Thinking Cookbooks: The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

cookNscribble – June 12, 2013


By Stephanie Deihl

I wanted to hate Deb Perelman and The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook.  Before publication, I had spent six years dodging the eponymous blog.  As a former line cook, I was dubious of this self-taught food blogger with six million followers who churned out up to three unique recipes a week.  I was sure the recipes didn’t work.

When the cookbook was released in October 2012, her name and recipes exploded across the internet like soda from a rattled can.  I finally clicked on a link to her site and started reading.  I laughed out loud three lines in.  I read on because, well, her writing style is infectious.  She confides in the reader without spilling cringe-worthy details.  She feigns irreverence to lighten her impassioned monologues on everything from poaching eggs to constructing perfect pizza pie, and does it all with a lively wit that makes you wish you knew her personally, so you could call her up to hear more.

I scrolled down to the photos.  I’m not sure I’d ever seen such an artistic display of butternut squash peels on a laminate countertop.  This woman could make dry granola seem mouthwatering.  I re-checked her bio.  Nope, she was not a professional photographer, but had dabbled as an art therapist and IT reporter, and even worked at a bakery long enough to learn how to scrawl “Happy Birthday” on frosted cakes.

I had been blogging six months at this point, just long enough to appreciate how hard it is to achieve the blogging trifecta:  great voice, great photos, and great recipes.  She had the first two in the bag, so I assumed the recipes didn’t work.

Unfortunately for my ego, I walked into my local bookstore to find a Christmas gift for my mother.  There it was, the last copy of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, staring me down.  I opened it up and flipped carefully through the thick, glossy pages.  I could literally feel other patrons hovering, waiting for me to put it down so they could nab it.  My competitive alter-ego took over and I paid for it at the counter; a gift for my mother, for Christmas.

Deb Perelman

Back at home, my fingers ran over page after page of beautifully photographed food and stopped at the recipe for Harvest Roast Chicken with Grapes, Olives, and Rosemary.  The dish reminded me of a spectacular family meal with sausages and grapes that I ate at my first restaurant job at L’Espalier in Boston.  I could still remember the flavor of that silky, salty, and sweet sauce eight years later, and figured this dish might be a close approximation.

I jotted down the recipe before handing the book over to my mother, and made it for dinner the following week.  Preparing the recipe took twenty minutes from start to finish.  I literally threw the ingredients into a pan and let them roast.  The result was crunchy golden-brown chicken glistening with a smooth, deep, plum-colored sauce, studded with briny olives and sweet bursting grapes.  As Deb instructed would happen, my family “licked their spoons clean.”  For me, the meal was tinged with bitter and sweet — this Deb woman really could cook.

The next night, we showed up for Sunday supper at my parent’s house.  The air was thick with roasting meat and I ran up the stairs into the kitchen, expecting to see a roasted bird or loin of pork resting on the stove, ready to carve.  Instead, there was that familiar cast-iron pan full of crispy browned chicken pieces, olives, and grapes.  My mother had made the very same dish.  It was just as delicious as it was the night before, and aside from minor grumblings from the toddler set that we were eating the same thing again, we happily licked our spoons clean.

I made it again the following week for company, and then grudgingly bought a copy of the book so I could try some of the other recipes.  I’ve been cooking from it nonstop ever since.

Deb has said that her inspiration often stems from disappointment; in dishes she ordered at a restaurant or recipes she cooked at home that didn’t taste at all like she’d imagined.  “Nobody hates cooking as much as they hate the roulette of not knowing if their time, money, and efforts are going to be rewarded by a recipe that exceeds expectations,” she says in the introduction.  She wrote the cookbook for the same reason she started the blog – to create a haven of successful no-tweaking-necessary recipes.

It’s clear from the book’s layout, that Deb loves breakfast food and sweets.  She admits shamelessly in her introduction that the line between them is sometimes blurred.  “Here at Smitten Kitchen, everybody agrees that cold fruit crisps make excellent breakfasts,” she says.  Deb even convinces me – a serial breakfast-skipper who would prefer a slice of pizza at 7 AM to chocolate brioche – that this is a brilliant idea because it’s healthier than sugary pre-mixed yogurts.

She follows breakfast with hearty soups, sandwiches, and an inspired vegetarian section – she called herself one for over a decade.  Main dishes span poultry, pork, beef, and lamb and a smattering of fish and shellfish recipes, though she admits that fish isn’t really her thing.  The common thread is comfort food.

This doesn’t mean the book is full of uncomplicated weeknight meals. Take, for example, her chocolate hazelnut crepe cake: Paper-thin crepes swiped with hazelnut pastry cream and stacked eighteen layers high into a neat tower, then drizzled with rich chocolate ganache.  I made a cake just like this for a final pastry project in culinary school.  It took me weeks to perfect and even now, I’m not sure I could write out the five-page recipe with equal parts detail and brevity, as Deb does – bravely holding the reader’s hand through the intimidating step professional bakers call tempering the yolks, and clearly explaining how to achieve the desired thinness of each crepe.

She also offers creative solutions to common food issues.  In the recipe for tomato scallion shortcakes with whipped goat cheese, “The problem,” she said, “Is that fresh-tomato-and-diluted-dressing runoff that puddles in the plate,” because she struggles to keep from licking the plate clean.  She solves this by catching the drip with savory shortcake.  She has me sold, and left wondering why I never thought of it, even after plating hundreds of juicy heirloom tomato salads as a line cook.

Then, it dawned on me that maybe what I considered her biggest issue – lack of professional experience – was really a blessing in disguise.  As a restaurant cook I was so busy perfecting someone else’s vision that I never had time to work on my own.

“I’m a slow, slow cook and even slower at prep,” Deb said in a January 2013 blog post. But maybe this is the secret to her success:  she tastes and tests and tweaks until the recipe comes out to her liking, and then tests it again to be sure.  “I am picky as hell.  And also a little obsessive,” she said in the cookbook’s introduction. But for this line of work, those are admirable traits.

What I learned early on in my culinary career is that if you have unbridled passion for good food, a strong attention to detail, and a willingness to work harder than you ever thought you could, you can become a good cook.  Apparently this can also get you a wildly successful blog and best-selling cookbook to boot.

Steph Deihl is a cook and writer living in Portsmouth, New Hampshire with her husband Doug and their two young children.  She attended Wellesley College and the New England Culinary Institute before cooking and baking in restaurants in New York, Boston, and Durham, North Carolina.  Steph has also worked as a personal chef and a recipe editor for MarthaStewart.com.  These days she cooks and writes the blog, One Family Meal, and tries to keep her toddlers out of trouble.