Review: The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

I’d like to think that Deb Perelman and I are a lot alike but all I can come up with to support that is that we’re both happy in the kitchen.  But it’s enough, I think, to claim a connection.

Tomato-Glazed Meatloaves with Brown Butter Mashed Potatoes (pg. 187)

What does it mean to be happy in the kitchen, besides the obvious?  It means when you eat something good in the real world your second thought (after “I’m so happy to be eating this right now”) is “how can I replicate this at home?”  It means you plan your weekend around baking.  It means cooking for someone is your default means of letting them know you care about them.  It means you are the designated cake-maker for every office birthday.  It also means you’d better spend every non-cooking and non-eating minute on the treadmill.

Deb says she cooks because she’s picky and obsessive.  She wants to keep making a dish until she’s certain she’s tweaked it into perfection.  And then she needs to share it.  And that was the impetus for SmittenKitchen.com (and KateCookstheBooks.com too).  After all, as satisfying as cooking is, and as exhilarating as it is to be able to make the best onion rings you’ve ever tasted right in your own kitchen, it’s most often a solitary activity.  Especially if, like Deb, you have a doll-house kitchen or, like me, you become unfocused and mentally scattered by having people around when you’re cooking (I love you all but you are distracting.  I didn’t invite you over to socialize for crying out loud).  So there you stand, with those insanely good onion rings, and you know you cannot keep them to yourself.  You thank Leonard Kleinrock (or Al Gore depending on your belief system) for inventing the Interwebs and you get the word out.  And if you’re talented, have something new to say, and you’re a little lucky, 5 squillion people a day will visit your site.  And then the awesome, brilliant people at Knopf will call and ask you to write a cookbook (I can be reached at kate@katecooksthebooks.com, email me Knopf!)

As much as Deb’s mission is to tell you about truly life-changing recipes, she is also a working mom with space and time limitations and knows that if something is going to require an entire day of cooking and three hours of clean up, it had better be extraordinary.  And she knows that most of the time you want something extraordinary that you can pull off in 45 minutes on a Tuesday night.  (Because, as Joan Didion said when asked why she used her good silver every day: “Every day is all there is.”)

Alex’s Chocolate Raspberry Rugelach (pg. 212)

The Smitten Kitchen cookbook is the culmination of refining recipes, incorporating feedback from an ever-increasing readership, and Deb’s own evolution as a cook.  Her many years as a vegetarian mean that the meatless main dishes in the book are outstanding and unapologetic.  Becoming a parent lent a new purpose to her cooking as she tried to please a developing palate and make food that was appealing to a baby and then a toddler and healthy at the same time.  Living in Manhattan with, as she says,  ”the tenderest meatballs or the world’s most ethereal hummus” also informs her eating, cooking and recipe development.

The result is a book with instructions that are clear, friendly, and sympathetic.  The photographs make me ill with envy but, of course, contribute to our understanding of dish and the recipe (and, I believe, were all taken by Deb in her own kitchen).  I particularly like Deb’s practical eye — why dirty three pans when one will suffice?  Do-ahead instructions are always included and who doesn’t appreciate that?

One question that comes up now that cooking blogs regularly evolve into printed cookbooks is “how much replication is there between the book and the web site?”  In other words, “Should I buy this particular cow if most of the milk is already out there for free?”  By Deb’s estimation, the book is 85% new material and the 15% from the site has been “retested, reworked and streamlined.”  In my experience with the book, this is accurate.  And I say this somewhat grudgingly as it’s easier for me to link you to her site for the recipe rather than have to search for an alternate legitimate source or, God forbid, type if all out myself (with instructions in my own words, per prevailing copyright laws.  All legal here, thanks for checking Feds and publishers!)

The vast majority of ingredients are easy to find and substitutions are given when they’re not.  There are some exceptions; finding cranberry beans, fresh or canned, or ground sumac is certainly attainable in Chicago, it just requires a trip to another store or neighborhood.  (And why do cookbook authors think that we’re all drowning in fresh peas all the time?  I rarely see these anywhere but the farmer’s market and even there for a short time.)  In most cases (e.g. the sumac) I either just left it out or made my own substitution with no ill effects.  Comfort foods are represented but Deb always brings something new to them (Salted Brown Butter Crispy Treats, Buttered Popcorn Cookies).

Maya’s Sweet and Sour Holiday Brisket (pg. 183)

I love this book as a great collection of weeknight meals, special treats, lots of great breakfast ideas (which you know I will turn into dinner if I feel like it, and I usually do), a robust vegetarian section, and delightful desserts.

Because Deb hasn’t slowed down a bit since the book was published I fully expect this to be the first in a series of Smitten Kitchen cookbooks.  Until then, keep up with her at SmittenKitchen.com (as I clicked over just now to get the link the most recent recipe was Blood Orange Margaritas.  Off to get drunk now!)

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