They'll tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case perhaps you should make an exception. In A Girl and Her Pig: Recipes and Stories, April Bloomfield delivers exactly what the book's cover implies -- a straightforward approach to food from a working class Birmingham girl who found her niche.
As a child in England, Bloomfield wanted to be a policewoman, but circumstances conspired as they so often do and she followed her sister into cooking school. Unlike her sister, though, Bloomfield found her way into the profession and on to New York, where her no-nonsense take on real food has won her accolades piled upon accolades.
This is not to say that her recipes are plain, nor are they always simple. In fact she refers to many of them as her "fussy recipes," ones that need to be followed to the letter (which I admit has always been difficult for me). She is very particular about a certain set of ingredients, notably extra virgin olive oil and Maldon salt, a particular brand harvested by a 200-year-old company from the Blackwater river estuary in Essex, in the south of England. Somewhat similar to the now-commonly available Fleur de Sel, its light, crunchy flakes impart a cleaner seasoning than typical table salt.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, considering her heritage, Bloomfield loves chiles (which, of course, endears her to me all the more) and frets in her introduction that she may have included them in every recipe. She didn't, but did include them in many and uses them with abandon. In one, a variation on a traditional Thai beef salad, she includes "2 large Dutch or other spicy long red chiles, thinly sliced (including seeds)" to enliven her "Skirt Steak with Watercress and Chiles." In her seafood salad, she adds a particular favorite, "2-5 dried pequin chiles," very small peppers that carry a deceptive fire.
What Bloomfield has become particularly well known for, though, is her passion for what has come to be called "nose to tail" cooking -- utilizing every possible part of the animal and leaving nothing to waste. Many Americans still wince at the idea of lambs head, pig's snout and beef tongue, and that has always puzzled me. How is it, for example, that most people in this country never have and never would try, say, beef tongue, but that same cow's groin muscle is practically a delicacy?
It's all upbringing, I suppose. We eat what we're used to eating and follow Lin Yutang's axiom that patriotism is the love of food we ate as children. So perhaps it's Bloomfield's working-class ethos that forces her to make a silk purse of a sow's ear (or more accurately, a fried pig's ear salad). A protégé of legendary London chef Fergus Henderson, she notes that she loves his ability to create food that "makes you wonder." Not about what strange piece of offal might be on your plate -- they'd both tell you that straight out -- but about what that one puzzling flavor is, that one lingering aroma that's familiar enough that you could identify it if it weren't on the tip of your tongue.
A side note about the design of the book which, despite having friends who make their living at it, I must confess I rarely pay attention to, but this one really caught my eye. Sure, there are the requisite food-porn photos complete with zero depth-of-field and vibrant color that makes you almost smell the dish, but there are also clever, simple drawings that give the impression you're not just reading a cookbook, you're taking a peek inside a personal journal, one with plenty of secrets.
French food writer Maurice Sailland (a.k.a "Curnonsky") assured us that "Cuisine is when things taste like themselves," and that being so he'd have loved April Bloomfield, whose culinary sensibilities are as old-school as the masters themselves, but her modern approach makes even the complex attainable.
A Girl and Her Pig: Recipes and Stories -- by April Bloomfield with JJ Goode. Published by HarperCollins, New York. © 2012 April Bloomfield. ISBN 978-0-06-200396-6. Find out more from IndieBooks!.