First an admission: A chef I am not. Until age 30, I hadn’t assembled a meal that didn’t involve a box of Kraft mac and cheese, or the push of a microwave button. That changed in 1997, when my wife -- the lovely Melissa -- got pregnant for the first time, and began asking the oddest question: “Honey, what’s for dinner?” By her second trimester, there was often a follow-up query: “What’s for second dinner?” I had to learn how to cook on the spot, and this I did through a combination of anxious calls to my mom and feverish cookbook consultations.
17 years later, I make the majority of meals for my wife and two kids, though as a cook I remain more enthusiastic than adroit. I continue to read cookbooks, and Melissa has taught me that rather than mere compendia of potential dishes, the best of them can be read and lingered over like a good novel. Anne Stiles Quatrano’s Summerland and Edward Lee’s Smoke and Pickles are two such works. I thoroughly enjoyed my assignment, cooking dishes from each, poring over the gorgeous images, and getting to know a bit about each author’s Southern journey.
Let’s start with Summerland. Brian Woodcock’s photographs of Anne Quatrano’s food, and the family farm for which the book is named, are sublime. If I were ever to hang a print of a citrus salad with dried olives on my wall, I know where I’d find it. The shots in the book not only made me want to cook this food, they made me want to copy her hippy-chic, quaint-cool aesthetic. This woman has taste.
The book is divided into monthly chapters, emphasizing seasonal ingredients. Quatrano and Lee share a farm-to-table attitude that I appreciate, and though I was a bit too daunted to attempt some of Summerland's more esoteric creations (Stumped by Stump de Noel! Intimidated by Agnolotti!), I enjoyed great success at Thanksgiving with her version of Roast Turkey and Gravy, and her Dry-Fried Green Beans are my new go-to side. The recipes were simple to follow and the results savored by my guests.
I enjoyed reading about life at the farm in Summerland. The tales of farming, polo matches, quail hunts, and “…a glass trifle bowl filled with crushed ice…studded with crisp D’Avignon radishes,” are so removed from this New York Jew’s life that it felt a bit like discovering a new Lord of the Rings book. Kudos to Quatrano (great title for a song) for including lots of instructions for terrific Southern cocktails.
If Summerland offers the rustic-yet-refined side of Southern cooking, Edward Lee’s Smoke and Pickles is the taste of the South by way of New York and Korea. I enjoyed reading Lee’s many essays, which illuminate both the recipes he includes and his own personal story. He has a funny, candid voice that I responded to.
Many of the dishes in Lee’s book were interesting variations of things I’ve made in the past. I’ve prepared a lot of hummus and edamame in my life, but would never have thought to combine the two. Lee’s Edamame Hummus is a quick-to-prepare original that I will make often in the future (minus 1 point for referring to it as a “healthy snack,” rather than a “healthful” one. Tut.). Further kudos are due for the delectable synthesis of Italian and Southern in Lee’s Buttermilk Affogato. After I procured some kosher duck (strangely hard to find in Los Angeles), I was anxious to attempt Lee’s Honey-Glazed Roast Duck. This I did with ease and super-tasty results.
I notched another big win with Lee’s Perfect Rémoulade, and I can finally cross “cook something with an accent aigu” off my bucket list. This and many of the other recipes in Smoke and Pickles work as basic templates. Missing one or two of the ingredients? No sweat. Swap in something else you find in your cupboard. I like that a lot of the dishes here leave a bit of room for the cook to play around.
I cooked fewer dishes from Summerland than I did from Smoke and Pickles, which is somewhat telling: The recipes in the latter were somehow more approachable to me -- simpler, less precious, edgier (ingredients for Lee’s Tobacco Cookies include “1 good cigar”). The same adjectives apply to the book as a whole. While Summerland speaks of tartan blankets, mini cloches, and Villeroy & Boch tableware, Smoke and Pickles digs deeper with anecdotes about Lee’s junior high days as a tagger, his adult work with disadvantaged teens, and many of his adventures in between. I can’t fault Anne Stiles Quatrano for concentrating more on the food and less on her own life, but I definitely dug Lee’s essays and stories -- and at night, his was the cookbook I wanted to read in bed.