|Sean Brock has you impale the cauliflower on a biscuit cutter so it remains upright while cooking.|
I first became interested in Sean Brock, chef at Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, after reading this lively New Yorker profile a few years ago. It began with an account of Brock’s love of pigs and pork, followed by a physical description of Brock:
“Short and barrel-chested, he wears a baseball cap and T-shirt in the kitchen and keeps a stash of Slim Jims at his desk. He has small, keen eyes embedded in pink cheeks and seems to have absorbed the best qualities of his livestock. There is a placidity and a watchfulness about him, a deep contentedness when feeding, and a braying outrage when his territory is threatened. ‘I feel like this sometime,’ he told me, holding up a picture on his iPhone. It showed an angry Ossabaw hog about to charge.”
Brock is attempting to preserve venerable Southern foodways and to that end only uses ingredients from south of the Mason-Dixon line at Husk. He’s also trying to collect all the American cookbooks published in the 19th century. Fascinating guy. Last year when I heard about his book, Heritage, I promptly ordered it. The book arrived. I admired the handsome pictures, read the polished, generic prose, studied the recipes, and sighed. I wished I hadn’t bought the book and put it on the shelf.
The rowdy personality from the New Yorker profile is absent from Heritage and the recipes are impossible. I’m not faulting Brock for the recipes -- this is how he cooks. I’m faulting myself for ordering the book sight unseen. There’s almost no dish here for which you don’t need to mail order einkorn flour, Carolina Gold rice, or black walnuts. You require a budget for truffles and foie gras, a stomach for lamb hearts and sweetbreads, a local source for wild licorice, ramps, and pokeweed, plus a dehydrator, juice extractor, immersion circulator, and sous chefs. Even just to bake Brock’s Appalachian grandmother’s apple cake, which you’d think would be one of the easier recipes, you need 27 cups of chopped apples.
Heritage is pitted against Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune in the Piglet and I had to really rev myself up for this little comparison project. Brock presents his recipes as super-elaborate composites, so the pork chop recipe is actually: cornmeal-fried pork chops with goat cheese-smashed potatoes and cucumber and pickled green tomato relish. The green tomato relish wasn’t happening because it’s January and I nixed the smashed potatoes because I suspected that the cauliflower was going to be trouble enough and I was right.
Stripped of trappings, the pork chops turned out to be a breeze. You pound the chops until thin and supple, like fabric, and soak in buttermilk overnight. When you’re ready to cook, dredge them in cornmeal and fry in a lots of oil. They were fantastic -- crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and really bad for you. They easily trumped the sturdy gray chops from Prune. Unanimous. Point went to Sean Brock on the chops.
|tiny, stackable mise-en-place bowls made by my sister, who really needs to open an etsy store|
I haven’t tackled a recipe as absurd as Brock’s roasted cauliflower with Meyer lemon and brown butter, watercress and pink peppercorns in years. Abridged narrative that you should feel free to skip: Cook cauliflower whole on the stove top while basting in butter, then roast in oven. Remove stem, peel, and slice the stem’s tender core. Reserve. Slice cauliflower head into serving portions. Make a puree from cauliflower scraps, broth, and cream. Make a sauce of browned goat butter, lemon, turmeric, and home-pickled ramps. (I substituted capers.) The kitchen is now a heartbreaking mess, but you’re almost ready to eat: Pour puree from the blender onto warm plates, top with cauliflower slices, add some watercress leaves and the reserved pieces of cauliflower stem. Drizzle with brown butter sauce and garnish with lemon zest and pink peppercorns.
|Only I could make Brock's dainty cauliflower look like a hearty Asian soup.|
The cauliflower was a bit too crunchy and the puree too thin, for which I fault the inadequately detailed recipe.But there’s no denying that on that ugly little plate were delicate, beautiful, evanescent flavors that you seldom experience in home kitchens and never in mine. This dish had hints of greatness. I can’t really describe it better than that without going all purple on you. By comparison, Gabrielle Hamilton’s roasted cauliflower seemed tasty, rude, and workmanlike.
And yet I feel about Heritage exactly as I did going into this experiment. The needle didn’t move. The book is attractive, way too fussy for a home cook, generically written, and full of opulent dishes that I’d like to eat -- at a restaurant. Prune is voicy, obnoxious, and sui generis, full of strange, dumpy things I have no interest in making, let alone paying for in a restaurant (canned sardines with Triscuits?), but also eccentric dishes I can’t stop thinking about. Prune engages me, Heritage doesn’t. For me there’s no contest here, Prune all the way.