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Two cookbooks on the fancy-fun continuum

Pique offers a selection of book reviews for the readers (or cooks) on your list this holiday season

"Cookbooks? That's so passé. Nobody reads cookbooks any more. I get all my recipes online."

Perhaps. But that fails to explain why the cookbook segment of publishing continues to be a perennial winner.

So why cookbooks? Do you know what you want to cook? Great. Grab the recipe online and hope it works. Do you want to be inspired? Tutored? Mentored? Read a cookbook. Even bad ones will likely spark your imagination and good ones will take you to gustatory heights you didn't know you were headed for when you posed the never-ending question: What'll I make for dinner?

Gather and Dirty Food both inspire, while moving towards opposite ends of the fancy-fun continuum. Gather is catnip for the serious foodie. Dirty Food is a raving case of the munchies for anyone who thinks food without fun isn't worth the trouble.

Gather is David Robertson's follow up to The Dirty Apron Cookbook, a collection of recipes, instruction and technique you might encounter if you're fortunate enough to take part in one of the classes at The Dirty Apron Cooking School in Vancouver.

It is as much about life and philosophy as it is about food. But make no mistake, it is about food: how to prepare it, how to enjoy it, how to think about it and how it brings friends, family and strangers together for an experience all will be richer for having shared.

Gather is not for those whose shelves are filled with dinner-in-30-minutes genre cookbooks. This is real cooking, cheffing even, that results, in many cases, in the kinds of plates you'll pay dearly for in expense account restaurants.

The genius, of course, is in the teaching and in that regard, Gather will walk you through the steps needed to whip up a salmon, spinach and fennel Wellington that'll make you wonder why you ever cooked salmon any other way. Oh, and why you haven't been making your own puff pastry all along? Something else you'll learn along the way.

Many recipes bear witness to Robertson's passion for world cuisine, melding flavours perhaps less familiar with old friends we've known forever. Like his coconut-lemongrass braised beef short ribs or South Indian-spiced port tenderloin with lemon rice. Both offer new territory with old favourites.

Don't get the impression Gather is all about meat. Many of the dishes are gluten free; many more vegan or vegetarian. Roasted squash and pine nut tortellini with wild mushroom ragout will have you making your own pasta, foraging local woods and impressing friends and family.

Julie Van Rosendaal, on the other hand, firmly believes food is about fun. About sticky, saucy, gooey, crumbly, messy, shareable food that thumbs its nose at the pretentiousness of those who believe food can be parsed along a clean-dirty continuum. It was, she writes, the tsunami of "clean" food writing that inspired her latest cookbook. "Its [clean food] universally virtuous connotations play into all the usual guilt traps we have around what we eat...."

Dirty Food ain't about guilt. It stakes out its territory with the very first recipe: a panful of sticky buns that'll have you ready to grab some flour and yeast, roll up your sleeves and count the minutes until this gooey goodness is cool enough to get down and messy with.

But much of what's covered is, well, actually good for you. Extra clumpy peanut butter and honey granola packs twice the protein and a fraction of the sweetness of even the most heart-healthy commercial granola. Papdi chaat, dirty rice and drunken noodles are practically health food, so full of good ingredients you'll wonder whether Julie's having you on with the title.

Oh, but then there's her take on corn on the cob: Doritos dust street corn. Yep, Doritos. Corn brushed with sour cream, mayonnaise and chili powder and dusted with crushed Doritos and feta cheese. It's the beginning of winter and I desperately want to try this!

So, here are two inspiring choices for yourself or the cook on your gift list. Reading Gather, I'm inspired to sign up for one of Dave's classes at his school, make puff pastry and set aside the better part of a couple of afternoons to bring some of his recipes to life. And Dirty Food makes me want to head to Calgary and beg Julie to invite me over for lunch and a plateful of her trashy cookies. One experience will be informative; the other will simply be a blast.

Both titles are available at Armchair Books, Whistler's world-class bookstore. And you can find out more about both authors at: dirtyapron.com and dinnerwithjulie.com.




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