I possess a fondness for the annual tradition of the gift guide.
Not because I find these useful tools in purchasing gifts for those I love (or at least, in the case of the obligatory work Secret Santa, tolerate) but because I am interested in the act of curation, of what is suggested and what is abandoned.
In that spirit, please allow me to offer a scrupulous selection of items to assist in creating, if not joy, than at least quiet satisfaction for both you and the object of your generosity.
A recommendation for all
Small Victories by Julia Turshen. This remains one of my most fondly regarded cookbooks. I continue to cook from it. I continue to think it is one of the finest cookbooks I have come across. I have not yet had the opportunity to form a relationship with Ms Turshen’s new book, Feed the Resistance, but I have heard wonderful things.
A duo of recommendations for harried souls
A New Way to Dinner. This book was the thing that finally convinced me to start our meal preparations on the weekend, thus freeing up a lot of time during the week. The recipes are solid, but the real point of this book is getting you into the habit of making hay while the sun shines.
Simple by Diana Henry. This elegant, thoughtful book contains strong and rewarding recipes that reference global flavours and clever techniques. Even more pleasingly, the recipes in the book are accessible and practical, even in the context of the clutter of the midweek. Ms Henry is an excellent author, and passionate lover of food.
Resources for the vegetable focused
Power Vegetables by Peter Meehan. This book, from the now sadly extinct Lucky Peach brand, is a smart and playful way of looking at vegetable based food. It does an appealing job of recontextualizing familiar recipes. It is also quite fun, in both writing and design, and would lead to some happy gift-giving day conversations.
On the Side by Ed Smith. Ignore the suggestion to just view this book as a book of sides. Instead, treat this book as an impressive collection of vegetable focussed recipes that work as well as the star of your meal as they do in concert with something else from the book. The design of this book is exceptional.
Final areas to investigate
As much as I would like to, the barriers of reality prevent me from reviewing every cookbook I come across. There are always a few titles that I am keen to see receive some attention and support.
Allow me to highlight a few titles that while not reviewed here, are promising and worthy of further investigation.
Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh
This beautiful cookbook is completely impractical to review: we would die from sugar induced madness long before we had cooked even a fraction of recipes. The recipe we have made, and the feedback from trusted friends, allow me comfortably suggest this as an excellent addition to the library of anyone interested in baking or sweet things more generally.
Dining In by Alison Roman
Disclaimer: I have not cooked a single recipe from this book. Yet. I have, however, mentally marked almost every recipe as being worth of cooking. Were it not for this and the general vibe of the book I would not have the audacity to suggest this title to you.
But I feel very excited about this book. It excites me in the same way Small Victories excites me: it is one of those rare books which perfectly intersects a lot of modern thinking and approaches to food, and does so with style and confidence. I cannot wait to cook extensively from this book.
River Cafe 30 by Ruth Rogers et al
I rarely buy books on the sole basis of how beautiful they are. And yet I fell utterly in love with the celebratory reissue of the iconic River Cafe cookbook and could not resist. This book is an utter riot of colour, playfulness, and joy.
Imagine my delight, then, when in concordance with the impressive reputation River Cafe posses, the recipes turned out to be some of the most thoughtful, considered Italian food you are likely to come across. We cooked the baked ricotta recently and I am still, tuning fork like, vibrating with delight.
The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater
December is, despite the reality of an Australian summer, the best time of year. It is a time of celebration, of reflection, of hope and of love. Since I was a child—and one with a very serious desire to receive a briefcase as a Christmas present—it has always been my favourite time of year.
The inimitable Mr Slater agrees: The Christmas Chronicles is a resolute love letter to what is, for many, the pinnacle day of the year. I am excited to return to this book in the middle of the year for a reminder that joy is always at hand.
Most cookbooks give you recipes to cook. Wait, don’t close that tab!
I mean to say, the aspiration of most cookbooks is nothing more than giving you instruction sets to make new types of food. There is only so many recipes one needs. A handful of cookbooks could give you a lifetime’s supply of how to combine ingredients. The question quickly becomes “what’s next?”
For anyone beyond the complete kitchen beginner, cookbooks with something additional to teach are more rewarding and useful. Increasingly, I’m drawn to books with a clear ambition to do something beyond the basic steps of cook, serve, delicious.
Food52’s editors (Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs) have put together a cookbook with a grand ambition: to change how we approach putting together our nightly meal.
The book’s premise is that by spending a few hours of time on the weekend you can prepare for a week’s worth of delicious meals. The trade off is clear: sacrifice a little bit of time on the weekend to gain some back during the week.
The premise is nothing new. Time management experts (carrying degrees printed on napkins from Time University) have long gotten up on their soapboxes and told us to do this. And everyday, chefs in restaurant commit themselves to the art of the mis-en-place.
The question becomes: does this book teach us something new and valuable, or is it really a tired retelling of an old idea?
Structure and Design
The core format of the book is four weekly menu plans for each season. Two menu plans are from Hesser and two from Stubbs. Each menu plan provides for five meals and gives ideas for lunch and other ways to use the leftovers.
Each plan starts with a menu of what you’ll eat in that week. The next few pages are the battle plan for your weekend day of preparation. The following pages are then the recipies for each dish in that menu.
This is a book of unremitting production values. The writing throughout the book is uniformly polished. Written in the signature Food52 tone, it is both inviting and casual yet also suggests a certain reserve or distance.
In terms of how the recipes are written, there’s a delineation between the steps you do earlier in the week as part of the day of preparation and the steps you do on the night the dish will be eaten. This is helpful if you are following the book’s approach but I could see it might get in the way of clarity if you were using this as just another cookbook.
The production values continue with the photography. Photos are aggressively styled. I cannot get behind the overall Food52 ashetic. It’s so polished as to be avoid of any charm or individual personality. It’s almost as if they feed the contents of pinterest into a really smart computer and it outputs these results.
I enjoyed this book.
But—I have reservations:
Firstly, and most trivially, it is either a sign of success or failure that the recipes and menus from the two authors are indistinguishable. I cannot distinguish the recipes or writing of one author from the other. It’s a positive sign in that it suggests the avoidance of gimmicks just for the sake of identification (it could have easily been Hesser’s recipes are all spicy fusion food and Stubbs are all home comfort food) but at the same time, the two present as a seamless organic seasonal trend conscious monolith.
Secondly, few books seem unaware of their privilege as this one. Every week will ask you to buy near industrial quantities of certain expensive ingredients. Worse, there’s often no suggestion as to alternatives if the budget cannot quite stretch to a kilo of black raspberries. The authors seem painfully unconscious of this element to their book. It is an expressly upper middle class lifestyle cookbook.
Thirdly, I’m not sure if the authors have considered the food safety elements to some of their preparations. One recipe asks you to cook almost a kilo of rice (!!), with the last recipe using that rice six days later. All food safety advice I can find suggests three days as being the absolute maximum for storing cooked rice. And aside from issues of food safety, there’s also an important consideration. Food simply starts to taste like fridge after a few days. The book sometimes asks you to make real sacrifices in the name of indulging the conceit.
On to what works about the book.
The technique (of preparing ahead of time) is not new. Yet, the version of this idea that the book puts forth is close to brilliant. Rarely does the book ask you to complete a whole dish. Instead, you complete time consuming yet easy individual steps like pick herbs, make dressings and sauces or prepare meal components (like make meatballs or grill some flank steak).
You know those currently popular meal delivery services? You are essentially replicating what makes those services so compelling, the idea that someone else does all the boring work of cooking, leaving you to do the fun stuff. Of course in this case, it is an earlier you who is doing the boring stuff, but the initial time and effort is quickly forgotten.
It’s a fantastic and workable approach and one that has allowed us to reclaim our weeknights without making huge sacrifices as to what we are eating. The New Way to Dinner model of preparation is superior to other competing styles of preparing your meals (such as making a whole dish and reheating it or make industrial quantities of one thing and eating it again and again).
And there’s something about this focused day of preparation that makes otherwise dull tasks seem more fun. It feels like a fun-spirited race against time: how can we get through these 9 or so prep steps as quickly as possible? It’s become a part of my week that I look forward to, oddly enough.
We’ve enjoyed this approach so much we’ve continued with it despite moving on to other cookbooks. I cannot imagine it will make sense for everyone, but it is going to be useful to a lot of people.
So a tick as to the overall approach. How’s the food? It ranges from very good to almost inedible.
Very good? A Thai beef salad was rewarding and delicious. We have made the fish tacos twice. The meatballs were not as good as the meatballs from Genius Recipes (another Food52 book) but were the second best meatballs I have made. A limeade is the perfect summer drink.
Inedible? Well, there were misses in both execution and concept: a 5 day old rice salad was inedible and awful. That Thai Beef Salad was great but less so on each successive outing. Some of the recipes in a summer menu were certainly not appropriate for stinking hot summer. Some dinners consist of a lot of food (too much!) whereas others amount to just a sandwich (not enough!).
Here are the menus from the two weeks we spent with this book:
Menu One (Summer, Merrill Stubbs)
Limeade with basil, blistered cherry tomatoes, Thai beef steak, jasmine rice and blueberry ice. (While the combo of mediterranean roast tomatoes and Thai beef salad didn’t work for me, every component of this meal was really good. The blueberry ice was outstanding.)
Fish tacos with pickled onions, Spicy Peach Salad and Chocolate ice cream with cinnamon and chili ‘dust’. (As mentioned above, the fish tacos are excellent. The spicy peach salad was fantastic and elevated mediocre peaches. The cinnamon and chili ‘dust’ is a fun way to elevate supermarket ice cream, although you’d be unlikely to do it again and again.)
Penne with blistered cherry tomatoes and corn; strawberry ice cream (Average pasta and yes, you have to buy both chocolate and strawberry ice cream this week.)
Steak and avocado salad with crisp rice and cashews, and blueberry ice (Our crisp rice failed and simply merged into an unstoppable fried monster that still threatens smaller pacific islands. The salad makes use of the last of the Thai beed Salad which is not, it must be said, a dish that holds well.)
Jasmine rice salad, cantaloupe with chiles, lime and salad. (Inedible. Dry after six days in the fridge. This should not exist. We skipped the cantaloupe because one of us cantaeatit.)
Menu Two (Summer, Amanda Hesser)
Crab and avocado salad, blistered cherry tomatoes, watermelon (I am not a big crab man, and given the sudden sky rocketing of the price of prawns here, I was forced to substitute chicken instead. Despite going off-piste, I was entirely happy with the result.)
Meatballs with tomato and zucchini, quick tomato sauce, spaghetti, boiled green beans with mustard dressing, black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream (The meatballs were great, as was the fantastic mustard dressing for the beans. The ice cream—this week you make your own—did not quite work out: the quantities were way too much for our ice cream maker, so it did not quite churn properly.)
Watermelonade, Crab toasties, Peaches with sour cream and chili (The watermelonade was perfect and just the thing for summer. On the other hand, the peaches with sour cream feels like an awful choice for summer and so we abandoned it. The toasties were smart, though (although curiously named: toasties is short for toasted sandwich and is a term mostly used in Australia, whereas Americans seem to favour the word ‘melt’ which better fits what these actually were.)
Pasta with garlic, tomatoes, basil and brie, beans and their dressing and some more ice cream (The authors go on this weird bit about how they seem to think they are bringing back brie to which the rest of the cheese eating world will say “huh?”).
Meatball sandwich with fresh mozzarella and basil, watermelon or peaches (I think a sandwich is the best thing to do with meatballs, so I had no problems with this. I like that the menu suggestion is to just eat some fruit already.)
Why this book?
You want to eat good food without spending hours cooking each night
Or, you just want a decent collection of recipes and can overlook the recipes being formatted with the assumption you will be making them ahead of time
You are comfortable with the Food52 brand, aesthetic and tone
Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
Old, old cooked rice
And does it just spark joy?
I can—and do—recommend this book. However, keep some of my reservations in mind. This book is not going to be for everyone.
Fat Rice — Abraham Conlon, Adrienne Lo & Hugh Amano
Dorie’s Cookies — Dorie Greenspan
Victuals — Ronni Lundy
Taste & Technique — Naomi Pomeroy
In the lead up to this year’s competition the team at Food52 explained they were going with less obvious picks this year (hence no household name, A-list authors).
This is a worthy approach. Cookbooks from superstars sell themselves just fine, one assumes. It’s right to shine a light on authors who while less familiar are still producing wonderful cookbooks.
And yet, and yet.
Aside from one or two titles, this collection feels a little dull. The collective impression is of a group of books that simply will not pass the test of time or become beloved classics. It is trendy ephemera.
This is a major weakness of the Piglet: the books it recommends are quickly forgotten about (barring one or two from each year.) The niche titles do not seem to spark enough joy.
The other major weakness, of course, is system of putting widely divergent books head to head and then trying to determine a winner using a subjective and unreliable metric.
Rather than trying to find the best cookbooks, the real goal of the Food52’s Piglet is to find cookbooks that are most like Food52 itself. More so than ever the books featured seem to solely feature Food52’s aesthetic and approach to food (with one or two token exceptions). Given the diversity of cookbook publishing in 2017, the result is so skewed as to be not representative of what is actually happening in the world of cookbooks.
In the past I have allocated a large amount of my yearly cookbook budget on picking up the featured titles. This has resulted in a lot of unused, flash-in-the-pan books. While there are a few titles on the list above (Diana Henry’s Simple looks fantastic!), I will not be picking up many of these titles.
I will, this year, be a less active follower of the tournament and hope for a better selection next time.