Slow Fires by Justin Smillie is reviewed below. I was sent a copy of the cookbook by Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review. Affiliate links have been used to link to items I am discussing, including the image below.
Guys I have been avoiding this post. Mostly because my general policy is to just not review books that I do not care for, especially when I suspect that my tastes and the author’s just do not align, rather than any true fault of the cookbook’s. But I am not allowed with Blogging for Books. The deal is that they do not send another cookbook until I review the current one. And I get that. So here goes.
First, there is plenty to like about this book. The overall production value, so to speak, is fantastic. Hardback, large, gorgeous matte photos. It is a beautiful cookbook. It focuses on slow cooking, by braising, roasting and grilling. Because I love braising, I had high hopes for it.
Also, and this is a pro or con depending on your point of view, it is a chef’s cookbook, written by someone with serious cooking chops and the experience in various acclaimed restaurants to prove it. This is also my first knock against the cookbook. The recipe I finally chose to adapt, Pappardelle with Year-Round Sugo, took 3 days to make. Like an idiot, I did not catch this fact until the day I chose to make the dish, but seriously if I had caught the fact all it would have meant was that I wouldn’t make the dish. I do not need to take 3 days to brine and braise some chicken legs and then shred and toss them with homemade pasta. And he never explains why the braised and shredded chicken needs to rest for 6 hours in the fridge before tossing with the pasta. Now it might be that this would make the most amazing dish ever. But I personally cannot imagine that it is enough better to be worth all of that planning! In general I avoid chef cookbooks, and I wish I had realized better that this one definitely is.
Next, I had the very simple problem of not sharing his taste in flavor combinations. His food tends toward Italian, but he is also inspired by Japanese food and loves using dashi, for example, in his braises. I understand that dashi is used for unami, but it is a distinct flavor that I cannot imagine with Italian flavors. I freely admit that having not tried it, it might be amazing. But for the amount of time, effort and cost his dishes involve, I am not really willing to try marrying dashi to Italian flavors. Maybe someday I will try it on my own with a more basic braise, but for now I cannot wrap my mind around it. Even his more traditional flavor combinations are just not to my taste. Anchovies, mirepoix, fennel… these all appeared frequently and are not my thing.
Last, I confess I was irked by his superior tone in the braising section regarding “falling off the bone” meat, which he clearly found overcooked. To him, “the term ‘fork-tender’ should not apply to a braise. [He finds] fork-tender bites mostly structure-less, homogenous, and boring” (p. 23). Anyone who reads this blog knows I strongly disagree. But where I would have said everyone has different tastes, he of course calls me wrong. So at this point, I am afraid the book became a source of irritation.
Sadly, the dish I adapted did not come out fantastically anyway. My family was annoyed by the celery (there is that mirepoix again!) and just wanted to eat the chicken legs with the pasta. Obviously I cannot fault him given that I deviated from the recipe, but I can say I have been cooking long enough to know that my family was not going to love his flavor combinations any more than I did.
If, on the other hand, you loved the sound of the things I disliked, I do recommend at least checking it out, because it is a beautiful book. The thing about Blogging For Books is sometimes I have to just take a wild chance on a book, sight unseen. Twice, it has worked out beautifully for me: Soul Food Love and A Modern Way To Eat. This time, however, it just did not work out.