“I have tried a few recipes for pig’s ears and feet… But I will not make them again. They are difficult to buy, especially ears; most butchers don’t sell them… these days people eat them at restaurants and rarely cook them at home.”
—Claudia Roden The Food of Spain
I read April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig in one rapid sitting, charmed by Bloomfield’s voice. Then I sat down to write about it and grew increasingly flummoxed. I realized I’d likely never cook from it, yet still considered it a good book. The question is, what kind of book is this?
Largely this comes down to one’s expectations from a cookbook. At its most basic, the cookbook reader expects a collection of recipes with notes on preparation. But as cooking has ballooned from a practical necessity into a high-end lifestyle pursuit, cookbooks have naturally followed suit: hence the term “food porn”. Beneath food porn’s many subheadings (glossy photography, celebrity chefs, television tie-ins, rigorous seasonality) falls restaurant cookbooks like Bloomfield’s. (She is chef and part owner of New York City’s The Spotted Pig, The John Dory, and The Breslin.)
Restaurant cookbooks run the gamut from ungainly coffeetable affairs to serious, useful works. Because restaurant cookbooks attempt to duplicate recipes prepared by professionals in professional kitchens, with access to prime and/or unusual ingredients, these cookbooks don’t always translate to the home kitchen. See Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. It’s a gorgeous, carefully written book full of complex recipes requiring skills, ingredients, and equipment beyond the reach of all but the most elite home cooks. It’s the sort of cookbook you read once, then park on your bookshelf. The pages remain pristine, the recipes untested. Yet the Chez Panisse cookbooks are largely accessible to anybody interested in preparing a nice meal. They’re the books that get stained, their bindings damaged, as you use them repeatedly.
I can’t say A Girl and Her Pig falls into the spattered and tattered category, but there is signficant upside. Bloomfield is a direct and unpretentious chef whose love of food and cooking is contaigous. If the recipes don’t grab you, Bloomfield’s cooking philosophy will. The woman is a perfectionist, a common, even necessary quality in a chef. But she’s unusual in conveying her urgency to the home cook, meticulously breaking down what makes a dish truly delicious. You may not come away from A Girl and Her Pig with a bunch of beloved recipes for your arsenal, but you may consider your food anew.
A Girl and Her Pig begins with a discourse on the importance of perfectionism and how it elevates simple foods. Bloomfield cuts carrots into oblongs rather than coins, making sure to leave some whole in otherwise pureéd dishes. “This way,” she tells co-writer JJ Goode, “it’s like a little prize when you bite into one later.” She’s equally passionate about roasting vegetables, first browning the large, unpeeled chunks on the stovetop, deeply caramelizing their sugars. Summer’s finest tomatoes go under Bloomfield’s knife, the imperfect spots ruthlessly trimmed away. Seven-Vegetable Soup carries a note stating preparation is crucial: the vegetables are chopped into what Bloomfield calls “oblique” pieces, “so the chunky parts keep their shape and the thinner edges crumble off and thicken the soup.”
Unsurprisingly, Bloomfield is an ingredient fanatic. She wants you to be, too. There is a bit of chef disconnect here, as most home cooks have budget constraints. Bloomfield includes recipes for sea bass, lobster, veal kidneys, lamb’s head, and bottarga (cod roe). These pricey delicacies are hardly everyday fare. Nor, in the case of veal kidneys or lamb’s head, are they easily procured. But all of us can get our hands on decent vegetables and herbs without declaring bankruptcy.
Chile pepper, anchovies, lemon, and Maldon salt featuring predominately in Bloomfield’s cooking, but have more to with balance and the search for umami than knocking the eater over the head. Her use of anchovies is a good example of rethinking your approach to cooking. Bloomfield is fan of salt-packed anchovies, a luxury ingredient many unfortunately associate with rubbery, snot-like blobs on cheap pizzas. While the best anchovies are indeed salt-packed, the poorer person can get along with oil-packed fish, carefully rinsed under cool water and blotted dry with paper towels. The idea is not to make dishes taste fishy or salty, but to add a subtle layer of flavor, what Bloomfield’s friend and mentor Fergus Henderson calls “oomph”.
Case in point: recently I prepared broccoli with mustard butter. I was considering adding capers, then remembered the way Bloomfield slipped a little anchovy into recipes like baked eggs and braised lamb shoulder. I rinsed the oil from a fillet and mashed it into the mustard butter. The dish was brighter without being the least bit fishy. Credit the cookbook.
In this, A Girl and Her Pig is terrific, forcing home cooks to reconsider ingrained habits, cooking with increased care. Some home cooks are naturally precise, neatly mincing each item, creating perfect mise en place.
Then there are cooks like me. I’m not a total slob, but I’m no April Bloomfield. I’ll brown the meat, but I never worry about searing. I chunk garlic rather than mince it, and rarely prepare anything requiring intensive reduction. This is largely due to time constraints: I do most of my serious cooking on weekend mornings, freezing or refrigerating the results for the upcoming work week. This means I often have several dishes going at once, and am disinclined to worry about vegetable trimming beyond them getting that way. But I’m open to a new approach. Cutting a carrot obliquely requires no more effort than trimming one into coins. And if a small change like that improves my cooking, so much the better.
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I wish I could say A Girl and Her Pig thus gets off scot-free. Bloomfield is a foodie darling, and admitting A Girl and Her Pig epitomizes much of what is wrong in foodie culture feels heretical. Further, Bloomfield comes across as demanding but no diva: David Loftus’s photographs show a woman with a scrubbed face and scraped-back hair, her apron tied over a t-shirt. Her voice is unpretentious and inviting. And in a publishing world where celebrity cooks often leave co-writers nameless, Bloomfield graciously gives full credit to culinary professional JJ Goode.
And yet. A Girl and Her Pig is strangely skimpy on recipes. There are only five soups. The five seafood recipes either call for expensive fish—crab, sea bass, lobster—or the inhospitable. Few of us prepare octopus at home. And while Bloomfield’s pleas to try offal are welcome, I’ve never seen pig’s ears or any kind of kidneys in my local markets. Ditto the caul fat and pork cheek necessary for faggots (The terms means “bundle” in old English). Even if I could locate pig’s ears, I have no plans for deep frying them, as the recipe calls for. I have neither the room nor the patience for a deep fryer in my tiny kitchen.
The poultry section has recipes you’ll find elsewhere: chicken adobo, duck confit, Chicken Panzanella. All of this is wrapped in a current design, complete with amusing illustrations by Sun Young Park and David Loftus’s lovely photographs. It’s not the sort of book you’ll grab on a frantic Wednesday night. Five years from now, the foodie world being fickle, you might not grab it at all. The world will have moved on from crab trifle and nose-to-tail eating.
For now, A Girl and Her Pig can teach you a few tricks, making you a better cook without your ever cracking a recipe. Avid home cooks have books like this, books we intend to cook from but never get around to, waiting for the moment when we’re flush with time and money. That day never arrives; instead, these books inform our daily cooking. We remember the anchovy in the egg, or consider leaving the skin on a roasting onion.
The divide between home cooking and restaurant cuisine is a deep one. Chefs like Bloomfield are a long way from Saturday morning cooks. Cut your carrots obliquely, but leave the Carta Da Musica With Bottarga and Butter for a trip to The Spotted Pig.