Cookbook Review: SOUL by Todd Richards

Note: I received a digital advance reader copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Soul food--oh, where do I begin? So homey, unpretentious, flavorful, and eclectic. I've loved it ever since I was a kid growing up in the South. Todd Richards evidently does to, as he establishes from the first few pages how deeply soul food runs through his veins. An award-winning, James Beard-nominated chef from Atlanta, he brings his passion for this often overlooked cuisine to the table with a dense cookbook of recipes that elevate it to an art form.

Seriously. Forget your standard fried chicken, collard greens, and biscuits. Try Collard Green Ramen, Candied Bacon with Turnip Hash; and Curried Cauliflower, Crab, and Sweet Potato Gratin. The recipes are fun and ridiculously creative. It's clear Richards has some serious chef chops and isn't about to slow down for the reader. He's cooking like your grandmother would cook if she trained at Le Cordon Bleu. In the process, he challenges everything you thought you knew about soul food.

Being a home cook who is slightly lazy and lacking in culinary ambition, I have to admit I was intimidated by some of the recipes. Like a lot of recipes supplied by professional chefs, they are really multiple recipes in one and require completing many separate components that come together at the end to compose the final dish. I naturally gravitated towards some of the easier recipes, such as Blueberry Fried Pies with Meyer Lemon Glaze and Mom's Fried Catfish with Hot Sauce. Even these can't escape the pro chef touch, with little details in the fried pies like vanilla bean paste, thyme, and orange zest livening up what could have been an otherwise straightforward flavor profile. If your tastes are decidedly non-gourmet (a friend of mine hates what she calls "fancy food"), this will not be your cookbook. If the idea of pairing blueberries and thyme makes sense or even thrills you, this will be an inspiring read. 

Like a lot of pro chef cookbooks, this one falls into the trap of requiring a lot of ingredients that may be expensive or difficult for the home cook to procure. There is liberal use of smoked salt, bourbon vanilla paste, and more obscure cuts of meat like venison or pork jowls. As mentioned earlier, the recipes aren't for the beginner chef. They require a lot of ingredients, a lot of planning, and some serious commitment. This is clearly his passion project, and it's clear he cares deeply about the quality of his food.

Each recipe comes with a sizable blurb about his thought process behind each dish. Anyone who knows me knows these blurbs are why I read cookbooks in the first place, and his writing doesn't disappoint. There are dozens of memories of growing up in Chicago and visiting relatives in the South, and they are so vividly described that I almost believed for a second that I was reading about my own childhood.

The organization of the book is also a little different and may take some getting used to. The book is split into a number of chapters by staple ingredient, which can be as specific as collard greens, and as broad as beans and rice or eggs and poultry. Each recipe is photographed in some capacity, but they often annoyingly don't appear until pages later. Likewise, components for recipes that pop up again and again (his sweet tea brine, his piecrust recipe) require flipping to the back for that component's recipe, and it is difficult to navigate, at least in my e-book format. While the photographs are beautiful, I wish each recipe got the full-page close-up shot it deserves instead of being photographed on a table with a number of other dishes from farther away.

However, these are smaller complaints compared to the quality, quantity, and sheer ambition of these recipes. The book really does celebrate soul food, but it also gives it a fresh new coat of paint, perfect for modern eaters. This is a book that Todd Richards should be proud of.

Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

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