Cornersmith — Alex Elliott-Howery

Confession time: I shy away from cookbooks associated with a particular place, be it a restaurant or cafe.

Most of the time they are intended more as coffee table books—things to drool over—rather than practical manuals for cooking. The design of these books recalls the art gallery gift store book: glossy and oversized. Something to admire rather than something to bring into the kitchen.

Some of these place inspired cookbooks do have a practical bent. Even so, their recipes are often complex and unwieldy, famously requiring pages and pages of sub-recipes. Yes, you can replicate a dish, but you’ll wish you had a sous chef and access to a commercial kitchen. They are more culinary reference materials than anything you might turn to for a weeknight dinner.

But every once in awhile, a place inspired cookbook pulls off a magic trick: they contain practical recipes that do not require days of kitchen labour and they invoke the spirit of the place. It is a fiendishly tough balancing act. Few books manage to pull it off.

Cornersmith is a delightful cafe in Marrickville, a Sydney inner-suburb. It is famous for its seasonal, low-fi approach to food. The food makes good use of a wide variety of in-house made pickles, condiments, and preserves.

The cafe (since expanded to include a picklery and another cafe a few suburbs over) is always busy, and the food is always delicious: fresh, vibrant, hearty and deeply satisfying. Cornersmith rose to popularity without the gimmicks that some cafes use to build buzz. It’s one of the Sydney food places that I miss most.

It was then with great excitement when I got word that a Cornersmith cookbook was in the works. A few months later I went to a book demonstration at cookbook heaven, Books for Cooks. I picked up my copy on the night and met one of the authors, Alex Elliott-Howery.

The food in the book is arranged around two main themes: food from the cafe and recipes from the picklery (that is things in jars).

While I always loved pickles, and had dabbled in the vinegary arts previously, it was not until this book that I started making pickles at home. And not just quick fridge pickles (quickles), but full on canned pickles (and chutneys and salsas and so on).

Structure and Design

Hardback. No ribbon.

271 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Spring
  2. Summer
  3. Autumn
  4. Chocolate (just kidding—it’s Winter)
  5. Preserving
  6. Recipe basics, About Cornersmith and Index

The design of the book is very much Murdoch_Books_Cookbook.indesign. This isn’t a bad thing, per se. It is, however, an unavoidable observation that all Murdoch Books cookbooks look identical.

So, we have full page photos with a sizeable white border, sans serif fonts, generous use of white space, and the occasional double page spread of photos to break up the format. It is a design that feels a little static and staid: both qualities that Cornersmith itself effortlessly avoids.

The recipe format is workable: headnote, ingredients, and then chunky paragraph steps. Elliott-Howery avoids a lot of repetition by putting certain technical instructions relating to canning (how to sterilise your jars, packing techniques, waterbath instructions and so on) at the back of the book.

The photography is generous and inviting yet at the sametime feels a little generic. Again, I wish it managed to capture more of the feeling and personality of Cornersmith.

As for the writing, it shows a thoughtfulness and hints at the personality that has made Cornersmith so popular and engaging. That said, the writing is largely kept clear and practical in tone and language. This was the right decision and makes the book and its recipes more accessible. Readers get more of a sense of the people behind Cornersmith in a series of small essays scattered throughout the book.

Thoughts

It is fair to consider the two thematic halves of the book: the food and the pickles.

The food first. For a place inspired cookbook to succeed it needs to succeed in two regards:

  1. Is the food delicious on its own merits? That is, does the recipe stand on its own merits?
  2. Does the food capture the essence of food from that particular place?

In looking at the first question: yes, the food is often quite good. Hooray! The recipies sit within the context of what you would expect from modern progressive inner-city cafes in Australia. It is pleasingly vegetable and fruit driven, with meat being used sparingly or as the occasional accent.

The enjoyment of the food from the book is not contingent on knowledge of Cornersmith. There’s enough original and interesting ideas in the book for it to stand on its own feet. The book does a tremendous job at creating a snapshot of Sydney food in the 2010s. This is a real achievement.

It is harder to answer the second question of ‘Does the food capture the Cornersmith spirit?’ To some degree, yes: the recipes clearly reflect the tastes and preferences of those who work at the cafe. Recipes often feature bright, clean flavours and make heavy use of pickles, vinegar and citrus juice. It is confident and honest food.

But the Cornersmith cafes are not successful just because their recipes are creative and fresh. They are successful because of their commitment to outstanding fruit and vegetables (often sourced from the amateur farmers in the community via their trade system) and excellent meat and cheese from top-notch providers.

And this is where place inspired cookbooks fall down. Restaurants can simply get better (read fresher or higher quality) produce and supplies than all but the most motivated (and the most financially well resourced) home cook.

I guarantee that despite my very best efforts, I was not cooking Cornersmith’s recipes with the same calibre of ingredients. And this begins to explain the disconnect that I experience in cooking from place inspired cookbooks.

As a result, the recipes sometimes lack that Cornersmith feel. They are good recipes, but they do not always summon the spirit of Cornersmith. Certainly, cooking from the book has not helped me miss the cafe any less.

And this is one of the main reasons why so many place inspired cookbooks fall flat. They cannot recreate the complex web of reasons that drive our affectation for our favourite cafes and restaurants. Without those factors (the location, the ambience or design, the friends behind the counter and so on), you’re left with just some food in a bowl. In the very best place inspired cookbooks this might be enough to trigger those memories. Yet the Cornersmith book does not quite get there.

So, on to the second part of the book: the pickles and other things for jars. Here, the book really shines. I’ve made quite a few of the different pickles, chutneys, and relishes. The results have all been singularly impressive.

If your mental image of pickles is the solitary coin on a fast food cheeseburger, then there’s a whole world waiting for you. The pickles from the Cornersmith cookbook are impressive, delicious and much easier to make than you might think.

It’s easy to get smug in the world of cooking. Take it from me! But, I tell you, I have never felt more on top of my life then I do when I have a pantry filled with the jars containing delicious pickles and so on.

Pickles are less dependent on having exceptional quality produce to start off with. That’s not to say garbage in, gold out. A garbage cucumber will give you a garbage pickle and there’s no turning back a rotten tomato. However a mediocre cucumber can become pretty special through the magic of pickling. The food recipies on Cornersmith, however, cannot shine with anything less than exceptional produce.

I was excited to see that production has finished on a second cookbook. My hope is that it will focus more on pickles, and perhaps have another crack at finding a way of allowing people to recreate that signature Cornersmith magic.

Here’s some of what I’ve made (and pickled) from this book:

  • Red cabbage, pickled corn, chilli and coriander slaw (A smart slaw. The pickled corn adds some interest and I think shows the smart Cornersmith approach to food: when in doubt, add a pickled element.) 
  • Green bean, baby cos, nashi pear salad with miso dressing (A perfect summer salad: an excellent combination of tastes and textures with a knock out miso dressing. Also, nashi pears are fantastic.)
  • Tomato and eggplant chutney (I have made this recently, so it is currently maturing in my pickle cupboard. The small amount that was leftover after I packed the rest into jars was quite tasty and recalled a nice kasundi.)
  • Bread and butter cucumber pickles (After weeks of waiting, I cracked the first jar of these open. Potentially the best pickle I have eaten. Sweet, savoury, sour, crispy, tangy. The perfect compliment to your meal. Or nice just gobbled up, standing by the fridge.)
  • Fermented pineapple and chilli sambal (This was the first ferment I made. It’s a little frightening and without the comforts of boiling the heck out of something for 10 minutes, as you do with other pickles. Despite my slight fear, the results were spectacular: an intense salty/sour pineapple taste goes well with anything that needs a punch.)
  • Dilly beans (The very first thing I made from this book: I loved these guys. Crispy, sour, garlicky pickles just are perfect and a great addition to many meals.) 
  • Potato salad (Just like the slaw above, the signature Cornersmith approach of adding pickled elements elevates a familiar classic to something more remarkable. I do think this recipe is not written as carefully as it could be. My salad was almost soaking wet with the dressing.) 
  • Corn salsa (This jarred salsa strikes me as a fancy version of the corn relish you might find in a supermarket. That is to say, super delicious, surprisingly versatile and cheerfully yellow.)
  • Roasted spiced cauliflower salad (A little work, but the results are worth it. If you ever need to show off everything a cauliflower is capable of then this is the dish.)

Why this book?

  • You have been to Cornersmith and want to recreate some of the magic
  • You love pickles and want to make some at home
  • You want good recipes inspired by a popular Sydney cafe  (even if those recipes do not fully capture the magic of the place itself)

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 ░░░░ Green capsicums And does it just spark joy?

If you love pickling you should buy this book. If you want a snapshot of Sydney cafe culture, likewise. If you are looking for a general cookbook, and you have never visited Cornersmith, I would look for something else.

Small Victories — Julia Turshen

Anyone who is a collector is motivated by love. That once in a hundred feeling of stumbling across the one. The one that reminds you what drew you to building and maintaining this collection in the first place.

This feeling–a quickening of the pulse, a feeling of sheer luck–is exciting because of its rarity. If every new item to a collection inspired such extreme feelings, the net result would be indifference and boredom.

You have to acknowledge and accept the examples that are fine, okay, and bravely acceptable as they provide the backdrop for the truly exceptional titles to shine.

I will stop being coy and cut to the chase: I love Small Victories by Julia Turshen. It is my favourite new cookbook in a while. It does so many smart things that it makes other cookbooks seem insubstantial and superficial in comparison.

The extent to which I have fallen for this book is especially interesting when I consider that this was a title I was going to pass by. Why? Well, I know you should never judge a book by it’s cover, but I totally did with this one. The gingham trim, the sort of boring chicken soup, and my gut feeling that the small victories would really just be useless recirculated advice all lead to the conclusion that this one was safe to skip.

I am not even sure why I did actually buy it. At any rate, what matters now is that it has entered my life and I am the richer for it.

Structure and Design

Hardback. No ribbon.

303 pages across the following chapters:

  1. Foreword (by INA “USE A GOOD OLIVE OIL” GARTEN!)/Introduction
  2. Breakfast
  3. Soups + Salads
  4. Vegetables
  5. Grains, Beans + Pasta
  6. Meat + Poultry
  7. Shellfish + Fish
  8. Desserts
  9. A few drinks + some things to keep on hand
  10. Seven Lists
  11. Menu Suggestions, Give Back, Acknowledgements, Index

I have already talked a bit about the cover. Despite how much I love this book, I think the cover fails to match the tone and content of the book. The gingham spine is particularly misleading: it suggests a sort of old fashioned family classics like approach. The chicken soup, while attractive, is potentially the most boring dish from the book. The embossed titled is sort of corny. It’s just not a good cover.

Yet things improve immediately when you open the book. The end paper is this perfect cheerful yellow. Think of the yellow of a post-it note (let’s talk sponsorship, 3M?) only intensified by a hundred.  You continue to flick through the book and the impressions of the cover are quickly dispelled. This is a thoroughly modern cookbook, both in design and content. Yet the books modernity does not equal faddishness or tedious adherence to flavours-of-the-month.

The recipe format is a basic one and works reasonably well. A generous recipe headnote is a vehicle for Turshen to give a bit of context to the recipe as well as provide a series of small victories. These small victories are the central conceit behind the book: they are little juicy nuggets of advice or guidance. In an author without Turshen’s experience or passion they would be useless and a waste of time. However Turshen has been a private chef, a recipe developer for scores of cookbooks, and genuinely loves food and cooking. As a result these tips are useful, sometimes almost to the degree of being revolutionary.

Under the headnote comes the list of ingredients, split across three columns. Given that I have professed my love for this book, I feel comfortable in sharing another (minor) criticism: this way of listing ingredients is awful! The horizontal space it consumes means you cannot get an at-a-glance sense of what the recipe needs. It doesn’t allow for clustering like ingredients. It is a bad choice.

The recipe method is immediately below, and consists of paragraph long chunks split across two columns. This works much better than the ingredient list. The column size and paragraph length are perfectly calibrated to be consumable in a quick glance.

And on, say every second recipe, there is a little box that gives you a few different variations on the recipe (or in some cases a whole new mini recipe). Again, this is something that in the hands of a lesser author would be a waste of space. However these are genius and drastically increase how useful this book is. It is also a great way of teaching creativity and of building kitchen improvisation skills.

I am torn by the photography. It’s by ‘Gentl + Hyers’ which I can only assume is some sort of industrial lifestyle photography group operating out of an artisanal barn somewhere. It is often very good–the lighting is delicious–but it sometimes verges on being an unconscious parody of the Food52 style of photography.

The real weakness in the photography is that the book features a lot of photographs of ingredients rather than the finished dish itself. While I enjoy pictures of corn and of bowls of lentils, I am more curious to know what a finished dish might look like. It’s a curious choice of art direction, certainly.

Thoughts

The magic of this book was not apparent from reading it. The recipes looked, well, fine. Perhaps even a little simple. So it was with a bit of trepidation that we cooked the first few things from this book.

The results were exceptional. We were not sure what to think or to trust that something special was going on. As we ate we looked at each other and had conversations: “This is good, right? Like really good” “Can’t talk. Eating.”

So we cooked more and the good results continued time and time again. Eventually we relaxed and realised that those first few recipes weren’t a fluke, but simply characteristic of the smart way Turshen approaches recipe writing. The recipes make the most of her extensive experience in a way that not every cookbook author can manage. Quite frankly, I’m in awe of the magic she achieves with such concision, warmth and elegance.  In this book, Turshen has set a new benchmark for this style of cookbook. I really hope that she writes another.

While I could explore the catalogue of cookbooks she has worked on, I sense there’s something special and personal about this, the first cookbook published under her own name.

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far (sometimes I say so far knowing I’ll probably never come back to the book. In this case it is an accurate statement of intent):

  • with Roasted Tomato Salsa (I had chilaquiles for breakfast at a cafe once and was not too impressed. Had my first experience of the dish been with these I would have been a convert a lot quicker. The salsa that forms the base for this dish is really incredible. A small victory from me is to forego making your own tortilla chips and use some from a bag.)
  • Sour cream pancakes with roasted blueberries (I must have put slightly more baking soda than was called for because these had a faint, almost ghostly, metallic aftertaste. Still, once I get the quantities right, this will become my new go to pancake recipe. The roasted blueberries are the perfect addition.)
  • Aunt Renee’s Chicken Soup (the only clear miss from the book: this was just bland and insubstantial. Given the good rap Turshen gives it, I’m almost convinced I missed a step or my chicken was defective.) 
  • Bibb Lettuce with Garlic Dressing (an addition to my repertoire of go-to dressings. It’s essentially a basic mustard vinaigrette but with the addition of crushed garlic that gently pickles in the vinegar.) 
  • Julia’s Caesar (again, you get such a sense of Turshen’s experience and appreciation for maximal flavour with minimal effort: by using mayonnaise as the base, you get a quick tasty caesar dressing dressing without the potential concern of raw egg yolk.) 
  • Zucchini, red onion & pistachio salad (fantastic and nuanced textures combine to make a really glamorous and sophisticated salad. It is quick to make but looks and tastes much more impressive than the sum of its parts) 
  • Tin-Foil Kale & Cherry Tomatoes (potentially the stand out recipe from the book: you simply wrap kale, tomatoes and garlic into a foil parcel and then apply heat. The results are incredible and would convert anyone to kale. The perfect side dish.)
  • String Beans with Pork, Ginger & Red Chile (the culinary palette of the book stirs more to new-American, however I quite love the Asian inflections to some of the recipes. This is a fine rendition of a Chinese classic, yet one that won’t set the world on fire.) 
  • Kinda, sorta patatas bravas (see comments above about maximal flavour for minimal effort. These crispy potatoes go fantastically with a punchy tomato aioli. This would be a genius idea for a party.) 
  • Roasted Scallion + Chive Dip (I could eat a whole bowl of this. It is a super fantastic onion-y dip. And again demonstrates how well Turshen understands how to create flavour but also make food people want to eat. Oh it was good. And I got misty eyed with affection when she suggested you serve this dip with salt and vinegar crisps.) 
  • Kimchi Fried Rice with Scallion Salad (While I would have preferred this with brown rice—which stands up to the assertiveness of the kimchi better than milquetoast white rice—it was perhaps the best kimchi fried rice I have made. The scallion salad is a perfect addition and prevents the dish from being too one note.) 
  • Chopped Chickpea Salad (Simple perhaps to a fault, despite the off-piste addition of sizzled chorizo. Our go to chopped salad is slightly more involved, but more enjoyable: Neil Perry’s Rockpool Bar and Grill chopped salad)
  • Orecchiette with Spicy Sausage + Parmesan (*love heart eye emoji* forever) 
  • A Nice Lasagne (this is a smart way of making lasagne with a tenth of the overall time and effort. The result is evocative enough of the full on lasagne bolognese to be satisfying and delightful.) 
  • Greek-ish Grilled Shrimp (this is a simple recipe. In fact, I was almost tempted not to make this recipe because of how simple it seems. Not making this recipe, however, would have denied us a real treat. Elegant and robust.)
  • Cold Elixir (I unexpectedly had an opportunity to try this. I swear there’s a magic in it as it actually made me feel a better as I suffered with a summer cold.) 

Why this book?

  • You love smart, clever cookbooks that somehow pull off quick AND delicious
  • You are willing to overlook a misleading cover
  • You want a book that provides real inspiration and encourages creativity

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 summer cold And does it just spark joy?

You must buy and cook from this brilliant book! I love it and I am sure you will too.