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The Piglet2014 / Quarterfinal Round, 2014

Saving the Season vs. Notes from the Larder

Saving the Season

Kevin West

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Notes from the Larder

Nigel Slater

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Judged by: Amanda Cohen

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Amanda Cohen is the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, her award-winning vegetable restaurant in New York City’s East Village. The first vegetarian restaurant in seventeen years to receive two stars from the New York Times, it has been recognized by the Michelin Guide three years in a row, and won awards from Gourmet Magazine, the Village Voice, and many others. She was the first vegetarian chef to compete on Iron Chef America and her comic book cookbook Dirt Candy: A Cookbook is the first graphic novel cookbook to be published in North America.

The Judgment

These days, if I need a quick hot sauce recipe, I’m not diving through my cookbooks; I’m googling “hot sauce recipe.” But there are still two things they can do that the internet can’t.

First, there’s the aspirational cookbook. Martha Stewart, Simon Hopkinson, and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall all write cookbooks that make me want to have their lives. I want that kind of perfection, that farmhouse, that kitchen garden, those perfectly retro prawn cocktails. It’s hard to get that kind of deep envy immersion when you’ve got pop-up ads flashing at you. 

Nigel Slater specializes in this kind of thing. From his memoir, Toast, to Eating for England, and his vegetable pornucopia, Tender, he’s the kind of guy who sounds like he lives in a remote 400-year-old cottage in the middle of the countryside and is constantly making massive meals in cast iron cookware over the fire for his closest friends who sit around his rough-hewn table for hours, drinking wine, eating his simple and delicious food, and making witty comments. 

Notes from the Larder purports to be a book version of the kitchen diaries that Slater has kept for years, jotting down recipes, recipe amendments, inspirations, and thoughts on food as he cooks for himself throughout the year. So February 4 is an essay about the preparation of marmalade, followed by a recipe for Seville Orange Marmalade, then a drool-worthy photo of a smudged and smeared jar of said marmalade; February 7 has thoughts on fish, a recipe for smoked cod and spinach risotto; February 9 is about brown stew and his growing appreciation for pearled spelt. This can either be rapturously seductive, or suffocatingly twee.

This book is not as artless as it appears. This isn’t just his diary reproduced for a few friends, as it claims, but an expensively made, extensively edited, carefully arranged luxury cookbook full of gorgeous photos art directed so delicately that they hardly look art directed at all. This sounds critical, but I fall into the former category (rapturously seduced) rather than the latter (suffocated by twee). This is the kind of book I could take on vacation and read like a novel.

Then I tried some of his recipes. It was hard to resist my natural tendency to tweak a recipe and adjust it to my own style, but I was determined to make a Nigel Slater recipe, not a Dirt Candy dish. I tried his baked pumpkin with fish sauce, his hotpot of eggplant and beans, and a parsley risotto. Every single one of them worked, and they were all solid. The parsley risotto came, like many of his recipes, with a lot of extra frills at the end (Parmesan crisps) that didn’t really add much to the dish, but I’ve been accused of the same thing, so I’m sympathetic. 

The risotto and hotpot were straightforward, easy dinners, but the pumpkin was terrific. Universally, across the board, everyone in my kitchen loved it, and the combination of fish sauce and pumpkin were really unique. So out of three recipes, two were fine and one was a stand-out, which is a good ratio. My only criticism is that some of his recipes are measured and detailed, while others are of the “throw-in-a-bunch” variety, and I wish he’d stuck with one or the other to keep it consistent. Also, true to the British stereotype, each of the three recipes I made, including the pumpkin, were overcooked. They were all still good, but Slater seems to like his vegetables towards the “mushy” end of the spectrum.

The second thing that cookbooks have to offer is in-depth information. Plenty of people blog about pickles, or Thai food, or ramen, but finding a structured, deep, technical exploration of a single food is still hard to find online. I’ve made lots of pickles from online recipes, and have occasionally looked up bits and pieces of technical information, but I’ve never had the subject so thoroughly explored as in Kevin West’s Saving the Season, his deep dive into the world of pickling, preserving, and home canning. 

West’s book looks far more like a traditional cookbook than Slater’s. Spring starts with a section on jam, followed by four strawberry jam recipes -- each one with a header and a recipe that follows the traditional format -- then a recipe for strawberry preserves, a recipe for rhubarb jam, and a recipe that combines the two into a strawberry-rhubarb jam. Each technique is extensively explained with drawings and photos and there’s a one-page interlude to discuss painter Adriaen Coorte and his painting of “Wild Strawberries in a Wan Li Bowl” from 1704; even so, this looks way more like a cookbook than an immersion in the writer’s life and musings.

Unfortunately, more than Slater, West has an annoying tendency to drop the names of friends and to relate small, pointless anecdotes. Discussing Sunshine Pickles, we get a long paragraph on his friend Frank, a retired GI who lives in Paris. Want an Apricot Cocktail? You’ll also get a story about his friend Stephen who took him to a cocktail bar in Los Angeles where he met Alex. To get to Plum Sauce you have to wade through a description of his mother dating a former classmate named Don. It feels a bit like being at a cocktail party where you keep getting introduced to one uninteresting person after another. 

To my surprise, however, I found myself spending more and more time with West’s book. Cutesy stories aside, the breadth and depth of his knowledge about preserving is impressive, and I began to feel like I was understanding some concepts for the first time. The difference between high-acid and low-acid foods, the way he goes into every permutation of tomato as a condiment (sauce, jam, paste, broth, ketchup, barbecue sauce, confit), and his long discourse on forgotten “antique” fruits that taste best in fall (damsons, medlar, pyracantha, and beach plums) was all information presented to me in a handier, more straight-forward way than I’d had before. None of it was brand new, but it was all so simple because it was structured by someone who had a grasp on it. Both authors organize their books by season, but whereas it feels like a whim in Slater’s book, in West’s book it makes total sense. Of course you want to know what vegetables to pickle when.  

Slater’s book was a slice of lifestyle that I would love to have, but I’ll never use it again. West’s appendixes on pH balances in foods and peak seasons by region are things I’ll probably refer to in the future. Flip through Slater’s book and there’s a dizzying variety: essays on knives followed by a recipe for rabbit, a piece on whisks, a reflection on his wok, and a recipe for raspberry sugar. Flip through West’s book and there’s a chapter on jams, then jellies, then relishes, then pressure canning, each of them illustrated and explained step by step and with plenty of recipes. 

I’m a professional chef, so ultimately I can’t embrace a luxurious cookbook over a useful cookbook. I’ll come back to the useful one sometime this month or next; I’ll immerse myself in the luxurious lifestyle cookbook when I’m retired. Both cookbooks are excellent arguments that there are still some things books do better than the internet, but I’m giving the win to Kevin West’s Saving the Season.

And the winner is…

Saving the Season

Saving the Season

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Do you Agree? (52 comments)

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over 2 years ago beejay45

Very good review, probably the best for this year's Piglet. I feel like I know what to expect from both books. Nigel Slater's book sounds a lot like Elizabeth David's chattier books, and I love her and treasure her books. But I think I'll have to hold that book in my hand and check it out before I go for it. Ditto Saving the Season, since I have quite a few references on this subject. But Amanda gave me enough insight into each of them to make them both more attractive to me. ;)

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over 2 years ago Naomi Manygoats

Excellent review! I will check out both of these books! Many thanks!

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over 2 years ago Heather

Awwww, was rooting for Nigel :)

But excellent review - I liked knowing up front the direction the reviewer was coming from

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over 2 years ago cucina di mammina

I love Saving The Season based on seasonal foods and recipes using these foods. His style and ingredient choices work best for me and my cucina :)

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over 2 years ago rosalind5

I like this review - and could not agree more the pointlessness of personal anecdotes, blog comments or other extraneous information cookbooks; I really do buy them for the recipes. Speaking for which, it would have nice to know what recipes Ms. Cohen tried in "Saving the Season". Clearly it contains a wealth of great information, but do the recipes work?

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over 2 years ago rosalind5

I have to add, now that I have "Saving the Season", that I am really enjoying the anecdotes and essays that either preface the recipes, or are interspersed in the text. They are both interesting and informative! I loved the historical digression on life before sugar was affordable, say. Definitely the best cocktail party I've been to.

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over 2 years ago erinsk

I've been reading Slater's 'Notes' recently and been enjoying it a lot. I think I would make use of it on a regular basis for dinner inspiration – we really enjoyed his faro and mushroom dish in January. But as a amateur canner with a handful of good preserving books already (and experience with many more – including West's – from the library), I would absolutely pick up Saving the Seasons if I ever found it on sale. Or I'd gratefully accept it as a gift!

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over 2 years ago marcandanna

Great review Amanda!

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over 2 years ago Joan Osborne

Both these books sound interesting and useful and I thouroughly enjoyed this review.

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over 2 years ago sexyLAMBCHOPx

sexyLAMBCHOPx is a trusted home cook.

Agreed that the review provided informative, comprehensive insight into each book. To that end, I agree because, personally, it would be a great introduction and resource covering culinary areas I'm not too familiar, except for quick pickling. Thank you for a great review.

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over 2 years ago Gristle & Bone

I appreciate comparative reviews where the reviewer reveals his/her biases, so good work there- that said, I do not agree that the Slater book is a once-read, although I do agree that Saving the Season will probably be reached for more regularly, but then that's the difference between a how-to manual and a treatise on why we cook-what brings us to the kitchen & what we do once we're there. Me, I will use both again & again; good writing on being in the kitchen is as useful to me as a well-researched & exacting technique compendium.

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over 2 years ago Sipa

Agree or disagree both cookbooks sound worth checking out.

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over 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Incidentally, West's Golden Beets with Ginger (page 143), which I made with white wine vinegar, were one of the best pickles I made last year. (I made about a dozen different small batch recipes.) Actually, I'd have the say they're among my top all-time favorites, and I've been making pickles, lots of them, using excellent recipes from a number of sources, for decades. ;o)

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over 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Nicely done. I'd have found this one particularly difficult. I also found annoying the utterly pointless personal anecdotes in "Saving the Season," but the history and other background information, combined with quite a few excellent recipes and a lot great tips, make West's a notable addition to an increasingly crowded field. He won me over, completely, with his simple statement, in the ingredients section on page 38, that distilled white vinegar -- often called for in pickling recipes, including several "top" recipes here -- "should be considered a cleaning product." ;o)

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over 2 years ago PieceOfLayerCake

PieceofLayerCake is a trusted source on baking.

Being completely unfamiliar with either cookbook, what I DO agree with is Amanda's assertion about cookbooks vs. Internet recipes. I cringe when people have absolutely no instinct to search out a great recipe vs. a passible one. Out of the millions of recipes online, how many actually work? Probably not a good majority. I am tireless in my pursuit of top tier recipes from reputable sources and I'm glad we have someone championing that effort.

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over 2 years ago aargersi

Abbie is a trusted source on General Cooking.

Vegetable pornucopia. Heh. I am so using that.

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over 2 years ago sollared

Want.

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over 2 years ago flourpower

I'd love to see both books - one to indulge in the romance and read like a novel, and the other to use as an inspiring manual for making jams.

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over 2 years ago CaseyAnne

I always look forward to a new book about preservation, I look forward to using West's this summer.

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over 2 years ago jenna_lee

Yay to another great, thoughtful review! I can see the appeal of both types of cookbooks. These days, I seem to have a bit too many that are of the love story variety, and as I have never canned a thing, I think Saving the Season would be a fantastic to my cookcook collection.

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over 2 years ago ChefCitron

Great review! I own both books, and agree that West's book is more a manual whereas Slater's is more of a love story. They are both wonderful! For as scattered as Slater's book may be, there is something about that format that, for me, makes each recipe stand out and shine on its own. I find myself remembering and craving recipes for little prune puddings, or a dark and sticky fruit chutney... I can't help but think that had these recipes been buried in a dessert chapter or part of a more complex dish, I most likely woudl have paid them little attention.