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The Piglet2014 / First Round, 2014

Vegetable Literacy vs. Saving the Season

Vegetable Literacy

Deborah Madison

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Saving the Season

Kevin West

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Judged by: Kat Kinsman

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Kat Kinsman is the managing editor of CNN.com’s EPPY Award-winning food blog Eatocracy. She oversees CNN’s Matrimony beat and writes for CNN Living on numerous topics, especially mental health and being a ladyperson.

Before joining CNN in 2010, Kinsman served as the senior editor for AOL Food and Slashfood, worked as a copywriter at Tribal DDB, and spent 10 years as an art director and designer at publications such as Maxim, FHM, CitySearch, and others. She is a Kansas City Barbeque Society-certified BBQ judge, vice chair of the James Beard Journalism Committee and an avid member of the Southern Foodways Alliance. In 2013, she was nominated for a James Beard Broadcast Award, spoke at a wide variety of conferences, and joined the New York Times’ Kim Severson onstage at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in a heated debate over Pie vs. Cake. (They tied.)

The Judgment

Calloo callay! Oh frabjous day! Somehow I managed to score two books that are both highly useful and relevant, and I might have to resort to the medium of interpretive dance to fully explain how rare that is.

Like many food editors, I live at the base of Cookbook Mountain -- a teetering pile of nearly every title that's published every season. While a certain -- unfortunately smallish -- percentage of them are interesting, the intersection of those and ones I'm actually likely to 1) take home and 2) sully in my kitchen is practically microscopic.

I collect cheffity-chef "this is my vision" manifestoes like they're going out of style (though they show no sign of it), but mainly for inspiration. I'm a dedicated home cook, to be sure, but it's not like I have room in my fridge for a hotel pan full of gellan gum and a gallon of duck web stock I was supposed to have made two weeks before. I -- and pretty much any other civilian cook I know -- ain't got time, let alone room, for that, unless it's for a big, special blowout feast.

Here's where Saving the Season and Vegetable Literacy swoop in to save the day. Vegetables and fruit happen. They occur in your home if you are trying to do that whole "not perishing of scurvy" thing, and you might as well have some fun with them. If you're anything like me (and Baal help you if you are), you grew up with an invariable rotation of frozen, canned, or occasionally fresh broccoli, carrots, green beans, corn, tomatoes, and the dreaded leaf spinach just kind of cut up and made hot, possibly tarted up with a pat of butter. Fruit was peeled and cut, or simply chomped, unless its destiny was as the filling of a baked good. Seasonality? BWAHAHAHA!

I made it to adulthood scurvy-free, but ignorant of the possibilities inherent in nature's bounty. In the last 10 years I've probably overcompensated for the lack by becoming one of those pedantic food freaks who grows her own heirloom salsify and epazote and put a provision for weird jarred experiments in her marriage vows (not actually kidding here), but who among us couldn't use a bit more know-how in the vegetable department?

Deborah Madison did a public service by writing Vegetable Literacy. It is, as the title implies, a primer for the crucial business of introducing fresh plant life into your body, and it does so in an incredibly practical, if fittingly academic way. Got a vegetable? Madison has an easy-to-execute method for dispatching it with minimal waste and agita. Every last one of the recipes I tried just worked. The Sautéed Rainbow Chard with the Stems worked. The Tuscan Kale with Anchovy-Garlic Dressing worked, too. 

That's not to say they were without fuss and flair -- slicing a pound of Brussels sprouts can prove either meditative or monotonous depending on the kind of day you're having -- but the outcome, especially in Slivered Brussels Sprouts Roasted with Shallots, is inevitably in the bag, and appetizing to boot. Techniques, such as broccoli stem dicing and chard leaf freezing are so simple and obvious as to instantly become canon, and may leave you fretting about all the potentially edible produce you've been tossing out all these years. (Sorry, nature.)

The recipes are divided into family groupings that may seem a bit oblique to begin with, but eventually make sense: carrot, mint, sunflower, knotweed, cabbage, nightshade. Goosefoot and amaranth, (former) lily, cucurbit, grass, legume, and morning glory. Yes, yes, kale gets its due, as does quinoa, sorrel, and all the other fashionable vegetables of our time as well as the greatest hits, but there's also a heavy emphasis on the outliers, like burdock, scorzonera, mandrake, einkorn, and a whole witches' brew of roots and herbs. If it's not in this book, it's not worth eating.

Vegetable Literacy is encyclopedic in its scope -- and sometimes in its tone. Where it's earned its MS in Vegetableology, Saving the Season opted for an MFA in Preservationism.

I didn't grow up with any expectation of pretty prose with my recipes, but I've come to thoroughly appreciate it. It's been a curious and often welcome development over the last while -- cookbooks that function as much as literature as they do instructive texts. It's the utility inverse of all those memoirs with a recipe often awkwardly gummed to the end of each chapter. Kevin West possesses a poet's mastery of language, and uses it to create vignettes that capture the essence of a fruit or vegetable's brief peak season as effectively as his recipes do.

And as with Madison's, the methods -- in this case for pickles, jams, condiments, and other season-prolonging staples -- work. They just do, time and time again, with little hoopla and ideal economy. A simple tip in a grenadine recipe kept my skin and walls un-stained, and while the output was an excellent standalone product (suitable for gift-giving, even), the portion that didn't fit neatly into a pint jar was easily slotted into the onion confiture recipe several pages forward.

But here's the neat trick: said confiture wasn't dependent upon the grenadine component (interdependency is a thing that drives me nuts about so many chef "vision" cookbooks), but rather offered it as an upgrade from a perfectly suitable Cassis. A plum liqueur makes use of apricot kernels left over from, jam, jelly, shrub, and cocktail making.

Those little harmonies loft this book from eccentric to essential, and from my kitchen to my nightstand.

In a different season, the wind may have blown in another direction, but right now, Saving the Season preserves my favor.

And the winner is…

Saving the Season

Saving the Season

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Do you Agree? (80 comments)

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over 2 years ago Eliz.

As only one of many who praised this review but would have selected VEGETABLE LITERACY for the Piglet, I would like to alert Food52 readers to an ekphrastic, lengthy and contextualizing review by Jane Kramer in this week's edition of THE NEW YORKER (04/14/14). While my love of eggplant knows few bounds (what a strange phrase, that), eggy eggplant dishes please me not, so I am hyper alert to the fact that the author tends to publish versions of the same eggplant custard dish in a succession of books. There's a little disconnect between exquisite photographs and recipes (e.g., a fennel dish with a bit of tomato paste looks so amazingly tomatoey, it made sense to add lots of slow-roasted tomatoes, instead, to duplicate photographer's vision). These are only quibbles. The book results from so, so much work, expertise and creativity that it is a real joy. Recipe for Steve Sardo's Rio Zape beans is simple and extraordinarily flavorful--truly one of the best things to do with dried legumes. The book is for someone who admires research, treasures reference books and is a produce geek.

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over 2 years ago Bevi

I own both books, and wish they had not met head to head. Saving the Season is a wonderful book for the avid canner who appreciates variance and also a bed stand read. Vegetable Literacy is a classic in its own right; but an unfortunate aspect of Piglet surfaces in pairing disparate viewpoints on disparate topics.

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over 2 years ago TryItSheSaid

Thoroughly entertaining, but I knew where she was going because of the "canning vows." I chose Madison. But every cook chooses according to where they are.

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almost 3 years ago babyfork

I own Saving the Season and have read it cover-to-cover which I don't do with all of my cookbooks. It's one of those cookbooks (like Smoke & Pickles) that is a joy to read as well as cook from. I am an avid canner and Saving the Season is one of my favorites out of my collection of preserving books. I'm cooking from it right now in fact...getting ready for our Marin County Fair in July! Currently working on West's curried cauliflower pickle and agrodolce onions. If you are into canning I wholeheartedly recommend his book.

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almost 3 years ago Naomi Manygoats

I enjoyed reading the review, although I disagreed with the decision. Probably because I have been a huge fan of Madison's cooking and cookbooks for a couple of decades. Her book is amazing in every way, but it is pretty daunting to be sure! I simply cannot wait to have her newest revision of The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which should be out soon. Her recipes are almost always perfect and totally amazing in flavor.

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almost 3 years ago erinsk

Having picked up both of these from the library in the last few months, I think Kinsman is spot on. Both look lovely, interesting, and useful. Both are on my list of "someday" cookbooks for sure.

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almost 3 years ago The Fiery Epicurean

I disagree but enjoyed reading Kinsman comments.

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almost 3 years ago Marian Bull

I want this judgment to win the Piglet.

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almost 3 years ago Megan

I do agree! Looks like a great book

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almost 3 years ago holly

Saving the Season sounds like a staple for having fresh, organic produce available year-round, which means blueberry pie in Fall and apple hand pies in Summer! Great elaboration, much enjoyed :)

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almost 3 years ago Gristle & Bone

I tend to add slowly to my cookbook collection, so it's a rare occurrence that I would have any of the "currently trending" Piglet candidates, but this time I already have both of these and can't imagine picking one over the other, they're both so so good and useful.

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almost 3 years ago Ashley

Enjoyed reading this review, both sound interesting.

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almost 3 years ago sandriavdh

Very interesting review. I am tempted to add both books to my collection. I need some inspiration to add more veggies to my life. Thanks for a great review.

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almost 3 years ago cookinginvictoria

This review was an absolute pleasure to read. It is one of my favorite Piglet reviews this year -- well written, articulate, and entertaining to boot. And I have to say that I was persuaded even though I am a HUGE Deborah Madison fan. Vegetable Literacy was already on my wish list of cookbooks to own. But as a cook who has only recently embraced canning, preserving and pickling, Saving the Season sounds like a fabulous, must have book too. (I really appreciate reading the thoughtful comments below of those Food52ers who have cooked from Saving the Season.) I may have to add both books to my own full to overflowing "Cookbook Mountain." :)

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almost 3 years ago creamtea

Lisanne is a trusted home cook.

Great review, so well written!

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almost 3 years ago Lauren's Plate

When it comes to eating your vegetables, all are winners. Great review, and will add both to my library.

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almost 3 years ago biomouse

:)

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almost 3 years ago Rita Dichtel

What an entertaining, fun review . . . even the reference to Baal was great since I am singing Mendolssohn's great opera Elijah . . . "hear our cry O Baal" this summer with my chorus. And I did grow up " with an invariable rotation of frozen, canned, or occasionally fresh broccoli, carrots, green (and wax) beans, corn, tomatoes. I have never owned just a vegetable cookbook and am curious to find some intriguing recipes so I might vote for Vegetable Literacy. But Kevin West's writing sounds interesting too so I might want both books.

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almost 3 years ago MyLime

Color me surprised! But now I know to check out Saving the Season!

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almost 3 years ago Dr ROK

I lean more towards Vegetable Literacy.