The Zen Kitchen — Adam Liaw

Cookbooks have always struck me as being very personal things to write. With any one recipe there is a whole web of decisions and preferences and value judgements.

For instance, if you’re writing a recipe with chicken will you mention that the chicken should be free range? Or organic? Or hand reared on a diet of the finest whatever-it-is chickens eat? Will you even feature chicken, knowing that the bulk of poultry is raised in conditions of abject horror and market research suggests people prefer the affordable over the ethical?

Alright, so let’s write a vegetarian recipe instead. Much safer. How about a quinoa burger with a zingy yoghurt sauce? Of course there was that sensationalist article claiming that due to the popularity of quinoa, Peruvians, for whom the grain is an essential staple, could no longer afford to eat it. And that thick, rich greek yoghurt we all crave? Well, its manufacture produces immense amounts of acidic whey. And it has become like the new nuclear waste: no one knows quite what to do with it.

Aside from the ethics, will people find your aggressive seasonings to reflect a course and unsatisfied palette? Or will people find your approach boring and lacking any life?

And broader, are your recipes guilty of cultural appropriation? Do you take from other cuisines without understanding or respect? How do you feel about the undeniable privilege about chiding your readers to buy and use the very best olive oil.

I could probably never write a cookbook, given my neurotic tendency of overthinking things. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think about the person behind the cookbook, and the choices that went into making a particular cookbook.

One such person I occasionally wonder about is Adam Liaw, an omnipresent Australian food celebrity. He has written a small handful of cookbooks. They are consistently solid and reliable cookbooks which usually play around with that broad category of pan-Asian food.

The Zen Kitchen, his latest, takes a slightly different track and focuses exclusively on one cuisine: Japanese. And more so than other books, it delves into the broader philosophy of Japanese food. Liaw writes authoritatively and with real love on the subject. In fact, he has been recognised as an official Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine.

It is a topic of real passion for Liaw. The best choices for cookbook are from authors with the most passion in a particular topic. And yet sometimes passion without proper and thoughtful application can come across as unrefined.

Structure and Design

Hardback.

240 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Pickles stocks and seasonings
  2. Japanese breakfasts
  3. Rice and noodles
  4. Soup and nabemono
  5. Japanese salads
  6. Fish
  7. Meat
  8. Mainly vegetables
  9. Semi Sweets

Firstly, I have to talk about that title: The Zen Kitchen. It suggests either a certain outdated orientalism (you could almost imagine it typeset in Wonton font) or reference and adherence to the principles of zen buddhism. The book, thankfully in the case of the former and perhaps sadly in the case of the latter, does not live up to either of these images. It is a particularly bad title for a book that is modern in approach and execution.

There’s a certain by-the-numbers, commercial approach to the design of the book. It looks likes the publisher allocated exactly a certain budget for the design and that was it. This is not to say the book is poorly designed, but rather it has a disappointing feel of being just good enough. It’s the Mazda of book designs when Liaw is clearly more of a Volkswagen man.

One of the main examples of this is the chapter introduction pages. Featuring text superimposed over a full bleed photograph, it comes off as busy, hard to read and inelegant. The chapter numbers are mixed in with the chapter titles in a way that is hard to parse. One example reads, at first glance, chapter japanese / two breakfasts.

There are also these mini-essays scattered throughout the book that do a fine job of showing Liaw’s approach and appreciation for Japanese food. And yet these are again text set on a visually distracting photo background. The text in both these mini-essays and the chapter introductions is fully justified which I cannot help but find unpleasant to read in anything other than a newspaper.

While Liaw is not Japanese, he has an abiding respect for the Japanese legendary sense of attention to detail. This makes some of the decisions around the design of the book to be puzzling.

Things improve when you consider the recipe format itself. He has gone for something that is simple and usable. But for one minor quibble, it is my favourite recipe format in a while: a title, followed by minimal but useful headnote, and then a two column approach: a neat, orderly list of ingredients on the left and a numbered paragraph method on the right. Finally, a little note at the bottom of the method gives a serving suggestion or provides another useful titbit of information.

The quible mentioned above? The vast majority of recipes have exactly two steps in their method. There seems to be little logic behind the delineation of what is a step one step and what gets pushed over into step two (although the approach seems to be step one is ‘cook the dish’ and step two is ‘serve the dish’). It is puzzling.

The photography is monotonous in approach. While it does justice, by and large, to both the food and Liaw’s stunning collection of ceramics, the constant 45 degree angle induces an existential weariness. The weathered wooden board that makes a frequent appearance as a backdrop is straight out of food styling from a few years ago.

Really, it’s not a book that you’ll love because of the design. At best, the design fades in the background and allows you to focus on the strengths of this book: Liaw’s knowledge and passion for Japanese food. At worst, though, it goes against the love of Japanese food  that is otherwise on display.

Thoughts

Japan, and Japanese food, is amongst the chief pleasures that this life has to offer. Despite this, I struggle to find good Japanese cookbooks. The books I try are either too technical and strive for unachievable authenticity or they are dumbed down and produce boring food. Japanese food can—and should—often be subtle but never boring.

This book is one of the more successful in the genre of approachable Japanese food. The food is deeply enjoyable. It is very smart to position the recipes inside the context of the average Australian kitchen (although, doubtlessly the book would work as well in US, UK or kitchens elsewhere.)

There are a few moments where the indicated timings did not quite work. A poached chicken breast at the suggested ten minute mark was still dangerously raw. The miso-cured pork belly was still flabby and no where near as burnished after following the recipe.

Similarly, the recipe for onigirazu does not really give you instructions on the technique for folding these addictive rice and nori sandwiches. A video on Liaw’s youtube channel helps slightly, but if you have to go to youtube to get advice that should be in a book then you have already lost the war.

The inevitable judgement from this is that this book is not intended for either kitchen or Japanese-food beginners. Perhaps this was the result of an effort to condense recipes down to two step levels.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Summer Ramen (despite the inaccurate chicken cooking instructions, the finished product is a perfect meal: a lot of textural variation, the intrinsic delight of a noodle dish and a punchy dressing. For poached chicken, please avail yourself of the instructions from Serious Eats)
  • Sushi Sandwiches (while the craze around these may not have reached Australia, they are delicious and fun. The method, as noted, is inadequate for someone who likely has not heard of or seen these before.) 
  • Japanese Garden Salad (I think one of the best recipes from the book. A picture perfect combination of simple ingredients dressed up with a powerful and assertive vinaigrette. However the recipe tells you to blanch the broccoli before the corn, something that would result in corn speckled with broccoli flecks)
  • Onion and Garlic Vinaigrette (While potentially divisive in how assertive and pungent the combination of raw garlic and onion is, I could have sipped this like whisky. Would be great on steamed rice.) 
  • Sukiyaki of beef and Asian greens (again, a very nice dish that is let down by a recipe that lacks clarity and precision. The shirataki noodles, which I had never tried, were incredibly satisfying to eat and soaked up the flavourful sauce.)
  • Miso cured pork (I enjoyed the accompanying shaved cabbage more than I enjoyed this. It needed to be cooked for much longer than the recipe suggests. And even though I cooked it for another 10-15 minutes, it was still rather unsatisfying. I would be inclined to try again with fish.) 
  • Chicken and Tofu Meatballs (ding ding we have a winner! These little balls were perfect. This was one of the last recipes I cooked from the book so by this time I had learnt to assume the recipe was a starting point rather than something to be reliably followed. I would encourage anyone who makes this—and everyone should—to whizz the tofu in a food processor and then drain and to bake the balls instead. Life is too short for somethings.) 
  • Beans in black sesame (a simple vegetable dish that while unmemorable was at least pretty on the plate.)
  • Agedashi tofu (there is a perfect contrast between a crispy thin exterior and a soft, wobbly creamy interior. It’s not the easiest dish to make, but the end product is as delicious as you could hope for.)
  • Tantan chicken nabe (I liked this because it gave me licence for a bit of shopping: I bought both a wee little gas stove and a Muji donabe. It was also a decent recipe that resulted in a fun and interactive meal. The broth was sophisticated and quite impressive.) 
  • Barbarian fish (the recipie specifies salmon but I am a big baby so we subtituted in some firm white fish. Opinons were split as to the delicousness of the dish. It’s sort of like a cold sweet and sour fish. It’s very Japanese to deep fry something and then bath it in a delicious sauce. It is worth trying, if nothing else.) 

Why this book?

  • You like Japanese food and are confident in the kitchen
  • You are a fan of the irrepressible Mr Liaw
  • You love Japan and a cookbook is a little cheaper than a flight

Score

Nigella ░░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░ Rain on your wedding day And does it just spark joy?

 

You should probably buy this book.

World of Cookbooks: Piglet 2017

I largely enjoy Food52’s Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks. It’s one of the few large scale cookbook awards.

Via twitter the editors have just announced the 2016 challengers:

  1. Simple — Diana Henry
  2. Sirocco — Sabrina Ghayour (Cook These Books review here!)
  3. My Two Souths — Asha Gomez
  4. Golden — Itamar Srulovich & Sarit Packer
  5.  A Recipe for Cooking — Cal Peternell
  6. Land of Fish and Rice — Fuchsia Dunlop
  7. Deep Run Roots — Vivian Howard
  8. Samarkand — Caroline Eden & Eleanor Ford
  9. Taste of Persia — Naomi Duguid
  10. Tasting Rome — Katie Parla & Kristinia Gill
  11. Fat Rice — Abraham Conlon, Adrienne Lo & Hugh Amano
  12.  Dorie’s Cookies — Dorie Greenspan
  13. Victuals — Ronni Lundy
  14. Taste & Technique — Naomi Pomeroy

In the lead up to this year’s competition the team at Food52 explained they were going with less obvious picks this year (hence no household name, A-list authors).

This is a worthy approach. Cookbooks from superstars sell themselves just fine, one assumes. It’s right to shine a light on authors who while less familiar are still producing wonderful cookbooks.

And yet, and yet.

Aside from one or two titles, this collection feels a little dull. The collective impression is of a group of books that simply will not pass the test of time or become beloved classics. It is trendy ephemera.

This is a major weakness of the Piglet: the books it recommends are quickly forgotten about (barring one or two from each year.) The niche titles do not seem to spark enough joy.

The other major weakness, of course, is system of putting widely divergent books head to head and then trying to determine a winner using a subjective and unreliable metric.

Rather than trying to find the best cookbooks, the real goal of the Food52’s Piglet is to find cookbooks that are most like Food52 itself. More so than ever the books featured seem to solely feature Food52’s aesthetic and approach to food (with one or two token exceptions).  Given the diversity of cookbook publishing in 2017, the result is so skewed as to be not representative of what is actually happening in the world of cookbooks.

In the past I have allocated a large amount of my yearly cookbook budget on picking up the featured titles. This has resulted in a lot of unused, flash-in-the-pan books. While there are a few titles on the list above (Diana Henry’s Simple looks fantastic!), I will not be picking up many of these titles.

I will, this year, be a less active follower of the tournament and hope for a better selection next time.

Sirocco — Sabrina Ghayour

If Sirocco was a cage fighter it would be a bombastic, no-holds barred affair wearing the brightest neon leotard ever. Luckily, it is not a cage fighter and instead an exciting and flavour-driven cookbook.

Given the state of the world in early 2017, everyone should be in therapy: a mid-century couch to sit on, someone with a smart cardigan to listen, and a view over a river or lake to cover quiet moments.

Of course I imagine therapy is expensive. Cooking is however much cheaper. And, in its own way, therapeutic.

Cooking requires a certain degree of focus and concentration. A wandering mind will result in something burning, or at least an assertive char. The best food comes when you are in the kitchen, both literally and figuratively.

The more you are thinking about everything else in your life, the less likely you are to create something pleasing. The more you are focussed on the sounds and smells of the task before you, the more likely you are to both enjoy the time spent cooking and produce something good.

Of course, the therapeutic benefits of cooking are not solely from this meditative aspect. There is something special about simply creating something. For those of us with office/knowledge based jobs where we deal with abstract concepts and intangible things, it is a relief to touch and experience something real. It is a direct and simple pleasure, one that comes from turning one thing into something else through the application of creativity and care.

And then there is the obvious joy of nurturing and caring for people. Even if you are cooking for yourself (especially so, in fact!), it is an act of love to make food. It affirms our existence and acknowledges that no matter the superficial differences between two people, we share an inescapable common biology: we all need to eat. Or, more succinctly, everyone poops.

Cooking from Sirroco has been therapeutic and a treat. The resulting food has been a balm for frayed souls and a celebration of life.

Structure

Hardcover. Two jaunty ribbons to mark your place. A welcome extravagance.

240 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. My Kitchen Pantry
  3. Brilliant breakfasts & brunches
  4. Light bites & savoury snacks
  5. Spectacular Salads & sides
  6. Mouthwatering main dishes
  7. Superb bakes & sweet treats
  8. Index
  9. Acknowledgement

There’s a certain exuberance to the design of this book. Scroll up and take a second look at the cover: it’s this eye-catching whirl of colour and light.

This spirit continues within the book proper. Colourful pages and graphic elements, vibrant photography combine to suggest a sense of culinary play and fun. This is not a ponderous or sombre book, but rather a book that wants to be celebrated.

It does date the book however: even though it was produced last year, it feels much older. In an age of more minimalist approaches, the design sticks out and perhaps not in the best way. The cover for the US edition is much stronger. It conveys the book’s exuberance without being quite so overdone.

Ghayour’s writing has a certain charm and excitement to it. It does not quite match the level of exuberance suggested by the design and the photography, but that is arguably a point to be thankful for.

Occasionally, the method for individual recipes is not as clear as it needs to be. Given the informality of the food in this book this is mostly no big deal: however there are a few recipes where this lack of thought becomes a frustrating oversight.

The recipe format is workable: the usual headnote, a two column list of ingredients (sorted in use order and with accompanying preparations) and then relatively dense paragraph by paragraph methods. It does not set the world on fire, but it works well enough. A more generous line-spacing could have helped readability.

The photography speaks louder than the writing. It is enticing. There’s an immediacy to the shots that is compelling. The photography very much builds on the theme of vibrant, intense food.

Thoughts

If I am drawn to a cookbook it is because of an uncompromising appreciation for flavour. I do not want delicate hints of this or suggestions of that. I want big fat wallops of flavour. I want bright, direct flavours. I am comfortable if you take away from this I have a simple palette. I am shameless in this.

This book adopts a flavour focussed approach. While the book is heavily influenced by the flavours of the middle east, there is some fun combinations and experiments going on, rather than an attempt for strict recreations of regional fare.

If you were expecting a book with a strong and authentic coverage of say Iranian food, you might be disappointed. If you were expecting ideas for delicious and tasty food, then you will be delighted.

This is what we have made so far:

  • Bread Boats (this is one of the examples were the method is not up to scratch: there’s no advice other than make them ‘boat shaped.’ It was also difficult to stop the egg cascading down the sides and over the baking pan)
  • Bacon Pitas (the breakfast of champions. The spicy mango chutney based condiment is the thing of dreams and would make a lovely addition to any dish needing a real flavour kick)
  • Spiced beetroot yogurt (good but not great – it felt ever so slightly flat and in need of just a bit more oomph) 
  • Courgette, Saffron & Potato Kuku (again, good but not great. That said, I have a bit of a bias against kukus so, it could just be me)
  • Za’atar & Goats’ Cheese Puffs (the perfect companion to an icy cold drink. Flaky pastry, beguiling za’atar and tangy, rich goat’s cheese. Morish but tending towards a little salty, although this is obviously dependent on which goats cheese/za’atar you use) 
  • Mouthful spiced lamb kebabs (recreating the flavour profile of say a lamb schwarma in a dish that takes even a slowpoke like me half an hour is a real achievement. The accompanying harissa oil was *thumbs up emoji*. Although the recipe does not suggest this, you would be silly not to serve this with sumac marinated onions)
  • Lamb buns (this remains the best use for leftover lamb I have found. The sticky, savoury, sweet lamb goes fantastically with a cucumber and pomegranate relish)
  • Spicy Turkey Lettuce Wraps (like the lamb kebabs, this is a clever, quick and tasty idea for a midweek DIY meal)
  • Apple, sumac, red onion salad (the combination of sumac and onions is perfect. The apple adds a sweetness that brings out the natural sweetness of red onions. And the lemon in the dressing stops the whole thing from becoming one dimensional.) 
  • Prawn, broccolini, feta and almond salad (while I have mixed feelings about using ‘designer’ trademarked (and heavily litigated) vegetables, there’s no denying this salad is heavy on flavour and shows a certain textural sophistication)
  • Turmeric & spice-marinated cauliflower (the tomato sauce the recipe directs you to make with this dish elevates it from fine to very good) 
  • Crushed new potatoes with garlic, dill, grilled scallions & peas (if I have a weakness, and this is not a confession, more friendly banter, it would be for potato salad. This version skips the mayo and is the better for it. Spritely and memorable)
  • Stir-fried Tangy Prawns (it is hard to imagine I have lived a rich life without ever trying cooked cucumber. This dish is spicy and vibrant and one of the best recipies in the book)

Why This Book

  • You want a book that appreciates and chases flavour
  • You are happy to overlook a few recipes that are not quite as developed as they should be
  • You love the flavours of the Middle East

Score

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░░ A forgotten wallet And does it just spark joy?

 

You should buy this book. Why not buy a copy on Amazon?

Flavour — Ruby Tandoh

Flavour joins the chorus of books that seeks to refute the trend towards ‘clean eating.’ Such voices seek to make food fun again, rather than a source of anxiety and fear.

Cookbooks have a lot to teach us. No, aside from the obvious mechanics of how and when to apply heat to various combinations of protein, carbohydrate and lipid.

Cookbooks are guides for different ways of living. Do we buy into a world of 15 minute meals, where food is a necessary but joyless pitstop in our otherwise busy days? Or do we invest in a world where everyone makes their own jam and knows the village vicar?

Cookbooks are inspiration for how to live, as much as they are how to eat.

In some cases this inspiration is explicit: as in Balance and Harmony, Asian cookbooks often suggest a certain way of eating: something that is highly communal and features a few dishes. This reflects a certain lifestyle and culture.

In some cases the inspiration is tacit: the many cookbooks of Bill Granger do not exactly tell you to eat the food outside with a group of friends all wearing white jeans and linen shirts, yet you begin to feel the pull of this as you read and cook from one of his books.

Yet what happens if this guidance is confused? When one recipe pulls you in one direction–of say a no fuss 15-minute meal–and the other recipe pulls you into the direction of intricate and involved baking?

The central problem of Flavour is that it simply is not sure of what it wants to be—or how it wants to guide you. After having cooked from this book for a few weeks, I now see much clearer warning signs in this paragraph from the book’s introduction:

This book is for everyone who likes to eat, whether you’re a new cook or a devoted foodie, a fast food queen or a restaurant critic, old or young.

In creating a book that she hopes is for everyone, Tandoh has created a book that will appeal to no one.

Even the central message–that we should stop demonising and elevating certain (arbitrary) food types is lost in a cookbook that consists of a confusing mishmash of cuisines, techniques and approaches.

Structure

Hardback.

368 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Vegetable and Herbs
  3. Fruit
  4. Eggs and Dairy
  5. Meat and Fish
  6. Storecupboard

Within each of these chapters are a variety of smaller sections. For instance, the Fruit chapter has sections for Apples, Pears and Rhubarb, Tropical Fruit, Citrus, Stone fruits and cherries, and Berries and Currants.

I cannot say whether or not this structure was Tandoh’s decision or her publisher’s. I can say with certainty it is a terrible system of organisation. Not being able to quickly look at similar recipes is painful. If you want to make something with chicken, you might have to look at 10 different sections under a few different chapters.

It is a hard book to browse: I have had to rely on the index to an unprecedented extent. Once you do find your way, things improve slightly. The recipe format is workable: a generous headnote (occasionally, far too generous, such that the recipe does not start until the last paragraphs on the page). The ingredients are given a column on the side, and the method is given in paragraph long chunks.

Tandoh’s writing is much stronger in the headnote than in the recipe method. This, I think, reflects the problem I have with the book: it does not know what it wants to be, so the writing is really inconsistent. It can be really chatty and go into far too much detail, yet at times glides over steps and omits helpful advice.

The photography is not bad, yet tends toward an out of focus, instragram-filter aesthetic. It is serviceable, yet you get the sense that food is rarely the hero. You can see what I am talking about on the blog for the book.

Thoughts

No cookbook is going to be perfect. Every book I have reviewed here has suffered from flaws (which I hope I have managed to convey in my reviews.)

I would be more willing to overlook some of the things that I have discussed if the food from the book was good. Instead, it ranges from fine (at best) to boring and uninspiring (at worst).

Despite the unclear focus and audience of this book, it does not seriously position itself as being something for those who are new to cooking. Yet the recipes for one dimensional, simple food often seem like they would be more suitable for a kitchen novice.

The first hints of concern started when I was flicking through the book. Normally I get quite excited by a new cookbook. It is a whole world of possibility. Within every cookbook there is the potential for a recipe that will change your life or become the one recipe. So I am often almost giddy when I flicking through a new book for the first time. And yet, I remember flicking through this one and just thinking ‘hmm’ after each page.

This, by itself, is not alarming. In fact, the opposite. The best cookbooks can turn an unlikely or underwhelming series of ingredients into something incredible.

So I persevered. We cooked from this. We gave it our best shot.

And, well, I am just glad this week is over, so I can stop cooking from this book. I have given it my all, and can conclude, sadly, it is not a good cookbook.

Here is what we have cooked:

  • Quick Broccoli satay stir fry (totally fine; something you would make, eat and never think of again.)
  • Zesty Chilli Prawn Noodles (the curious addition of orange zest does nothing for a dish that tends towards bland, stodgy, and goopy) 
  • Berbere roasted sweet potato (the spice mix is tasty and certainly enlivened the dish. While perhaps not life changing, this at least was slightly exciting to eat)
  • Korean inspired rice bowls (the recipe as it stands would have resulted in a very dull dish; I had to make substantial modifications. So the end result was actually quite nice, but that was more of a result of tricks I had learnt from Bowl then the advice from this recipe)
  • Roast garlic and goats cheese frittata (again, as the recipe stands it would have been unimpressive. For a book called Flavour, Tandoh seems so keen to avoid any accusation of that!)
  • Ghanaian groundnut chicken stew (one dimensional: if you like peanut butter and chicken I guess you will like this. If you require slightly more complex flavour profiles, you will not.)
  • Lemon Courgette Risotto with Summer Herbs (if you ignore her instruction to use arborio rice—the garbage rice—it turns out to be a fine risotto. The pine nuts do not add much.)
  • Warm Spiced Chickpea and Carrot Salad (see above: mediocre food)
  • Summer Pineapple Camomile cake (this was nice. the timing instructions were off (but given how variable ovens are, this can be expected. The pineapple curd was a treat.)

Why not this book?

  • Because it s confused – its tone, purpose and content is just all over the place
  • Because the photography is often lacklustre and sure to feel dated by year’s end
  • There are simply many other better books out there (in each of the categories that the book has a hand in)

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and easy?
Mark Bittman ||||| Ferran Adrià Can you cook from this book every night or is it more specialist or narrow?
Jamie ||||| Nigel Slater Photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ||||| Tax returns And does it just spark joy?

 

Notwithstanding the above, if you would still like to buy it, you can do so via Amazon.

Balance and Harmony — Neil Perry

Australia has no specific cuisine: the food Australians eat is as diverse as our population. Aside from a strong European background, the food we eat is heavily influence by the varied cuisines of Asia. Balance and Harmony falls into this grand pan-Asian tradition.

I have to confess I do not like Neil Perry. I like to imagine I could be friends with many cookbook authors, but I just don’t see Neil and me getting on. So while we’re not going to be best buds, I have a begrudging respect for the man.

His restaurants are first-rate. Although, as of late 2016, they are no longer technically his restaurants. In particular Spice Temple does exciting food inspired by the bold flavours of Sichaun. Rockpool Bar and Grill is a fine place for steak in an I-wish-I-had-an-expense-account setting.

So for the longest time I had resisted buying any of his books (despite happily eating at his restaurants). I broke a few months ago and bought most of the back catalogue.

The books, which range from just-fine to exceptional, did not make me fall in love with Australia’s most famous ponytail. Yet they do provide another reason to respect Perry’s contribution to food in Australia.

While the bulk of recipes in the book are Chinese (a mixture of Cantonese and Sichuan), Perry doesn’t restrict himself: the book also draws inspiration from Thai and Vietnamese food. I confess it’s a style of cookbook I find more useful than pure country-specific works. It reflects a focus on taste and flavours rather than something more didactic.

Structure

Hardcover.

399 pages split across three main parts:

  1. Finding Balance and Harmony in the Kitchen (Equipment and Ingredients)
  2. Basic Techniques and Recipes (Sauces, Dressings, and Pickles; Stocks and Soups; Salads; Braising and Boiling; Steaming; Stir Frying; Deep Frying; Tea-Smoking; Curry and Spice Pates; The Shared Table)
  3. Advanced Recipes and Banquet Menus (Tofu and Eggs; Pork; Beef and Lamb; Poultry; Seafood; Vegetables; Noodles and Rice; Fruit and Sweet Things)

Gosh this book is impressive. Luxuriously hardcover with abundant full colour photographs. A gorgeous ribbon and these almost washi-esque chapter dividers make it a real joy to behold.

The book has the design of a high end restaurant cookbook. However unlike those more ponderous tomes, this is so clearly a cookbook designed to be heavily used. There’s almost a tension between the preciousness of the design versus the everyday recipes. Despite this, I cannot help but cradle it fondly whenever I take it off the shelf.

This book was (and remains) expensive. My copy was bought second hand from, if I can read the stamp correctly, a public library somewhere in Massachusetts. This delights me: I like to imagine everyone else who may have held it in their hands and what they may have cooked. I have mixed feelings generally about second hand books, but this one feels as if it’s been handled reverently throughout its life.

The recipe format is simple: a headnote (these are more skipable than not) and then the ingredients followed by a somewhat visually dense method. The layout and writing is not something that sparks the imagination, or pulls you into another world, but it does go back to my point that despite the shiny coat, this is a book that’s intended to be used again and again.

I have to credit Perry’s recipe writing: he has a clear and simple voice. You never get lost in what to do and when, you just get the right guidance at the right time. You can imagine Perry teaching apprentice chefs with the same language (albeit with a few more colourful words thrown in).

The photography is just perfect. From one of Australia’s (if not one of the world’s) best food photographers, Earl Carter, it both highlights the food but also makes it feel accessible and approachable. The lighting on some of the shots is just incredible.

Thoughts

The food from this book has been, without exception, enjoyable and easy to prepare. This is the single biggest surprise I had about this book: I had expected that the food would be complicated, time consuming and just unapproachable.

Instead, the recipes turn out fantastically well. I think some of the best ‘Asian’ food I’ve ever cooked has come from this book, which I never would have expected. I can’t speak to the extent to which these recipes are ‘Westernised’, and I’m not overly concerned by that question at any rate.

I can speak to the flavours and the results that Perry’s recipes produce. And the new techniques I’ve learnt as a result of cooking from this book. Other than the obvious requirement of learning new recipes, I don’t necessarily ask that cookbooks teach me how to be a better cook. Yet this book has, almost by stealth, encouraged me to grow and develop my skills.

But I keep coming back to how good the food is—and how easy and well thought out the recipes are. The ingredients lists (sometimes a source of great panic in Asian cookery) are restrained to only the essential. The techniques never feel like you’ll need a battery of sous chefs to pull off.

The central conceit of the book is that it is concerned with balance and harmony in food. Each meal should be balanced and include flavours that work together and support each other. The simplest example that proves this approach is the pleasures of plain steamed rice with a salty stir fry.

While it is nice to have that balance in a single dish, it is difficult to do. Perry’s solution, and a key part of the book, is to provide suggested menus where he has balanced salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami across a few dishes.

I love this concept. But. From the prospective of weeknight cooking, even I don’t have the time or the interest to cook three or four different dishes (as much as I agree with and respect the approach). Perhaps on a weekend, this approach is more feasible?

Yet I am happy to report that the dishes stand fantastically on their own merit. And while I don’t have time to make a few other dishes, a salad or some sort of quick vegetable dish are easier to achieve and do help provide more of a sense of balance to the meal.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Pork Wontons (juicy and plumptious and I could eat one thousand)
  • Wonton soup with noodles (we used the dumplings above in a noodle soup and it was essentially perfect)
  • Stir Fried Cabbage with Chinking Vinegar (this goes to demonstrating how Perry makes magic from a few ingredients: and it’s very similar to a dish I love at Spice Temple)
  • Sweet Black Vinegar Pork Belly (there are too many bad pork belly recipes out there: this one is an example of how to do very well: rich, luxurious and with enough pop from the vinegar so as not to be cloying)
  • Sichuan-style steamed beef (an example of the book teaching new techniques: the steamed beef becomes so soft, tasty, juicy and perfect. The rice coating traps the juices and adds another textural element).
  • Stir-fried cos lettuce (you either hate cooked lettuce or you are down with it: I don’t think this recipe will convert the haters, but it will be a delight for the rest of us)
  • Mapo tofu (maybe not the best mapo but a really good one. Anyway, mapo tofu recipes are like bolognese recipes: there is no perfect recipe)
  • Prawn Toasts (I think prawn toasts were my gateway into liking actual prawns—I know—and these are some of the more soigné PTs you will try)
  • Spicy Tofu Salad (alive with textures and bound together with a punchy dressing)
  • Fried Eggs with Spicy Tamarind Dressing (despite the fun and extensive mess of deep frying eggs, this is one of the best things I’ve eaten. Although a fun tip from me is try adding some ground roast rice to the dressing.)
  • Chicken with Snow Peas and Sichuan Pepper (10 minutes of preparing, 10 minutes of cooking for a result that is incredible—you’d be delighted by this if you received it at any Chinese restaurant)
  • Stir fried prawns with Chinese chives and chilli (see above)
  • Sesame Noodles (not to end on a low point, but this dish was an exception to my belief that dishes in this book stand well by themselves: this definitely needed to be served with something else)

Why this book?

  • You love Asian food and want to learn some new recipes and techniques
  • You want deliciousness above strictly authentic recipes
  • You can overlook the Ponytail

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straight forward?
Mark Bittman ||||| Ferran Adrià Can you cook from this book every night or is it more specialist or narrow?
Jamie ||||| Nigel Slater Photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ||||| Monday morning And does it just spark joy?

 

You should buy this book! How about from Amazon?

Hello, 2017!

Happy New Year!

After a spectacular time in Japan and a few (more) solid weeks of Christmas eating, I’m happy to be back on the Cook These Books beat.

This first review of 2017 will come out on Sunday. Until then, here’s a clue: it’s a book by Australia’s most famous pony tail.

This year I will experiment with a few different review formats and approaches until I find one that strikes the right balance on all axes. Quality rather than quantity.

Thanks for all your support so far!

Neighbourhood — Hetty McKinnon

There are two sorts of people in the world: those who salad and those who do not salad. I am very much down with those salads, as is Hetty McKinnon, this year’s salad boss.

I gravitate towards generalist cookbooks: I want something that will provide inspiration for as many different moods as possible. I want the security of knowing that a cookbook will give me ideas for breakfast, lunch and yes even dinner.

This is a tension of life: the specialist versus the generalist. Or the jack of all trades (master of none) versus having knowledge a mile (kilometre) deep yet an inch (2.5cm) wide.

Science has more or less convinced me that the way the human brain is wired is to crave novelty (or rather to be aware of new threats which is a focus on what is new versus what is familiar and safe). This focus on novelty means that I, well, get a little bored with cookbooks that focus on only one thing (be it a meal type or a cuisine or particular technique).

Yet I still find some value in books which demonstrate a focus towards the one theme. I’m not talking about those weird seemingly authorless books they sell at bargain bookshops (with titles like 500 ways with broccoli stems). Books that show you a theme and then skilfully and with a great degree of originality and verve expand that theme.

Hetty’s second salad-focussed book (a follow up to 2014’s Community) shows both the joy and delight in salads and also in exploring the one thing. Not every book could (or should) follow this formula, but occasionally there is one that ticks all the boxes.

Structure

Softcover.

239 pages split across the following chapters: Dear America | So Frenchie | Into the Mediterranean | East, Meet West | To Asia, With Love | This is Australia | Just Bring Dessert

I had never considered this book (or Community) because its design sets off some alarm bells for me: softcover (ack), magazine-like format, unknown author and a sort of Kinfolk vibe that generally provokes a mild rash.

However our friend Jemma posted a review of Community and made it sound like rather a nice book indeed. And then I saw a copy of both Neighbourhood and Community in a bookshop just screaming to me I knew I had to investigate further in the name of deliciousness.

I won’t say my initial instincts were entirely wrong: the book does feel like a magazine (or one of the cookbooks produced under the delicious brand). I know this reflects a preoccupation of form rather substance, but how a book feels and looks is important.

The recipe format is simple: Hetty gives headnotes that while occasionally informative do not add much. The recipes themselves are straightforward and well edited. The language is clear and concise.

The photography is inviting: there’s a real depth to the colour and intensity of the photos which is surprising considering that the matte pages feel fairly thin. My only quibble is with the direction of photos: every second shot is of someone holding a plate or dish, or perhaps fingers draped over a eating implement. There’s a visual monotony which is either calming or slightly tired.

Thoughts

Hetty (which is possibly the most delightful name ever) really knows a thing or two (or fifty) about salads. She has a way of combining flavours that is modern and inviting.

The cafe heritage of the book is clear: these are salads you could imagine resting under gorgeous platters (perhaps from Mud?) under a glass display case in an inner city cafe. They are often incredibly hearty, with big bold flavours. To be clear, when some people think of salads they imagine what I call a pub salad: lettuce mix, a solitary cucumber slice and an industrial cherry tomato. These are salads bursting with vitality, salads that are full-on meals rather than mere set dressing.

There’s a real assertive approach to flavour in this book. The recipes encourage you to build together layers of flavour that combine to make a powerful whole. It’s a smart approach and is a world away from cutting up some ingredients and tossing them into a bowl.

Despite not cooking a lot from this book (yet!), there are some clear flavour profiles: Hetty loves a yoghurt based dressing as much as she loves a dressing with raw garlic. You can either view this as a conceptual glue or falling back on the same idea. As a family of garlic obsessives, I am entirely on board with this, and I imagine most people would be too. It is however something that stuck out to me.

I can see returning to this book a lot over the next month: as the weather warms up, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect book. While there’s some repetition in flavour profiles, this would be far less apparent when you’re not cooking every meal in a week from the same book.

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far:

  • Eggplant with haloumi, beetroot tzatziki: the tzatiki is a very smart combination of beetroots, yoghurt, herbs and lemon. The eggplant salad is also quite interesting, with a fun interplay of smooshy eggplant and crunchy/crumbly walnuts. The haloumi adds the pleasingly one-dimensional salty styrofoam note that I love on the first bite, like on the second bite and then start to turn against it by the third and fourth bite. The recipe calls for you to make yoghurt flatbreads, but even we have our limits for weeknight cooking! 
  • Chargrilled brussels sprouts and kale with crushed borlotti beans: it’s an odd combination, and the crushed bean mixture looks sort of brilliant (hot pink in a sea of beige), but it really does work. It’s also one of the simpler salads in the book yet demonstrates the DNA behind Hetty’s approach. 
  • Kinda-niçoise with fried green beans, roasted kale, lentils, steamed eggs and caper mayo: the caper mayo is genius and demonstrates what I was talking about  above (really zingy dressings that occasionally stray into the too-garlicky/assertive path). This salad was very impressive in how it made a salad that could live up to the heavy reputation of la salade niçoise yet do it’s own thing. A french person would probably not be able to handle it, but more for the rest of us, n’est-ce pas?   
  • Seedy soba with Asian herbs: I allow every cookbook a few failures. I’m always of the mind that when a recipe fails it can say as much about the person making the recipe (or eating the dish) as it does about the recipe itself. The dressing, in marked contrasted to everything else in this book, just wasn’t good. The ratio of one tablespoon of acid (here, cider vinegar) to five tablespoons of oil is off. The end product was simply not enjoyable. 
  • Roasted sweet potato with leeks and mustard croutons: Okay, another pet peeve. I do not like when the photograph used to illustrate a particular recipe was clearly cooked in a different way from what the recipe itself provides. In the photo for this dish the sweet potatoes were clearly roasted as one roasts a jacket potato (low to medium heat for a long time) whereas the recipe asks you to dice and bake for 20-25 minutes. It’s misleading. HOWEVER. This recipe, made as the recipe instructs and not as the picture suggests, was REALLY GOOD. The mustard croutons were INCREDIBLE. The mustard dressing (again, garlic and yoghurt to the rescue) was FANTASTIC. The soft sweet leeks were the perfect foil against peppery rocket.

Why this book?

  • You’re salad curious or a full on team salad
  • You don’t mind garlic and yoghurt, often forever together
  • You subscribe to the approach of ‘when in doubt, add an egg’

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straight forward?
Mark Bittman ||||| Ferran Adrià Can you cook from this book every night or is it more specialist or narrow?
Jamie ||||| Nigel Slater Photos of the author or photos of the food?
Kondo ||||| Socks with holes And does it just spark joy?

 

You probably should buy this book.

Stirring Slowly — Georgina Hayden

Stirring Slowly’s subtitle says the book aims to provide “recipes to restore + revive.” These subtitles are usually marketing puff. In this case, the book succeeds at providing just that.

Writing recipes must be an exercise in compromise. There can be no such thing as the perfect recipe as there are going to be so many underlying motivations. One person is going to want a quick and easy meal, and the next is willing to spend five hours on a highly technically involved recipe.

There are considerations that are easy to gloss over: why has the author written a recipe in the first place, and why has a particular recipe been written in a certain way?

The recipe headnotes often seek to answer the first question: authors are often quite candid about the inspiration or heritage of a recipe. From a beloved family favourite to something shamelessly stolen from restaurant.

Yet there’s rarely discussion about a unique set of compromises (or to use a slightly less pejorative word: decisions) that are the DNA of a recipe. What has the author held back that they might do when making the recipe at home? What has the publisher or editor asked to be changed? Why this ingredient? Why not this technique? Why why why why.

Cooking, at times, falls into the realm of folklore. The great majority of people cook in a certain way without really understanding why they cook in such a way. There are some authors who seek to set out the science behind cooking with a view towards becoming a better cook. Cooking is, at the end of the day, a delightful mixture of chemistry, physics and biology.

Yet of course these considerations are potentially academic: if a recipe just works, as so many of the recipes in Stirring Slowly do, do we need to know the why when the how is so sufficient?

Structure

Hardback. White placeholder ribbon—always appreciated.

280 pages split across the following chapters: Introduction | Hints, Tips + Shopping | A Sunny Start to the Day | Bowl Food | Quick + Light | Low, Slow + Hearty | Versatile Veg | Bake Yourself Better | A Bit on the Side | Index

Firstly, a note of gentle consternation: white book covers. Why even. Like everyone else I buy most of my books online (books are an expensive habit). Invariably a white covered book arrives looking scuffed and a little worse for wear. This is as much a dig on online bookshops as it is book designers though.

To be clear, I’m not at all precious about these books once they arrive. I’m proud of splattered and creased pages. There’s even some crushed cumin seeds in the binding of my copy of Fresh India. But white covers, like white jeans and dress shirts, invite befouling.

The book is a tight, cohesive package. There’s very little that feels wasted or unnesscary. Most cookbooks (even those that have been featured here) have a few recipes that exist solely to pad the page count.

The recipe format follows a fairly familiar pattern. What’s interesting is that the ingredient preparations are within the body of the method itself and not in the ingredient list.  There have been a few times where I wondered what to do with a certain ingredient and then had to look through the entire recipe to know what to do. The alternative, where the ingredient list tells you what prep should be done for a specific ingredient (e.g. 5 carrots, diced) is sometimes easier.

However, pleasingly, the majority of recipes are keep to one page (or a facing spread). I don’t mean to keep harping on about this but it makes cooking so much easier.

The photography and food styling are strong, but sometimes lack a certain individuality. I was rapidly ticking off the boxes in my mental checklist of ‘food photography in 2016’. The photo of a juicy ruptured pomegranate (speaking of pomegranates…) on page 111 says it all. And I’m not sure if I understand the design distinction between the white bordered photos that accompany most recipes and the occasional full-bleed photo. This, though, verges on criticism for the sake of criticism.

Thoughts

There’s genius to this book. I’m not quite sure how Georgina manages it, but everything we’ve cooked from this book has been impossibly quick and impossibly delicious.

I am a slow cook. As much as I admire those who cook with professional effieceny and economy of movement, I simply cannot bring myself to emulate them. I potter, I stir, I taste and I take my time. Yet when I’ve cooked from this book I’ve been amazed by how quickly I’ve been able to get results on the table. And then amazed again when I tasted how delicious the end product is.

There’s a real effortlessness to the food in Stirring Slowly. It’s food that is not fussy or tired. It’s food that is exciting and almost magical and even a bit surprising. The addition of ice-crisped fennel and witlof turns what could otherwise be a trite pork belly salad into something nuanced and layered.

Let me repeat: I really don’t quite understand the dark magic at play that produces such great flavours so quickly. During testing for this book this week I’ve looked across the table at Nim with an expression of surprise and delight. It’s almost surprising given that the book is called Stirring Slowly which invokes a rather different mindset.

The recipes are aiming for a certain degree of nutritional value yet I do not think there’s any evidence of a slavish devotion to this goal (or, importantly, that there has been any sacrifice to flavour).

One of the key measures for how much I like a cookbook is the amount of recipes I want to cook from it. The ratio in this book of things I want to make versus things I could not see myself making is impressively weighted towards the former.

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far:

  • Wholegrain nasi goreng with spinach: the sort of rice dish you dream about whenever you eat bad fried rice. Tangy with lime, sweet and savoury from the kecap manis, and with a kick from chili, garlic and ginger. Plus the brown rice provides a very different texture than the usual white rice. 
  • Pudla: this was the only thing from the book I wasn’t wild about. Had we not made really exceptionally chickpea pancakes a few weeks ago, I might have enjoyed this more. The salad that she suggests you serve as the filling is a fine salad, but the rocket feels a little tonally inconsistent with the overall flavour profile.
  • Kimchi and prawn okonomiyaki: I’m always a little scared of cooking okonomiyaki. It’s not complicated yet there’s a pivotal flip in the cooking process that (literally) either makes or breaks the end result. Plus it’s too easy to make an okonomiyaki that is dry, bland and rubbery. This was incredible: tasty, moist, and with a knockout sauce. 
  • One-pan creamy squash pasta: the best cookbooks encourage you to do something different or to try something you’ve always dismissed. I’ve long been weary of the idea of one-pan pasta because I thought it was essentially cooking for idiots. It turns out I was actually the idiot because this dish was incredible. Creamy, earthy, vibrant. Perfect. I’m not worthy. 
  • Roasted chickpea, cauliflower and sesame lamb: this was I think on the table in 15-20 minutes? And had a depth of flavour that recalls one of my favourite recipes from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem. However that recipe takes hours and this recipe doesn’t and is far more delicious than you’d expect. It’s the sort of effortless midweek dinner that you could serve to friends and they’d think you were some sort of genius. 
  • Sticky pork belly salad with fennel and chilli: okay this recipe lets you down a bit in that it does not encourage you to keep the cooking stock, which you absolutely must serve. Reduce and spoon over rice and any leftover pork (or in our case, altogether). Despite this omission (compromise, compromise, compromise) the salad is so good. The tender, sweet, sticky pork goes so well with a herb and bitter greens salad. 
  • An insanely good blondie: It was. I had always thought of blondies as incorrect brownies and yet again this book revealed the fallibility of my preconceptions. While it is tough adjusting to a world where I appear capable of being wrong, at least I have these blondies to eat and keep me going. 

Why this book?

  • You want to be amazed by how quickly you can make super great food
  • You are a little bit tired of the strictly predictable and want a book that encourages you to try new things
  • You want to make a very good blondie

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straight forward?
Mark Bittman ||||| Ferran Adrià Can you cook from this book every night or is it more specialist or narrow?
Jamie ||||| Nigel Slater Photos of the author or photos of the food?
Kondo ||||| Smelly socks And does it just spark joy?

 

You should get this book. And while you are at it, buy it from Amazon.

World of Cookbooks

  • Without a doubt, my favourite cookbook blog is the brilliant Cookbook a Month. This blog, my inspiration for starting Cook These Books, reviews a cookbook over the course of a month. Three friends take turns cooking from a particular book. It’s a brilliant format because it gives a much better feeling of the relative merits of a book. This month they’re reviewing a new book from Gordon Ramsay, ‘Bread Street Kitchen’ (Amazon link). Where it not for some travel, I’d love to review alongside them!
  • I’m very excited about Everything I Want to Eat (a cookbook from Jessica Koslow, chef/owner of popular Sqirl in LA). Initial book reviews are encouraging: Eater, NY Times, and Lottie + Doof. I am hopefully we will have a review soon.
  • The world of the celebrity cookbook is an odd one. We have a cookbook (Small Victories, Julia Turshen) released from the ‘co-writer’ on some of Gwyneth Paltrow’s books on one hand. ‘Co-writer’ in air quotes because I imagine Ms Turshen did the lion’s share of work. And on the other hand we have a new book from no less than Pippa Middleton. Pippa apparently has not felt it necessary to cook all the recipes from her new book, which is perhaps a refreshingly honest admission. I hope to review one of these two books. I’ll leave it to you to guess which.
  • And in Cook These Books news on Sunday I’ll post my review of Georgina Hayden’s Stirring Slowly. It wasn’t until Cookbook a Month reviewed it that I had even heard of it, let alone considered buying it. Without wanting to spoil my review, it’s a very decent book indeed.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to share any cookbook news or reviews you’ve found in the comments.