As far as cookbook anticipation goes, April Bloomfield's new release, A Girl and Her Pig, which hits shelves in early April, ranks right up there on the crispy pig ear salad (p. 85) meter. Is it deserving of the hype? Perhaps.
But we're not going there just yet, even though we suspect other Google-searchable reviewers will get right to the sausage-stuffed onion (p. 174) point. For us, this book deserves more restraint than just digging right into that sweet banoffee pie (p. 270) commentary.
For starters, there are a few tricky stewed octopus (p. 107) moments in this book. Not tricky in that cooking octopus is difficult, but octopus requires cooking lightning-quick or long and slow, with very few forgivable text-message diversions in between. In fact, you could sum up Bloomfield's cooking style as one that, at its core, has been stripped down to the simplest country ingredients, yet the chef has a Thomas Keller-worthy attention to the tiniest details of that gnudi texture (more on those semolina-ricotta bites later).
Chefs other than Bloomfield have said it before and will keep reminding us, but when you are making simple dishes with often equally singular brown butter embellishments, whether that Caesar salad (p. 75), whole suckling pig (p. 184) and pine nut tart (p. 274) supper is remarkable, or just better than average, wholly depends on the ingredients you choose and how carefully you cook them. With A Girl and Her Pig, it is imperative.
It is a recipe asterisk that even the book's ghost writer, J.J. Goode, addresses in his Foreword. He recalls how cooking alongside Bloomfield for the year changed the way he approaches every recipe detail (choosing to add more lemon juice or salt to finish the dish, for instance). What he doesn't say is that those of us lucky enough to work on the line alongside an incredibly no-frills chef (or intimately get to know their cooking style one-on-one by penning their book), surely have an "add-to-taste" advantage over the everyday home cook. Of course, to achieve the palate talent that Bloomfield has requires years of studying under great chefs to fine-tune your sensory instrument. Not to mention sheer raw talent.
And so it is fitting that Bloomfield opens the first chapter with a hilarious round of the self-flagellation that the British do so well (the chapter is titled "My Fussy Recipes"). In it, she implores us (again) to buy the best ingredients possible and rely on our palate to find that final beet and smoked trout salad (p. 94) balance.
As for her own path to ingredient enlightenment, Bloomfield says she was raised on British porridge (here, the oatmeal is dressed with Maldon sea salt and maple syrup, p. 26), but it was her River Café line-cook days that left an indelible mark on the young cook. The book is dedicated to the River Café's former co-owner and chef, Rose Gray, whom she mentions frequently in the recipes throughout.
The parallels between exacting chefs like Bloomfield and Gray soon become obvious ("When you're a young cook with a fragile ego, someone like Rose isn't an easy person to work for, but she was certainly an inspiring one. ... Everything had to be just so, from the way food was plated to the balsamic vinegar they used. It was infectious," recalls Bloomfield). If you have ever cooked your way through a River Café cookbook, you know the earnest simplicity -- more complicated than it sounds -- resonates on those pages as well.
And so when Bloomfield introduces us to her gnudi (p. 231), one of the most popular menu items at the Spotted Pig, she says the semolina and ricotta nuggets are "extremely simple" to make. And in concept, ingredients and prep time, they are easy -- or, as Bloomfield attests, at least for "cooks without a restaurant to run" like us (Ha!). And yet she goes on to share what chefs know all too well -- "simple" can be hard as hell to master because there are no 25-ingredient sauces or molecular gastronomy magic tricks to cover up the tiniest off note: "But when you must have [the gnudi] ready every day for service, it's another story," Bloomfield says. "They're so temperamental -- sometimes they're ready to cook after a day in the fridge, sometimes it takes two or three. I often jump the gun...."
We have a feeling that if Bloomfield still finds cooking them to perfection tricky, thousands of gnudi later, we will, too. Then again, by now even publishers are admitting that cookbooks today, perhaps more so those by top chefs, really aren't about those beef tongue sandwich with tarragon sauce recipes (p. 140). They're about the stories behind the sandwich (also a River Café-inspired recipe moment). In fact, we would argue that A Girl and Her Pig is more interesting for the stories and British banter than for the recipes. Ah, the ironies subtly peeking from the grease stain-free pages of today's most anticipated cookbooks.
Even the cookbook itself, which is weighty and dense, feels like a novel or memoir (in our copy, many of the pages are so tightly packed, they had already loosened from the spine). And you really could settle into a lounge chair and read the recipe headers and essays front to back: The "Nibbles" chapter to start, then "Meat Without Feet" (and "Birds" and "Cow" and "A Little Lamb" and "Fine Swine"), and of course, "The Not-So-Nasty Bits." The prose passages are so dominant here -- and we mean that as a compliment -- we can't help but wonder what the book would have been like if it had been compiled in the Comfort Me With Apples vein, with mainly text and a few recipes sprinkled at the end of each chapter. Of course, that doesn't mean we won't be trying our hand at those gnudi -- we'll just be plenty satiated reading about them first.
And so instead of a recipe, we leave you with this lovely bit of prose from Bloomfield (and her ghost writer, J.J. Goode).
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I have been drinking for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, my dad gave me sips of his lager. When I was lucky, I got a little glass of shandy -- half beer, half lemonade. But my really formative drinking experiences all happened in pubs. Pubs are what I miss most about England: You finish work, you sit in a pub and you drink with your friends. The ritual is ingrained in me. Without it, I feel like I'm missing a part of my body.
A proper English pub is not like a tavern or dive bar in the United States. It's not like anything else, anywhere. I feel a different energy when I pop in midday to a shabby bar in New York. Sure, English pubs can be dark and dingy and odd. But that's the fun bit. The familiar bit. You feel comfortable there, you kind of become a part of the furniture. Pubs are beautiful in their way -- Victorian places lovingly battered by their customers.
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