Suggestions for Giving

I possess a fondness for the annual tradition of the gift guide.

Not because I find these useful tools in purchasing gifts for those I love (or at least, in the case of the obligatory work Secret Santa, tolerate) but because I am interested in the act of curation, of what is suggested and what is abandoned.

In that spirit, please allow me to offer a scrupulous selection of items to assist in creating, if not joy, than at least quiet satisfaction for both you and the object of your generosity.

A recommendation for all

 Small Victories by Julia Turshen. This remains one of my most fondly regarded cookbooks. I continue to cook from it. I continue to think it is one of the finest cookbooks I have come across. I have not yet had the opportunity to form a relationship with Ms Turshen’s new book, Feed the Resistance, but I have heard wonderful things.

A duo of recommendations for harried souls

A New Way to Dinner. This book was the thing that finally convinced me to start our meal preparations on the weekend, thus freeing up a lot of time during the week. The recipes are solid, but the real point of this book is getting you into the habit of making hay while the sun shines.

Simple by Diana Henry. This elegant, thoughtful book contains strong and rewarding recipes that reference global flavours and clever techniques. Even more pleasingly, the recipes in the book are accessible and practical, even in the context of the clutter of the midweek. Ms Henry is an excellent author, and passionate lover of food.

Resources for the vegetable focused

 Power Vegetables by Peter Meehan. This book, from the now sadly extinct Lucky Peach brand, is a smart and playful way of looking at vegetable based food. It does an appealing job of recontextualizing familiar recipes. It is also quite fun, in both writing and design, and would lead to some happy gift-giving day conversations.

On the Side by Ed Smith. Ignore the suggestion to just view this book as a book of sides. Instead, treat this book as an impressive collection of vegetable focussed recipes that work as well as the star of your meal as they do in concert with something else from the book. The design of this book is exceptional.

Final areas to investigate

As much as I would like to, the barriers of reality prevent me from reviewing every cookbook I come across. There are always a few titles that I am keen to see receive some attention and support.

Allow me to highlight a few titles that while not reviewed here, are promising and worthy of further investigation.

Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh

This beautiful cookbook is completely impractical to review: we would die from sugar induced madness long before we had cooked even a fraction of recipes. The recipe we have made, and the feedback from trusted friends, allow me comfortably suggest this as an excellent addition to the library of anyone interested in baking or sweet things more generally.

Dining In by Alison Roman

Disclaimer: I have not cooked a single recipe from this book. Yet. I have, however, mentally marked almost every recipe as being worth of cooking. Were it not for this and the general vibe of the book  I would not have the audacity to suggest this title to you.

But I feel very excited about this book. It excites me in the same way Small Victories excites me: it is one of those rare books which perfectly intersects a lot of modern thinking and approaches to food, and does so with style and confidence. I cannot wait to cook extensively from this book.

River Cafe 30 by Ruth Rogers et al

I rarely buy books on the sole basis of how beautiful they are. And yet I fell utterly in love with the celebratory reissue of the iconic River Cafe cookbook and could not resist. This book is an utter riot of colour, playfulness, and joy.

Imagine my delight, then, when in concordance with the impressive reputation River Cafe posses, the recipes turned out to be some of the most thoughtful, considered Italian food you are likely to come across. We cooked the baked ricotta recently and I am still, tuning fork like, vibrating with delight.

The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater

December is, despite the reality of an Australian summer, the best time of year. It is a time of celebration, of reflection, of hope and of love. Since I was a child—and one with a very serious desire to receive a briefcase as a Christmas present—it has always been my favourite time of year.

The inimitable Mr Slater agrees: The Christmas Chronicles is a resolute love letter to what is, for many, the pinnacle day of the year. I am excited to return to this book in the middle of the year for a reminder that joy is always at hand.

Thank you

As a final service, I am delighted to provide bespoke recommendations. Simply contact me via the form here and I will provide some thoughts on an ideal title.

This will be the last post for 2017. I look forward to returning in 2018 with more reviews.

Until then, sincere thanks for your support and company over the past year. May you be ensconced in a sea of mince pies and champagne over the next few weeks.

On the Side — Ed Smith

I confess were it not for the jaunty yellow dustcover of Ed Smith’s book, I might not have picked the book up at all. In a world of the hyper attention grabbing photo cover, the simple playfulness of this book’s cover immediately appealed.

I had never heard of Ed Smith—who must clearly be a secret agent with such an anodyne name. A review of the author blurb, and the quickest of googlings, leads to the happy discovery Agent Smith writes a food website Rocket & Squash which I had been sadly, hitherto, unaware of.

Some of the strongest cookbooks have been produced by those who run food websites. Given the ease with which anyone can start writing, there is a terrible sea of content out there. As such whenever one website emerges from the primordial muck, it is normally a reliable indicator of quality.

On The Side, Smith’s first cookbook, is billed as a wide ranging collection of side dishes, the often forgotten, yet endlessly pleasing, supporting players in our meals. It is side dishes that provide the thoughtful counterpoint to the rest of the meal and can elevate the ordinary to the realm of the exceptional.

Yet despite my love of side dishes, I cannot help but feel this nominal focus—on food that is meant to accompany other food—is a slight disservice to what is inventive, considered, and enjoyable food.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. No ribbon.

335 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Greens, leaves & herbs
  2. Vegetables, fruits, flowers & bulbs
  3. Roots, squash & potatoes
  4. Grains, pulses, pasta & rice

While we are chided not to judge a book by its cover, of course we will. I think the cover of this book is brilliantly designed and is a real rebuke to the reflective approach taken by so many other designers.

The cover—or rather, the dust jacket—of On The Side is tremendously interesting: there’s embossing, there’s debossing, there’s a cutaway corner, revealing the gorgeous red hardcover underneath. A large part of this book’s production cost must have gone to this splendid cover. And bravo to Smith and their publisher, Bloomsbury, for doing so. It would have only been too easy to produce something inane and charmless, such as the most of the books in Amazon’s bestsellers list at any one time.

The design of the rest of the book is not as bold, but is nonetheless impressive. The book commits to excellent typography in a way that few books do: after drowning in a sea of sans serif faces—including, ahem, our new logo—and after some not very pleasing serifs in some other titles this year, what they’ve gone with here is elegant, has personality and presence on the page.

Out of the cookbooks I have spent time with in 2017 this might just be one of my favourite designs: there is a sense of doing things differently, and not just doing so to be novel, but in the service of the principles of good design.

I also think the photography is exceptional: after some dreary examples—there’s a review I have been holding off on writing simply because the photography is so artificial and layered with filigree that it is terribly depressing—the photos in this book are incredibly attractive and make the food look beautiful. The book does the simple yet apparently quite elusive task of making the food the star. It is refreshing.

And, in something that has me moist-eyed with gratitude, the indexes of this book are thoughtful and useful. Stepping away from the convention of just one index, Smith provides a trio of additional indexes—or rather, to use his phrasing, directories. One is by main ingredient (so if you are making falafel for dinner you could see which sides are recommended), another is part of the kitchen needed to prepare the recipe (so if you are, say, baking bread, you can consult the stove top list) and the final is simply arranged my time.

All in all, the design of this book is beautiful and considered. It makes bold choices and those choices work. I am so happy that Smith has decided to abandon so much of the contemporary cookbook design vernacular and present something that is unique and valuable.

Thoughts

Sides are often the source of the greatest joy in a meal. And yet they are often criminally neglected. It is far from uncommon for people, when planning a meal, to pour all their time, attention and money into some elaborate piece of protein, and simply forget to give any love to the rest of the plate. Sides, if they are thought of at all, are often cursory and lacking any joy and thought.

This is a real shame. Sides give us such wonderful opportunities to show our creativity, and experiment with new flavours, approaches, techniques. In that they are usually cast in supporting roles, we should be a lot less afraid of failure and take some risks that we might not otherwise make. When I think of very good meals it is more often than not the sides I am thinking of so fondly. It is facile to create magic from a $70 piece of marbled wagyu. It takes skill and commitment as a cook to create magic from a cabbage and an onion.

This book is billed as a sourcebook for side recipes. It does not suggest to the casual reader that the book has greater potential than this. While I like the focus on sides—so few cookbooks give this area any attention—this does the book a slight disservice.

You should not think of this book as just a collection of sides: a word which, for many, might recall more the limp pub salad, with obligatory single industrial strength cherry tomato, than something of genuine excitement, than say a slow roast wedge of cabbage, stuffed with various delicious things, in the manner of Melbourne’s Town Mouse. I first ate that dish four years ago and can remember almost nothing about the meal (other than the agreeable company and my first taste of Patrick Sullivan’s wines) other than this superb cabbage. I have so many more examples.

I urge you not to view this book through a limited lens. Think of this book as a collection of excellent vegetable-focused recipes that can easily be combined for memorable, satisfying meals. The book does, almost covertly, make this much easier than you think: every recipe gives you two or three other sides that would work well together. These are in the context of providing a chorus of voices to support whatever the ‘star’ of the meal is. I encourage you to ignore any call for something else—you can, as we have done over many a night—make incredibly satisfying and wonderful meals with individual or small combinations of dishes from this book. The ‘this goes great with x, y, and z’ is a smart addition to the book.

At any rate, these recipes are often so good they would often outshine whatever you might choose to serve with them. I  struggle to imagine how anyone who cooks from this book would not, eventually, come to the same conclusion. I only wish Smith was a little more proud of his recipes and leaned a little less heavily on the ‘side’ angle.

The focus on these dishes being sides has a wonderful side (teehee) benefit: the recipes give a lot of flavour without days of faffing around.  Constraints often produce the best innovation and solutions. So, the constraint of producing food that is nominally meant to accompany other food (and thus cannot take five days to produce) has led Smith to create really enjoyable food.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Baby Pak Choi with Sticky Garlic and Ginger (a perfect simple vegetable stir fry: the garlic and ginger gives real vitality to the pak choi.)
  • Black bean, coriander and lime rice (I made this with the corn recipe below. It was a fantastic combination, and one that just demonstrates the clever way Smith thinks about food.)
  • Buttermilk, dill and soy seed wedge salad (one of the stars of this book: an incredible buttermilk dressing, pickled radishes, sticky seeds, iceberg lettuce. I want to eat this forever.)
  • Chard with chilli, shallot and cider vinaigrette (my favourite recipe of the year, I think. I have made this on so many occasions and each time I am blown away. The dressing in particular is masterful. And it has almost converted my chard-averse partner.)
  • Chicken stock and orange-braised fennel (cooked fennel is a somewhat new visitor chez nous, but it is always welcome. The orange both enhances the sweetness of the fennel but also accentuates the savoury anise notes. Delightful autumn food.)
  • Chinese cabbage with black vinegar (Outside of Asia, the wombok is criminally underappreciated. It is the most wonderful vegetable: at once deeply savoury, sweet, juicy, tender, crunchy, silky. This elegant little stir fry is rewarding.) 
  • Chorizo Roast Potatoes (How to improve a roast potato? Add chorizo it seems! Don’t eat chorizo? Investigate Julia Turschen’s kinda, sorta patas bravas.) 
  • Grilled Tenderstem Broccoli with Umami Crumbs (I challenge you to make this and not consider topping every dish with umami crumbs. It’s genius.)
  • Honey, thyme, and lime butter corn (there’s almost a south east Asian feel to this the way the sweetness of the corn and honey is contrasted with the peppy lime juice and woody notes of the thyme. Morish.)
  • Quick cucumber and daikon kimchi (I met a Korean person who was just so enthusiastic about kimchi it’s hard to eat it now without thinking of their cheerful advocacy. I think they might have been in the pocket of Big Fermented Cabbage, honestly. Whether or not they would like this quick kimchi inspired vegetable pickle I will never know, but I certainly loved it.)
  • Smacked Cucumbers (One of my favourite dishes, although I think I’m so wedded to the Fuchsia Dunlop version all others, including this variation, feel a little wan in comparison.) 

Why this book?

  • You want to improve your repertoire of sides
  • You want an excellent resource of modern vegetable-focussed dishes
  • You want to support excellent cookbook design

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?
#Konmari ░░░░ Summer And does it just spark joy?

This book, nominally a collection of side dishes, is a tremendous discovery and is a welcome addition to anyone’s everyday cookbook library.

At My Table — Nigella Lawson

Unlike almost every other author and book I have reviewed here, Nigella Lawson needs no introduction. She is celebrated and revered from Osaka to Oslo and everywhere in between.

She has sold millions of copies of her 12 cookbooks. These books have been translated into countless languages and been made into TV programmes. She has been called the queen of the frozen pea, of the traybake. She is casually referred to as the Domestic Goddess. She has driven food trends.

Her abiding love of food, and a certain emphasis on how sensual and evocative food can be, has made her a cultural icon. She is referenced in films and movies and podcasts and other books. She appears on TV shows, as a judge or a host, with impressive regularity.

She carries a tube of Coleman’s mustard in her bag with her at all times.

To live in 2017 is to be aware of Nigella.

Her latest book, At My Table, came out only recently. This was a happy occurrence, but especially in the context of having recently published my review of Diana Henry’s Simple. In that review I made some claims that I preferred Henry’s food. Drunk on the awesome power of semi-anonymous internet writing, I even went a bit further and accused Nigella of producing recapped that could sometimes be a little lacking in terms of flavour and excitement.

Now, like every other internet writer, I subscribe to the strictest set of ethics and principals. I could no more publish a lie as I could enjoy raw capsicum in a salad. Or cooked capsicum in a curry. Or capsicum on a pizza. Or in any other form except blitzed into a million pieces as a sauce or salsa. This statement of preference was an honest one.

And yet, reader, putting this claim out in the world niggled at me over the following weeks. It seemed to fly in the face of my professed admiration for Nigella, and all that she has done for food. It introduced an unpleasant ideological tension that threatened to remain unresolved.

When I received my copy of At My Table, I flicked through with some trepidation. I was expecting to find food similar to the clean and simple flavours of 2015’s Simply Nigella (a beautiful book with food that simply does not summon a trace of excitement in me). As I got deeper and deeper into the book something wonderful happened: my doubt faded away and I started to smile. This was the Nigella I always wanted to see. These are the recipes I want to make! Finally, I felt there was a chance to have my cake and eat it too: I could both love the idea and image of Nigella as well as love her recipes and food.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. A silver ribbon.

288 pages split across the following chapters:

Well, ahem, not this time.

In this book Nigella has abandoned all chapters and gone with a stream of consciousness freeform presentation. Recipes are roughly arranged in order of the food one would want to eat first thing in the morning and ending in what you might want to eat at the very end of a day.

I almost panicked. It sounds like such an odd, unfriendly decision that would make the cookbook impossible to navigate and to conceptualise. And yet, as begins to be the dominant theme of this book, it not only works but works quite well.

And when it occasionally feels a bit difficult to either find something specific or to maybe get some inspiration, right at the front of the book there is a contents page that gives you every recipe in a single double page spread. I applaud Nigella and her superstar designer, Caz Hildebrand for the decision.

After heaping praise on Simply Nigella’s design, I must confess I think this is an odd looking book. The cover feels old fashioned. I respect not buying into the look of every other 2017 cookbook, but I struggle to find a positive thing to say about the cover. Well, it is a wonderful photo of Nigella, I suppose, caught midway through strangling some naughty sourdough.

I am lukewarm about the design of the rest of the book. I like the continued signature use of Futura. I dislike the serif font this has been accompanied by, and the mid-grey colour used. The combination of a dusky pink and an odd grey is hard to read and unpleasant.

The photography, from the renowned Jonathan Lovekin, is also I think somewhat variable, although never quite bad, even at its least inspiring. There are a few exceptional, memorable shots, which are a delightful to see. And then there are the rest of the shots in the book which feel occasionally dated, as if they  were conceived of in a slightly different era.

I simply cannot say if the design of this book is the real Nigella, or is rather some conception of what a book about home cooking should look like. I can say that the design of this book does not speak to me, which is a pity given the recipes therein.

Thoughts

This feels like Nigella’s most personal book yet. I have no way of knowing how true this is. But between the design, the recipe selection, the headnotes and introductions, and the two episodes of the accompanying TV show I’ve sneakily managed to view, I am left with an impression of this book being a pure distillation of Nigella.

As such I am delighted to report that the recipes in this book are very good. Cookbooks are always victim to the tension between whatever is new and current on one hand and that which is familiar and reliable on the other. Generally, cookbooks that try to appease one of these polar opposites at the expense of the other do not work well.

At My Table strikes an appealing balance in this regard. Yes, we get nods at that which is au courant: coconut oil and coconut yogurt are frequent visitors, and aleppo pepper gets a big push. But at the same time, we also get a nice serve of recipes from the other side of the spectrum: a queen of puddings is straight out of a meal at Toad Hall.

Happily, a great deal of success can be found in recipes from the breadth of this spectrum. We should pause to acknowledge this achievement and indeed celebrate all those who dedicate themselves to mastery of their craft: Nigella does something very wonderful, where she improves and refines her voice and vision in a seamless way. There is no jarring ‘old’ Nigella and ‘new’ Nigella. Instead, we feel rather than notice improvement. 

I do wish there were slightly more vegetable based main dishes. Not that there are none, but those that exist do tend towards simpler flavours. We have all been spoiled by such excellent vegetable based recipes over the past few years that the ones here feel a little, well, uninspired.

This said, the bulk of recipes are interesting and compelling and delicious. It is food that lends itself to happy celebrations around a large table. Food should be this joyous and fun all the time. This feeling is At My Table’s real achievement, and I congratulate Nigella for producing something so lovely.

Here is a sample of what we have cooked so far (there is a sad omission of anything from the desserts section—our oven died at the most inopportune time.)

  • Turkish Eggs (Every book has the recipe. The one that you turn to again and again. The page that becomes dirtier than all the others. This is the recipe for this cookbook. Poached eggs on a garlic yogurt bed, topped with aleppo pepper butter.) 
  • Golden Egg Curry (Curries in past Nigella books have been somewhat less adventurous in their flavour profiles than I would prefer. This, however, was bold and aromatic and delicious.)
  • Catalan Toasts (not an improvement on my standard pan con tomate recipe. But certainly not bad.)
  • Beef and eggplant fatteh (If you like textural contrast, please make this. If you like delicious food, please make this. It is easy, it makes an excellent lunch the next day, it is delicious.)
  • Pasta with anchovies, tomatoes, mascarpone (I have long maintained that the only good tomato sauce is one that is cooked down and reduced, such that the flavour of unexceptional tomatoes becomes exceptional. This sauce was a clever way of creating a pasta dish that is savoury, rich enough and with a lot of personality without having to cook the thing for five years. I did fail in finding the nominated novel pasta shape, however. Forgive me, Signora Nigella.)
  • Capellini with Scallops (Success in finding the novelty pasta! Yet I thought this not quite the best way to showcase beautiful scallops.)
  • Radiatori with Sausage and Saffron (Another failure in the novel pasta game. And also a failure in including saffron. Despite these failures, the dish was quite delightful. The sweetness of passata is a pleasing counterpoint to the complexity of a good italian sausage.)
  • Sweet Potato Tacos (I made this almost as a joke. I thought surely it would turn out awfully. Never has the gap between my expectations and the end result been so sizeable. I want to make this again. It just works.)
  • Bashed Cucumber and Radish Salad (Simple and clean. I have, however, eaten so much of the garlic and black vinegar sichuan version of this salad that I felt this was a little too placid.)
  • Coriander and Jalapeno Salsa and Red-hot Roast Salsa (These two salsas should be in everyone’s fridge. Yes the coriander salsa quickly loses its verdant quality and becomes a more murky shade, but the flavours, oh the flavours, remain intact. The red salsa is a fantastic variation on the theme of roast tomato salsa.)
  • Coconut Shrimp (Real talk alert: You should make these. You should not, under any circumstances, make the suggested coconut yogurt dipping sauce. Serve these with some Kewpie mayonnaise or some hot sauce. Or combine kewpie, hot sauce and some yuzu juice. Just say no to the coyo in this case.)
  • Lime and coriander chicken (Okay, but in light of the other more exciting recipies in this book I am not sure why you would nesscarily bother?)
  • Cellophane Rolls (Ibid.)
  • Slow Roast 5-spice lamb pancakes (this exceeded expectations to a sizeable degree. If I could make a suggestion, make up double and eat this for twice as long. Actually, let me make a further suggestion: make some pickled radishes to go with your pancakes. While hoisin and spears of scallion and cucumber get you almost to flavour heaven, the addition of a quick pickled vegetable has a profound transformative effect.)

Why this book?

  • This is Nigella’s best book, potentially ever, but certainly since 2010’s Kitchen
  • You want a personal take on Nigella’s view of food – one that celebrates the joy of food
  • You want a collection of excellent and reliable recipes that balances the new with the familiar

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?
#KonMari ░░░░ Summer And does it just spark joy?

Nigella taught me not to be ashamed of liking food to the extent I do. Her writing has meant so much to me over the years. Her philosophy resonates with me in that it celebrates food and life and pleasure in a way that refuses to give quarter to shame.

And yet because I’ve rarely cooked from her books, I have always felt a little bit like a fraud for being such a Nigella booster. I am, then, incredibly happy to report that At My Table is not just a great Nigella cookbook, but it is a great cookbook full stop.

Hello Fresh

For the past few weeks I have been struggling with the idea of reviewing Hello Fresh. A large part of me wants to be concise to an extreme degree: “Hello Fresh? Yeah, nah.” Yet such brevity would I think hide the existence of a more interesting story.

Stepping back for a moment, allow me to introduce Hello Fresh. It is a meal kit delivery service. Meal kit delivery services, if you have had occasion to listen to a podcast in the past, oh let’s say year are having a moment. The basic structure of these services is that for a weekly fee one receives a box of pre-portioned ingredients and some recipe cards. One then combines a with b and hopefully enjoys the end results.

The draw of these services is apparent: convenience. Subscribers are free from the time spent coming up with recipe ideas, shopping and generally spending time thinking or worrying about their nighttime meal. Subscribers, aside from getting food each night, are also potentially exposed to new ingredients, techniques and cuisines.

The criticism of these services is extensive: they are expensive, the are generally not environmentally friendly, they consist of a limited variety of options, and they provoke a sense of generalised anxiety and unease, in the manner of any online company that tries to hide questionable practices behind a well polished app or website.

Why and How

Occasionally, the unthinkable machinery of modern corporations works in our favour. By completing a ‘step challenge,’ the cross-marketing department of an airline owned health insurance company sent us a code for a free box. Normally, we would have demurred, however an nonagenarian’s interstate birthday party required us to abandon our usual weekend rituals. We used our code to sign up for a four-people/five-meal box (to provide both for lunch leftovers but also it seemed wasteful to use the code on anything other than the most expensive box!)

The design of the available options on the website implies a five-meal vegetarian box is quite beyond Hello Fresh, so we went with the ‘classic’ box: which is Hello Fresh talk for a colon-load of meat. And, I have to say, calling it the ‘classic’ box is a nice way of suggesting anyone engaged in a non-meat diet is somehow on the bleeding edge and needs to be contained to only 3 meals a week lest they multiply and spread their unorthodox ways. Had we not had  the free box trial offer we would have had to pay AUD$189, a sum of money which seems quite extraordinary.

Luckily because we, as a society, are quite good are eliminating any last trace of dignity for workers, we were able to select a delivery window of 3am to 7am. The advantage of this window is that we could pretend our delivery was not being completed by someone forced into working awful hours, but by a chipper robot. This allowed us to at least pretend not to be as guilty as we felt. The box that appeared on our doorstep one morning was filled with the stuff to make our meals, protected by various bladders containing a gloriously squishy semi-frozen gel. I was pleased that by the time we unpacked the contents everything felt still cold.

I was also happy with the quality (with one exception, of which more later) of the food that arrived. Vegetables were fresh. The chicken was free range (as I write this I am afraid to google to see whether or not Lilydale chicken is truly free range, having once been burnt by believing the ‘free range’ branding on some Otway pork…). The remainder was either Hello Fresh branded (such as dumb little sachets of chilli flakes) or from brands that while not entirely familiar, at least did not fall into the Aldi supermarket brand name uncanny valley.

Our menu for the week was:

Obviously not anything too wild, but I allowed myself to be naively optimistic at first. Za’atar and chicken is an excellent combination. Who does not like a good carbonara, a dish that manages both mid-century Italian cinema sensuality and a certain en vogue tracksuit coziness? Korean beef tacos sounded like a fun of nod to the LA food truck scene, and perhaps a welcome break from some more bland dishes. And I like chilli. I tried to keep up my enthusiasm for chilli even as I read the full title of that dish: “Beef chilli con carne pie with cheddar & coriander sweet potato mash.”

My initial concern was that every night’s meal consisted of meat, meat, meat.  I understand that a lot of people do eat like this, and more power to them. We, on the other hand, have not eaten so much meat in such a short amount of time. Opening the fridge was a little like discovering a wee little abattoir.

The above shot taken from the rather cruelly named ‘Flavour Generator’ gives you an object lesson in how the Hello Fresh team approaches food. 

The Food

The dishes ranged from fine to horrendous. The fine dishes were fine in the way that legacy airline carrier economy food is fine. Fine in the way the food at a college or army barracks is fine. Not bold or exciting but not bad. I was struck with an overwhelming sense of the dish being proximate to legitimately delicious, if only for a small for tweaks or additions. They could have been so easily improved and made something special but sometimes food that is fine is, well, fine. The two chicken dishes fall into this category.

The other dishes—three out five—were decidedly not fine. The addition of pine nuts gave nothing to the carbonara, other than the fear of pine (nut) mouth. The accompanying salad of baby spinach tossed in balsamic vinegar AND HONEY was gross. No one has ever thought that balsamic vinegar was of insufficient sweetness. It was very nearly edible.

The two beef dishes were just bad. The supplied beef (in packets variously labelled ‘mince’ and ‘stir fry’) was the consistency of finely diced cartilage and gristle. It was so wet it refused to do anything more than boil in its own eldritch juices. Eating it was a source of such distinct discomfort that even know, months later, I struggle not to break out in a cold sweat.

The resulting dishes made from this wet, horror beef (tacos/pie) were fling-the-plates-away-from-you terrifying. The pie—a mass as bland as it was deeply offensive to all those with working palettes—haunts my memory. Eating it was to be reminded of how lucky one had hitherto been in life. The tacos were more palatable, in the same way that the outer parts of the sun are technically cooler than the inner parts. The ‘soy, honey, garlic’ marinade imparted as much Korean taste as you would expect. The aioli—sorry “garlic aioli”—one was instructed to add to the tacos was a great addition in that it added another thing to deeply regret in your life and therefore will make for a much richer autobiography.

Goodbye, Hello Fresh

Of course, Hello Fresh was never going to be for us, we who have the time, money, and motivation to eat in a more pleasing and honest way. I imagine, from my meringue tower, that these services could be of benefit to some people.

But not Hello Fresh. You see, the real problem of Hello Fresh is that the people who make it sincerely hate food. Every part of the experience is soulless and awful. Whether or not this is because of the commercial reality of trying to get Hello Fresh to make a profit, or through the creators seeming inherent hate of food, I cannot say.

Please do not think that this service will help you learn how to cook. It will not. The recipes are appallingly written. Every minor step that could have allowed for the introduction of better flavours has been stripped away. The chicken and leek dish has chicken breasts thrown in the oven when the quickest sear in a hot pan beforehand would have given a richer flavour. The timings and suggested sequence of recipes occasionally leads to the conclusion that no one has previously cooked these recipes before.

There are thousands of cookbooks out there that will teach you how to cook (please allow me to suggest the fantastic books by English writer Jane Hornby) or how to become a better cook or how to cook quick food. The business model of Hello Fresh is predicated on people not discovering the simple fact that Hello Fresh charges a massive premium and offers no unique value.

The recipes, even at their best, are bland and unexciting. Cynically, one can make an argument that the best way to keep people subscribed to the service is by giving them very bland and ‘safe’ food. Were they to up the flavours it is easy to imagine people more quickly coming to the realisation of how awful the experience is. I have no insight, of course, but the churn rate of Hello Fresh must be substantial. Like a few other things in life, it is an experience best avoided, or at the very worst, tried once and then turned into dinner party conversation fodder.

I am not convinced that this service is as convenient as it may seem. Recipes frequently require at least two or three ‘pantry’ items (that is, an ingredient like eggs (!), soy sauce or rice vinegar that is not supplied but is nonetheless required by the recipe). In many cases you will still have to make a grocery trip to cook from the box. And because everything is prepackaged, you have absolutely no ability to cater for unexpected guests or vary according to your own tastes (other than in a subtractive, I just won’t put that in, way).

The most damning part of the experience was looking at the ingredients for that god awful chilli con carne: it included “mild Mexican spice blend.” If you’re comfortable with eating, and indeed living in a world where such a thing is possible, then please proceed with that Hello Fresh order. If you think life should be a little bit more interesting and vivid than “mild Mexican spice blend” please run away from this service, even if you have both a free trial code and a morbid curiosity.

I unequivocally believe that eating well is the main part of living well. Food is not just fuel, but it is a source of joy and of nourishment for both body and mind. To eat well is a profound act of self-belief and affirmation. To buy into the vision that Hello Fresh represents is almost to engage in self-abnegation. Please allow me to suggest you are more valuable and worth more than the experience of Hello Fresh.

I sincerely implore the time poor or those who do not quite know their way around the kitchen to explore any other option (and there are so many!) before resorting to this experience.

Simple — Diana Henry

Diana Henry should be far more popular. I get the sense that outside of the UK, she is not as known or appreciated as she could be. This is not to say she languishes in complete obscurity outside the UK. Indeed, a glowing New York Times piece covered her output, something which is prodigious in both quantity and quality. Those that do speak of Diana Henry do so in reverent and knowing tones.

If I had to describe Diana Henry—and, I admit, writing a review does leave one with such a duty—I would liken her to another leading light of the food world: Nigella Lawson. I think both authors share a general approach and have similar writing styles. Indeed, the sticker on the cover of my copy of Simple certainly invites you to draw this parallel and make a such comparison.

I hesitate to say this because of my immense fondness and respect for Nigella, but Diana writes better recipes. And I think also has a more confident and modern palette and approach to food. I own all of Nigella’s books (perhaps when I get over my last every book from author x roundup I will do another one) and yet rarely cook from them. I only own a few of Diana’s recent books yet have cooked a fair amount from them all—and have loved everything I have made.

I have wanted to review Diana’s latest book, Simple, for some time. I became convinced I had to review the book after reading this unfair train wreck of a review. After all, when someone is wrong on the internet, something must be done. Of course, Diana does not need me to rally to her defence! Nonetheless, here we are.

Simple is Diana’s 9th book and is, I think, the strongest. The focus of the book is, as the title suggests, a collection of recipes that strive for maximum flavour at minimum fuss.

This is one of the key trends in contemporary food writing. Everyone, apparently, is super busy. And no one wants to open a cookbook that is filled with labour intensive recipes (or, even worse, sub-recipes!) The result is a proliferation of books aimed at cutting down the time one spends in the kitchen.

There are two ways this trend manifests itself: One, the sacrifice approach, results in nonsense books like 15- or 30- minute meals from the once joyful Jamie Oliver. Two, the smart approach, where books try to find smart ways of creating food with minimal labour and angst. Simple, happily, takes the latter approach.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. A glorious ribbon. Given the reported size of Diana’s cookbook collection it is no surprise to see such a thoughtful inclusion.

336 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Eggs
  2. Salads
  3. Toast
  4. Pulses
  5. Pasta & Grains
  6. Fish
  7. Roasts
  8. Chops & Sausages
  9. Chicken
  10. Vegetables
  11. Fruit Puddings
  12. Other Sweet Things

The design of the book is simple and elegant. Generous use of white space, elegant typography and restrained photography all combine to suggest a polished, calming book.

It’s something that immediately invites confidence. Nothing in this book tries too hard—instead it is quietly confident. It is Obama, not a certain orange buffoon.

A few days ago on twitter I rallied against a trend in food photography: where a few ingredients of the dish are ‘artfully’ (read: artlessly) scattered around the workstation/bench/table to frame the finished product. So, a roast lamb on a platter might be surrounded by a few rosemary needles and garlic skins. Or an otherwise pristine photograph of a cake on a tray might be ‘enhanced’ by an oh-so-casual scattering of sugar and flour on the table.

A few photos in this book come close to this crime. However, in another demonstration of Diana’s taste, things are arranged to look more documentary than clumsily staged.

The majority of photos in this book are strong. There’s a real consistency between photographs that speaks to a single, compelling vision. The lighting and styling is consistent, but not to the point of monomania. The photos are delightful.

I do think the type sizing is slightly smaller than would be ideal—cookbook designers, I suspect, forget that cookbooks are often used at much greater distance than regular books: so while size 9 type might be perfect in a novel held close to the head, size 9 type in a cookbook is far from ideal. I tend to end up squinting a lot while trying to cook from books like these.

There is a risk that to some the design of this book might feel a little staid. Take the cover of my edition as an example: pork chops in a cream sauce on a wooden table, is a study in various browns and beiges. It is a bold choice if not a bold design. Yet writing off this book as boring or old fashioned would be a great mistake, as it is anything but!

Thoughts

Diana loves food. You cannot avoid that impression. I also think she has a genius approach towards the concept of simple food. Under her expert guidance, simple food is not joyless, lacking food. It is not food that has been dumbed down to the point of becoming bad airline food.

Instead, as the subtitle on the cover proclaims, the book celebrates “effortless food [and] big flavours.” At times, after eating things from this book, I was in a state of disbelief: it had not felt like I had made any obvious sacrifices or compromises, and yet I had only been cooking for a short while minutes and had produced something tremendously exciting.

Diana’s talent (or rather, one of her talents) is an ability to pick apart the core of a recipe and discard anything unnecessary. The results are full in flavour, but without the heartache you might have otherwise suffered.

Simple’s strength is that it is not trying to be a soulless “30 minute recipes” clone. The recipes do occasionally ask for chunks of your time. But rarely is this all active time: it might ask you to roast something in the oven for 45 minutes after say five quick minutes of choppin’ and slicin’. I think this is a perfect trade off.

In fact, some of the happiest hours in my week are when I have something simmering away on the stove, and I have a few minutes to read something or otherwise entertain myself. It feels like joyfully stolen time.

At the risk of pouring further fuel on the hot trash fire of a review linked above, I take exception to any argument that this book is especially British or especially fussy. Diana’s palette is admirably global. The book features recipes inspired by Japanese, Korean, Indian and Mexican cuisines. Yet, I do not feel this has resulted in inaccessible or overly broad ingredient lists.

Similarly, the food is not fussy. Anyone who writes a cookbook review website, and cooks from new recipes more nights than not, is perhaps not best qualified to make the following argument, but here I go: dumbing down food is a bad idea. Dumbing down concepts stops people from ever learning or expanding their horizons. It leads to incurious people with incurious palettes. This leads to people further considering skills in cooking to be unnecessary luxuries, which is by and large the problem we find ourselves in now. This leads to joyless “5 ingredient” cookbooks.

I think Diana’s recipes do not require anyone to be a graduate of culinary school. They do require someone who is willing to try, and to open themselves to potentially doing things in a new way. Call me a fool, but isn’t that just what we ask from our cookbooks? Or that someone more experienced than we are teaches us things?

So, no, the food is not particularly British or boring: I suspect that reviewer was using British as a code for boring. And nor are the recipes fussy. The book lives up to its claim of providing recipes for “effortless food.”

Of course, no cookbook can please everyone. I have found one or two of the recipes in Simple to not appeal to my particular tastes. Diana, it must be noted, does seem quite fond of a creamy dressing. I am a real acid-fiend, so these can feel a little tame and muted to me. However this is easily fixed, and in a way that does not suggest the underlying recipe was fundamentally incorrect.

Here is what we have made so far:

  • Parsi-style scrambled eggs (it is hard to go back to regular scrambled eggs after eating these, so utterly alive and vibrant)
  • Griddled courgettes, burrata and fregola (We cooked this quite early on, so I was a little weary, but the end result was texturally diverse and with enough interest to be far more memorable than expected)
  • Tomatoes, Soft Herbs & Feta with Pomegranate (A perfect dish for warmer weather: it would also make a smashing bruschetta topping.)
  • Root, shiitake, and noodle salad with miso dressing (an exceptional dressing and a fair salad. The dressing could become a real favourite.)
  • Cool Greens, Hot Asian Dressing (I am a firm believer in the life affirming powers of a gutsy nuoc cham—and Diana’s version went very well with crisp greens. The avocado was an unexpected but pleasing touch.)
  • Warm salad of squid, bacon, beans & tarragon (This was let down by the dressing: a muted mixture of cream, oil, tarragon and lemon.)
  • Mumbai Toastie (I could comfortably eat on this for the rest of my days. The ultimate toasted sandwich. I wonder if I can convince the owner of Melbourne’s best new cafe/bakery to add this to their menu?)
  • Simple Goan Fish Curry (I was terrified of this for some strange reason, but it turned out to be a highlight. Complex, spicy, aromatic. Very good.)
  • Pork chops with mustard and capers (I followed Diana’s instructions and bought the best pork I could find, so I don’t know if the recipe was exceptional or the pork was exceptional and the recipe did not get in the way of that. At any rate, I often lay awake at night and think about this.)
  • Spaghetti with spiced sausage & fennel sauce (There are many sausage pasta recipes out there. Some are good. Some are not. This is my new benchmark. The fennel added a sweetness that made this dish so memorable.)
  • Korean chicken, gochujang mayo, sweet sour cucumber (Grilled chicken thighs, spicy mayo, refreshing pickled cucumber relish. You could not ask for a more compelling package.)
  • Chicken with Haricots & Creamy Basil Dressing (Chicken breasts have it tough. And are often tough. However cooked carefully, lovingly, they can be quite special indeed.)
  • Broccoli with Harissa & Coriander Gremolata (I can always use another trick to dress up old mate broccoli and this was a good trick. Our Harissa was a little mild, so I would have liked this to have a little bit more of a kick.)
  • Tomatoes, Potatoes & Vermouth with Basil Creme Fraiche (I think the basil creme fraiche does not add a lot to this dish and could safely be omitted. Omitting to make this dish at all would be a shame and deny you an excellent, easy meal.)
  • Baby potatoes with watercress and garlic cream (Not sold on the dressing in this, I confess.)
  • Fragrant Sichuan aubergines (A really accessible and really bloody good version of one of the greatest Sichuan dishes: fish fragrant eggplant. I am near to drooling just thinking about how good this was. Fussy English food, indeed not!)

Why this book?

  • You want to make good food without diving into complex recipes
  • You have a global palette and get tired of eating the same sort of flavours over and over again
  • You want to make the best pork chop recipe you will ever come across

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 ░░░ Diana Henry Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░░ “Skinny Latte” And does it just spark joy?

Diana Henry’s work needs to receive greater attention. She has an amazing palette and produces books of quiet confidence. She understand what it is to be a modern home cook, and writes books for that market better than anyone else I know.

Every Bill Granger Cookbook, Ranked

Bill Granger is the reason this blog exists. He came to me in a dream, dressed in white denim, and after a plate of hotcakes said it would be a totally good idea for me to review cookbooks. I was all, “Thanks dream-Bill!” We high-fived before riding off into the sunset on pistachio Vespas.

Ahem. Let me try again.

Bill Granger’s cookbooks are the reason this blog exists. His collection of cookbooks were my first real cookbook loves. They impressed me with their design, their simple yet flavour-focussed food, and the lifestyle they suggest as being possible. Yes, there were other cookbooks before, and of course many, many since, but these books continue to hold a special place in my collection. Some are exceptional, some are good, and some are better not even mentioned.

Here are Bill Granger’s cookbooks in order of least essential to most essential:

Bill’s Italian Food (2013)

This is the most recent Bill book. Until this book was released in 2013, Bill produced a new book every few years. It has been complete radio silence since then. And I view this book as killing Bill. I can only assume it had mediocre sales and Bill realised he could make much more money with a slowly expanding chain of eponymous restaurants.

Put simply, it’s not very good. The recipes feel uninspired and familiar. The art direction is serviceable but feels forced. By the metric of a book’s quality being somehow proportional to the amount of recipes I have cooked from it, Bill’s Italian Food is the clear runt of the litter.

Bill’s Open Kitchen (2003)

Bill looks very happy on the cover of this book. You are unlikely to look as happy with this book. The food and photography feel ancient, like something from a lost civilisation.

Look, it’s not entirely bad. With some work and a little love, the recipes are going to be salvageable. Yet, in light of the Bill books to come, I do not know why anyone would bother with this one.

Bill’s Sydney Food (2000)

Bill’s first book, this book has a lot of the classic Bill recipes. With the distance of 17 years, I feel comfortable labelling this book as something that has not aged entirely well. There’s a lot of goats cheese and balsamic and hints at the Asian vibe that Bill will later adopt in a more committed way.

Calling it dated is almost too heavy a charge. It’s more that it is quite simple and unadventurous. Our collective culinary appetites and capabilities have improved significantly since then. No one in 2017 really wants a recipe for poached eggs with wilted spinach or a ham and cheese toasted sandwich.

And to top off my complaints with this book, all of the baking recipes feature volume measures (cup measures) instead of grams. Grr. The only redepemtion is this book gives you the recipe of many an expensive breakfast: Bill’s ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter. Yam.

Simply Bill (2005)

This book is pretty similar to Bill’s Open Kitchen yet has a slight edge: it’s hard to put my finger on it, but the food in this book starts to feel appealing and modern as opposed to dated in a sun dried tomato and balsamic drizzle sort of way.

The photography is somewhat off-putting and fussy. The cover photo, of Bill with a rictus grin, is legitimately frightening. The large format softcover presentation of the book is quite unpleasant to use. Despite these complaints you get a hint of Bill greatness: elements of this book point to what Bill is capable of.

Everyday (2006) 

Everyday continues the trend of Bill books that start to feel modern. Although dated occasionally by photography or vogue ingredients (sweet chilli sauce in this case), there’s enough here that feels familiar.

The book is organised around the conceit of providing different recipes for different days (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and so on). It would take a far more capable mind than mine to spot the differences in the recipes assigned to weekdays versus weekend days.

I have railed against this gimmicky method of recipe organisation before. I am comfortable with a book having a central theme: a central post on which to hang the book’s recipes. Yet when the gimmick gets in the way of discoverability, I think it is a real mistake.

Despite the regrettable gimmick, this book is solid.

Holiday (2009)

If you’re noticing a trend, it’s that the more recent Bill books are generally better (with an obvious exception!)

There are two components of this: the first is that the food presented in the book feels modern and aligned with the sort of food we (we here means the people who either buy cookbooks or read cookbook review websites!) actually eat. It’s food that is characterised by Asian influences, by middle-eastern flavours and techniques, and food that is often vegetarian, or at least food that uses meat as an accent. The other element is that Bill’s own creativity and writing techniques improve with each new book. It’s a privilege, borne out of the commercial success of Bill’s past books, that not all authors get: but when you compare some of the earlier books with the more recent books, the difference is clear.

I have not, I have to report, cooked a lot from this. In fact, it’s the newest addition to the Bill library. The few things I have cooked have been good, and the general feel of the book is positive.

Feed Me Now (2009)

The turning point. The books before are fairly average, and feel older than what they sometimes are. This book feels quite modern, even eight years after publication.

The photography is compelling: tight focus highlights the texture of food. The styling is restrained. The recipes featuring a compelling global mix of flavours that feels honest: miso fish, black bean quesadillas, roasted chicken curry. The book sometimes stumbles with these flavours, however: you get the sense that Bill has not mastered some of these global flavours.

Bill’s Basics (2010)

The next three books make up Bill’s best. You could forget about the proceeding titles and just pick up these three and you’d have a magnificent collection.

Bill’s Basics, seven years later, feels modern and delightful. The photography is excellent: focussing on the food and not over stylised knick-knacks. The book has loads of white space.

The recipes are also brilliant, both in terms of range and execution. I have a real fondness for cookbooks that have a breadth to their recipes. You could throw away loads of your other cookbooks and cook happily from this, eating baked orecchiette with sausage and cavolo nero one night and then tom yum the next night. Sure, some recipes need a little gentle adjustment, but never egregiously so.

Bill’s Everyday Asian (2011)

Bill certainly was firing on all cylinders in the early 2010s. Bill’s Everyday Asian digs down on an appreciation for Asian flavours in many of his earlier books.

The book represents contemporary Australian favourites: pork larb, massaman lamb curry, stir-fried prawn with tomato and chilli and so on. The recipes, as is I think will be readily apparent to anyone familiar with Bill, are not intended to be strictly authentic. They are intended to be accessible versions of familiar favourites, and the book succeeds in this.

The photography feels a little more alive and playful than the occasionally austere work in Bill’s Basics. Yet this is well balanced against a lot of white space. My only complaint is the tiny text: it looks smart, but makes cooking from the book harder than it needs to be.

Get Bill’s Basics if you want a mixture of food (Asian, Mediterranean, American-y). If you enjoy eating Asian food, than this book is the strong title. The recipes and the photography are better.

Easy (2012)

We have a winner! I am seriously impressed at the string of books Bill produced. I have cooked an enormous amount from this book, and have enjoyed almost every recipe. The recipes feel polished and honed in a way that earlier books do not feel.

I think the title is misleading: this book is not ‘easy’ in the way you would reasonably expect from the title. It’s more slightly simplified versions of quite impressive or involved dishes. Easy, in this case, is a spectrum.

The book is divided up into broad categories like Piece of chicken or Sack of potatoes. This is a smart way of diving up the book, if you’re determined to avoid a more orthodox ‘Starters, Mains, Dessert’ approach to organisation.

After the focus of Everyday Asian, this book returns to a more general focus. It does trend towards slightly more indulgent and richer fare. Our favourite recipe, one we have made at least once a winter since the book was released, is a Taleggio and Pancetta baked rigatoni. While I generally much prefer hard cheeses, I would sell my right pinky finger for a lifetime supply of Italy’s second best cheese. And this dish celebrates taleggio.

The photography and overall design of the book is compelling. Food is the star, with photos of Bill relatively few and far between. The book feels modern and I have a feeling it will for a long time yet.

I have thought about this book. It is not a book that will inspire generations of cooks. It is not a book that will teach you a lot about a particular cuisine. It is a book that you can cook from every night of the week and not get tired of. It will teach you to become a better, more confident cook. At least, it had that result on me!

Which Bill?

  1. Easy (The recipes may not be easy, but they are delicious and will help you become a better cook!)
  2. Bill’s Everyday Asian (Asian flavours through the lens of the supermarket shopper! If you’re just getting started in exploring cooking Asian food, this is a good beginning.)
  3. Bill’s Basics (like Easy, but slightly broader in recipe selection. Although those recipes are slightly less polished.)

About Bill

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 ███ Sticky floors And does it just spark joy?

(The table above shows the range. The blue block shows where the top three sit.)

EveryDayCook — Alton Brown

Alton Brown is an iconic food personality. He is deeply loved, especially in the United States. His claim to fame (although he has a few by this stage in his career) is that he brings a science orientated perspective to food and cooking.

While that is an approach many adopt these days, Alton seems to have been amongst the first to do this in a mainstream large scale way. His seminal show, Good Eats, continues to have an impact in how people think about food (and, of course, how people cook food).

While he has written quite a few cookbooks (10!) this is both marketed and (after spending some time with it) is a highly personal cookbook. It discards some of the structured and didactic approaches of his other books and is instead a collection of the food he likes to eat.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. No ribbon.

224 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Morning
  2. Coffee break
  3. Noon
  4. Afternoon
  5. Evening
  6. Any time
  7. Later

The book has an interesting gimmick (or perhaps creative design limitation): all the pictures were taken with an iPhone 6 plus.

It is testament to the iPhone (happy 10th birthday, by the way!) that the photos are remarkably fit for purpose. I suspect if you did not know you would just assume they were shot with some expensive professional digital camera. Very occasionally a shot might look slightly low resolution, or not the usual pixel perfect presentation that we normally expect from a cookbook photo in 2017, but on the whole the pictures are impressive.

It is a tremendous result, and I hope it inspires more work and more creative exploration of some of the most popular (and accessible) cameras in the world.

While I am bullish on the photography, the design of the rest of the book leaves me much less impressed. From the handwriting font of the recipe titles, to the horrendous overuse of photo background on recipe pages there is a certain lack of restraint. It’s a fun approach, arguably, but not one I get a lot of enjoyment out of.

Some of these design decisions make the book harder to use and enjoy. Unlike the iPhone photography, which is a creative gamble that pays off, the design of the book as a whole is inconsistent, difficult to use and dates the book terribly.

On a further critical note: the structure is not useful. Given Alton’s otherwise admirable propensity to eat whatever at anytime of the day, the structure he adopts in the book is close to useless.

Thoughts

I love how personal this book feels. We see a lot of tv and internet food people writing ostensibly personal and honest cookbooks and a lot of them feel cold and bland.

This book wears its heart on its sleeve, for better or worse. You get a real sense of what Alton Brown is all about as well as the food he cooks and eats for himself.

I wish more cookbook authors would adopt this personal tone. It combines biographical elements with food writing in a way that enriches both.

Of course, the more personal a book is, the riskier it becomes. If that person’s particular style or approach does not resonate with you, you are unlikely to get a lot out of the book.

And this is almost what has happened with this book. I love Alton, but the recipies in this book have left me cold and wanting more. In fact, it was hard to find recipes that appealed enough to want to make them in the first place.

The food, while certainly being the food Alton cooks for himself on a frequent basis, was not food that I wanted to cook for myself on a similar basis. Recipes tend towards being meat driven and in some cases quite time consuming to prepare. For a book titled ‘Everyday Cook’ I could not help but think the recipes were more somedays cook.

This is not to suggest that all the recipes were either unappealing or unsuccessful. Of the handful we cooked, there were a few candidates destined for the all time hall of fame.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Breakfast Carbonara (as much as I love the idea of pasta for breakfast, I am too #normcore and as a result made this for dinner. I feel pretty loyal to my own carbonara recipe, and I felt Alton’s sausage and orange zest version was not quite delicious enough to make me change my ways.)
  • Turkey sliders (I liked the approach of adding a lot of umami rich elements, but the end result was not particularly exciting.)
  • Smoky the meatloaf (This recipe highlights a consistent theme from the book: a lot of effort does not always yield satisfying results. The idea of putting BBQ flavoured potato chips inside the meatloaf was a nice touch, however.)
  • Roast Broccoli Hero (Okay, one of the really good recipes in the book. This  is the vegetarian sandwich to end all vegetarian sandwiches. The roasted broccoli goes so well with spicy pickles and ricotta salata.) 
  • Roasted Thanksgiving Salad (a quinoa and roast root vegetable salad feels so old fashioned for some reason: the end product was nice, but nothing to get excited about.)
  • Fish Sticks and Custard (I convinced my loving and patient partner to service the ‘custard’ with this: it’s really a warm tartare sauce. I hope one day she can forgive me. The fish sticks were, unlike the offensively bad custard, quite good, but again a lot of effort for only a fine result.)
  • Chicken Parmesan Balls (Nice, not great.)
  • Savoury Greek Yogurt Dip (this is a good recipe if you like dipping vegetables into the blandest yogurt based dip imaginable.)
  • Chicken Piccata (this, the roasted broccoli hero, and the flavoured oil for the next recipe, are the only three recipes from this book I was happy about. It was a really good chicken piccata, a dish that deserves to be consumed far more often.)
  • Weeknight spaghetti (the real star of this dish was an incredibly tasty herb and garlic oil. The spaghetti sauce, which you make using a few tablespoons of the oil, was quite nice in its own way.)
  • Turkey Tikka Masala (see comments about re: good but not great.)
  • Open Sesame Noodles (this recipe is poorly written and yields poor results.)

Why this book?

  • You like Alton Brown
  • You want to support to creative decision to just use an iPhone for photography
  • You feel really passionately about bringing sexy chicken piccata back

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 job interview And does it just spark joy?

I wanted to like this book. I admire parts of it: the personal tone, the photography, and three recipes. And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to love it or find much joy in cooking from it.

I could not, then, recommend it to any of you. It might be interesting to borrow from the library for a flick through, but not one to buy and keep forever.

Sorry, Alton. It’s me, not you.

Power Vegetables! — Peter Meehan

Lucky Peach—the best food magazine out there—has announced it will be closing. Little reason or explanation was given for this upsetting news, although speculation points to a fallout between Peter Meehan (editor) and Dave Chang (majority owner).

In a world of overly polished food writing and photography, Lucky Peach was a glass of cool water on a hot day. It has style, personality and something to say. It was not perfect: it sometimes could not escape its bros talking about sriracha and kewpie mayo vibe. But it was (and for a little while longer, is) a blessed relief from the same generic content.

My favourite part of the Lucky Peach brand was, of course, the cookbooks! My review of 101 Easy Asian Recipes dives deep into my love of Lucky Peach’s flavour-driven approach to food.  It’s not authentic food (whatever that is, anyway) but it is delicious, easy and memorable food. It is food that I want to eat and cook and share.

Given the sad news, and given how much I liked their first book, it was an obvious choice to review their 3rd book: Power Vegetables! This book is a spiritual successor to 101 Easy Asian Recipes (101EARs) in focus, tone and execution.

Structure and Design

Harcover. No ribbon.

272 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Starters
  2. Salads
  3. Pies & The Like
  4. Soups/Soupy
  5. Ensemble Players
  6. Mains
  7. Mainly Potatoes
  8. Bread & Cake

Like 101EARs, PV! starts with a useful guide to ingredients (called, appropriately enough, POWER PANTRY). Therein are meditations on capers, shiitakes, kombu and a recipe for miso butterscotch which is incredibly compelling when you stop and think about it.

It is interesting to see the development of the format: 101EARs was, more or less, a straight recipe book. However PV! borrows more from the magazine’s format, which is to say a handful of interviews with au currant chefs are scattered throughout the book. While these are not the difference between night or dark, they are nonetheless pleasant inclusions in that they help explain the thinking and context of the book.

As I said in my review of 101EARs, I really like the over-the-top kitschy design. It remains as refreshing as when they first attempted it, although they pleasingly have made a few different art direction decisions. This helps things feel free fresh as opposed to simply more of the same. One example is that they’ve generally scaled back on the use of props and backdrops so when they are used it is to much greater effect. It is not high concept, but I cannot help but smile at the Mexican wrestler holding the corn on page 154–55.

The book is polished: recipes are well written, photography is well executed (do not confuse style with technical proficiency!). The book is a tight and compelling physical package. The design and writing team deserve points for making sure each recipe fits within a page (and is presented in a usable and helpful format to boot!)

Thoughts

The book starts with a manifesto, of sorts. Here, Meehan declares, there will be no pasta recipes or grain bowls. There will be the use of both dairy and fish (mostly fish sauce or anchovies).

It is smart cooking with vegetables, in other words. It is an approach I admire so much. Let’s not get bound up with an argument on is it or is it not vegetarian food, and let’s not fall in the trap of a lot of other vegetable-driven books where one slaps a vegetable on a grain and calls it done.

The rule about no pasta is a really good creative limitation and stops the book from taking some easy outs. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and the book is stronger for adopting this as a principle.

The approach is essentially similar to that in 101EARs and it is what makes Lucky Peach so important in the world of food writing. It shows how joyful food is when seen through the lens of flavour rather than arbitrary rules.

The food we made from this book was, as a rule, delicious and enjoyable. It was fun food to make and fun food to eat. Perhaps it leans slightly in the direction of overly aggressive flavours and seasoning (the vegetarian chili was a knock out punch of umami) but I so favour this approach over more insipid fare.

Here is what we have cooked:

  • Saucy Fried Tofu or Vaguely Korean Watercress-Apple Salad (The recipe suggest a choice but you need to ignore that and make both together. Excellent textures and a prize winner of a salad. That said, I’m a sucker for apple in salads, so consider my obvious bias.)
  • Nam prik hed cabbage cups (Gosh this was good. A punchy assertive mushroom-y condiment is almost the essence of Thailand served simply on wombok leaves. It would be a sin against taste not to make this and make it again with rice and then again with noodles and then with some grilled meat.)
  • Chopped Cauliflower Salad (A very good chopped salad with an exceptionally good yoghurt-y garlic-y dressing. One that I think about whenever I am eating a bland salad.)
  • Pappa al pomodoro (How do the words ‘pizza soup’ sound to you? If you jump up and down with irrepressible excitement at the mere mention of it then it will be that good. If you roll your eyes and perhaps insert a finger under the neck of your cashmere turtleneck, move right along.)
  • Vichyssoise (Another example of the clever way Meehan et al approach creating recipes. A familiar if not much beloved soup is greatly improved through using dashi stock. Although the recipe suggests you serve it cold, it is of course delicious served hot. In any event, the chives and creme fraiche are mandatory.)
  • Elote (Indecently good: corn and mayonnaise and lime juice and chili powder.)
  • Roasted vegetables with fish sauce vinaigrette (I first cooked this recipe in the Momofuku cookbook. About a million times. I then cooked it from Food52’s Genius Recipes a few million times. This permutation—the most simple—is very good if only for legitimising using essentially any vegetable instead of the more common brussels sprouts.)
  • Zuni Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower (Perhaps a victim of the ‘no pasta rule.’ The original Zuni recipe, which the headnote acknowledges, serves the vegetable mess with pasta. We had this dish both ways—as a salad, per the recipe instructions, and with pasta per the original—and with pasta was clearly better.)
  • Memelitas with Vegetable Peeler Salad (We ate this three meals in a row, not because it was exceptional and amazing but it was so simply tasty and enjoyable as to provoke a state of sustained bemused desire that we could not stop eating it).
  • Roasted cabbage with banana blossom dressing (Odd but remarkable: the dressing, an enticing slurry of red curry paste, lime juice, coconut milk and fish sauce was compelling. The final dish was a masterful combination of textures. Plus I am quite bullish on any recipes that feature cabbage as the hero, as opposed to a sad supporting role.)
  • Kung Pao Celeries (This did not succeed. It was good, but clearly inferior to a chicken/prawn kung pao. It was the first, and only time, in cooking from this book that I thought the results would be much better with meat.)
  • McAloo Tikki Sandwich (Get inside me again, sweet excellent Indian potato burger).

Why this book?

  • You want to eat more exciting plant-based food
  • You love Lucky Peach or are at least Peach curious
  • For what it’s worth, you want to support Lucky Peach

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 ░░░ Rising damp And does it just spark joy?

PV! does not aim to change the world. It aims to apply the signature Lucky Peach magic to vegetable-based recipes. It succeeds more often than it fails.

I do not think I want to become a permanent resident in the world of Lucky Peach. Yet to visit is a treat and I encourage you to make the journey.

World of Books: May Update

I have returned from my mid-year retreat. While sad to be no longer on holidays, I am nonetheless delighted to dust off my apron and get back to reviewing cookbooks.

Reviews for these titles are coming over the next few weeks:

  • Power Vegetables! Lucky Peach / Peter Meehan
  • Everyday Cook — Alton Brown
  • Molly on the Range — Molly Yeh (which is delightfully pronounced ‘Yay’)

Beyond those planned reviews, I am at somewhat of a loose end. The cookbook releases of 2017 had not grabbed my attention at all.

Do you have a title you would like to see reviewed? Please let me know.

See you later this week!

 

A New Way to Dinner — Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

Most cookbooks give you recipes to cook. Wait, don’t close that tab!

I mean to say, the aspiration of most cookbooks is nothing more than giving you instruction sets to make new types of food. There is only so many recipes one needs. A handful of cookbooks could give you a lifetime’s supply of how to combine ingredients. The question quickly becomes “what’s next?”

For anyone beyond the complete kitchen beginner, cookbooks with something additional to teach are more rewarding and useful. Increasingly, I’m drawn to books with a clear ambition to do something beyond the basic steps of cook, serve, delicious.

Food52’s editors (Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs) have put together a cookbook with a grand ambition: to change how we approach putting together our nightly meal.

The book’s premise is that by spending a few hours of time on the weekend you can prepare for a week’s worth of delicious meals. The trade off is clear: sacrifice a little bit of time on the weekend to gain some back during the week.

The premise is nothing new. Time management experts (carrying degrees printed on napkins from Time University) have long gotten up on their soapboxes and told us to do this. And everyday, chefs in restaurant commit themselves to the art of the mis-en-place.

The question becomes: does this book teach us something new and valuable, or is it really a tired retelling of an old idea?

Structure and Design

  • Hardcover
  • 288 pages
  • No ribbon

The core format of the book is four weekly menu plans for each season. Two menu plans are from Hesser and two from Stubbs. Each menu plan provides for five meals and gives ideas for lunch and other ways to use the leftovers.

Each plan starts with a menu of what you’ll eat in that week. The next few pages are the battle plan for your weekend day of preparation. The following pages are then the recipies for each dish in that menu.

This is a book of unremitting production values. The writing throughout the book  is uniformly polished. Written in the signature Food52 tone, it is both inviting and casual yet also suggests a certain reserve or distance.

In terms of how the recipes are written, there’s a delineation between the steps you do earlier in the week as part of the day of preparation and the steps you do on the night the dish will be eaten. This is helpful if you are following the book’s approach but I could see it might get in the way of clarity if you were using this as just another cookbook.

The production values continue with the photography. Photos are aggressively styled.  I cannot get behind the overall Food52 ashetic. It’s so polished as to be avoid of any charm or individual personality. It’s almost as if they feed the contents of pinterest into a really smart computer and it outputs these results.

Thoughts

I enjoyed this book.

But—I have reservations:

Firstly, and most trivially, it is either a sign of success or failure that the recipes and menus from the two authors are indistinguishable. I cannot distinguish the recipes or writing  of one author from the other. It’s a positive sign in that it suggests the avoidance of gimmicks just for the sake of identification (it could have easily been Hesser’s recipes are all spicy fusion food and Stubbs are all home comfort food) but at the same time, the two present as a seamless organic seasonal trend conscious monolith.

Secondly, few books seem unaware of their privilege as this one. Every week will ask you to buy near industrial quantities of certain expensive ingredients. Worse, there’s often no suggestion as to alternatives if the budget cannot quite stretch to a kilo of black raspberries. The authors seem painfully unconscious of this element to their book. It is an expressly upper middle class lifestyle cookbook.

Thirdly, I’m not sure if the authors have considered the food safety elements to some of their preparations. One recipe asks you to cook almost a kilo of rice (!!), with the last recipe using that rice six days later. All food safety advice I can find suggests three days as being the absolute maximum for storing cooked rice. And aside from issues of food safety, there’s also an important consideration. Food simply starts to taste like fridge after a few days. The book sometimes asks you to make real sacrifices in the name of indulging the conceit.

On to what works about the book.

The technique (of preparing ahead of time) is not new. Yet, the version of this idea that the book puts forth is close to brilliant. Rarely does the book ask you to complete a whole dish. Instead, you complete time consuming yet easy individual steps like pick herbs, make dressings and sauces or prepare meal components (like make meatballs or grill some flank steak).

You know those currently popular meal delivery services? You are essentially replicating what makes those services so compelling, the idea that someone else does all the boring work of cooking, leaving you to do the fun stuff. Of course in this case, it is an earlier you who is doing the boring stuff, but the initial time and effort is quickly forgotten.

It’s a fantastic and workable approach and one that has allowed us to reclaim our weeknights without making huge sacrifices as to what we are eating. The New Way to Dinner model of preparation is superior to other competing styles of preparing your meals (such as making a whole dish and reheating it or make industrial quantities of one thing and eating it again and again).

And there’s something about this focused day of preparation that makes otherwise dull tasks seem more fun. It feels like a fun-spirited race against time: how can we get through these 9 or so prep steps as quickly as possible? It’s become a part of my week that I look forward to, oddly enough.

We’ve enjoyed this approach so much we’ve continued with it despite moving on to other cookbooks. I cannot imagine it will make sense for everyone, but it is going to be useful to a lot of people.

So a tick as to the overall approach. How’s the food? It ranges from very good to almost inedible.

Very good? A Thai beef salad was rewarding and delicious. We have made the fish tacos twice. The meatballs were not as good as the meatballs from Genius Recipes (another Food52 book) but were the second best meatballs I have made. A limeade is the perfect summer drink.

Inedible? Well, there were misses in both execution and concept: a 5 day old rice salad was inedible and awful. That Thai Beef Salad was great but less so on each successive outing. Some of the recipes in a summer menu were certainly not appropriate for stinking hot summer. Some dinners consist of a lot of food (too much!) whereas others amount to just a sandwich (not enough!).

Here are the menus from the two weeks we spent with this book:

Menu One (Summer, Merrill Stubbs)

  • Limeade with basil, blistered cherry tomatoes, Thai beef steak, jasmine rice and blueberry ice. (While the combo of mediterranean roast tomatoes and Thai beef salad didn’t work for me, every component of this meal was really good. The blueberry ice was outstanding.)
  • Fish tacos with pickled onions, Spicy Peach Salad and Chocolate ice cream with cinnamon and chili ‘dust’. (As mentioned above, the fish tacos are excellent. The spicy peach salad was fantastic and elevated mediocre peaches. The cinnamon  and chili ‘dust’ is a fun way to elevate supermarket ice cream, although you’d be unlikely to do it again and again.)
  • Penne with blistered cherry tomatoes and corn; strawberry ice cream (Average pasta and yes, you have to buy both chocolate and strawberry ice cream this week.)
  • Steak and avocado salad with crisp rice and cashews, and blueberry ice (Our crisp rice failed and simply merged into an unstoppable fried monster that still threatens smaller pacific islands. The salad makes use of the last of the Thai beed Salad which is not, it must be said, a dish that holds well.)
  • Jasmine rice salad, cantaloupe with chiles, lime and salad. (Inedible. Dry after six days in the fridge. This should not exist. We skipped the cantaloupe because one of us cantaeatit.)

Menu Two (Summer, Amanda Hesser)

  • Crab and avocado salad, blistered cherry tomatoes, watermelon (I am not a big crab man, and given the sudden sky rocketing of the price of prawns here, I was forced to substitute chicken instead. Despite going off-piste, I was entirely happy with the result.)
  • Meatballs with tomato and zucchini, quick tomato sauce, spaghetti, boiled green beans with mustard dressing, black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream (The meatballs were great, as was the fantastic mustard dressing for the beans. The ice cream—this week you make your own—did not quite work out: the quantities were way too much for our ice cream maker, so it did not quite churn properly.)
  • Watermelonade, Crab toasties, Peaches with sour cream and chili (The watermelonade was perfect and just the thing for summer. On the other hand, the peaches with sour cream feels like an awful choice for summer and so we abandoned it. The toasties were smart, though (although curiously named: toasties is short for toasted sandwich and is a term mostly used in Australia, whereas Americans seem to favour the word ‘melt’ which better fits what these actually were.)
  • Pasta with garlic, tomatoes, basil and brie, beans and their dressing and some more ice cream (The authors go on this weird bit about how they seem to think they are bringing back brie to which the rest of the cheese eating world will say “huh?”).
  • Meatball sandwich with fresh mozzarella and basil, watermelon or peaches (I think a sandwich is the best thing to do with meatballs, so I had no problems with this. I like that the menu suggestion is to just eat some fruit already.)

Why this book?

  • You want to eat good food without spending hours cooking each night
  • Or, you just want a decent collection of recipes and can overlook the recipes being formatted with the assumption you will be making them ahead of time
  • You are comfortable with the Food52 brand, aesthetic and tone

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 ░░░░ Old, old cooked rice And does it just spark joy?

I can—and do—recommend this book. However, keep some of my reservations in mind. This book is not going to be for everyone.