A cookbook should be like peeking into the mind of another chef. When we co-authored ours with Peter Meehan, that’s what we strived for. Some cookbooks are meant to be looked at, while others are meant to be used; we wanted to write one that would be an active part of the reader’s cooking experience rather than a gratuitous tome, sitting on a shelf like a lifeless trophy. A good cookbook should be a guide -- it should take you extraordinary places over and over again.
That’s what we kept in mind when we approached our two books, Heritage by Sean Brock and Huckleberry by Zoe Nathan. We took on Brock’s book first, which felt like the perfect expression of who he is: warm, knowledgeable, and confident. Brock is the chef behind the now-landmark restaurants Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina, and his ingredient-driven dishes reinterpret the flavors of the Appalachian region -- where his restaurants are, and also where he’s from. Both of his places are a must-stop on any Southern tour.
But if you can’t get there, you can understand the way he cooks through Heritage: The recipes include Brock’s spins on Southern favorites, plus a range of comfort food (grits, fried chicken and gravy) and classic high-end dishes (sweetbreads, conserves), all sitting alongside some amazing personal creations, like his Fried Chicken Skin with Hot Sauce and Honey. Brock has a knack for combining heritage ingredients, basic pantry items, and hyper-regional products and distilling them down to deceptively simple recipes, and this comes through full-force in his book: It’s aspirational but still accessible.
And it’s personal: Heritage professes Brock's love for purveyors like Anson Mills, the brand that famously revived Carolina Gold rice (as well as other heirloom varieties of grain and corn). And Gra Moore, the farmer known for raising guinea hogs but who taught Brock to appreciate heritage poultry, and, more than that, “the connection between farmer and plate.” Heritage is full of personal anecdotes like these, little glimpses of who he is and what he cares about in food.
Who can really resist a classic like creamed corn? He makes his how his grandmother did, “the old-fashioned way”: by pulling an immense depth of flavor from little more than corn and cream. Biographical notes like this one, plus his relaxed tone, seamlessly guide you through the recipe -- you feel like you’re cooking under his supervision, but you still have enough room for your own improvisation. The creamed corn is a recipe we’ll be coming back to.
Next up is Huckleberry, written by the baker behind Santa Monica's favorite neighborhood bakery and breakfast spot, Huckleberry Bakery & Café. Huckleberry is owned and operated by Santa Monica locals, Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, who, according to their website's bio, "fell in love while working together in their nearby restaurant, Rustic Canyon." (Nathan learned to bake at the amazing Tartine Bakery in San Francisco.)
Every recipe in Huckleberry is intended to be made with best-quality ingredients, but Nathan reminds us of this gently: “Not to sound like a total dork,” she writes, “but I do think [using good ingredients] makes a huge difference both in baking and our impact on the world.” And trust us, no calorie was spared in the creation of her book. We had great success with her rich, delicious Baked Apples with Oat Crumble; Nathan sets you up for an easy win with this simple-to-assemble, one-pan dish made almost entirely from pantry staples. And the headnote gives you a window into Nathan herself: “My mom always talked to me about...turning your daily tasks into works of art....to me there’s no better installation than the scent of apples and cinnamon filling the air.”
Her motto is "Everything in generosity," and butter is definitely her ingredient of choice. At its best, the book excels at how-to sequences for beginner bakers (how to make -- and shape -- biscuits and scones, or the best way to line cake pans), and reinforces classic techniques like flaky dough for more seasoned bakers. (You’ll need to know all about the latter before you try her Corn, Spinach, and Cherry Tomato Quiche, or her Grapefruit Galette.)
Really, both books are winners: Nathan translates her passion for classic baking for skilled and beginner bakers alike, while Brock takes us on an trip through his life and culture via the lens of food. Pressed to choose, we'd reach for Brock's book -- for the adventure. He takes us somewhere we haven’t been, and in a cookbook, that’s always a treat.