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

Get the Book

Do you Agree?

52 Comments

anna O. March 15, 2018
I am going back and reading all the Piglet's that I missed so am coming late to the commenting game. Amanda's description of Nigel Slater's book just made me want to read it so much more than its competitor. I love the seeming randomness of it and Slater's voice is one in a million. I still read Toast once every few years.
 
beejay45 March 13, 2014
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. ;)
 
Naomi M. February 28, 2014
Excellent review! I will check out both of these books! Many thanks!
 
Heather February 28, 2014
Awwww, was rooting for Nigel :)<br /><br />But excellent review - I liked knowing up front the direction the reviewer was coming from
 
cucina D. February 28, 2014
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 :)
 
rosalind5 February 27, 2014
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?
 
rosalind5 March 13, 2014
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.
 
erinsk February 27, 2014
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!
 
marcandanna February 27, 2014
Great review Amanda!
 
Joan O. February 27, 2014
Both these books sound interesting and useful and I thouroughly enjoyed this review.
 
sexyLAMBCHOPx February 27, 2014
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.
 
Gristle &. February 27, 2014
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.
 
Sipa February 27, 2014
Agree or disagree both cookbooks sound worth checking out.
 
AntoniaJames February 27, 2014
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)
 
AntoniaJames February 27, 2014
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)
 
PieceOfLayerCake February 27, 2014
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.
 
aargersi February 27, 2014
Vegetable pornucopia. Heh. I am so using that.
 
sollared February 27, 2014
Want.
 
flourpower February 27, 2014
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.
 
CaseyAnne February 27, 2014
I always look forward to a new book about preservation, I look forward to using West's this summer.
 
jenna_lee February 27, 2014
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.
 
Alexandra H. February 27, 2014
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.
 
Jennparma February 27, 2014
Are we all really pickling? Not that pickling and preserving aren't lovely things to do but I'm a bit weary of people talking about cooking techniques/ingredients the same way fashionista's talk about this year's "it" bag. I think when all these people are done with canning/micro-brewing beer/butchering their own pigs, they will discover what a joy it is to have any one of Nigel Slater's excellent cookbooks on their shelf.<br />Twee, indeed.
 
LittleFrier February 27, 2014
Very thorough review. I appreciate the time spent with each book and thought behind the final decision.
 
Jenali February 27, 2014
Both books seem like they deserve a place in my kitchen. The reviewer did an excellent job of convincing me to thumb through both books.
 
EmFraiche February 27, 2014
I enjoy the reasoning behind this decision. Sounds like Slater's book would be a good one to check out from the library (I've got a copy on hold) to read once, whereas West's book would be worth buying if you wanted to learn to pickle/can.
 
gingerroot February 27, 2014
Oh Piglet! I love reading about these books through the lens of all the different reviewers. It is almost just as fascinating to read why someone does not like a book regardless of the recipes. I will definitely take a closer look at both of these the next time I'm browsing for new material.
 
SoupAddict February 27, 2014
Another great review. So happy to see that most Piglet judges took their charges seriously and have provided defensible choices along with their thoughtful reviews.
 
Mary L. February 27, 2014
I've seen the Slater cookbook, but not the other. I'll have to take a look at it.<br />
 
becky February 27, 2014
Good review. Tough to choose between two very different styles of book. I'd like to have both!
 
Maria M. February 27, 2014
Hmmm I think I would enjoy Notes from The Larder more. I am not pickler, canner, but I like stories and thinking about simple dinners with friends. Slater's book seems to do that.
 
ATG117 February 27, 2014
I guess it comes down to whether you're looking for inspiration or a guide to technique. I'm not a pickler, but I still thought the review was reasoned and really great.
 
lazychef February 27, 2014
Yes! I so want Saving the Season. Review was spot on.
 
Blair February 27, 2014
Great review - will have to pick this one up!
 
CamillaMMann February 27, 2014
That would have been my pick, too. Now you've sealed the deal. I want that cookbook!
 
Greenstuff February 27, 2014
Good review. It convinced me to take a look at Saving the Season.
 
colin February 27, 2014
i loved saving the season and used it quite often in the fall. our house was in the midst of a project a week from the book for awhile. it's straightforward, instructional, simple, and tells great stories just like a cookbook should.
 
KarenL February 27, 2014
excellent review. makes me want to have them both. <br />
 
jamcook February 27, 2014
For those new to the genre, there are LOTS of great books on Jams and preserves out there, and they all have very specific directions..(they have to.. you can't wing the preserving. the temperatures, the times). There are, however few cookbook authors who write as well as Nigel Slater...and if something doesn't sound appealing, you don't want to make it. It is a night table book as well as a kitchen book, so I am sorry to see it fall out of the competition.
 
NellieMc February 27, 2014
Really persuasive and well thought out - kudos!
 
healthierkitchen February 27, 2014
What a great review! Loved reading it.
 
susan G. February 27, 2014
The 'twee' observation says it for me. So much twee around! Yes, Saving the Season sounds like just the book to get me obsessed with preserving again.
 
mcs3000 February 27, 2014
Amanda Cohen is a badass. Stellar review.
 
Jennparma February 27, 2014
Really? I definitely wouldn't expect someone who uses "badass" as a compliment to appreciate Nigel Slater. It must be hard for msc3000 to decide whether to pickle something or visit the tatoo parlor again.
 
arielleclementine February 27, 2014
Go home, Jennparma, you're drunk.
 
Hannah R. February 27, 2014
A very well developed essay in favor of Saving the Season. A Slater fan like myself might be tempted to turn away in a huff at Notes from the Larder's loss, but in fact I feel more intrigued than before by the winner!
 
nancy O. February 27, 2014
Amen.
 
Anna B. February 27, 2014
Usefulness wins. I love Nigel Slater's writing and have a few of his books but rarely use them. Kevin West's book sounds like a keeper.
 
Eliz. February 27, 2014
Utterly persuasive and very, very smart. I love the two categories of cookbooks Amanda Cohen establishes and the way they inform both the analysis and the conclusion.
 
Elliott P. February 27, 2014
Nice review. I completely agree about the stories vs. reference aspect of books. There is a place for both, but sometimes you just need a textbook style tome to find what you need. Also: Check out this video chat about the winning book: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/21/dining/recipe-lab-video-chat-on-canning-blueberry-jam.html
 
ChefJune February 27, 2014
A very well considered review, I thought. I'm just getting to home preserving (strange as that may seem), so sounds like West's book is one I really would get a lot of mileage from. Off to the bookstore!
 
JadeTree February 27, 2014
I'm a Nigel Slater fan, but this review convinced me with her detailed explanation of the *usefulness* of West's book and her desire to return to it. A good reference cookbook may seem less "luxurious" but when your hand always pulls it down when you go you the shelf for help, it's worth it. Sorry to see Slater go, but I see her rationale clearly!