Monday, November 11, 2013

Bites Book Club: Smoke & Pickles & Pigs & Whiskey

Posted By on Mon, Nov 11, 2013 at 5:53 AM

Right off the bat, I need to state that the authors of these two books are some of my favorite chefs (and characters) in the Southern culinary universe. Apparently they didn't talk to each other before titling their books, or Ed Lee might not have come up with Smoke and Pickles and John Currence might not have chosen Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey when naming their respective cookbooks.

But if you've ever eaten these guys' food or seen them guesting on episodes of the Sean Brock Mind of a Chef series, you'll understand that the titles are very appropriate for these two inventive Southern chefs.

Ed Lee is the Brooklyn-born son of Korean immigrants who cooks in Louisville at two restaurants, 610 Magnolia and MilkWood, but the recipes in his book are not from his restaurants. Instead, they are drinks, snacks, main dishes and desserts that he prepares at home for his friends, and thus are perfect for a commercial cookbook. He writes, "What I cook is who I am," and the stories of his youth and progression through the chef ranks demonstrate his dedication to fusing his Asian heritage with Southern sensibilities and French techniques.

Lee's recipe for roasting a chicken is a method so ingenious that I may never cook a chicken any other way again. Looking for a solution to avoiding a dry breast while waiting for the dark meat to come to temp, Lee came up with the idea of ricing a potato and stuffing the area between the skin and the white meat. This protects the breast while allowing the skin to crisp up and allows the juices of the chicken to flavor the potatoes while the dish cooks. After removing the breast and carving it across the grain, you end up with a lovely bite of chicken with layers of meat, potatoes and skin in every bite. I am officially hooked.

Of course kimchi and pickling in general are an important part of Lee's repertoire, so if those topics interest you, this is a must-have book for your library. The chef's droll wit shines through in the introductions to each chapter and in the head notes to his recipes. Thanks to his appreciation of genuine comfort food, and of course bourbon, Lee comes across as a wonderful advocate for all the best things about Southern cuisine.

John Currence is another icon of Southern food who occasionally devolves intentionally into iconoclasm. Always opinionated and entertaining, Currence freely states his ideas of where his native cuisine is heading and where it should be going. He speaks from a place of authority, with years of experience cooking at the famous Crook's Corner in North Carolina, and Gautreau's in New Orleans. He operates several restaurants in Oxford, including his flagship City Grocery, the culinary and often intellectual center of the state of Mississippi. If you ever get the chance to listen to Currence holding court in the upstairs bar at City Grocery, you'll understand where the philosophies behind Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey come from. Currence has appeared on television on Top Chef Masters and as a guest star on HBO's Treme, so the camera loves him as much as the diners at his restaurants do.

I really like how he has organized his book into sections based on techniques with wonderfully generalized topics as "Stirring, Shaking and Muddling," " Slathering, Squirting and Smearing," and "Baking and Spinning." The 130 recipes are scaled and simplified for the home kitchen, and each is paired with a song off Currence's eclectic Spotify songlist. His occasional slightly profane rants are also a great way to entertain yourself while waiting for the dough to rise.

Above all, this book is about trying to demystify what seem like complex processes. In his introduction to the "No Fail Thanksgiving Turkey," Currence encourages readers by promising, "Most of you who spend every big holiday worrying over the bird are about two paragraphs and a few cupfuls of salt away from dazzling your family with the finest turkey they have ever eaten." His solution revolves around a fairly simple aromatic brine that is worth the price of the book by itself. He also includes a recipe for "Super-Bonus Gravy" to take your holiday meal over the top.

Currence's definition of Southern food is multi-ethnic, with recipes for Polish Smoked Sausage, Chimichurri, and Szechuan Pepper-Crusted Farm Raised Catfish with Ginger Tartar Sauce all appearing in the pages of the book. The advanced bar program at his restaurants also takes the spotlight with an impressive roster of cocktail recipes which kick off the book.

So there you have it. Two of my favorite Southern chefs have written two of my favorite cookbooks of the year. With holiday gift season rolling near, either or both of these books should be at the top of your list for giving or receiving. In fact, Chef Currence was kind enough to give me an extra copy of Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey to give away to a lucky Bites reader. (Well, actually he didn't know that he did it. I had already bought one for him to sign before his publisher sent me a review copy.) If you want it, all you have to do is leave a comment under this post stating the best cookbook you've read lately. Of course, I'm sending you Currence's book, so I hope you want that one ...

We'll draw a winner at noon on Friday, Nov. 15, and I'll let you know who won on Monday the 18th. Good luck and good cooking!

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