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.