As an avid collector and reader of cookbooks, I closely follow which books garnish esteemed awards like those from the James Beard Foundation and IACP. In the last couple of years, there's been a new award race to follow--Piglet, the tournament of cookbooks by Food52.com. Last week, the bracket-style contest concluded with a 2012 winner. The Art of Living According to Joe Beef was named the winner in a controversial ruling by Alice Waters.
Joe Beef, located in Montreal, is one of Canada's most popular restaurants. And after just a few weeks with this book, I'm ready to pack my bags and head there for a visit. In the meantime, the hearty and rustic recipes and photos for dishes such as foie gras parfait with Madeira jelly, ricotta gnocchi, lamb chops wrapped in caul fat, and a centerfold of Scandinavian-style open face sandwiches will have to sustain me.
But The Art of Living According to Joe Beef is more than just a cookbook. It's a story of how three friends opened the restaurant they wanted to work in and cook in. Throughout the book are stories such as the history of Montreal, the Canadian railroad dining car tradition, how to build a smokehouse, and turning a backyard dump heap into a thriving garden. And there's the story of the original "Joe Beef," a notorious barkeep and union organizer who ruled Montreal's waterfront in the late 1800s.
These stories are interwoven between chapters on booze, seafood dishes, desserts, and putting the "beef" in Joe Beef. It's a meaty cookbook, literally and figuratively. There is nothing light or healthy about the recipes in this book, but they are rich, comforting and rewarding. There are the classic French dishes like oeufs en pot and a filet de boeuf, and more contemporary recipes such as chicken skin tacos, squid stuffed with lobster, and a cocktail called Gin 'N' Jews, made with Manischewitz, gin, lemon juice, and an egg white. This book has sophistication and a sense of humor.
The recipes are written with both imperial and metric measurements, a concession for Joe Beef's neighbors to the south. None of the 125 recipes are terribly fussy. Some, like the ones or pork chops or cider turnips, are as simple as a hot pan and a handful of ingredients. Others like the pate en croute and deviled kidney and hanger on toast, you'll have to put in a lot more effort for finding or prepping ingredients. Your hard work is rewarded though. The recipe for beef shank stock required for several recipes is referred to as a "one-Creuset wonder." They make it sound so simple and rewarding, especially when they suggest you eat the cooked meat from the bones with pickles and mustard.