I’m ridiculously excited that my week of nightshifts is over because that means I finally have time to geek out on my pal Russ Crandall’s new cookbook, The Ancestral Table. A review copy of his beautiful book landed on my doorstep in the middle of my workweek, and I’ve been counting down the days ’til I can spend an entire day cooking all the dishes I’ve flagged in this book. (My Japanese-food-loving spawn have already demanded that I make Russ’s Teriyaki Chicken, Japanese Beef Curry, and Yakitori—preferably all at once.)
I already know I’m going to have a blast cooking through this book. Russ is one of my favorite food bloggers ’cause he focuses on perfectly re-creating classic gourmet dishes with traditional, real-food ingredients—and highlights each recipe with sharp, uncluttered photographs to boot. It’s no wonder that his blog, The Domestic Man, was a finalist for Saveur’s Best Special Diets Food Blog Award last year.
If you’re a fan of Russ’s blog, too, you’ll adore his book. Not only does The Ancestral Table feature spot-on international recipes, enlightening food facts, and beautiful photos — it also explains why Russ incorporates rice, potatoes, and dairy in many of his recipes. A good number of us who eat Paleo have added some or all of these formerly-verboten ingredients back into our diet; personally, I’ve found that I feel fine (even better!) consuming “safe starches” in moderate amounts. The bottom line, after all, is that our food should be nourishing and delicious without making us feel like crap afterwards.
A few days ago, I asked Russ if he would reveal some deep-dark secrets about his new cookbook on my blog—and he was kind enough to oblige. Take it away, Russ! (And go pre-order his cookbook!)
1. Bacon only appears 4 times in the book. The Paleo movement is often associated with bacon, and for good reason; after a cursory data pull (using the Paleo cookbooks I have here at the house), bacon shows up in an average of 13% of all recipes in Paleo cookbooks. In my book, bacon shows up in 3% of the recipes. That’s not a dig against bacon or the presence of bacon in other cookbooks. It’s more of a way to highlight the diversity you’ll find in The Ancestral Table.
2. I didn’t do all of the photography on my own. One of my best friends, Giang Cao, flew out from London twice to help me shoot the majority of The Ancestral Table. We basically spent two different two-week periods cooking and shooting all day (8am to midnight, about 7 dishes a day). We also timed his second trip so that he could come out and assist with our Baconpalooza win. Having a second set of eyes around during the shooting really helped, and Giang’s sense of style is always perfect. Most times we would each use our own cameras to shoot the same arrangement, and then pick the best photo out of the group.
Giang shooting Shrimp Ceviche, Guacamole, and Tostones
Funny story about how I met Giang: in a previous life (about 7 years ago), I wrote for a small music/movie/videogame blog, which is now offline. Giang was one of the main commenters on the blog; he eventually became a writer for the blog and our relationship grew from there. If you want to see some of his work, here is his blog.
3. Some recipes didn’t make the cut. There were dozens that we eventually took off the list during the first few months of brainstorming, but others were last-minute removals, like the two you see below.
Corned Beef Hash, Halva
The Corned Beef Hash recipe was delicious, but I didn’t like the idea of expecting the reader to already have the leftover corned beef necessary for the recipe, without offering a corned beef recipe of my own. By the time I realized this, it was too late to corn some beef and shoot it for the book (we came to this conclusion only a couple of days before turning in the book). Another recipe, Halva, simply didn’t turn out; true Halva has an airy consistency and is impossible to make without a special machine, and the Halva we were able to make wasn’t very true to what we had in mind.
4. It took five dedicated sessions (and dozens of pizzas) to finally nail the cover. Initially I was going to go with a stew for the cover, but after one session we realized that it wasn’t an ideal subject for a cookbook cover.
Pictured: attempt #2 and attempt #5 (final attempt)
Luckily the shot from that session still made it into the book (“Hearty Stew”, page 126). From there, we did four different pizza sessions before settling on the cover you see today.
5. This whole book was a family affair. Even though the book is written from a single person’s perspective, it was a group project. My wife Janey was instrumental in the planning and logistics of the book, and we involved our son Oliver as much as possible as well. Even at the age of four, he understood what we were working on and was happy to see the finished product.
Pictured: family prepping the Gnocchi, then me pretending to make the Gnocchi on my own
6. The Ancestral Table was shot in several homes. While most of the book was shot in front of the single window I use for all of my shots, other people graciously opened their homes to us so that we had more locations to work with. My cousin in Chevy Chase, MD hosted two sessions, and a friend in Annapolis, MD hosted another session. I should also confess that nearly every shot taken at my house was done while wearing pajama pants.
My cousin’s house in Chevy Chase, MD.
7. The two most difficult dishes to photograph were Yakitori and Beef Rendang. These dishes seem simple enough, but we had a hard time with them. For example, we cooked and re-shot the Rendang at least four times (over the course of a year) to get it right.
Yakitori, Beef Rendang
8. We ate everything we cooked. Unlike many cookbooks, we didn’t do any styling beyond what came naturally from cooking and arranging the food. No blowtorches, hairsprays, or Scotch Guards were used. Nothing went to waste, and for the times that we needed to empty the fridge to make room for new groceries, I would drop food off at work for my co-workers to enjoy.
New England Clam Bake
Thanks, Russ! If you live near the DC Metro Area, you must attend The Ancestral Table release party on February 15, 2014 at The Red Apron Butcher. Click here to RSVP!