The Piglet2015 / First Round, 2015

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Smashing Plates vs. A Change of Appetite

Smashing Plates

Maria Elia

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A Change of Appetite

Diana Henry

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Judged by: Alexandra Guarnaschelli

Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network chef, and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter. She is also a television personality on the Food Network shows Chopped and America’s Best Cook. In 2012, she was crowned America's Next Iron Chef on Iron Chef America, currently the only woman with that distinction and only the second female ever to obtain that honor. In 2013, Guarnaschelli's first cookbook was published, Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook.

The Judgment

“None of the recipes are cranky or punishing,” claims food writer and blogger Diana Henry in her new book A Change of Appetite. I like the title. And I like that idea: healthful cooking that doesn’t make me feel deprived and like pressing my face, tears streaming, against the glass window of my local bakery.  

We don’t discuss how personal tastes change and evolve over the course of a lifetime enough -- and that’s what Diana Henry’s recipes aim to address. Henry makes not only a compelling case for wholesome eating, but records a personal revolution: a movement toward eating -- and cooking with -- more vegetables and more grains. In that sense, the book is like a beautifully curated art exhibit.   

In paging through A Change of Appetite, I’m reminded of how my own tastes have changed during my childhood with avid gourmet parents and my 20 years of restaurant cooking. I loved digging into bowls of steamed mussels as a kid. Now, having cooked enough mollusks to pave a shell driveway from New York City to Beijing, I can’t look at them. I never tasted an avocado growing up (my father disliked them), but fell hopelessly in love with my first bite at the age of 16. How we come to love particular ingredients is often grounded in taste memory. 

How we decide to construct our diet and cooking, though, can be more of a conscious choice. Henry tackles this with grace: As she touches on the good properties of broth and the great debate about carbohydrates, she uses her recipes to substantiate her point of view. And she does it without preaching. Instead, she allows for the beauty and good flavor of her food do the talking. There's a universal appeal to a lot of Henry's recipes and, like Deborah Madison’s vegetarian cookbooks, it makes me want to jump on her bandwagon. Something as simple as explaining how herbs adorn salads in the Middle East and add vitamins, beauty, and flavor all at the same time is what I want from a cookbook. It’s a visually stunning and appetizing way to educate the reader. 

It’s in reading her recipes -- and searching for where to start -- that Henry lost me a bit. I love the book as a whole and as a point of view, but I use many cookbooks as inspiration to head directly into the kitchen and get cooking. Did I want to cook from this one?  

I found the radical cultural shift from dish to dish disruptive. I perused a Peruvian chicken soup recipe, imagining that first bite of gently simmered chicken spiked with bits of chiles, scallions, and fresh lime juice. Not 10 pages later, I’m making rice paper rolls with nuoc cham in my mind; 15 pages after that, I’m whipping up teriyaki salmon with pickled vegetables. Beautiful? Yes. Confusing? Yes. I feel almost forced to forget the previous recipe as I turn the pages. I understand how a world tour of recipes helps Henry make multiple points about how to eat well and feel good, but I’m not sure what I would look to this book for -- or where I'd begin.

I took it off my shelf anyway: I made her black bread adapted from Dan Lepard’s baking book, Short and Sweet. The texture was as addictive as the notes of coffee, molasses, and caraway seeds. I also made the entire page of vinaigrettes Henry calls “Dressing It Up.” The rose raspberry dressing was a touch strong on the rose; the “Asian Hot-Sour-Salty-Sweet” was addictive but a touch sweet. Still, I loved Henry’s voice throughout the book, telling me that “red mullet is a fish that lifts my spirits” and encouraging readers to “offer napkins because you eat this dish with your hands.”  

In Smashing Plates, Maria Elia recounts the story of her journey as a chef through the Greek ingredients that peppered her childhood. Like many who cook professionally, she wandered away from and then gravitated back to her heritage with a newfound, later-in-life passion. Let me begin by being honest: An authority on Greek food I am not. I have Greek food once in a while strolling around Astoria, or when I crave the unique salt of feta and olives. I wonder if I need another Greek cookbook as I crack this one open -- I’ve enjoyed many a meal on Steinway Street in Queens, but I don’t often cook it at home. 

Elia first arms us with her arsenal of Greek staples, and I worry fleetingly if I’m about to thumb through the same old repertoire of Greek recipes: a pastitsio, a moussaka, a baklava, maybe her grandmother’s invariably “super garlicky” skordalia.  

Nope. Elia begins with a series of small plates, and I find myself bookmarking page after page. I either want to try single component after single component (a raisin vinaigrette, say, or a feta curd) or make and devour entire recipes. String bean and tomato baklava? Goat’s milk ricotta? (Why haven’t I ever thought to try that?) Slow roasted leg of lamb? Warm sesame buns? Sign me up. I raced to the kitchen to cook. 

And that’s just it: While I would never state a preference for one book or another before cooking and sampling recipes, I was inspired by this book from the start. It was hard to read through in its entirety without hitting the stove to do some cooking. Isn’t that what we want a cookbook to do?  

I made the Zucchini-Coated Calamari, coated with shredded zucchini, cheese, herbs, and bread crumbs. Squid, cheese, and zucchini? I picked this recipe because I didn’t think the ingredients would work together. I was wrong. It was a hit -- a pared-down, unusual combination I would never have thought to try had I not been urged on by Elia’s infectious passion for simplicity. And the tzatziki sauce that accompanied it packed the necessary creamy, garlicky punch. For dessert, I made her poached quince with a cool mix of spices -- bay leaf, star anise, and cloves -- and ate them with Greek yogurt. I loved the savory flavor the bay leaf lent, which brought out a floral note in the quince. I found myself wondering where else bay leaves could go, and what other recipes I might make with quince. 

In that sense, Elia’s recipes felt a little like diving boards into pools I have yet to swim in -- the dishes had me wondering where else I could take them. And they were all cohesive: I’d randomly selected recipes, but they still worked together. There are threads of great thought in A Change of Appetite, but it ultimately lacks the kind of continuity Smashing Plates has. When I flip through the latter, I imagine making a table filled with small plates from the book; they all tell the same story, and they’re all slurpy good. Yes, slurpy. I don’t want to smash plates. I want to make these recipes and lick the plates clean. 

And the winner is…

Smashing Plates

Smashing Plates

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Do you Agree?


Ileana M. March 2, 2015
I love whenever Diana Henry is talking food on the Splendid Table podcast. I've been meaning to check out this cookbook! Both books sounds wonderful - great review!
Nathalie L. February 25, 2015
Thank you for this great review! While Smashing Plates really sounds like a winner, I'm actually looking forward to reading both cookbooks now.
Michael R. February 24, 2015
Can't wait to check out Smashing Plates!
Naomi M. February 23, 2015
Moose wood cookbook, one of the first very popular books on vegetarian cooking, had a wonderful mix of international cuisine. It opened so many people up to international food, as well as vegetarian food. I love that sort of mix in a book!
Eliz. February 23, 2015
I haven't even seen a copy of SMASHING PLATES, and respect how AG's presents her case in this review. Nonetheless, I'd like to respond to the following in a round-about way: "I found the radical cultural shift from dish to dish disruptive." Russ Parsons reflects upon the powerful influence of Ottolenghi, down to ingredients, in creating meals which are less about pasta these days and more and more frequently, about the grains and seasonings you'd find in YO's columns and books. Diana Henry is a kindred spirit, sharing this change of heart both as a columnist and a home cook. Her recipes reflect not only the greater immediacy of Ottolenghi, but with tremendous warmth, a real engagement in the UK's cultural diversities. It used to be that major cities in the US--or Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria, and Persepolis--had a monopoly on the kind of cross-cultural openness you'll find in Henry's book. I find the author so appealing because she makes such sound, practical use of her world when she heads into the kitchen. There's still a trace of English gardens in pages filled with a personal voice, too. It makes assigned LOC numbers harder and harder to cookery books, but it's nice when cookbooks don't fit neatly into traditional categories.
eliza_z February 23, 2015
A wonderful review! Even though I was rooting for "A Change of Appetite", which I love and have cooked extensively from, I am putting "Smashing Plates" on my cookbook wishlist! Haven't yet really explored Greek cuisine and it sounds fantastic.
Naomi M. February 22, 2015
Thanks for the excellent review! I will have to have a look at A Change in Appetite, sounds just like my cup of tea! But I love Greek food, and Smashing Plates, which I have not looked at due to my surplus of Greek cookbooks, will have to go straight in my cart, darn it! Out of shelf space as it is! I buy so many that are nice to look through, but the keepers are the ones that really make me want to jump up and cook!
Lozza February 21, 2015
Both books are great examples of crossing the former cookbook divide of the Atlantic Ocean.
Carmen V. February 21, 2015
You should check out Maria Elia's first book 'The Modern Vegetarian'. I've been a fan ever since and had the pleasure of meeting her - what a beautiful, energetic and creative lady she is! Her vegetarian recipes are amazing and I love her tomato, feta, almond and date baklava has graced our table and wowed many a guest.
Joan O. February 21, 2015
I love Diana Henry and have one of her books and have cooked from a couple more that I checked out from the library so Change of Appetite has been on my wish list for awhile. After reading this interesting and insiteful review now Smashing Plates has made it's way to my wish list as well. Sounds like my kind of book one that draws me into the kitchen.
hobbit2nd February 21, 2015
Intrigued by Smashing Plates since I don't have any Greek cookbooks and my Greek food experience is very limited. Glad it won.
Judy February 21, 2015
This is a well done review, thanks AG!
Diane T. February 21, 2015
Smashing plates appears to be the winner
Hannah C. February 21, 2015
Loved this review! She has a good way with words!
Susan B. February 21, 2015
There are no Greek restaurants where I live, so I'd definitely love to try Smashing Plates--it sounds yummy and achievable!
jacqueline_willis February 20, 2015
Ok, I do believe I need this book. Can't believe Alex never thought of goats milk ricotta. Love it.
Jazzi K. February 20, 2015
What a beautiful, thoughtful review. I am often more interested in the stories food tells than in the recipes themselves, and I love that Alex approached them that way. In the end, I will probably have to track down both books, because she made me as curious about Changing Appetites as she did about Smashing Plates.
Allyn February 20, 2015
My husband is NOT a fan of greek food, but that's because it's always the mediocre strip mall kind that we seem to find. I think I need to sneak a copy of Smashing Plates from the library and surprise him with a few recipes, because that sounds AMAZING
garlic&lemon February 20, 2015
What a thoughtful review! I, too, do not need recipes for moussaka, spanikopita, or baklava. I wangled excellent versions out of the ladies from our local Greek Orthodox Church over 30 years ago. But new (to me) recipes? Slurp my way over to the bookstore ASAP.
aargersi February 20, 2015
On my "to buy" list, love Greek, don't cook it much. And I shall take this opportunity to say I love you Alex Guarnaschelli! In a fan but not a stalker kind of way!!!