hot little hands, as he seemed hell-bent on grinding the almonds into either a thick paste or oblivion, instead of the called-for delicate crumble. (Give a young boy anything with a fast, loud motor and a spinning blade and he’ll be mesmerized for hours).
With all the ingredients assembled and the oven preheated to the right temperature, we slid in our hopeful concoction, set the timer and, like comic villains of old, tiptoed gingerly away. As I began to clean up I realized that I still had the bowl of almond crumble. Like any good cook, I instantly blamed the authors. “They never told me what to do with the almonds. They left out a step!”
My wife, who was working on another recipe from the book, didn’t respond -- so I repeated myself hoping for sympathy. Her response to my second outburst was a dull, “Huh.”
“Yeah!,” said I, outraged as I scanned the recipe furiously, “All of that toasting, and grind-- oh, I was supposed to line the pan with them. I see. I must have…shit. Guess I missed that step.”
I did not turn around to see the rolling of the eyes that I knew was taking place behind my back. Instead, I hoped the recipe would work out anyway. I continued to clean up.
Forty-five minutes later, having chosen to sprinkle some of the almonds on top, I tasted goat cheese in a new, decadently delicious form. It was as light as it was rich. I had baked a soufflé that is a perfect side dish and, if accompanied with a green salad -- maybe with beets for color and texture -- would be the perfect lunch. (For some reason my son didn’t like it. I have ordered a DNA test.)
As a main course that night we cooked Ms. Bloomfield’s Lamb Chops with Chimichurri. Everyone in our family is a lamb chop lover so needless to say, we were salivating at the mere thought of them. It was a simple straightforward dish requiring a minimal amount of preparation and cook time. Ms. Bloomfield’s Chimichurri was bright and lemony and complemented the lamb perfectly. I am salivating again now at the memory.
For me, A Girl and Her Pig is the winner and a winner! Accessible, funny, charming, not at all precious, visually enticing, (my wife and I moaned longingly as we flipped through it), and home-cook friendly. I cannot wait for Ms. Bloomfield to write about a girl and lots of other animals.