The Piglet2014 / Semifinal Round, 2014

Roberta's Cookbook vs. Smoke and Pickles

Roberta's Cookbook

Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, Chris Parachini, and Katherine Wheelock

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Smoke and Pickles

Edward Lee

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Judged by: Aran Goyoaga

Aran Goyoaga is a two-time James Beard Award finalist food stylist and photographer based in Seattle and creator of award-winning blog Cannelle Et Vanille.

Aran grew up in the Basque Country in Northern Spain in a family of professional pastry chefs and cooks. Her love of food began in her maternal grandparents’ pastry shop and in the fields of her paternal grandparents’ farm. 

Aran is also the author of Small Plates and Sweet Treats: My Family’s Journey to Gluten-Free Cooking, which was named one of the top 6 cookbooks of 2012 on Good Morning America.

Aran’s work has been featured in the New York TimesGOOP, Bon Appétit, Saveur, Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food, Design*Sponge, Sweet Paul Magazine, and more.

The Judgment

I’ll start by saying I am not a collector of anything. I don’t like holding on to things, but good God do I love cookbooks! It gives me comfort to see them on my shelves, to be able to pick them up at a moment’s notice. Cookbooks, to me, are not merely precision tools -- they’re an immense source of inspiration. Just like music, good cookbooks create an environment I want to submerse myself in. They give me comfort. In terms of content, I want a cookbook with perspective. I do love technique, but I’m inspired more by a cook’s point of view -- a sense of their being and why they do what they do. That, plus ingredients, recipes, and photography create a world I can live in for a while. 

So when I approached Smoke and Pickles and Roberta’s Cookbook, I knew I was going to have the opportunity to dive into two different worlds with two different perspectives.

Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, as its subtitle suggests, takes classic Southern cooking into a new world of Korean sensibility. I began to get to know Lee’s perspective at the Table of Contents: There are a lot of chapters dedicated to animal protein, bourbon, and buttermilk. Not a bad place to start.

In the kitchen, I started with the Red Cabbage-Bacon Kimchi that I let ferment for 5 days. The result? An enormous batch of kimchi that surprisingly felt bland even after a 1/2 cup of Korean chili flakes, just as much fish sauce, and a myriad of aromatics. I followed with the Rice Bowl with Salmon, Endive, Shiitake, and Tasso Rémoulade -- which I made with prosciutto in lieu of tasso -- and the Quick-Sautéed Squid and Bacon Salad with Grated Apple and Ginger. I found both recipes good, but slightly too saucy. I am not one to drown salad in dressing, especially squid -- the abundance of ginger and tahini dressing smothered my Basque palate.

But the Chilled Buttermilk Maple Soup with Bourbon-Soaked Cherries was balanced and refreshing. I do love a dessert eaten entirely with a spoon. 

I have been to Roberta’s in Brooklyn many times, and when I picked up their cookbook, I had a sense for what I was in for -- simplicity, lots of seasonal ingredients, and a little bit of grime. 

If you prefer to stay inside the walls of a supermarket while you source ingredients for recipes, or if you’re not one to hunt down your local farmer or fishmonger, this might not be the book for you. Many of the ingredients are simply too seasonal, or too expensive (bottarga, miner’s lettuce, celtuce, sea urchin). But what is a cookbook if it doesn’t inspire?

They claim that their gingerbread recipe is the best ever, so I did what I needed to do: I started with dessert. And as a gluten-free former pastry chef, I felt ready for the challenge. 

They aren’t joking. I can’t remember last time I grated so much fresh ginger. The gingerbread was moist and full of flavor and surprisingly easy to convert to gluten-free. 

A few days later I cooked for friends: Apple, Burrata, Sorrel and Honey Salad; Salt-Roasted Beet Salad with Crème Frâiche and Dill; and the Black Sea Bass with Parsnip, Celery Root, and Bonito Broth. The salads were simple and balanced, though I’m not sure the salt-roasting added any additional depth to the beets. The celery root, parsnip, and bonito broth that accompanied the fish was light but deep from all the seaweed. The broth alone, which took some time and several straining steps, was so worth it -- it’s definitely a recipe I will be making over and over again in the cold months.

There is something else about Roberta’s Cookbook, other than the inspiring recipes: The book is peppered with stills of life in the restaurant that are subversive, grimy, real. They make me want to invite all my friends over and throw a drunken party with incredible food.

Smoke and Pickles definitely has a point of view, but as I read I wondered if I was the right audience for it. I loved the approachability of the book -- and the fact that a lot of these dishes are perfect for serving at a dinner party or for a crowd -- but did I leave inspired? I needed more surprise.

Roberta’s. No doubt.

And the winner is…

Roberta's Cookbook

Roberta's Cookbook

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Do you Agree?


jeanmarieok March 6, 2014
Boo hoo - I had picked Smoke and Pickles for the win in this bracket. To each, his own. I liked Roberta's, too - but didn't think the recipes had as much heart. Lee's book was just a joy to read, and reread.
LittleFrier March 4, 2014
Smoke and Pickles looks great. Probably my favorite.
tanya March 4, 2014
Yay Roberta's! I know one of the authors :)
Hannah R. March 4, 2014
Exactly what I was hoping to read, well-researched essay with an interest in inspiration!
elite E. March 3, 2014
Definitely Smoke & Pickles. Edward Lee has a unique point of view and brings a modern, multi-ethnic big-city perspective to traditional Southern food and it's interesting how that food translates to recipes for home cooks.
Dr R. March 3, 2014
I'd probably have chosen Smoke and Pickles, but would love to try this one too.
Guideaux March 3, 2014
I have read both and am partial to Smoke and Pickles. I don't agree with all of his recipes but his approach is I unique and amazing. Plus his book is a joy to read. It's full of gut busting life experiences. You will be entranced one minute and laughing the next.
Tamara B. March 3, 2014
On name alone, I'd go with Smoke & Pickles! I'd probably never cook from Roberta's (where I live, the fishmonger is called the grocery store), but I would look cool with it on my shelf.
Debra C. March 3, 2014
I don't know that I'd ever cook from the Roberta's book but I'd really like to have it at home.
CaseyAnne March 3, 2014
I want to add both of these books to my library!
sollared March 3, 2014
I am quite excited about these
Miss H. March 3, 2014
I'm so excited to read Roberta's. Never flew by my radar but love the review. thanks!
jamcook March 3, 2014
Grimy and profane, or pickeled everything? ..this far into the competition? I am rather disappointed . So many of the books that were left behind in previous rounds seemed so much more appealing.
AntoniaJames March 3, 2014
I agree about with your assessment of "grimy and profane." That seems to be a trend these days, one that I find disheartening. I get the impression that somehow it's "edgy," which makes it good. I'm disappointed too that the trend (toward vulgarity, at least) seems to be embraced to some extent on this otherwise rather nice site. ;o)
EmFraiche March 3, 2014
Roberta's sounds like quite the experience! Thanks for the review.
Loretta N. March 3, 2014
I've been intrigued by Roberta's cookbook since I saw it in the "race". Your review of both cookbooks has me feeling that I, too, would prefer Roberta's over Smoke & Pickles. I enjoy hunting down my ingredients - it's a great way to meet the farmers growing your veggies, the fisherman catching your fish, etc. I look forward to adding this one to our cookbook collection soon.
AnneonanAdventure March 3, 2014
My local library does not have a copy of Roberta's, so I have not been able to take a look at it. I hope to get a glance at it when I am bookstore browsing later this week. I am so intrigued by Smoke & Pickles, which I do have out from the library right now. I think it is full of wonderful stories and approachable recipes. As a home cook, I will definitely try out a few from Smoke & Pickles. I had never heard about Lee until this competition, and now I look forward to eating at Lee's restaurant next time I'm in Kentucky. Not sure I will ever make it to Roberta's, but I have to say this review (and the previous ones that favored Roberta's) did intrigue me more than I had expected. (The cover of this cookbook is inscrutable!)
AntoniaJames March 3, 2014
I'm glad this one advanced, but only because I find Katherine Wheelock's writing, e.g., in Food & Wine, uncommonly good (which matters to me, a lot). ;o)
jess M. March 3, 2014
I wasn't expecting Roberta's to go this far, but based on the reviews I'm glad it has, and can't wait to check it out!
Sipa March 3, 2014
Hmm. I borrowed Smoke & Pickles from the library wish they had had Roberta's too.
Alexandra H. March 3, 2014
Great review! Might have to buy Roberta's for the gingerbread recipe alone!