In one sense, it really wasn't fair -- right?
My task was to pit Giulia Melucci, the author of I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, whose recipes reflect a thoughtful if not overly-ambitious home cook, against David Lebovitz, author of The Sweet Life and a well-known pastry chef whose dessert recipes are much exalted throughout the universe, or at least the universe made up of food blogs concerned with all matters of frosting.
Both books are in the popular – though increasingly maligned – food memoir category, and each details recipes specific to their particular tales, though Melucci’s perhaps more religiously so. (I think we can ascertain without the benefit of an exhaustive Google search that hers is the only American cookbook with a recipe entitled “Fuck You Cakes.”)
Both are love stories of an ambivalent variety: Lebovitz with Paris, where he thrives on hot chocolate and fine produce but struggles to make peace with the Parisian proclivity for pushing in line, and Melucci with a series of cranks, whom she tries (unsuccessfully for the most part) to make love her for her rather than for her endless boxes of De Cecco.
In terms of the narratives, it’s about whose company you long for. There is Melucci, whose stories of lost love over pasta and fish are both funny and frustrating; I longed to jump through the pages and pop her on the head with a silicone spatula and scream, “HE’S A LOSER! LET IT GO!” Lebovitz has a charming take on French life, and is the sort of person who lusts after young fishmongers and feels great disappointment over the lack of chamomile in his local tea store. Who would you rather have a meal with? (I’d take them both – Melucci after work, with a cocktail, and Lebovitz on Sunday, after I’ve canceled on mother.)
So let’s get to the recipes. What do home cooks want from a cookbook anyway? Some crave lovely photography (neither of these books is particularly exciting on the aesthetic front) and most of us want directions we can understand. Some people like learning new techniques, and others want tomes that will push them out of their culinary comfort zone.
I want all that, but most of all, I long for some books that fit my lifestyle and my kitchen. That means for 85 percent of the recipes, I have 60 percent of the ingredients already in my larder, and I’ll not be forced on a death march across Los Angeles in search of juniper berries. I also want to be able to use what is more or less readily available to me, which admittedly in Southern California is a lot of stuff, a lot of the time. (Are you turning the color of yes-we-have-asparagus-in-February thinking of all the produce that I can get my paws on 12 months out of the year? I don’t blame you. But I also live in a place where soccer season lasts through January and drivers believe it is a failing of moral courage to use a turn signal. Life is about trade offs.)
I anticipated finding Lebovitz a more sophisticated and exciting purveyor of my nightly meal, given his professional history and the fact that he was, after all, drawing in part from his experience living in one of the world’s greatest food cities.
Lebovitz’s chicken tagine with apricots and almonds was simple and inviting, and tasted even better two days later. I made his tomato and sour sourdough bread salad and chocolate yogurt snack cakes for a picnic (lifestyle! lifestyle!) and both were divine, though I suppose Los Angeles's garden climate gets credit again for the former. I occasionally like a cake that calls for vegetable oil and his chocolate yogurt snack cakes are among the best I have tried. The book has a small assortment of savory dishes, but dessert is the thing here. I like the list of resources in the back – nice touch.
Melucci’s recipes range from practically back-of-the-pasta-bag (see angel hair pasta with asparagus) to weirdly great, like her unforgettable halibut, which is now going into regular weeknight rotation. It is wonderful to consider a fish (although I often use John Dory for this because the fish dude doesn’t always have halibut) that we use often, and to be reminded how things you have around (pine nuts) and things you forget about (fresh mint) can so highly elevate a dish. Caveat: her desserts are just horrible and cannot in any way stand up to those of Lebovitz.
When I am hungry, and it is 6:00, and someone needs help with their homework, I turn to Melucci. I don't like the name healthy penne, but I like the idea that a little digging through my shelves will produce the walnuts and raisins and fresh parmigiano cheese needed to put together something lovely and slightly unexpected, fast. Forgot to make holiday dinner? Melucci is there for you with a perfectly lovely sweet and sour brisket. I hate Lachlan, the jerk, but I confess to being addicted to his rigatoni with eggplant.
So here’s the thing: I love the idea of Lebovitz, but it is Melucci’s spiced roast beef that is cooking in my oven right this second. It’s a close call, but a gal like me – mom, full-time job -- wants it easy, seasonal, quick and delicious, and Melucci fits my needs. Purists might puke. Bakers would certainly not agree. I am happy to have these books on my shelf, but Melucci is going to spend more time on my butcher block, covered in olive oil and black pepper, and so my nod must go to her.