Kathy Casey's cookbook Dishing claims that she is "one of the Pacific Northwest's most beloved culinary personalities." Tom Douglas's cookbook Seattle Kitchen brags that his recipes embody "laid-back sophistication with a dash of humor." There's no denying that these two chefs have left chocolate-dipped thumbprints all over the Seattle food scene—Douglas is the owner of Dahlia Lounge, Etta's Seafood, and Palace Kitchen; Casey authors the Seattle Times food column Dishing, and is the brain behind local catering biz Kathy Casey Food Studios. We know they can cook—in fact, Casey modestly writes that cooking "just comes naturally" to her. But is a successful chef necessarily a good cookbook writer? Can these gods among foodies teach a slave to the microwave to create a finger-licking feast? To answer such questions, I orchestrated a good-natured celebrity death match between these chefs. After purchasing their cookbooks and preparing my kitchen for a culinary battle royale, I followed their recipes to create two complete meals while critiquing who the more comprehensive instructor was and which dishes were tastiest. To force myself to rely largely on the chefs' guidance, I selected menus I'm completely unfamiliar with.
Tuesday night I worked from Douglas's Seattle Kitchen, settling on a menu of Crab Salad with Asparagus, Avocado, and Lime Vinaigrette; followed by Charred Ahi Tuna with Pasta Puttanesca; and for dessert, Apple Dumplings with Medjool Dates and Maple Sauce. The crab salad started off as a relatively easy recipe to follow—whisk this, chop that—until I came to the asparagus. I don't know how to boil asparagus, so I was putting my faith in the recipe. Douglas instructed me to "boil... until just tender, about five minutes." At five minutes exactly, my asparagus was the consistency of baby food. A pinch of the stem and the stuff practically digested itself. It was a disappointment. Why you gotta fuck with me, Douglas?
Next, I had crabmeat to extract. I do not own the proper tools to shuck, peel, or otherwise disrobe a crab. Instead I used rubber-grip pliers stolen from work and sterilized in asparagus water. I thought it was resourceful; my guests looked concerned. "Drink more," I encouraged them. "In the living room." Halfway through snapping its little crabby legs, I realized that salads are a freaking side dish, and this one was stealing my youth. I prepared the lime vinaigrette dressing. Once the salad was properly assembled and dressed, the crabmeat overpowered the other flavors. "It's meant to feature the taste of crab when it's in the prime of the season," Douglas's cookbook argued. Touché, Douglas, but my guests agreed that it smelled and tasted too effing fishy.
Luckily my main dish, Charred Ahi Tuna with Pasta Puttanesca, was a breeze to prepare. The tuna was seasoned with fresh ground pepper and salt before being seared for a minute on each side. Everything else—garlic, tomatoes, kalamata olives, white wine, parsley, capers, lemon, and anchovies—was diced, thrown into a pan, and simmered to a tasty mush before being poured over fresh linguine. The sauce was tangy and nicely accentuated the tuna's mellow flavor.
Then came the dumplings; "My mom never made these apple dumplings," says Douglas, "but whenever I eat one, I could almost swear she did." Before assembling Douglas's apple dumplings, you must first make pastry dough and whip up some date butter. I dislike dates. Douglas calls them "moist" and "rich in flavor," but when you take a steak knife to their hard, sticky little bodies, they appear to ooze sadness. I find it depressing. Nevertheless, the butter was delicious.
After I peeled four apples, Douglas instructed me to take a melon baller and carve little Jacuzzis in each apple for the date butter to lounge in. I do not own a melon baller, so I hacked out jagged fissures in my apples with a knife. The apples were then wrapped snug in dough, baked, and drizzled with a simple maple-cinnamon sauce. If my roommate and guests hadn't pitched in, it would have taken me 17 hours and/or a steak knife to the throat to finish this dessert. Douglas's mother and I think that these apple dumplings are worth paying another person to prepare.
Several evenings later, I was ready to rumble with Kathy Casey's Dishing. This cookbook comes with prepared menus, such as "Pacific Rim Party," "Autumn Fireside Dinner," and "Tiki Torch Dreamin'." I decided to splice several menus and make a Warm Spinach Salad with Shiitake Mushrooms, Sweet Peppers, and Sesame-Honey Dressing; followed by a Roasted King Salmon with Orange-Ginger Salsa; and Unbelievable Apple Cake with Cider Crème Anglaise and Cranberry Compote, for an Autumn Rim–side Tiki Dreamin' Party.
The warm spinach salad was easy to assemble and absolutely delicious. It involved sautéing garlic, red and yellow peppers, shiitake mushrooms, onion, and sesame seeds before dumping the mixture in a great big bowl of spinach, which wilts and warms the spinach leaves slightly. Before sautéing my vegetables, I whipped up the sesame-honey dressing, with its molasses, ginger, honey, and rice vinegar. The concoction was tasty, but sweet and very strong. Casey vaguely ordered me to "toss to coat the spinach leaves well," but I ended up only using two tablespoons of the dressing. Had I used more, it would have overpowered the vegetables. (Guess I saved your ass on that one, Casey.)
Roasted King Salmon with Orange-Ginger Salsa was next. While shopping, I had been unable to find the ingredient sambal oelek. I didn't know what sambal oelek was, and neither did anyone I asked, so eventually I gave up and omitted it. As it turns out, sambal oelek is chili paste. I don't know why the recipe couldn't have just said "motherfucking chili paste." It would have made my life easier.
The directions for grilling salmon were, thankfully, simple to follow. Once cooked, we smeared the fish with my orange-ginger butter and salsa and dug in. The salmon was perfectly cooked, but I found the piles of sweet butter and salsa to be overwhelming, especially when paired with the honey-dressed warm spinach salad. (Casey, you were right: Autumn, Rims, and Tiki Torches do not mix.) My roommate and guest disagreed, but, well, they were wrong. The salmon was too sweet. Maybe if I'd known to add some motherfucking chili paste, things would have turned out differently.
Dessert's Unbelievable Apple Cake with Cider Crème Anglaise and Cranberry Compote recipe had many steps, and most were a pain in the ass ("In a double boiler... heat the half-and-half until hot but not simmering... temper the eggs..." then tell the mixture you think it looks really sexy today, and you can't wait until the two of you are alone...). The cake turned out beautifully but, alas, my crème anglaise curdled. You warned me Casey; "Do not overcook or it will turn into scrambled eggs!" but I got carried away in the heat of the moment. To dress the cake, I settled for the simple cranberry compote.
After two days of solid cooking, there was no clear winner. Casey's recipes were more succinctly written, while Douglas liked to wax poetic about emulsifying shit. However, Douglas's book suggested great places to shop for ingredients. I'm sure if I'd asked him where to buy sambal oelek, he would have said, "What, you mean motherfucking chili paste?" and then happily obliged me. Overall, Casey took the prize for best salad with her Warm Spinach Salad with Shiitake Mushrooms, Sweet Peppers, and Sesame-Honey Dressing. Douglas dominated with his entrée, Charred Ahi Tuna with Pasta Puttanesca. The desserts tied for the honor of Most Delicious Pain in the Ass That I Will Never Attempt Again.