It seems appropriate that the inaugural post of this blog concerns crossovers from the blogosphere to the print world of Gutenberg. Here we look at the cookbooks of two very successful bloggers: Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks and Deb Perlman of Smitten Kitchen. My main criterion for rating success is totally subjective: if I have heard of a food blogger, that blogger is probably successful. In addition, Heidi’s name frequently appears on blurbs at the back of other people’s cookbooks, and the New York Times had an article on Deb when her cookbook came out.
The Deb and Heidi personas that our authors present to the world are a study in contrasts: east coast/west coast, city girl/earth mother, unabashed Jewish lover of trayf/vegetarian, gushily confessional/uncomfortably reticent. The only difference that really counts, however, is the difference in their food: tasty versus bland.
Heidi’s first book, Super Natural Cooking, came out in 2007, and her second, Super Natural Every Day, followed four years later with a 15% increase in price. These volumes are paperbacks with a nice heft and a completely useless and tree-wasting dust jacket. They are illustrated with Heidi’s own photography; Heidi even poses with her camera in the author photo on the aforementioned useless dust jacket of the first book. Here I come to my first serious problem (not counting the dust jackets) with these books: the photographs are often attractive, but rarely give the reader an idea of what the food prepared from recipes in the book should look like. For example, on page 129 of Super Natural Cooking, across from a recipe for “Peach Nectar Iced Tea”, we find a very confusing picture of Heidi’s ear. The photographs of actual food are often too artistically blurred to convey much information. All that said, I confess that I really do like her double page spread on pages 220-221 in the second book (Super Natural Every Day) of deer in a field of grain.
Neither of the two books is arranged in a way that I find particularly useful. The chapter headings of the first book reflect different aspects of “natural” cooking; e.g., “Cook by Color” or “Use Natural Sweeteners”. The second book is organized by meal: “Breakfast”, “Lunch”, etc. The recipe introductions are strictly about the food; little in the way of personal stories from Heidi, who prefers to stay hidden behind her camera. The recipe introductions do, however, serve the purpose of enticing the reader to try the recipe, and the recipes themselves are clearly and competently presented. Just how good the recipes are will be discussed below, after introducing the third cookbook featured in this post.
Enter now Deb Perelman with The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, only recently published (2012). As opposed to Heidi, who, we learn, lives in San Francisco with her boyfriend Wayne and likes wide open spaces, Deb is a young married with an adorable toddler living in New York city. Heidi is a ninja vegetarian (tending to be understated, even secretive, about this food choice), whereas Deb is a reformed vegetarian (like a reformed smoker, all too tuned in to the errors of her past). Deb writes unendingly about herself, with recipe introductions sometimes longer than the recipes, as opposed to Heidi’s parsimony regarding personal information. Deb, like Heidi, does her own food photography, and it is a lot more informational than Heidi’s food photography. On the other hand, I’d rather frame and hang Heidi’s pictures on my wall.
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook is organized in a sensible way, with, for example, a separate section for vegetarian main dishes and for main dishes containing meat. Although there is also a salad section, a snack section, a breakfast and a sandwich section, there is no soup section. This is rather strange, as, according to at least one opinion (Shay), the soup recipes on the Smitten Kitchen website are particularly good. Given the amount of non-recipe content in the cookbook, i suppose something had to go. There are only about 100 recipes in this 300 page cookbook, which is not many.
Although some people like to stroke their cookbooks, some like to curl up in bed and read them, or look at the pictures, or imagine the lives of the people who write the cookbooks, other people just want to cook. So the truly essential question regarding any cookbook is: how good are the recipes?
As a vegetarian cook, I always appreciate vegetarian cookbooks, knowing that I can open the book anywhere and cook what I find. However, when I have opened either of Heidi’s books and cooked, I have been somewhat disappointed. I have found her food to be bland and forgettable. So forgettable, in fact, that I can’t remembered everything that I have tried from these cookbooks! My rule of thumb, though, is to try at least two recipes from each cookbook, and I do remember two (unmemorable) recipes from each of her books. From Super Natural Cooking, I tried “Hijiki and Edamame Salad” (page 139) and “Toasted Wheat Germ Soup” (page 54), and from Super Natural Every Day, “Wild Rice Casserole” (page 355) and “Black Pepper Tempeh” (page 141).
The hijiki and edamame salad looked promising; several people in my family are inexplicably fond of edamame, and miso makes almost any savory food better. And yet…and yet… . This salad was nothing more, and maybe a bit less, than the sum of its parts. Maybe if I’d doubled the miso and garlic it would have been better. (But I suspect I did double. Tripling might have been a better idea.)
The wheat germ soup was actually quite well received, although I think much of the good flavor was from my favorite vegetable broth product, Better than Bullion, that comes in a number of flavors and types. The soup is a pretty basic tomato soup with beans; the only innovation is the wheat germ which adds some body and maybe some nutrition. I did not depart much from Heidi’s recipe: I toasted my own wheat germ, and cooked my own beans. The volume yield she gives for a pound of beans is a bit off: the recipe calls for four cups of beans, and she claims one pound will give you 2½ cups; if you start out with 1½ pounds of dried beans, you will end up with way too many cooked beans.
From Super Natural Every Day I tried “Wild Rice Casserole” (page 155) and “Black Pepper Tempeh” (page 141). The casserole was a real disappointment. I was pitting it against a similar dish from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, and I expected Heidi’s dish to come out ahead as it seemed to have a lot more going on: mushrooms, garlic, and lots of cheese. The casserole just turned out to be a muddle, with the various tastes canceling each other out.
The tempeh dish was somewhat more successful. Tempeh is a food that I want to like, but liking it is not easy for me. The more disguised the tempeh is, the more I will like a dish with tempeh. Heidi’s tempeh dish has lots of whole garlic cloves, cauliflower, and an unusually large amount of sugar, which I reduced somewhat. The tempeh was adequately disguised, and the tempeh was edible!
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, on the other hand, had lots of good recipes. My absolute favorite was the “Honey and Harissa Farro Salad” (page 78). You mix cooked farro (and if you haven’t yet discovered farro, it’s time to do so) with roasted carrots and parsnips, and add a honey and harissa dressing. I used lots more harissa than suggested in the recipe, but maybe my harissa wasn’t that hot. You then mix in feta and mint. The salad was particularly attractive when I made it with multi-colored carrots.
The “Wild Rice Gratin with Kale, Caramelized Onions, and Baby Swiss” (page 149) was, as mentioned above, way tastier than Heidi’s wild rice casserole. The title pretty much describes the dish. My only objection is that Deb calls for sweet onions, and then cooks them over low heat to caramelize them. Well, sweet onions aren’t really sweet, but just have less of the sulfuric compounds that regular onions have. These compounds cook away with slow cooking (caramelization), so there is no point in starting with sweet onions unless the sweet onions are on sale and cheaper than the regular onions. Even then, the sweet onions have a much higher water content, and cook away to almost nothing. Thus if I tried this recipe again, I would use regular yellow onions instead of sweet onions.
Deb rhapsodizes over her “Broccoli Slaw” (page 72). Raw broccoli is mixed with dried cranberries (but I use cherries), almonds, and red onion (which I like sliced, not chopped as in the recipe) and then mixed with a buttermilk and mayonnaise dressing (my version uses less dressing). I really like this dish, but when I served it to guests, they were rather unimpressed, dismissing it a a bit too Susie Fishbein (the kosher Martha Stewart).
Yet another good recipe is “Rosemary, Gruyere and Sea Salt Crisps” (page 294), a.k.a. cheese crackers. Instead of using pre-grated cheese, as in the recipe, I just tossed cheese chunks in the food processor along with the rest of the ingredients. I did not have the patience or equipment to turn out crackers as neat and professional looking as those pictured in the book, but I expect that my raggedy edged crackers tasted just as good.
The one dud recipe in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook was “Fig, Olive Oil, and Sea Salt Challah” (page 45). The bread wasn’t bad; it was just a standard challah recipe with figs. It’s catchy to put “olive oil” and “sea salt” in the title of a recipe, but I have always (or at least for the last ten years or so) used olive oil in my challah, and sea salt is just salt. Figs are not a particularly good challah add-in; I probably would have liked them better if I had chopped them more finely. I think though, that my real problem with this bread is that I cannot take a challah recipe particularly seriously when it is 17 pages away from “Maple Bacon Biscuits”.
Although I have my quibbles with these books, overall, I like all three, and will no doubt acquire any future books by either of these authors. I have not given up on Heidi’s recipes yet; I saw several promising recipes while looking through her books again as I was preparing this post. As for Deb, I look forward to trying more of her recipes, and will make more of an effort to enjoy her lengthy recipe introductions.
Wheat Germ Soup
Adapted from Heidi Swanson, Super Natural Cooking
8 ounces dried cannellini beans (or baby limas)
1 cup wheat germ
5-6 cups vegetable broth
1 onion, finely chopped
1 14.5 ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 teaspoons salt
Red pepper flakes or hot sauce
Pick over the beans, removing any stones or compromised beans, and soak the beans in water over night. Drain the beans, add more water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the beans until almost done (this might take an hour, but will completely depend on your particular batch of dried beans). If you forgot to soak the beans, all is not lost. You’ll just have to cook the beans a lot longer. When the beans are almost done (bite into one to see how soft it is), add a little salt and cook until the beans are done.
Toast the wheat germ in a 350° oven; watch it because it is easy to burn. Alternatively, you can toast it in a dry pan on the stove top.
Heat some olive oil (a tablespoon or more) in a soup pot, add the onion, and cook over medium heat until soft, beginning to brown, and aromatic. Add the cooked beans with their cooking liquid, and enough additional vegetable broth so that the soup has your desired ratio of liquid to solid. Add the toasted wheat germ and the canned tomatoes. Add more salt to taste, and the hot pepper or hot sauce, again to taste. I suggest a generous squirt of sriracha. Simmer for about 15 minutes.
Slice or tear the basil leaves, as much basil as you like. You can serve the soup and decorate with the basil, or just toss the basil into the soup, where it will wilt and no longer be a colorful garnish, but will still add flavor.
Adapted from Heidi Swanson, Super Natural Every Day
3 shallots, sliced
1-2 heads of garlic, separated into cloves and the cloves whole and peeled
1 inch piece of ginger, finely chopped
1 head cauliflower, separated into florets
8 ounces tempeh, sliced into sticks
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons less refined sugar
Red pepper flakes or hot sauce
Heat a tablespoon or so of the oil in a large skillet. Add the shallots, garlic cloves, and ginger, and cook gently over medium low heat until the garlic is soft. Add the cauliflower, and cook until the cauliflower begins to soften. Add the tempeh and continue to cook. The tempeh tends to break up, so you don’t want to stir too much at this point. Mix together the soy sauce, water, and sugar, and add to the skillet. Cook, stirring gently, and the cauliflower is thoroughly cooked. Add salt to taste, lots of black pepper, and hot pepper or hot sauce, again to taste.
Adapted from Deb Perelman, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
1 bunch broccoli
1⁄2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1⁄2 cup dried cherries
1⁄2 red onion, very thinly sliced (use your cheap mandoline slicer)
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon agave syrup or other sweetener
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
Separate the broccoli tops into florets. Peel and slice the broccoli stalks. Add the almonds, cherries, and onion. Mix together the buttermilk, mayonnaise, vinegar, agave syrup, and salt. Mix with the broccoli, and add lots of black pepper.