When I cook at home, I cook from memory. When I cook from new cookbooks, though, I like to follow the recipe precisely; the exercise is about replicating the chef’s vision of the dish.
My two books arrived -- Saving the Season and The New Persian Kitchen -- and after reading through both cover to cover, I knew that judging would be challenging. They’re different leagues of cookbooks, for one, but on top of that, many of West’s recipes in Saving the Season involve fresh produce that isn’t readily available during the cold winter months in New York City.
But I kept going: I found a number of dishes from each book to cook myself, and then had a few people taste them with me in my test kitchen at the Piggy.
I chose to start off with Louisa Shafia’s book, which is a total joy to read. I found myself visually drawn to the book, and the Sweet and Smoky Beet Burgers in particular jumped out at me. I love myself a good burger, so that’s what I made first.
The ingredient list was fairly simple to shop for, and Shafia’s directions were clear and easy to follow. Everything came together simply and quickly, though while I was making the burgers, I worried both about the large amount of paprika it called for and the sweetness the raisins might bring to the final dish. But once the burgers were finished -- atop buns with yogurt and dill -- they were delicious! My taste testers and I were pleasantly surprised by how much beet flavor came through amidst the spice, and the sweetness from the raisins dissipated with the yogurt and the tart tomato and cucumber salad she recommends topping them with. I loved, too, that this recipe makes great use of leftovers -- you can make the patties with leftover rice that you probably already have in the fridge. I will definitely be making these on a hot summer day!
I also made the Date Shake, which was, true to its name, very simple once I prepped the ingredients. The recipe was nice; it was simple and well-balanced, and all of the flavors played well together. Next time I make it -- and I will make it again -- I might omit the sesame seeds, but other than that, this received high praise from those I shared it with.
Because of the harsh winter we've experienced in New York, I had a bit of a struggle picking out recipes that were in season from West’s book. I landed on a few I thought I could source: Lime marmalade and Asian Pears in Ginger-Lemongrass Water it would be.
I started with the former, and ran into a bit of trouble finding ingredients: I wasn’t able to get the Bearss limes the recipe called for on such short notice, so I had to use regular limes instead. That aside, this recipe took 3 days, which was a little drawn-out for me, and likely for the home cook. All of the limes needed peeling; step two -- and three -- require time to sit overnight. The recipe began to feel a little like a culinary school textbook: informative and helpful, but a bit tedious.
As I was cooking, though, and as the limes started combining with the sugar, my kitchen began to smell fantastic. And, admittedly, once the marmalade set up it tasted wonderful. The Asian Pears in Ginger-Lemongrass Water were equally good, but I needed a longer cooking time than the recipe specified. After the called-for 5 minutes, my pears still weren’t looking very translucent.
When I’m looking to cook from somewhere other than my own memory, I look for clearly written recipes. I look for easy-to-follow steps. But above all, as a professional chef, I’m drawn to adventurous cookbooks, especially those that are bright and colorful and that draw me in -- and away from what I normally make in the kitchen. Those are the types of books I can sit down with and read in just a day. The New Persian Kitchen is one such book -- and because of that, it takes the win.