On the Side — Ed Smith

I confess were it not for the jaunty yellow dustcover of Ed Smith’s book, I might not have picked the book up at all. In a world of the hyper attention grabbing photo cover, the simple playfulness of this book’s cover immediately appealed.

I had never heard of Ed Smith—who must clearly be a secret agent with such an anodyne name. A review of the author blurb, and the quickest of googlings, leads to the happy discovery Agent Smith writes a food website Rocket & Squash which I had been sadly, hitherto, unaware of.

Some of the strongest cookbooks have been produced by those who run food websites. Given the ease with which anyone can start writing, there is a terrible sea of content out there. As such whenever one website emerges from the primordial muck, it is normally a reliable indicator of quality.

On The Side, Smith’s first cookbook, is billed as a wide ranging collection of side dishes, the often forgotten, yet endlessly pleasing, supporting players in our meals. It is side dishes that provide the thoughtful counterpoint to the rest of the meal and can elevate the ordinary to the realm of the exceptional.

Yet despite my love of side dishes, I cannot help but feel this nominal focus—on food that is meant to accompany other food—is a slight disservice to what is inventive, considered, and enjoyable food.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. No ribbon.

335 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Greens, leaves & herbs
  2. Vegetables, fruits, flowers & bulbs
  3. Roots, squash & potatoes
  4. Grains, pulses, pasta & rice

While we are chided not to judge a book by its cover, of course we will. I think the cover of this book is brilliantly designed and is a real rebuke to the reflective approach taken by so many other designers.

The cover—or rather, the dust jacket—of On The Side is tremendously interesting: there’s embossing, there’s debossing, there’s a cutaway corner, revealing the gorgeous red hardcover underneath. A large part of this book’s production cost must have gone to this splendid cover. And bravo to Smith and their publisher, Bloomsbury, for doing so. It would have only been too easy to produce something inane and charmless, such as the most of the books in Amazon’s bestsellers list at any one time.

The design of the rest of the book is not as bold, but is nonetheless impressive. The book commits to excellent typography in a way that few books do: after drowning in a sea of sans serif faces—including, ahem, our new logo—and after some not very pleasing serifs in some other titles this year, what they’ve gone with here is elegant, has personality and presence on the page.

Out of the cookbooks I have spent time with in 2017 this might just be one of my favourite designs: there is a sense of doing things differently, and not just doing so to be novel, but in the service of the principles of good design.

I also think the photography is exceptional: after some dreary examples—there’s a review I have been holding off on writing simply because the photography is so artificial and layered with filigree that it is terribly depressing—the photos in this book are incredibly attractive and make the food look beautiful. The book does the simple yet apparently quite elusive task of making the food the star. It is refreshing.

And, in something that has me moist-eyed with gratitude, the indexes of this book are thoughtful and useful. Stepping away from the convention of just one index, Smith provides a trio of additional indexes—or rather, to use his phrasing, directories. One is by main ingredient (so if you are making falafel for dinner you could see which sides are recommended), another is part of the kitchen needed to prepare the recipe (so if you are, say, baking bread, you can consult the stove top list) and the final is simply arranged my time.

All in all, the design of this book is beautiful and considered. It makes bold choices and those choices work. I am so happy that Smith has decided to abandon so much of the contemporary cookbook design vernacular and present something that is unique and valuable.

Thoughts

Sides are often the source of the greatest joy in a meal. And yet they are often criminally neglected. It is far from uncommon for people, when planning a meal, to pour all their time, attention and money into some elaborate piece of protein, and simply forget to give any love to the rest of the plate. Sides, if they are thought of at all, are often cursory and lacking any joy and thought.

This is a real shame. Sides give us such wonderful opportunities to show our creativity, and experiment with new flavours, approaches, techniques. In that they are usually cast in supporting roles, we should be a lot less afraid of failure and take some risks that we might not otherwise make. When I think of very good meals it is more often than not the sides I am thinking of so fondly. It is facile to create magic from a $70 piece of marbled wagyu. It takes skill and commitment as a cook to create magic from a cabbage and an onion.

This book is billed as a sourcebook for side recipes. It does not suggest to the casual reader that the book has greater potential than this. While I like the focus on sides—so few cookbooks give this area any attention—this does the book a slight disservice.

You should not think of this book as just a collection of sides: a word which, for many, might recall more the limp pub salad, with obligatory single industrial strength cherry tomato, than something of genuine excitement, than say a slow roast wedge of cabbage, stuffed with various delicious things, in the manner of Melbourne’s Town Mouse. I first ate that dish four years ago and can remember almost nothing about the meal (other than the agreeable company and my first taste of Patrick Sullivan’s wines) other than this superb cabbage. I have so many more examples.

I urge you not to view this book through a limited lens. Think of this book as a collection of excellent vegetable-focused recipes that can easily be combined for memorable, satisfying meals. The book does, almost covertly, make this much easier than you think: every recipe gives you two or three other sides that would work well together. These are in the context of providing a chorus of voices to support whatever the ‘star’ of the meal is. I encourage you to ignore any call for something else—you can, as we have done over many a night—make incredibly satisfying and wonderful meals with individual or small combinations of dishes from this book. The ‘this goes great with x, y, and z’ is a smart addition to the book.

At any rate, these recipes are often so good they would often outshine whatever you might choose to serve with them. I  struggle to imagine how anyone who cooks from this book would not, eventually, come to the same conclusion. I only wish Smith was a little more proud of his recipes and leaned a little less heavily on the ‘side’ angle.

The focus on these dishes being sides has a wonderful side (teehee) benefit: the recipes give a lot of flavour without days of faffing around.  Constraints often produce the best innovation and solutions. So, the constraint of producing food that is nominally meant to accompany other food (and thus cannot take five days to produce) has led Smith to create really enjoyable food.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Baby Pak Choi with Sticky Garlic and Ginger (a perfect simple vegetable stir fry: the garlic and ginger gives real vitality to the pak choi.)
  • Black bean, coriander and lime rice (I made this with the corn recipe below. It was a fantastic combination, and one that just demonstrates the clever way Smith thinks about food.)
  • Buttermilk, dill and soy seed wedge salad (one of the stars of this book: an incredible buttermilk dressing, pickled radishes, sticky seeds, iceberg lettuce. I want to eat this forever.)
  • Chard with chilli, shallot and cider vinaigrette (my favourite recipe of the year, I think. I have made this on so many occasions and each time I am blown away. The dressing in particular is masterful. And it has almost converted my chard-averse partner.)
  • Chicken stock and orange-braised fennel (cooked fennel is a somewhat new visitor chez nous, but it is always welcome. The orange both enhances the sweetness of the fennel but also accentuates the savoury anise notes. Delightful autumn food.)
  • Chinese cabbage with black vinegar (Outside of Asia, the wombok is criminally underappreciated. It is the most wonderful vegetable: at once deeply savoury, sweet, juicy, tender, crunchy, silky. This elegant little stir fry is rewarding.) 
  • Chorizo Roast Potatoes (How to improve a roast potato? Add chorizo it seems! Don’t eat chorizo? Investigate Julia Turschen’s kinda, sorta patas bravas.) 
  • Grilled Tenderstem Broccoli with Umami Crumbs (I challenge you to make this and not consider topping every dish with umami crumbs. It’s genius.)
  • Honey, thyme, and lime butter corn (there’s almost a south east Asian feel to this the way the sweetness of the corn and honey is contrasted with the peppy lime juice and woody notes of the thyme. Morish.)
  • Quick cucumber and daikon kimchi (I met a Korean person who was just so enthusiastic about kimchi it’s hard to eat it now without thinking of their cheerful advocacy. I think they might have been in the pocket of Big Fermented Cabbage, honestly. Whether or not they would like this quick kimchi inspired vegetable pickle I will never know, but I certainly loved it.)
  • Smacked Cucumbers (One of my favourite dishes, although I think I’m so wedded to the Fuchsia Dunlop version all others, including this variation, feel a little wan in comparison.) 

Why this book?

  • You want to improve your repertoire of sides
  • You want an excellent resource of modern vegetable-focussed dishes
  • You want to support excellent cookbook design

Score

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#Konmari ░░░░ Summer And does it just spark joy?

This book, nominally a collection of side dishes, is a tremendous discovery and is a welcome addition to anyone’s everyday cookbook library.

Power Vegetables! — Peter Meehan

Lucky Peach—the best food magazine out there—has announced it will be closing. Little reason or explanation was given for this upsetting news, although speculation points to a fallout between Peter Meehan (editor) and Dave Chang (majority owner).

In a world of overly polished food writing and photography, Lucky Peach was a glass of cool water on a hot day. It has style, personality and something to say. It was not perfect: it sometimes could not escape its bros talking about sriracha and kewpie mayo vibe. But it was (and for a little while longer, is) a blessed relief from the same generic content.

My favourite part of the Lucky Peach brand was, of course, the cookbooks! My review of 101 Easy Asian Recipes dives deep into my love of Lucky Peach’s flavour-driven approach to food.  It’s not authentic food (whatever that is, anyway) but it is delicious, easy and memorable food. It is food that I want to eat and cook and share.

Given the sad news, and given how much I liked their first book, it was an obvious choice to review their 3rd book: Power Vegetables! This book is a spiritual successor to 101 Easy Asian Recipes (101EARs) in focus, tone and execution.

Structure and Design

Harcover. No ribbon.

272 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Starters
  2. Salads
  3. Pies & The Like
  4. Soups/Soupy
  5. Ensemble Players
  6. Mains
  7. Mainly Potatoes
  8. Bread & Cake

Like 101EARs, PV! starts with a useful guide to ingredients (called, appropriately enough, POWER PANTRY). Therein are meditations on capers, shiitakes, kombu and a recipe for miso butterscotch which is incredibly compelling when you stop and think about it.

It is interesting to see the development of the format: 101EARs was, more or less, a straight recipe book. However PV! borrows more from the magazine’s format, which is to say a handful of interviews with au currant chefs are scattered throughout the book. While these are not the difference between night or dark, they are nonetheless pleasant inclusions in that they help explain the thinking and context of the book.

As I said in my review of 101EARs, I really like the over-the-top kitschy design. It remains as refreshing as when they first attempted it, although they pleasingly have made a few different art direction decisions. This helps things feel free fresh as opposed to simply more of the same. One example is that they’ve generally scaled back on the use of props and backdrops so when they are used it is to much greater effect. It is not high concept, but I cannot help but smile at the Mexican wrestler holding the corn on page 154–55.

The book is polished: recipes are well written, photography is well executed (do not confuse style with technical proficiency!). The book is a tight and compelling physical package. The design and writing team deserve points for making sure each recipe fits within a page (and is presented in a usable and helpful format to boot!)

Thoughts

The book starts with a manifesto, of sorts. Here, Meehan declares, there will be no pasta recipes or grain bowls. There will be the use of both dairy and fish (mostly fish sauce or anchovies).

It is smart cooking with vegetables, in other words. It is an approach I admire so much. Let’s not get bound up with an argument on is it or is it not vegetarian food, and let’s not fall in the trap of a lot of other vegetable-driven books where one slaps a vegetable on a grain and calls it done.

The rule about no pasta is a really good creative limitation and stops the book from taking some easy outs. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and the book is stronger for adopting this as a principle.

The approach is essentially similar to that in 101EARs and it is what makes Lucky Peach so important in the world of food writing. It shows how joyful food is when seen through the lens of flavour rather than arbitrary rules.

The food we made from this book was, as a rule, delicious and enjoyable. It was fun food to make and fun food to eat. Perhaps it leans slightly in the direction of overly aggressive flavours and seasoning (the vegetarian chili was a knock out punch of umami) but I so favour this approach over more insipid fare.

Here is what we have cooked:

  • Saucy Fried Tofu or Vaguely Korean Watercress-Apple Salad (The recipe suggest a choice but you need to ignore that and make both together. Excellent textures and a prize winner of a salad. That said, I’m a sucker for apple in salads, so consider my obvious bias.)
  • Nam prik hed cabbage cups (Gosh this was good. A punchy assertive mushroom-y condiment is almost the essence of Thailand served simply on wombok leaves. It would be a sin against taste not to make this and make it again with rice and then again with noodles and then with some grilled meat.)
  • Chopped Cauliflower Salad (A very good chopped salad with an exceptionally good yoghurt-y garlic-y dressing. One that I think about whenever I am eating a bland salad.)
  • Pappa al pomodoro (How do the words ‘pizza soup’ sound to you? If you jump up and down with irrepressible excitement at the mere mention of it then it will be that good. If you roll your eyes and perhaps insert a finger under the neck of your cashmere turtleneck, move right along.)
  • Vichyssoise (Another example of the clever way Meehan et al approach creating recipes. A familiar if not much beloved soup is greatly improved through using dashi stock. Although the recipe suggests you serve it cold, it is of course delicious served hot. In any event, the chives and creme fraiche are mandatory.)
  • Elote (Indecently good: corn and mayonnaise and lime juice and chili powder.)
  • Roasted vegetables with fish sauce vinaigrette (I first cooked this recipe in the Momofuku cookbook. About a million times. I then cooked it from Food52’s Genius Recipes a few million times. This permutation—the most simple—is very good if only for legitimising using essentially any vegetable instead of the more common brussels sprouts.)
  • Zuni Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower (Perhaps a victim of the ‘no pasta rule.’ The original Zuni recipe, which the headnote acknowledges, serves the vegetable mess with pasta. We had this dish both ways—as a salad, per the recipe instructions, and with pasta per the original—and with pasta was clearly better.)
  • Memelitas with Vegetable Peeler Salad (We ate this three meals in a row, not because it was exceptional and amazing but it was so simply tasty and enjoyable as to provoke a state of sustained bemused desire that we could not stop eating it).
  • Roasted cabbage with banana blossom dressing (Odd but remarkable: the dressing, an enticing slurry of red curry paste, lime juice, coconut milk and fish sauce was compelling. The final dish was a masterful combination of textures. Plus I am quite bullish on any recipes that feature cabbage as the hero, as opposed to a sad supporting role.)
  • Kung Pao Celeries (This did not succeed. It was good, but clearly inferior to a chicken/prawn kung pao. It was the first, and only time, in cooking from this book that I thought the results would be much better with meat.)
  • McAloo Tikki Sandwich (Get inside me again, sweet excellent Indian potato burger).

Why this book?

  • You want to eat more exciting plant-based food
  • You love Lucky Peach or are at least Peach curious
  • For what it’s worth, you want to support Lucky Peach

Score

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░ Rising damp And does it just spark joy?

PV! does not aim to change the world. It aims to apply the signature Lucky Peach magic to vegetable-based recipes. It succeeds more often than it fails.

I do not think I want to become a permanent resident in the world of Lucky Peach. Yet to visit is a treat and I encourage you to make the journey.