One of the things I’ve learned over my long career as a cookbook appreciator (I started buying cookbooks with my allowance when I was eleven) is that some cookbooks feature terrific stories and lousy recipes. Others offer the reverse. They are bursting with highly usable, carefully written recipes, but offer very little in the way of personality and humanity.
It’s a rare cookbook that manages to walk the line between good storytelling and an accessible recipe collection that truly works. Smoke & Pickles, a recently released volume by former Top Chef “cheftestant” Edward Lee, straddles that line with ease.
Best of all, in addition to spinning a good tale and offering highly functional recipes, Lee has imbued this book with edible novelty. He grew up in a Korean-American family in Brooklyn, ran a successful Korean barbeque joint when he was just 25, and then after an encounter with Chez Panisse alum, became interested in learning more about where the food he was serving came from.
That interest led him to Louisville, Kentucky where his food found its groove and got really interesting. You can taste all the stops along that path in his food and it couldn’t be more delicious.
There’s the Lime Beef Salad that shows off the power of just a little good beef, prepared carefully and paired with a tangle of flavorful, crunchy vegetables (if your diners can’t deal with surprise bursts of heat, skip the chili pepper in this one).
The Pickled Jasmine Peaches give Lee a chance to share a fun trick he’s devised of using tea bags instead of messy loose spices to provide flavor, and they pay homage to the pickling tradition that exists in both his birth culture, as well as his adopted Southern one.
And nothing is more refreshing and soothing on a hot summer day than a glass of his Bourbon Sweet Tea.
Lime Beef Salad
5 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from about 3 limes)
1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger (use a Microplane)
½ teaspoon soy sauce
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces green cabbage, shredded as thin as possible
1 plum tomato, halved lengthwise and sliced into thin half-moons
1 mango (find one that is slightly underripe and still firm), peeled, pitted, and cut into matchsticks
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon black sesame seeds
1 red Fresno chile or jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
8 cups water
A small knob of ginger
1 garlic clove
1 teaspoon salt
5 ounces boneless beef, sirloin or eye-of-round
1 small bunch cilantro, coarse stems removed, leaves and tender stems finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped peanuts
To make vinaigrette: Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk together. Cover and chill.
To make salad: Combine all ingredients in a bowl and toss well. Cover and chill.
To make the beef: Put the water, ginger, garlic, and salt in a small pot and bring to a boil over high heat, then turn the heat to low and simmer for about 15 while you pound the beef.
Cut the beef into thin slices: you should have about 8. Once at a time, place each slice between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound with the bottom of a small saucepan or rolling pin until paper-thin. Transfer to a plate.
Remove the chilled vinaigrette from the refrigerator. Using chopsticks or tongs, gently drop a few slices of beef into the simmering water and cook for just 10 seconds, or even less if you like your beef a little on the rare side. Remove the beef slices and immediately drop into the chilled vinaigrette. Repeat with the remaining beef slices.
Add the beef and vinaigrette to the salad. Toss gently and arrange on small salad plates. Top with the cilantro and peanuts and serve immediately.
Pickled Jasmine Peaches
2 pounds slightly under-ripe peaches
1 cup champagne vinegar
1 cup water
1 ½ cups sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 star anise
2 serrano chili peppers, sliced in half
3 jasmine tea bags
Peel the peaches with a vegetable peeler. Slice into wedges, discarding the pits. Pack into a large glass jar or other heatproof container.
Combine the vinegar, water, sugar, salt, and star anise in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Pour the hot liquid over the peaches and the peppers and tea bags. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate.
Remove and discard the tea bags after 1 day. The peaches will be ready after 2 days, and they will keep for up to 3 weeks.
Bourbon Sweet Tea
3 cups water
½ cup sugar
2 or 3 black tea bags
1 lemon, sliced into wedges
1 lime, sliced into wedges
1 orange, sliced into wedges
1 cup bourbon
Lemon wheels for garnish
To make the tea: Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour the sugar water into a jar, add the tea bags, and let steep for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how strong you want your tea. (If you like your tea very strong, leave the bags in the tea for longer.)
Remove the tea bags and add the lemon, lime, and orange wedges. Pour in the bourbon. Cover the jar and chill.
Serve in small glasses and garnish with thin lemon wheels.