A Modern Way to Eat is just that: plant and grain based meals that show our increased desire to eat less meat. The book features updated versions of familiar classics as well as new ideas.
Normally I’m aware of where I first had the idea to buy a certain cookbook: it could have been a recommendation from a friend, or an article online. Despite best attempts, I cannot remember where or how I first heard about A Modern Way to Eat. Whatever its providence, at least I have it in my life, which is a very good thing.
Growing up the food I ate fell into a banal pattern of meat ‘n’ three veg—or more likely meat ‘n’ veg. I never questioned that pattern until I moved out of home and got stuck into the first few years of being a real person.
Still, it wasn’t until I started living with Nim that I questioned and rebelled against this template. As I became more and more interested in cooking, I moved from meat as the dinner norm, to meat as a supporting player to meat one or twice a week.
Constraints are a fantastic motivator for creativity. Having to go about the task of planning our weekly menu with an eye towards maximising plant-based food forced me to pay more attention to books like Ottolenghi’s super-mega-giga hit Plenty and less to the inevitable meat-based ‘main meal’ section of a lot of other cookbooks. It’s too easy to use meat as a crutch in your cooking.
I don’t think I consciously ever needed to be convinced that a meal without meat can be as delicious and satisfying (if not more so) than something with a hunk of animal. Even so, books like A Modern Way to Eat opened my eyes to a broader world of possibilities, and I’ve never looked back.
352 pages split across the following chapters: A modern way to eat | What gets me up in the morning | Food for filling a gap | A bowl of broth, soup or stew | Satisfying salads | Easy lunches and laid-back suppers | Hearty dinners and food to feed a crowd | Vegetables to go with things | Sweet endings | Cakes, bread and a few other things | Things to drink | Jam, chutney, stock and other useful stuff | Index | Vegan and gluten free index.
There are some delightful ‘build your own’ recipes in this book which I quite like (despite never having used). They generally take the form of a series of lists where one is invited to pick an item from each of the lists and hey presto (pesto?), you’ve just birthed a new star. Another form of these build your own sections is a core recipe with a few variations you can make on the theme.
Despite not using these, I nonetheless enjoy them because they provide further insight into how Anna thinks about food. Plus, it’s clever to explore ways of remixing food you’ve cooked from the book already.
The design of the book is tasteful and considered: a readable yet formal font; a scattering of pale green pages (mostly for the build your own type sections talked above), and wonderful, considered photography.
In terms of the recipe format itself, Anna employs generous recipe headnotes: arguably too generous, especially with the rather generous spacing between recipe title and notes (see the picture below). The end result of this formatting is that the recipe is often split across multiple pages, which is slightly inconvenient.
However her writing is clear, and the methods she writes are often simple sentence-long paragraphs which are a real doodle to follow along with while cooking.
There’s a wide array of recipes in this book. Anna has chosen both the modern staples of vegetable-based eating (grain bowls, bakes, composed salads and so on) as well as turned her attention to making more familiar food (tacos, hamburgers and pies) into something with a plant-based focus.
There are some touches that reflect Anna’s clear love for cooking: savoury caramelised corn is paired with sweet, spicy popcorn on a corn tortilla for a delicious corn-on-corn-on-corn taco. Or a panzanella-inspired salad, retooled for autumn by the addition of roasted roots (and the subtraction of tomatoes).
On occasion her recipes need a bit of tweaking: a dish of noodles, tofu and vegetables neglects to apply any love or attention to the vegetables. While easily remedied, these are a sign that you cannot check out and have to be paying attention as you cook.
In terms of hits-to-misses this book knocks it out of the park. Only one dish bombed: a salad of pumpkin, raddichio with an insipid date and balsamic dressing. The majority of food we’ve cooked from this book has been deeply enjoyable. In fact, there are recipes in this book that we’ve cooked 5-10+ times, which giving our habit of not cooking the same thing even a few times is significant.
Of course, there’s some selection bias here in that we’ve avoided cooking some of the more novel recipes. A pizza with a base made from cauliflower and ground almonds sounds a little absurd, while the goodwill rainbow pie just looks like slightly too much work. And the less said about cashew and chestnut bangers the better, I believe.
The food in this is never more complicated than it should be. The results are often more impressive than you’d expect. A cookbook needs to let you create food that is more impressive than what you might otherwise be capable of. This book succeeds in that it lets you create meal after meal which just ticks all the right boxes.
A sample of what we’ve cooked:
- Dosa-spiced potato cakes with quick cucumber pickle: comforting yet made interesting through generous indian spices and a fresh, clean pickle
- Killer smoked tofu club sandwich: club sandwiches are a pet obsession of mine, and while this one won’t replace my go to (inspired by Neil Perry’s Qantas First Lounge version) it does serve the same cause very well
- Walnut miso broth with udon noodles: elegant, with a savoury depth – Japanese but something more at the same time
- Sweet tomato and black bean tortilla bowls: what might otherwise be yet another vegetarian chilli is saved through the addition of roasted sweet potato and cherry tomatoes. The end result is a range of textures and is morish.
- My ribollita: since discovering this recipe (an incredibly powerful combination of tomato, kale, bread and olive oil) I’ve pretty much never thought about my old favourite Italian soup, the minestrone
- California miso, avocado and butter bean salad: as you eat you recognise this as being something you might have, in darker days, made fun of. The end result is delicious and again reflects the very savvy way Anna approaches texture
- Dhal with crispy sweet potato and quick-coconut chutney: there’s a recognition in this book that you can’t be lazy in making this sort of food. While others might have been tempted to call it quits with the dhal alone, the chutney brings vitality and zing.
- Avocado and lemon zest spaghetti: not fantastic. I remember with generous stirring the end dish became sort of spaghetti cloaked in a green mush.
- Kale and black sesame sushi bowl: a stand out recipe in so many ways. Easy, delicious, rewarding. I’d happily eat it again and again. The rice is dressed in a citrus soy dressing and is very good.
- Tomato and coconut cassoulet: comforting and rich, this cassoulet feels both exotic and familiar at the same time, which is quite the magic trick. It has the deep, sticky savouriness that you might associate with the pan juices from a roast chicken.
- Mac and greens: the love child of pesto and mac and cheese (although without the cheese in this case).
Why this book?
- You want to eat more plants, less animals (but don’t want to give up big flavours and satisfying meals)
- You want to be able to throw a bunch of virtuous hashtags on your food photos
- You like food that borrows inspiration from a whole bunch of different sources
|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|||||||||A wet dog||And does it just spark joy?|
This was one of the best books of 2014. You should buy it!