Great food writing is a lot like a great meal. There are small morsels you want to gobble up quickly, like a dinner-opening amuse or a really good pork-belly slider. Then there are passages you want to savor and linger over, like you would the pressed duck at Paris’ La Tour D’Argent. Most of all, the best food writing makes me think as much as it makes me hungry.
This week—with the coming of summer in mind—I point you toward three excellent summer-reading companions, perfect for road trips, campouts, beach reading or just for relishing on the porch or patio. All three of my choices include recipes; two are, I suppose, technically cookbooks. But all three are so much more than mere collections of recipes or tips on kitchen technique. Even if you never use a single one of the recipes—and there’s a good chance you won’t—there’s delicious reading surrounding those recipes. What ties the trio together most of all is their common irreverence.
Birmingham, England, native April Bloomfield is executive chef and co-owner of a trio of coveted New York City restaurants: The Spotted Pig, The Breslin and The John Dory. Although she’s widely known to be a perfectionist in the kitchen, Bloomfield’s dishes and recipes aren’t precious. I don’t recall seeing any foams in her new book, A Girl & Her Pig, nor are there nods to the culinary chemistry forays known as molecular gastronomy. Nope, A Girl & Her Pig is downright irreverent, as evidenced by the last line of her introduction to the book: “Remember, it’s easy to make simple food taste great—as long as you don’t fuck it up.”
I like the way A Girl & Her Pig is organized, beginning—as it ought—with a chapter on breakfast, including a foolproof technique for frying an egg that’s crispy and golden around the edges (Bloomfield can’t stand “snotty” whites). She calls the fish and seafood chapter “Meat Without Feet” and devotes another whole chapter to offal: “The Not-So-Nasty Bits.” Every recipe begins with an entertaining story or anecdote; that’s where the fun reading comes in.
Most of all, this is food you really want to eat, not just admire on the plate. Fried pig’s-ear salad, for example, is not exactly haute cuisine, but who could resist pig’s ears fried in duck fat? “What a gorgeous thing,” Bloomfield says about a whole oven-roasted lamb’s head. Vegans might want to skip over her loving depiction: “It’s such a treat discovering all the different textures in the head: some bits creamy and sticky, others tender with a nice chew, the custardy brain, the meaty deposit behind the eye.” Interspersed throughout this wonderful book are helpful essays about making “a good salad,” “dinner with Marcella [Hazan],” British “bubble & squeak” and good advice on kitchen equipment, techniques, ingredients, plating and such. The book, quite simply, is a wonderful pig-out.
Joe Beef might just be my favorite restaurant, and I’ve never even been there. But The Art of Living According to Joe Beef sure makes me want to travel to Montreal to try it. The book’s subtitle is A Cookbook of Sorts. That’s accurate, with an emphasis on “of sorts.” Truth is, it’s so much better than a mere cookbook. Written by Joe Beef owners Fred Morin and David McMillan—along with food writer Meredith Erickson, and with a foreword by David Chang—this is what a cookbook really should be. It’s a celebration of food and drink that goes way beyond recipes. In fact, gathering and testing the Joe Beef recipes was a real pain in the ass, since nothing at the restaurant is ever written down. The restaurant itself is an homage to Charles McKiernan (aka “Joe Beef”), a “friend of the working man,” whose Joe Beef Canteen provided food, drink and shelter to scores of Montreal’s working class from 1869 to 1889.
Morin and McMillan are larger-than-life characters with appetites for food and drink so large that they can make Batali and Bourdain look wimpy. Why else would you put a foie gras breakfast sandwich on the menu? As with A Girl & Her Pig, you may not ever execute one of the Joe Beef recipes; after all, many require stuff like wild hare, veal livers and staples like beef-shank stock. I mean, I really doubt you’ll tackle the two-day project called liÃ¨vre Ã la royale, which involves, among other things, a rabbit, a hare, veal trotters, foie gras, caul fat and much more. This is Jim Harrison territory. But, as with Harrison, the recipes and everything in between make for fascinating reading. Why, there’s even instructions for building your own smoker (which requires welding equipment), and a food-porn-worthy centerfold of Joe Beef’s 30-item smorgasbord. Great fun, this fine book.
Lucky Peach is “a quarterly journal of food and writing”—says so right on the cover. What it doesn’t say about the current (spring 2012) “Chefs” issue, though, is that it’s also a master class on the state of cooking in 2012. Contributors range from David Chang (who thinks cooking is “dying”) and Mario Batali (who finds redemption in our modern foodie culture and TV shows) to Tony Bourdain and lesser-known cooks such as a line cook from L’ArpÃ¨ge, a cafeteria lunch lady, the queen of jok (rice soup), a line cook stationed at the South Pole and an army cook from Fort Bragg. There are interviews with Alain Ducasse and Eric Ripert; a timeline/remembrance of one of my favorite restaurants, Lespinasse; a history of the molten-chocolate cake; and many more recipes and reading packed into this gem of a journal. And yes, there’s a Playboy-style centerfold in Lucky Peach, too, called “Mean Cuisine.”