Thursday, March 03, 2016

Doable on a weeknight



Oh brother, this presidential election. 

But let's talk about another vitally important contest instead: The Piglet, the always-contentious annual tournament of cookbooks at Food52. 

As ever, they chose a wonderfully eclectic bunch of cookbooks for consideration, works covering the cuisines of Oman, Ukraine, Israel, India, and Senegal, along with a collection of chicken recipes, a baking book, and more. They also selected a fairly eclectic group of judges with the usual complement that doesn’t care about cooking and whose clueless misadventures outrage the vocal subset of Food52 readers that wants substantive criticism. These readers sound off in the comments, this year prompting Food52 editors to write a long, defensive, probably ill-advised post to which readers sounded off in the comments. . . 

And then blogger Phyllis Grant went and did everything right on Tuesday in her terrific review of J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s Food Lab and Michael Solomonov’s Zahav. Grant cooked the hell out of her assigned books and made the case to advance Food Lab with passion, wit, and earned authority. Yesterday, chef Yotam Ottologenhi followed up with a sturdy little essay weighing the relative merits of Lesley Tellez’s Eat Mexico and Hot Bread Kitchen (which won and which I must acquire asap). Today, Sadie Stein put forth a persuasive argument that Made in India is a better choice for the home cook than Gjelina.

The readers of Food52 appear to be satisfied these recent judges. I am satisfied, though I have no idea if I agree with their judgments. Other than Zahav (love) and Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year (like), I've barely touched the Piglet books. In some cases, I haven't even seen the Piglet books. I did a big library run the other day and have since enjoyed a cup of fine masala chai from Made in India and a some anti-inflammatory turmeric tea from Heidi Swanson's Near and Far. I was all ready to mock that turmeric tea, which sounded like a revolting witch's brew of turmeric, honey, black pepper, and coconut oil. But it was a tangy, delicious elixir and instead of making fun of it, I made a second cup.

I've also produced a beautiful chicken soup with dumplings from Mamushka, a seductive collection of Ukrainian dishes. More about this in a subsequent post.


But the Piglet book I've really dug into is Leah Koenig's Modern Jewish Cooking. The sad fact is that while it appeared at first glance to be the blandest, most generic book of the bunch, it was also the most approachable. It's not that the other books are unapproachable, exactly, but as reviewers Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo put it in their critique, the dishes in Modern Jewish Cooking seem "doable on a weeknight."  I am pretty sure this is one of the main reasons they preferred Modern Jewish Cooking to the patently more original Mamushka. And I have a feeling that judgment was a mistake. But who am I to criticize? "Doable on a weeknight" is powerful when you're lazy or tired or busy, and aren't we all.

So, the book. In her introduction, Koenig tells the story of the genesis of Modern Jewish Cooking: As a young adult living in Brooklyn, she decided to teach herself to cook the traditional Jewish foods she grew up with. She mastered borscht, bagels, and blintzes. Eventually, she began to experiment, putting her own contemporary spin on classic fare, adding jalapeno to her matzoh balls and pumpkin to her challah. The book is a compendium of these updated recipes, along with a lot of sundry dishes that I'd never peg as Jewish (and for which I have hundreds of recipes on my shelves already), like a mushroom-goat cheese tart, roasted broccoli, a wedge salad, granola.

I would like to say that despite my initial indifference I've fallen passionately in love with Modern Jewish Cooking, but I can't. It's been a weeklong marriage of convenience. Don't get me wrong, Koenig has written a very smart, attractive cookbook. But I don't daydream about it when we're apart. I think the right audience for her book is a millennial novice cook who is trying dream up hip Shabbat menus. That isn't me.

I made both of Koenig’s oat granolas (apple and honey, black pepper and pistachio) and while both were fine, neither was as good as Alton Brown's. I baked Koenig’s tender honey-cinnamon cake, which was easy and lovely, but not quite thrilling enough for the scrapbook. The other night I served Koenig’s rosemary-maple roast chicken with a side of her toasted almond Israeli couscous. The chicken was great -- juicy and sweet -- but I have roasted so many great chickens that I can't get excited about a new roast chicken recipe, however great. The Israeli couscous made a pleasantly innocuous starchy side and I’ll forget I ever made it in a few days.

Ah, but here's how it works: I was all set to do something more exotic from one of the other Piglet books last night, like a curry from Made in India for which I had already bought all the ingredients, but I was busy and tired and at 6:30 pm decided I'd throw together a ridiculously easy Koenig cottage cheese-noodle dish instead. You cook some shallots in butter while boiling egg noodles. Mix the two in a big bowl with some cottage cheese, sour cream, and herbs. (The recipe calls for mint, but I used dill.) Per Koenig's instructions, I served this with a green salad. Perfect, not-that-nutritious dinner. I could eat it every night.

And yet even now, even after that satisfying, miraculously simple meal, I still don't feel a romantic spark with this cookbook. 

53 comments:

  1. I'm glad you feel the same way about Hot Bread Kitchen....I've already dropped the hint to Maddy.

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    Replies
    1. I had to order it. Not at the library.

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    2. I am a librarian, happily I buy for the cookbook section, and yes, I bought Hot Bread Kitchen.

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  2. And this is why, along with 100 other reasons, you should be a Piglet judge. Not just once but every year.

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  3. I very much understand your allegiance to Alton Brown's granola (I have made it, loved it), but you MUST TRY Cook's Illustrated big cluster granola. It is amazing and the best thing is, you don't have to open the oven and stir it! You just break it into big, beautiful chunks after baking. Seriously, I don't even look at other granola recipes now... I am ruined... (and you can add coconut, if that's your thing. I usually add about 3/4c and decrease the oatmeal to 4 1/2 cups)

    https://www.cooksillustrated.com/recipes/6977-almond-granola-with-dried-fruit

    If you hit a pay wall - I may have a pdf of the recipe if you are interested... :)

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    1. I am most certainly interested. I love Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country, and have been a subscriber to both forever, and I really feel they should grant subscribers of the magazine access to the entire site, but they don't. I don't really understand this.

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    2. I have a lot of back issues of the magazine -- I'll check. I will try this for sure.

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  4. Alas, I am among that vocal subset of Piglet fans who bemoaned the Tuesday review. I really in general try to keep my belly-aching to myself, but I couldn't seem to stay quiet this time around. I am not one to put jalepeno in matzo ball soup so MJCooking will not go on my shelf (though having said that, I think "doable on a weeknight" is a fabulously useful way to think about recipes) but I rushed off to get Mamushka for the prune & walnut stuffed chicken alone, and it is fabulous. As she suggests, I served it with the Armenian roasted vegetables, which were very good, though next time I would just do cabbage - it was that superb.

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    1. Which was the Tuesday review? There were two in a row that were weak and then -- wow! The Birdsall review? Great.

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    2. I misspoke about calling it the Tuesday review. I was trying to be diplomatic in referencing it, but I am not sure why. It was the Julie Klam review that so rubbed me the wrong way. I was a little mixed on Birdsall but still thought it a good review of the books. I was thrilled when Phyllis came along and restored my faith in the Piglet, though I was not unhappy with Brooks Headley's review either. I'll be cooking from Bird in the Hand this week, and I have to say it really does look like a keeper; even in the first few pages I wanted to cook every recipe. I'm looking forward to more Piglet thoughts from you, Tipsy!

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  5. i so enjoy your writing! time to come out of lurking again: can I ask, what did you think of the tumeric tea? how do you feel after the tumeric tea?

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    1. I loved the turmeric tea, but I felt exactly the same physically after the turmeric tea. Very good for you, though, so maybe invisible benefits were accrued. . .

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  6. Enjoyed your thoughts on the Piglet. Also your articles in the AAA magazine Via were a pleasure. I remember your post about the upcountry Maui trip. I pay much more attention to that magazine once I realized you have articles in there sometimes!

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    1. Thank you! I have worked on and off for VIA for, I don't know, 18 years?

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  8. I love 'Made in India'!! I checked it out with a pile of other Indian cookbooks, and have cooked about 15 recipes from it (the others got returned because they were not terribly inspiring). The dishes have, for the most part, been fast, easy, and delicious. My husband is picky about Indian food (he lived there for 2.5 years) and he agrees that we need to add it to our collection.

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    1. LOVED the cauliflower and pea curry.

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  9. A Bird in the Hand is splendid when you get to it. Splendid.

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  11. Happy belated birthday! I was disappointed that Zahav didn't progress. I have the Food Lab cookbook and find I prefer the exuberance of Solomonov's book which Phyllis Grant's review didn't address. Near and Far is a beautiful book. I can recommend the Saag Paneer and the Brown Sugar Tofu and Mushrooms. The Cauliflower Pasta was nice but next time I would oven roast the cauliflower before proceeding with the recipe to make it softer. I used a green cauliflower because I like the color and the flavor better than white. I also doubled the amount of creme fraiche. We had it over fresh pappardelle (Barbara Lynch's recipe) and ended up adding red pepper flakes and grated parmesan. Great cold for lunch the next day! We do meatless March and Swanson's book is full of inspiration. Hot Bread Kitchen is stupendous in a People of New York/ Soup for Syria kind of way.

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    1. My mother-in-law gave me Soup for Syria for my bday and I really love the looks of it. I was disappointed Zahav didn't progress as well. Food Lab is just too big, cumbersome, geeky and manual-like for me. Plus, too much meat. I love meat, but there's so much of it in that book.

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  12. I look forward to the Piglet every year, and I look forward to your reviews of the Piglet just as much! So glad you're writing about it-- no pressure, but the two go hand in hand for me.

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  13. The recipe for egg noodles with cottage cheese is stamped into the DNA of every Jewish grandmother. I probably ate it at least once a week growing up, but with rotating herbs depending on the season - and more likely served with a soup than a salad.

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    1. It's going to be stamped in the DNA of this future grandmother (hopefully) now. Such a great dish. I wonder at what point dishes lose their connection to their ethnic/national/religious origins and become American. It must happen. Something like cheddar cheese. Originally British, right, but now it belongs to everyone? I think it's almost happened with guacamole and hummus. Another generation or two.

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  14. I confess I didn't follow the Piglet though I do read Food 52...A Bird In The Hand is WONDERFUL. Can you tell I like it? I didn't know "hip" and "Shabbat" could be in the same sentence. I stand edified. Also-read So You've Been Publicly Shamed after what you said. And yes, terrifying. As in, the public en masse is terrifying. Thank you, as always.

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    1. Many recommendations now for Bird in the Hand! Thank you.

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    2. I read Orphan Train by the same author several years ago and loved it. She's great.

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  15. Hey, Jennifer, would you mind linking to that long rambling defensive post on Food 52? I would love to read it and I can't find it. Thanks!

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    1. witloof, I was happy to see a comment from you in the Piglet remarks.

      Here's the link you are looking for:https://food52.com/blog/16072-read-the-piglet-editor-and-co-founder-discuss-days-1-and-2

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