You guys may be seeing more cookbook reviews around here. I decided I do so many of them for free and on my own dime, I might as well reach out to various publishers and see if they would send me review copies of the books I am interested in. And they did! This blogging gig is awesome, folks! I don’t need (or receive) compensation–the book alone is enough for me!
The most recent book to arrive in my mailbox is Kevin Gillespie’s Fire in My Belly: Real Cooking from Andrews McMeel Publishing. For those who do not know–I did not–Kevil Gillespie was a Top Chef candidate and he is the executive chef at Atlanta’s Woodfire Grill. He is also from Atlanta, so unsurprisingly the book is a celebration of Southern food. First the good: the book is gorgeous. It has 120 recipes with 350+ color photos. Hardback, it is following a new trend that I adore of using thick, matte paper that I find beautiful. It seems to me–this is not scientific–that often this thick, matte paper goes hand in hand with a cookbook with a strong personality, and this theory of mine held true here too. Gillespie’s writing is entertaining and witty; this definitely is a cookbook to keep on your coffee table or read at night.
Now for the bad… or maybe luke warm? I wanted to love this book. And 100% honestly, you might. But for me, it was just way too middle America bland, and not the kind of bland that I have any idea how to ramp up for my family. I know it just sounds like I insulted a whole swath of American cooking, and truly I don’t mean to. But just like you might say you do not care for Indian food or Thai food or Moroccan food, I don’t really care for the classics of the midwest and the south. Even when they are re-invented and use fresh, good ingredients, they are just not my kind of cooking. At this point some of you may wonder why I asked for the book. That is valid, but I was hoping it would be more like Edward Lee’s Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, i.e., a little more internationally influenced. Some example dishes from Fire in My Belly include: Wild Striped Bass with Warm Black-Eyed Pea Salad; Chicken Pot Pie; Smoked Trout Puffs with Bacon Jam (potentially delicious but more work than I wanted to undertake plus I have no idea where to find smoked trout around here–actually there were several yummy looking trout recipes but I do not even know where to find plain trout!); Homemade Salisbury Steak; Shrimp Stuffed Pan Fried Catfish; and the One Pot Hog Supper, inspired by his granny. He uses a lot of fresh herbs, which I admire, but barely any spices. If you are on the fence after reading my review, I suspect you would like the book. On the other hand if you immediately knew where I was coming from, it may not be the best purchase.
I decided to make his Cornbread Pancakes with Sliced Brandywine Tomatoes and Bacon Mayonnaise. The main recipe I made nearly as written, but for the mayo I cheated by starting with a storebought mayonnaise that I pureed bacon and dry mustard into and finished by stirring basil leaves in. I also used Hill Billy tomatoes, an heirloom similar in size to the Brandywine, but with a yellow/peach/pink exterior. There were 5 of us trying the dish, and it received what I would call 3 B’s, 1 F and 1 C-. The C- was me and Sammy flat out hated it. John, Alex and my mom all ate and enjoyed theirs, but at the same time it did not do much for them. Maybe the mayo was the difference–but making homemade mayo is not part of my dinner time repertoire. I think the reason I did not care for it is because it felt mushy to me, and I am hypersensitive to that. I also (don’t yell at me any Southerners reading this!) would have liked some sugar in my cornbread.
So, for what it is worth, here is the recipe if you would like to try it:
- 2 medium-large ripe heirloom tomatoes
- 1 t salt plus more for sprinkling
- 2 cups cornmeal (he calls for fine, I used medium ground, use your preference)
- ¼ cup finely chopped, crisp cooked bacon (about 4 slices)
- 2 t baking powder
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 2 large eggs
- 2 T bacon grease plus more for the pan
- ground black pepper
- ½ cup bacon basil mayo (see recipe below)
- Slice the tomatoes into about 1 inch thick slices. Place in a single layer on a non-reactive cookie sheet. Sprinkle salt over them and leave to brine in the salt liquid that releases (which they will then reabsorb). They can sit for 30-60 minutes.
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, baking powder and 1 teaspoon of salt. Mix in the finely chopped bacon. Set aside.
- In a large liquid measuring cup, whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, and 2 tablespoons of bacon fat. Pour this liquid mix into the cornmeal mixture. Gently stir together and then set aside to rest for a few minutes.
- Heat a cast iron or nonstick pan (or griddle) over medium heat. Brush with bacon fat. Ladle on some batter, aiming for a similarly sized pancake as your tomato slices.
- Cook the pancake until bubbles form on the top and the edges start to brown. Gently and carefully flip them over and cook the other side. When they are cooked through, remove them to a serving plate. Spread each pancake with the basil bacon mayo and then top with a tomato slice. Sprinkle some freshly ground black pepper over the tomato and serve.
- Repeat with the remaining tomato slices and batter.
- 2 thick slices bacon (I used 4 thin)
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 T water
- 1 plump lemon
- ¼ t dry mustard (I used mustard seeds and pulverized them in grinder)
- ¼ t salt
- 1 cup grapeseed oil
- 1 T thinly sliced basil leaves
- Cook the bacon until crisp. Reserve the bacon fat, and place the bacon on paper towels to cool.
- Using a food processor, add the egg yolk and water. Process until the mixture looks fluffy and pale yellow, about 30 seconds. Add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, the dry mustard, the cooked bacon and the salt. Process until the bacon is finely ground.
- While the processor is running, add the oil VERY slowly, drop by drop. Then drizzle in 1 tablespoon of the reserved bacon fat (which should still be liquid but not super hot).
- Taste for more salt or lemon juice, and then mix in the basil.
- **Alternatively, you could do as I did and place about 1¼ cups storebought mayo in a processor. Add the dry mustard, a squeeze of lemon juice and the bacon and process smooth. Then mix in the basil leaves.
The fine print: I received the book for free for purposes of reviewing it. I received no other compensation and all opinions are my own. I did use affiliate links when writing this post, but only to link to items I would have linked to anyway in the course of my discussion.