Bibliobites in February: Still Smitten?

Long-time blogger Deb Perelman has been on our group’s radar before– way back in March of 2014, we reviewed her first cookbook, 2012’s bestseller The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook.  Five years later, we checked out her latest effort, Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites. We enjoyed that first book– but this time around, were we still smitten, or has Ms. Perelman suffered a sophomore slump?

We were united in our praise for the book itself.  Like its predecessor, it has a large-format – with heavy, glossy paper and absolutely stunning photography, shot by the author.  Though some of us detested the long, chatty headnotes and others adored them, we all agreed that the writing was outstanding.  The book seemed a bit “blog-ish;” in some ways we felt the writing took precedence over the recipes!  The overall tone is humorous and self-deprecating; the author wants us to know she’s a regular person with the typical challenges of any cook in a kitchen, learning through time and experience.  While it can certainly be appealing to know an author is more of a peer than a professional, when it comes to recipes we want to know they’ve been thoroughly vetted….and preferably unfussy as advertised.   So, into the kitchen we go!

As the book does, let’s begin with breakfast: granola biscotti were crunchy– maybe a bit too crunchy– they “needed to be dunked.”   But despite the crunch factor: “loved ’em.” Magical two-ingredient oat brittle was quite tasty (and easy) but it was so crunchy that it was a potential tooth-breaker.  Please use caution when consuming!  Spinach, mushroom, and goat cheese slab frittata came in for faint praise: it was “decent;” the cook felt it needed the punch of a more strongly-flavored cheese.  Two of us tried the perfect blueberry muffins; one person’s looked like the tempting photo in the book, but another’s came out disappointingly flat.  These were good muffins, and scored points for not being too sweet, but “you can’t beat the Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin recipe.”  So, a worthy attempt but maybe not perfect for us!

Many of us were excited and intrigued by the salad recipes; for example, potatoes and asparagus gribiche was a delicious combination of flavors, though “it was a lot of work” to assemble.   Winter slaw with farro was a tasty way to add cool crunch on the side of your plate; but carrot salad with tahini, crisped chickpeas, and salted pistachios, though it sounded enticing, was “bland,” and the chickpeas never got crispy.

Besides the salads, there were plenty of vegetable-centric dishes in the book, which we appreciated. Artichoke and Parmesan galette was a quiche-ish tart that was loaded with artichokes; its flavors were a riff on the addictive fifties-era warm artichoke dip that had a rebirth in the 90’s.  Wild mushroom shepherd’s pie had lots of savory umami from its two pounds of mushrooms (!), and improved on the second day; unfortunately it was also a “labor-intensive” recipe.  One-pan farro with tomatoes is one of the most raved-about recipes on Ms. Perelman’s blog, and those who made it had to agree that it was super.  It truly was unfussy and definitely delivered in the flavor department; also,  “the fresh basil added a lot!”  But broccoli, cheddar, and wild rice fritters were just “OK.”  They weren’t quite substantial enough for a meal and they were messy to fry. “They needed a sauce,” too.  Brussels and three cheese pasta bake was certainly hearty enough; but as is true of many of these types of casseroles, “it was a lot of work!”  Our cook did like that the sauce was made with vegetable broth (instead of a dairy product) and was spiked with lemon zest.   A couple of people tried cacio e pepe potatoes Anna, which are pictured on the book’s cover.  These were good, but not outstanding; and so perhaps not worth the effort.  And sadly our attempts didn’t look nearly as gorgeous as the photo!

We tried a few meaty main dishes:  smoky sheet pan chicken with cauliflower was easy to put together, and the marinade for the chicken was excellent. Chicken and rice street cart style also had a fabulous marinade (really more of a rub) and the combination of chicken, rice, and chopped salad was worthy of any food truck.  Quick sausage, kale, and crouton saute could’ve (amazingly) used more kale; and overall just needed more something.  But it did still taste good, and was pretty speedy to produce.  Meatballs Marsala with egg noodles and chives was a winner– the meatballs were delicious and moist, and easy to put together; “will definitely make again!”

When it came time for dessert, there was plenty of enthusiasm for baking all kinds of treats.  Banana bread roll was easy to make and super-yummy; a keeper!  Peach Melba popsicles were deliciously tart and creamy, and would probably be even more appreciated on a hot summer day.  Two thick, chewy oatmeal raisin chocolate chip mega-cookies were an interesting concept (with a way too long name–c’mon, Deb!)– the recipe really did make only two large cookies.  Some liked the idea of only making a few cookies at a time; others thought this concept was a waste of effort.  One person thought the cookies were a bit bland; they did have less sugar than your average cookie so that may have had an effect on taste perception.   And the next day, the cookies were either “better” or “soggy,” depending on who you asked!  Olive oil shortbread with rosemary and chocolate chunks, despite the chocolate, tasted “more savory than sweet,” but it could go either way.  Rosemary haters should beware– the flavor was assertive!  On the down side, double coconut meltaways looked nothing like the pretty, plump cookies in the photo; they came out flat and “greasy”– it seemed like there was way too much coconut oil in the recipe.   And spice cake looked awesome and sliced  neatly– but inside it was gummy (despite sworn faithful adherence to the recipe) and tasted oddly bland.  Even the frosting became gummy on the second day.

In the final analysis, we realized that we loved most of her ideas— at first blush, lots of the recipes in this book seemed more interesting than most, yet approachable.  However, in actual practice there was less triumph and more fussy than we would have liked.   But, needless to say, everyone’s concept of what constitutes “fussy” is different, as it all depends on your overall cooking style and/or how much time and patience you have.  A few people commented that they thought her first book was better, but generally almost everyone found something to enjoy in this title.   Our voting was almost evenly split between those who gave it a 4 (out of 5) and those who gave it a 3; our average worked out to 3.25.  So maybe we got pretty close to smitten!

Our next meeting will be on Friday, March 29 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room.  This month we’ll be perusing a variety of community cookbooks, including one produced by CPL staff several years ago.  Choose one from those available at the main desk.  New members always welcome; see you there!