I am not an organized cook. Not an organized anything, really. I understand the importance of mise en place but mostly ignore it like a petulant child; I often find myself halfway through a recipe without realizing that the fennel should be chopped by now and I don’t actually have any white wine vinegar. Enthusiasm I have in spades; tidiness I lack.
So it was with great confidence that I agreed to test a few recipes for April Bloomfield's second book, A Girl and Her Greens, coauthored by the very kind and generous JJ Goode. A year and a half ago, I emailed JJ asking if he needed any help with this new book I knew he was working on. I had no idea what I meant, really, just that I wanted to see what a book looked like before it was published, when it was still fermenting or growing or whatever books do in order to get done. JJ asked if I had done any recipe testing. Sure, yes. And so he sent me my first batch of recipes, and sent me to Bloomfield's first and most-regaled restaurant, The Spotted Pig, to retrieve a few supplies.
I carried home two bottles of fancy olive oil, an entire quart container of Maldon salt, and a tiny little half-pint of pequín chiles from the west village on a Sunday night, like a little elf hauling an overstuffed sack of presents. I brought them back to my unimpressive Brooklyn kitchen and added “buy a ruler” to my to-do list.
Recipe testing for a book should be precise and observant: cut your onions to the prescribed size, cook them for the prescribed amount of time, watch to see whether they turn translucent like you want them to, or simply burn. The purpose of the exercise is not just to ensure that the recipe tastes good; it is to ensure that it is written clearly, and that it works. (The editor in me loved this; I was able to nitpick every instruction.) I tried to be precise and prepared, taking pictures of everything at every stage and measuring my chopped carrots and weighing my produce at Whole Foods and setting timers and noting the diameter of the crappy pots I cooked in. I was mostly concerned that I would ruin something and then Greta in Delaware would try to make this corn soup and it would be a total dud because I had forgotten to double check my cream measurement. Sometimes I would try to test three recipes at once, and my kitchen would look like the triage unit on a TV hospital drama.
I also got to feed a lot of people. Recipe testing is an excellent excuse for a dinner party, particularly because if something doesn’t work out, you can put the blame on someone else. Throughout the summer and fall, I fed my friends Hasselback Potatoes with Lardo, Pot-Roasted Cauliflower, Eggplant Caponata, Jansson’s Temptation, Greek Salad, and a handful more that have blurred together in the compost of my memory. I made myself fried ramps with eggs one night, alone and barefoot in my kitchen, and cackled at the amount of fat I was using, the ramp leaves ballooning up like glossy chicharrones in oil and butter, the eggs’ edges spitting and turning into lace. I piled it all atop the fancy bread that I had bought myself, sat on my couch, and beamed.
As a mostly-vegetarian, I keep a constant eye out for vegetable sides. The Spotted Pig and The Breslin, another of April’s restaurants, do them particularly well, even though most eaters know them for their burgers and nose-to-tail ethos. Somehow her carrots manage to be sweeter, her greens more lush, her salads more vibrant. I’ve come to believe that this is because she treats her vegetables like meat, unafraid to wield heat and fat and salt. This makes for more flavorful vegetables and less need for other stuff. She has a way with herbs, too; particularly mint, which she puts on buttery-as-hell potatoes, and I have begun to buy as regularly as I do lemons. I'm also still making my way through that plastic tub of pequín chiles; I add them to everything, and my food is all the better for it.
It is rare to cook through a single book these days: Julie Powell famously stayed the course through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and there have been other similar examples, but we are more likely to cherry-pick from our favorite books and websites, scanning indices and flipping through pages until a photo calls out to us. There are so many recipes and there is so little time. Cooking through April’s book—or at least a healthy fraction of it—felt like listening to a person intently rather than rudely scanning my phone while they spoke, actually allowing myself the time to learn something. I’ve never known a cookbook so intimately. Now I roast the hell out of my sweet potatoes, fry parsley for a garnish, stew my zucchini to mush, and turn carrot tops into pesto. My food is all the better for it. My ADD will likely keep me from ever cooking through an entire book, but now I at least understand the value in trying. And every once in a while, when I want to feel particularly regimented, I pull out my ruler, and measure a dice.