Cookbook Review: Fire in My Belly

We’re delighted to introduce Sarah Ramsey, a longtime bookseller in Toronto, to our blog.  Sarah will be sifting and blogging her way through some of our cookbooks – and we can hardly wait.   When she’s not cooking or reading, you can find her volunteering with Farmers Feed Cities (farmersfeedcities.com) or crafting in her favourite materials – butter, sugar, flour, and eggs.  You can follow her at @juliaschild.

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Kevin Gillespie was raised in Locust Grove, Georgia and is executive chef at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta, although he is probably best known for having appeared on the sixth season of Top Chef, where he cooked with quiet confidence and heart that demonstrated his simple approach to food. He, rather shamefully, I think, didn’t win the title of Top Chef, but won the coveted ‘Fan Favourite’ distinction.

His approach to food is simple, seasonal and sustainable and his enthusiasm is evident in Fire In My Belly. In it, Kevin crafts the story of his culinary awakening as a child and his play with the traditional Southern dishes he lovingly remembers. He states  “…I read a review of my cooking that described it as ‘modern Southern food’. It’s true that I was cooking sophisticated food with a distinctly Southern feel. But in my mind, I was just exploring the food that I really cared about. I wasn’t ‘modernizing’. My dishes were springing from food memories, often from my childhood.” That idea really resonated with me. My best memories in childhood are those spent watching my grandmothers (and great-grandmother) cook and bake; food, to me, is a gift and an expression of love.

I read the book from cover to cover, and loved that I felt I was having a passionate conversation about food with the author (and shared this sentiment to my Twitter followers. @topchefkevin replied with his thanks and “That is exactly what I hoped for.”) Kevin starts the book with his belief that “good cooking starts with good ingredients” and argues that “cooking is, at its root, figuring out the great qualities of any food and then making those qualities shine”. He primes us for cooking with an introduction to some ingredients, techniques and equipment he frequently uses. My favourite is his use of the word plucky, meant to describe bright acidity, something sharp or piercing but not unpleasant.

The well-constructed (and beautifully photographed) recipes start with Foods You Thought You Hated, including asparagus, beets, broccoli, mushrooms, and salmon (things I have always enjoyed) and oysters and sweetbreads (which I think I may never enjoy). Next, Kevin shares his Southern dishes (such as boiled peanuts and cornbread pancakes with sliced brandywine tomatoes and bacon mayonnaise) and revisited world classics (including salad Lyonnaise and eggs Benedict), as well as recipes for grilled foods, spicy foods and junk foods (hooray!).

I was drawn to the One-Pot Hog Supper on page 83 for a few reasons. First, it has a wonderful story: as Kevin’s Granny first prepared it from a jumble of ingredients on hand, her brothers teased her, saying, “What’s this? Some slop you feed the hogs?” I think some of the best cooking has sprung from using one’s imagination with a handful of ingredients at the ready. And in my experience, a grandmother’s recipe will never fail. Never. Secondly, the meal is slow cooked, and I really enjoy slow cooking. It’s deeply satisfying and I get a lot of pleasure from it. And lastly, how can one go wrong with fatback?

I was late coming home from the shop, frazzled by my frustratingly long commute and hungry. Ravenous, actually. But, I had committed to trying this recipe. I was excited and had been thinking about it all day. I walked in the door, greeted my husband with a kiss and pulled out my mandoline. I washed up the potatoes and peeled the onion and garlic, then sliced them thinly. I sliced my fatback and laid it in my Dutch oven, then tore up some cabbage and sliced some fat, fragrant heirloom tomatoes. When crispy and golden, I removed the crackling from the pot and drained some of the fat, then carefully layered the potatoes, onions and garlic, cabbage and tomatoes in the pot, seasoning each vegetable generously with salt and pepper. Then I covered the pot and waited for the magic. Our little kitchen was aromatic and warm. My tummy was rumbling.

After forty-five minutes, as per the recipe, I uncovered the pot and allowed the dish to simmer. I tore up some fresh celery leaves, tarragon, chives and parsley and tossed them with some fresh lemon juice and a sweet, fruity olive oil and dressed this herb salad with the crunchy crackling. I also toasted a few slices of a fresh boule.

Although it was past nine o’clock when the supper was finished simmering, I took a photo or two of the dish after I spooned it on to my plate and nested the herb salad atop it. I had hoped my patience was about to be rewarded. I dove into the dish; the vegetables were soft and rich and seasoned simply and perfectly. The accompanying herb salad added balance and texture and I used the toasted bread to clean my plate. I took a moment to post to Twitter to say, “It is late. It is rainy. But I am eating @topchefkevin’s delicious One-Pot Hog Supper & I am SO happy.”  I attached one of the photos. (Kevin responded to my Tweet: “I love it! What a wonderful picture. So glad you are enjoying one of my cherished family recipes.” I was thrilled.) . The dish was wonderful and I have been recalling the experience of cooking it fondly to friends and family; they tell me I have a twinkle in my eye when I describe the construction of the dish and the taste and the simple joy I derived from eating it.

I plan to try many more recipes from Fire In My Belly. I’m terribly impressed by Kevin Gillespie’s food philosophy, his flavours and rich and personal culinary history. It’s a beautiful book and one of my new favourites.