By Erin Pride-Swaney, Special to The Herald
My friend Anna says it’s the best meal we eat all year.
Fourteen friends, 16 cookbooks and 15 days of competition yield a spread so elaborate, so diverse, so extravagant, it rivals Christmas dinner. Sorry, Mom.
Our inspiration is an annual bracket-style competition of cookbooks — deemed The Piglet — created by the Food52 food blog. Cuisine and cookbook topics vary wildly. This year took us from Appalachia to China, tasting the flavors of “India meets Deep South” and into the kitchen of cookie queen Dorie Greenspan.
The cookbooks battle it out head-to-head, with a selection of judges that are just as varied as the books. Actor Freddie Prinze Jr. and Man Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James joined the ranks of judges this year. Foodie and YouTube vlogger Katie Quinn submitted the first Piglet judgment by video. The New York Times book critic Dwight Garner participated and the finale was judged by duo Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner of HBO’s “Girls” fame.
Piglet 2017 marked our fifth year competing together. We write down our predictions for the winning books, wager on the winner, then cross our fingers as the judgments are posted daily. At the finale, we meet to crown our victor with a meal befitting a champion.
It would be crass to label this simply a potluck, the bring-and-share meal that turns into a spread of what’s easiest or family favorites. Instead each of us take on a cookbook, select two or more dishes to prepare, and forage into an often unknown territory of cuisine, method and ingredients.
We take treks to Uwajimaya, source hard-to-find spices online and Google videos on how to spatchcock a bird. This doesn’t count the amount of research we also make on substitutions to accommodate the laundry list of allergies we bring to the table.
If we must consider this a potluck, then it’s a potluck of genius proportion.
Aside from the sport of competition, sharing time and an amazing meal together, our Piglet dinner is about learning from a cookbook we might never have opened.
This year, Portland chef Naomi Pomeroy’s “Taste & Technique” as well as Cal Peternell’s “Recipe for Cooking” honed our kitchen skills and prompted us to a more precise process and controlled results. Fuschia Dunlop’s “Land of Fish and Rice,” “Koreatown” from Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard and “Adventures of Fat Rice” from Chicago’s Fat Rice restaurant taught us to navigate our local Asian market with confidence.
The books covered areas we knew little about. Food anthropologist Ronni Lundy’s “Victuals” (pronounced vittles) took us to Appalachia, “Sirocco” from Sabrina Ghayour to the Middle East, and “Samarkand” from authors Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford to the Caucasus. Naomi Duguid’s “Taste of Persia” and “Rome” from Katie Parla and Kristina Gill did much the same, leading us to travel with our plates.
The winning book, “My Two Souths” offered us another journey, but one strikingly unique in its meeting of Indian and Southern cuisine.
“Simple” from Diana Henry and “Deep Run Roots” from “A Chef’s Life” star Vivian Howard brought new-found comfort foods like the British pudding named posset — a miracle of cream and citrus that sets up like a soft custard.
“Soframiz” from Sofra Bakery & Cafe in Cambridge, “Golden” from London’s Honey & Co. and “Dorie’s Cookies” from multi-awarded cookbook author Dorie Greenspan put our baking skills to the test and renewed our love of the cookie.
As I write this, still full from last night’s meal of steak tartare, blueberry barbeque chicken and pork vindaloo with cardamom cornbread, I somehow find the space to snack on the odd but addictive bites of pickled bologna from “Victuals.” I’ve already remade a batch of Greenspan’s lemon sugar cookies, sad there’s not another slice of flourless cardamom chocolate torte left to go with my evening coffee.
And I have plans for another meal where I make either the beautiful pink beet dip from the cover of “Sirocco” or Pomeroy’s light but flavorful hazelnut and wild mushroom pate.
It may seem a bit cliche, but Piglet is a once-a-year sort of meal, and I’m always left the better for it.
Pickled bologna with peppers
This might sound like an odd way to only further preserve already preserved meat, but I say give it a chance. If you’re a fan of pickled herring and not squeamish around sauerkraut, this is a must try — at least once.
1 pound mixed banana peppers and sweet baby bell peppers
1 pound deli bologna, in one big piece
1 teaspoon whole allspice berries
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon celery seeds
2½ cups apple cider vinegar
½ cup sugar
1½ tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon kosher or pickling salt
Sterilize two 1-quart canning jars with lids and rings.
Slice the peppers into half-inch-thick rings, pushing out the cores as you go. Dice the bologna into half-inch cubes.
Arrange the peppers and meat in the canning jars. Mix the allspice, mustard and celery seeds in a small bowl and scatter about half of the mixture into the jars. Leave 1 inch of headspace.
Combine the vinegar, 1 cup of water, sugar, oil, salt and remaining spice mixture in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour this brine slowly into the jars to submerge the peppers. Let stand for 2 minutes so that any air bubbles can rise to the surface. Top off the jars with brine to ensure that the peppers remain submerged, leaving a half inch of headspace.
Close the jars with the sterilized lids and rings. Refrigerate for at least 1 day before serving. Will keep for 3 weeks, refrigerated. Makes 2 quarts.
— Recipe reprinted from “Victuals” by Ronni Lundy with permission from publisher Clarkson Potter.
Hazelnut and wild mushroom pate
This is a lighter pate than one made with offal, and perfect for spreading on a sandwich or baguette. The port and masala provide a sweet finish to the earthy mushrooms and tannins of the hazelnuts.
1 pound wild mushrooms (such as chanterelles or porcini)
1⁄3 cup hazelnuts (see note below)
9 tablespoons butter
1 cup finely minced shallot
2 teaspoons garlic paste
11⁄4 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dry marsala
1 tablespoon tawny port
1 teaspoon aged sherry vinegar
13⁄4 teaspoons 10-year aged balsamic vinegar
1⁄16 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1⁄16 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1⁄4 teaspoon lemon zest
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Clean the mushrooms. Cut or tear into evenly sized pieces about a half inch thick. Divide the mushrooms into two equal batches.
Spread the hazelnuts on a small baking sheet and toast in the oven for 6 minutes. Carefully shake the baking sheet to turn the nuts over, then toast for 2 to 4 minutes longer. To test if the nuts are ready, cut a nut in half; it should be a light golden color and toasted all the way through.
In a large frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the garlic paste and 1⁄4 teaspoon of the salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic no longer smells raw, about 1 minute. Transfer the shallot mixture to a plate and set aside.
In another large frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the remaining butter over medium heat until melted. Add half of the mushrooms, 1⁄2 teaspoon of the salt, and 1⁄4 teaspoon of the pepper and stir briefly to combine. Sauté, moving the mushrooms around constantly, for 4 to 5 minutes, until they start to color on their edges and the moisture they release evaporates. All of the mushrooms should be soft and tender, with no spongy quality or rawness to them. (Note that the mushrooms may seem overseasoned when you taste them on their own, but the pate will taste balanced because the hazelnuts aren’t seasoned.) If the mushrooms have not begun to brown at the edges, turn up the heat slightly and continue to cook for another minute or two.
Transfer the mushrooms to a plate and set aside. Wipe out the pan and repeat using 2 tablespoons of the remaining butter, the second batch of mushrooms, and the remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon of salt and 1⁄4 teaspoon of pepper. When the second batch is cooked, add the first batch back to the pan along with the shallot mixture and warm until all of the mushrooms are heated through. Add the marsala and port, allow the mixture to absorb them for 20 to 30 seconds, and then turn off the heat. Set aside to cool.
In a small saucepan, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter over medium-low heat. Add the sherry and balsamic vinegars and remove the pan from the heat.
Place the hazelnuts in a food processor and pulse until they have the texture of coarse meal, about 7 bursts. Add the mushroom mixture, the cayenne, nutmeg and lemon zest and, with the machine running, slowly pour in the melted butter mixture. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
Put the pate into a ramekin and smooth the surface. Serve at room temperature. Leftover pate can be refrigerated, tightly covered, for up to 5 days. Bring it to room temperature before serving. Makes 1½ cups.
Note: It’s best to buy raw hazelnuts and toast them yourself. But if the freshness is assured, pre-toasted unsalted nuts are acceptable. If you’re toasting the nuts at home, rub the just-toasted nuts between two kitchen towels to remove the papery skin covering each nut. Don’t worry if tiny bits of skin remain.
— Recipe reprinted from “Taste & Technique” by Naomi Pomeroy with Jamie Feldmar with permission from publisher Ten Speed Press.