Hundreds of cookbooks come out every year. Which are really worth your time and money? Cook the Book highlights our favorites and puts their recipes to the test.
The year Gabrielle Hamilton opened her restaurant, Prune, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, she was approached about doing a cookbook. That's how auspicious Prune was from the very beginning. Cozy and hip without trying to be, the tiny bistro has drawn lines down the block (no reservations, no way around it) for 15 years now. Finally, after all these years and the wild success of her acclaimed memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Hamilton gives her hungry fans the cookbook they've been waiting for. Called, simply, Prune, it's a thick anthology of recipes from her restaurant, and it's as autobiographical as her previous literary effort, but in a very different way.
"Hamilton has written it not for or to the home cook, as most cookbooks are, but instead asks that the reader assume the identity of a line cook at her restaurant."
This is a peculiar cookbook—an original, without a doubt. Hamilton has written it not for or to the home cook, as most cookbooks are, but instead asks that the reader assume the identity of a line cook at her restaurant. There's no introduction to explain her approach and no headnotes to contextualize any dish, nor is there an index (which takes the gimmick to a rather maddening level at times). In interviews about the book, Hamilton has said that she originally set out to write a more traditional cookbook, but felt like a phony. So she decided to write what she knows, and what she knows is her restaurant.
Hamilton's not the type to hold anyone's hand and talk them slowly through, and she certainly doesn't pretend to be here. The recipes use industry jargon and take for granted a moderate degree of kitchen knowledge and skill; she sometimes calls cuts by their French terminology (brunoise, batonette, etc.), for instance, and she'll refer to metal 'bains' or the 'sally,' phrases that you may not know unless you've worked in a restaurant. You won't be reminded to to preheat the oven or your frying oil, and there are often condiments or ingredients for serving that aren't in the ingredient list, so it's imperative to fully and thoughtfully read the entire recipe more than once before starting to cook (or even shop). But if you read and prep accordingly, the recipes are detailed and reasonably easy to follow.
"For cookbook collectors who are ready to actually be surprised by something, it's a fascinating, essential addition."
That said, I personally wouldn't recommend this as a starter book for a kitchen novice. However, for seasoned and attentive cooks, the book delivers spot-on food via clever, creative design. I also see those who fantasize about working in a high-stakes kitchen getting a kick out of it. And for fans of Prune or Hamilton's writing, and for cookbook collectors who are ready to actually be surprised by something, it's a fascinating, essential addition.
Her voice—candid, uncompromising, and fully in command—comes through in the recipes themselves. Take, for instance, her gazpacho: After an ingredient list consisting of brunoise of several vegetables, she concedes, "I know this one is a bitch to prep. Sorry." She goes on: "Think of it as a good way to keep your knife skills in shape and be glad we only serve it one month a year." The pages of the book look like photocopies of a wrinkled, food-stained kitchen notebook, complete with masking tape notes for multiplying the portions for service and hand-scrawled messages for the cooks, like the one clarifying exactly what state the lettuces for her salad need to be in: "Perky. Lively. Fresh. Seriously. Pay attention. I have seen some wilted crap come out of this kitchen." Apparently, the handwritten notes are pulled from her real notebooks, so you get a taste of what working in her kitchen is truly like. It may not always be rosy, but she leaves little room for error, and that's a good thing in a chef and a cookbook author alike.
The only thing that comes close to prose in the book is Hamilton's manifesto for family meal. Here, she takes time to lay down the ground rules for building a nourishing, resourceful meal for the staff. I love this; it shows she really cares for the people who work for her—not only the employees sitting down to the meal, but the cooks who get to stretch their creative legs and show off a little for the folks they work with. It's also a good reminder for the reader to approach cooking with mindfulness and enthusiasm: she concludes, "Finally, enjoy yourself. If this isn't one of the highlights of your day, you are in the wrong industry. To feed ourselves and each other is the name of the game and should bring you great, thundering pleasure."
Both in her restaurant and in the book, Hamilton has a penchant for strategically used convenience items, like canned tomatoes and prepared horseradish, always called out by brand. Homemade stocks have their place, and there are surely fabulous recipes for several stocks, from oxtail to pigeon, but when it's College Inn that the boss wants, it's what you'd better get. It's refreshing that a brilliant chef doesn't have a problem with going grocery-store low-brow from time to time. (There are a few admonishments to go with the brands she specifies, not to fancy it up with homemade or "artisanal" Whole Foods upgrades. The snarky quotes are hers.) Blenders, referred to a Vita-Preps, and food processors, referred to as Robot Coupes, make short work of some recipes, whereas others require on-point knife skills. And you can't avoid the feeling that you will incur Hamilton's wrath if you get sloppy.
"She's exacting and strict, but takes real pleasure in creating and eating delicious food, and the recipes pay off in big ways."
Not that she is always so scolding. Hamilton has immense, hard-won wisdom to offer throughout the book, and she gets you to the result she and you are after. She's exacting and strict, but takes real pleasure in creating and eating delicious food, and the recipes pay off in big ways. What she serves at Prune is what she likes to eat, and that runs the gamut from her now iconic Canned Sardines and Triscuits to Braised Fennel with Pernod Butter and Trout Roe. Her flavors are vibrant and accessible, and she tends toward, though often strays from, Euro-inflected comfort food. I have a feeling that every recipe in the book, if you can handle the format, will reliably end up successful, memorable, and eye-rollingly delicious.
Prune's brunch is one of the best in the city, worth the two-hour wait, even on a chilly, hungover morning. One of the big draws is the Monte Cristo, an outrageous, deep-fried, French-toast/ham-and-cheese hybrid. She builds the triple-decker sandwich with loads of butter, French ham, Swiss cheese, and roasted turkey. This gets soaked briefly in eggs and milk and griddled in clarified butter. And THEN deep-fried. Dusted with powdered sugar and served with red currant jelly and fried eggs, it's crusty, savory, sweet, and irresistible. My only quibble would be that I would like things a touch saltier; I'll be adding a pinch of salt to the custard should I make this again.
The recipe itself is a good example of one that needs to be scrutinized and prepared for ahead of time. There is clarified butter in the ingredient list, but no instructions on how to make it, so be sure to have already figured that one out. There's also no mention of oil for frying in the list, but you'll need a couple quarts—enough to fill a large pot about halfway full (deep enough to accommodate your triple-decker). The only time she addresses frying in the recipe is to say, "...and then deep-fry at 350° for 1 minute to 90 seconds," so don't forget to have your oil pre-heating before you griddle the sandwiches. Also note that "To Plate," includes two fried eggs per serving, the red currant jelly, and "10X" (confectioner's) sugar for dusting over the sandwich, none of which is in the ingredient list. This is a very different style of recipe writing than most of us are used to, and it doesn't make things particularly easy for the home cook, but the food is worth the effort to adjust to Hamilton's approach.
Worth the effort, yes, and worth the potential coronary in the case of her obscenely good and relatively simple Grilled Hamburger with Cheddar Cheese on Toasted English Muffin with Parsley-Shallot Butter. The name really discloses the whole recipe: chubby beef and lamb patties are topped with white cheddar and sandwiched in a Thomas's English muffin, dressed only with the compound butter. The cheese oozes down the sides of the salty, fatty burger, and the bright and potent butter, slathered on the top and bottom of the English muffin, seeps into every 'nook and cranny' of the burger and bun. (The muffin is a good call here; a soft white bun would disintegrate at the onslaught of all that fat, but the English muffin can stand up to it. It may be my new go-to hamburger bun.)
Though simple, there are a number of points in the recipe when Hamilton gives specific directives that help land you with an outstanding, flawless burger. For instance, before combining the ground meats, she instructs, "Run your hands under very cold water for a minute." She doesn't give a reason, just trusts that you'll do as she says. And having cold, wet hands does keep the meat from sticking to them, and keeps the fat in the meat from melting, which could result in tougher burgers. When seasoning the patties (including the oft-neglected circumference), she says to, "Hold your hands high and 'rain' the salt and pepper"—a small, cheffy gesture, and one that ensures the burgers are thoroughly and evenly seasoned. And when the burgers are on the grill, she warns, "Do not turn, touch, press down on, or otherwise molest the burgers while they are cooking." Yes, chef.
Though peppered with homey classics like cornmeal pound cake and apple galettes, by and large Hamilton's desserts tend to buck the status quo. There are no flourless chocolate cakes in sight; instead, try a ball of homemade fondant served in a glass of ice water. Just because they're creative doesn't mean they're all complicated, however—take her butter and sugar sandwich, which is just as it sounds, with a ramekin of heavy cream alongside for dunking. Simple and strange, at least to our American palates, is the Calvados Omelette—sweet, enriched egg flambéed with apple brandy. We aren't used to having our eggs for dessert, at least not served to us so unabashedly, instead of under the guise of custard or crepe or soufflé. And though the eggs here are mixed with a substantial amount of cream and a bit of flour, the end result is in fact just a plateful of sweet (buttery, boozy) eggs. But it comes off as elegant, urbane. And—there she goes again—perfectly delicious.