Cookbook Review: A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus

Sunday, January 25, 2015

This past holiday season my family had a no-gift Christmas (which, by the way, worked out splendidly), but I will confess to having purchased myself a little gift just days after the holiday. I had read about Renee Erickson's new book A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus, and when I saw its lovely cover at my local bookstore, I couldn't resist--and I wasn't sorry I didn't. Bon Appetit described the book as having, "an Ina Garten–like blend of effortlessness and luxuriousness that makes you believe that king salmon with walnut tarator will practically cook itself." A big fan of Garten, I was intrigued, but that's not quite an accurate description of the book. Many of the recipes do walk the line between effortless and luxurious, but the comparison between the two ends there. 

Erickson was a new-to-me chef when I bought her book. She owns four beloved restaurants in Seattle, and the book is a collection of recipes from the restaurants and her personal life (though it sounds like there is very little distinction between her personal and professional lives--her parents even works for her restaurants!). The book includes inviting glimpses of the restaurants (above), what appears to be Erickson's home and the surrounding area. Even before I'd started cooking from this book, photographer Jim Henken's photos make me want to book a flight to Seattle. 

Erickson's cooking style is distinctly French-influenced, and as such it is not for those afraid of fat (there's a LOT of butter in this book). She's also much more serious (and at times almost-but-forgivably snobby) than a cookbook author like Ina Garten. Garten makes me feel like it's okay to pick up a leg of lamb at Costco, but here's Erickson on buying meat, "On a very basic level, finding a butcher you trust—someone you feel comfortable interrogating and who only buys well-raised meat—is a crucial part of cooking." Yes, yes, yes, she's right, I know that, but I will confess we hear all of this so much in our food-obsessed culture, that I don't necessarily want to be preached to in every cookbook I buy. Erickson is also very exacting about the ingredients she calls for, and even provides resources for some of her favorites in the back of the book, which I loved. 

The book is broken into four seasons and a section of "staples" recipes. Within each season there are individual menus for everything from a lamb and rosé dinner (with harrissa-rubbed roasted lamb) to a pickling put-up party (a clever way for her to get in all her favorite pickle recipes, which apparently are a highlight at her restaurants). I wished that I'd had the book before the holidays because I would have made her entire holiday menu for my family, but will save it for next year instead. However, picking it up after the holidays, I found I had a week off when it was awfully cold outside, so I cooked a lot of recipes from this book.

Most of Erickson's recipes are excellent. Roasted chicken with capers and preserved lemon was a triumph, though I admit I hesitated to add both a 1/2 cup of olive oil and a 1/2 cup of butter to the pan when my usual Zuni roast chicken uses no fat at all. Grilled rib eye with anchovy butter was exactly the kind of effortless luxury that Bon Appetit described (we cooked that for New Year's Eve). The zucchini bread was probably the best recipe I tried (I confess, I made it with quite-out-of-season squash), and it was so tasty my husband accused me of putting drugs in it because he couldn't stop eating it.

There were very recipes that I wouldn't make again, though a celery root salad was a total miss. I'd also advise against trying to make Erickson's recipes more healthy--just accept them for what they are: treats. After plowing through a bunch of rich dishes, I thought I might lighten up the kale gratin by using some whole milk instead of a full three cups of heavy cream, but the results were a little watery, and in hindsight I should have just enjoyed it as Erickson prescribed.

Overall, I'd say this book is an excellent addition to my cookbook library. It's the kind of book from which I can imagine cooking almost every recipe--not just a handful. (I also recently bought the Prune cookbook, and while I love it as a book, there aren't a ton of recipes that jumped out as make-me-now meals.) It's also filled my head with dreams of a food-filled trip to the Pacific Northwest.



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