PAGING THROUGH PILES of new cookbooks every month reminds me of my days reviewing restaurants. Sampling hundreds of titles, like hundreds of plates of halibut or hamburger, changes your perspective on standout quality.
Lately, my reading life is a blur of Instant Pot niche titles (vegan! Italian!) and keto diet niche titles (vegan! Southern!). There’s a market for these latest trends, but not on my kitchen shelf. Many other hot cookbooks have a built-in celebrity customer base, or have recipes that work well — this should be a given, but isn’t — yet don’t appeal to my tastes or skill level, even though I can recommend them to others.
Once in a while, though, the new-release stacks reveal a delight that seems written just for me. As with restaurants, it’s thrilling to feel I’ve discovered something good instead of following the hype — but also worrisome to think a hidden treasure isn’t getting the attention it should. This feeling most recently hit me with “A Common Table” by Cynthia Chen McTernan (Rodale Books, $30), a California-based lawyer who has written for years on her “Two Red Bowls” food blog.
As McTernan says in the book, she is “a Chinese girl who grew up in South Carolina, eating mapo tofu alongside cornbread and washing it down with sweet tea,” married to “a Korean-Irish boy” raised in Hawaii. The cookbook reflects the dishes she makes at home for their family, drawing on influences that “all have so much more in common than first meets the eye.”
McTernan’s recipes clicked with me, the way she casually crosses cultures and links disparate ingredients, paying tribute to family traditions while evolving new ones. After all, why not put kimchi-brined fried chicken onto flaky Southern biscuits, or add sweet Japanese rice flour to buttermilk pancake batter, or spike Middle Eastern shakshuka with fiery Korean gochujang, when your results are as good as hers?
I thought I was the only one excited about the lovely hardcover until I saw Jenny Hartin add it to her best-of list for 2018. Hartin is the director of publicity for EatYourBooks.com, an online community and recipe index with more than 160,000 members. She called the title a “cookbook lover’s dream” that didn’t get the attention it deserved for its interesting recipes, stellar writing and gorgeous photographs.
Her rave spurred sales, and “A Common Table” was nominated in April for a prestigious James Beard Award, so I guess I finally can stop calling it underappreciated. But it’s reminded me how hard it can be to break out through the buzz.
“I received dozens of messages from people thanking me for turning them on to ‘A Common Table.’ If no one championed these types of books, they might go unnoticed,” Hartin told me in an email.
I’m glad for any voices sharing news of good cookbooks — and for more books to enjoy — and for good home meals as well as good restaurant meals. As I tried out this recipe from “A Common Table,” I realized I found it so appealing partly because it reminded me of a sandwich I ate long ago at the Rexville Grocery in Mount Vernon, which I never reviewed but have always enjoyed.
Kimchi Egg & Cheese
2 to 3 teaspoons vegetable or olive oil, divided
1 large egg
1/3 cup finely chopped kimchi, or more to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons salted butter (enough to thinly butter both sides of each slice), softened
2 (½-inch thick) slices of your favorite bread
1½ ounces (2 slices) cheddar or American cheese
1. In a medium skillet, heat 1 to 2 teaspoons oil over medium heat until shimmering. Crack the egg into the pan, and cook until the egg white is opaque but the yolk is still runny, 2 to 4 minutes. Carefully slide it onto a plate, and give the skillet a quick wipe. Return the skillet to the heat, and add another ½ teaspoon or so of oil. Roll it around to coat the pan, then add the kimchi and cook, stirring once or twice, until just hot and beginning to crisp around the edges, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, and set aside. Give the skillet another quick wipe or rinse.
2. Butter one side of each bread slice, taking care to spread the butter to the edges. Return the skillet to the stove over medium-low, and heat until a drop of water sizzles on the pan. Add the bread slices, and top each with a slice of cheese. Add the kimchi and the fried egg to one slice, then let the bread cook at a very gentle sizzle until golden-brown on the bottom, 3 to 4 minutes. If the bread isn’t browning to your liking, increase the heat to medium. (I like to err on the side of lower heat, so I don’t risk burning it if I look away!)
3. Once the cheese is melted and the bottom of the bread is golden-brown, use a spatula to flip the cheese-only half onto the egg-and-kimchi half. Let cool briefly before serving.