Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Piglet Throwdown 2014

I love cookbooks. I read them from cover to cover, like a novel, sometimes in bed. I also cook a lot so it’s not like I have this strange compulsion to just read cookbooks, like Obsessive Cookbook Disorder or something. Consequently, I’ve become a pretty adventurous and knowledgeable home cook. So when the editors at Food52 asked me to review two cookbooks for The Piglet tournament, I said yes. I’ve got the Scone Lady persona to maintain, and I figured this might up my street cred.

Louisa Shafia’s The New Persian Kitchen arrived one cold January afternoon. I was instantly feeling overwhelmed. Persian food is way out of my comfort zone. And yet, the front cover lured me in with its rich tapestry of grilled kebabs, fluffy saffron rice, fat walnuts, a carrot dish, fresh herbs, cheese, cute fuzzy green things (fresh almonds, maybe?), and flatbread. The back cover looked equally tasty, with a bowl of icy pink sorbet, but it’s the last thing I want to eat in the dead of winter. Flipping through the book, I’m struck with how boring my larder is. I don’t have a lot of the ingredients needed to make these recipes -- dried limes, saffron, sumac, angelica seeds, and rose petals -- so some shopping would be required. Worth it if Persian-style cookery is heavily in your meal rotation. To make your ingredient hunt easier, resources are listed in the back of the book. Substitutions are given, for the most part, which make the recipes more adaptable.

Persians adore their produce. It’s a beautifully mindful, almost poetic cuisine, and a very healthful way of eating. I realize my vegetal-hating (“There’s green stuff in my food!”) texture-challenged (“It’s SLIMY!”) family members (one husband and two teenagers) are going to be the world’s least willing participants for this project. So I looked for recipes that might be tried by all of us. My very high-tech research began one evening, in bed, with my husband and the book.

Me: "Honey, will you eat this? ’Beet Burgers.’"
Him: “Um, no. Barf.”
M: “OK. How about Turmeric Chicken with Sumac and Lime?”
H: “Maybe. What’s sumac? Isn’t that poisonous?”
M: “Nope. And here’s why:

"Purplish-red sumac is a tart, coarse powder made from the red berries of the [staghorn] sumac shrub….The fruity sourness of sumac complements fish, chicken, and vegetables equally well….If you’re concerned about encountering poison sumac by mistake, don’t be; it’s almost exclusively limited to swamps, and luckily, the two plants look very different. Poison sumac has white, hanging berries and short, smooth leaves, as opposed to staghorn sumac’s red berries and jagged leaves."

I steered away from recipes needing more esoteric ingredients, and chose three dishes: Vinegar Carrots with Toasted Sesame Seeds; New Potatoes with Dill and Lemon; and Grilled Shrimp with Lime Powder and Parsley Olive Oil. The carrots were my favorite. Every mouthful was a crisp, fragrant flavor bomb. I could eat this every day. As suggested by the author, I substituted lime zest and juice for the lime powder in the shrimp dish. We all loved the shrimp. Except my wallet. Jumbo shrimp are ├╝ber-expensive. Unless you’re feeling flush, wait till they’re on sale, or use a less-expensive smaller size shrimp. The potatoes were super tart, and embodied the “mouth-puckering, vibrant character of Persian food.”

The book is a goldmine of Persian culture and tradition, perfect if you’re a food history buff. There’s also a useful Menus section, which is helpful to a novice like me in pairing recipes together. For a subject so foreign to me, I would’ve loved to see more than just beautiful food photography. Family photos, a map, some scratch-n-sniff stickers. Anything. I wanted the book to suck me in and take me to Persia, or at least to the author’s childhood kitchen in Philadelphia growing up in an Iranian-American household. It didn’t do that for me.

The Roberta’s Cookbook by Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, Chris Parachini and Katherine Wheelock – clearly, shenanigans will ensue with an author list this long -- arrived soon after. Nothing on the cover except for an embossed skeletal figure holding a tall spoon in one hand and a, what is that, a salt shaker in the other? (Who is this bony sentinel?) The second you open the book, you’re assaulted with visuals. In my head, I’m hearing Primal Scream’s Loaded, the one with the Peter Fonda sample:

"We wanna be free to do what we wanna do
And we wanna get loaded
And we wanna have a good time
That's what we're gonna do
We're gonna have a good time
We're gonna have a party"

What the authors are trying to express is the feeling of being at the restaurant, and it works. To do that, you’re gonna get hit over the head with a lot of photographs. It’s a fun read, chock full of drawings and weird shit you’ve never heard of before, telling the story of Roberta’s journey from a scrappy pizzeria to an inspired dining destination. While some of the ingredients are very unusual -- spigarello, miticrema cheese, venison saddle, and pig tails -- the basic techniques are there, and leave plenty of room for adaptation. If you’re up for the hunt, sources are listed in the back of the book.

From the start, Roberta’s had me at pizza. I chose the Pizza Dough with Store-Bought Yeast. This dough! This dough is such a pleasure to work with. Silky, supple, yet firm and resilient, the soft fleshy mass is so sensual, I can’t stop touching it. This dough will make you monogamous -- you’ll never want another pizza recipe. I made three of the pizzas from the book. The Margherita is humble and delicious. The Da Kine will make you a Hawaiian pizza convert. The Cheesus Christ, aptly named, will leave you shouting hosannas. Be creative and use whatever toppings you want, really. It’s damn fine pizza. The crust is crisp, the insides chewy and tender. It’s my pizza fantasy come true. You home baked pizza aficionados will know what I mean -- some of us spend lifetimes looking for The Perfect One. I’ve made triple batches of this dough like ten times so far. Let’s move on now, before you start thinking I should be on an episode of My Strange Addiction.
After toasting the nuts and making the dressing, the Romaine with Candied Walnuts and Pecorino is a snap to put together, and very satisfying. Bane’s Fried Chicken is excellent and uncomplicated. Just brine, dredge and fry. Damn, it’s delicious. Like in the photograph, we prefer an extra crunchy crust, which didn’t happen with the directions as listed, so I double-dipped in the dredge using seasoned buttermilk. Split Pea Soup with Benton’s Bacon was another winner. Around these parts, we use John Boy’s thick cut Berkshire bacon, and I urge you to seek it out. I haven’t had Benton’s yet, but I am willing to bet you John Boy’s is just as good, if not better.
Both books will be good additions to your bookshelf, and you’ll make great food. For me, what it came down to is which book was more fun to read, in bed.

Roberta’s Cookbook