Hello, 2017!

Happy New Year!

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

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

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

Thanks for all your support so far!

Neighbourhood — Hetty McKinnon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure

Softcover.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far:

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

Why this book?

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

Score

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

 

You probably should buy this book.

Stirring Slowly — Georgina Hayden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure

Hardback. White placeholder ribbon—always appreciated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far:

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

Why this book?

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

Score

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

 

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

World of Cookbooks

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

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

A Modern Way to Eat — Anna Jones

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 EatWhatever 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.

Structure

Hardback.

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.

Thoughts

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

Score

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

This was one of the best books of 2014. You should buy it!

And consider buying a copy from Amazon using this link.

Seven Spoons — Tara O’Brady

Seven Spoons knows how we like to cook and eat: borrowing liberally from multiple cuisines, a focus on flavour and achievable results. This book is fantastic.

I have a confession to make: I think authors of cooking blogs tend to make really good cookbooks. Given the immense competition in the space, one has to have a certain extra element to shine brightly enough to attract an audience.

However, some cooking bloggers tend to chase the audience a little too hard: so we see a whole lot of recycled garbage depending on whatever is popular in a week. To put it another way: it is not honest food, and it is not the food people should actually eat.

There are a handful of examples that to describe with the phrase ‘blogger’ is reductive. People who fall into this small group are undeniably first tier food writers (and often incredible photographers and marketers and business people.)

Tara O’Brady is one of these people. It is, then, no surprise that her 2015 best-seller Seven Spoons (from the blog under the same name) is a delightful cookbook and one that makes me happy whenever I have occasion to read or cook from it.

The book presents eclectic recipes that is exactly the sort of food you want to eat: driven by flavour, approachable rather than fussy, and constantly impressive.

Structure

286 pages split across the following chapters: Breads & Breakfast | Lunches | Soups, Starters & Snacks | Suppers | Vegetables & Sides | Sweets, Treats & Sips | Staples.

I haven’t spoken about this yet, but I really love a table of contents that lists the recipes under the chapter headings (as opposed to just the bare headings). I first noticed this in Ottolenghi’s Plenty and have fallen in love with every single book that has done it since.  It’s a great way of finding a recipe and understanding the context of a book.

Tara happily dispenses with any sort of page fillers (like a conversion table, oh brother, or a Sources section which I riled against last week). Instead space is wisely devoted to an extended introduction, written in her incredibly warm and intimate voice, and then a useful discussion of some key ingredients.

The recipe format is elegant, although the text is perhaps a little on the tiny size. Tara’s clear writing makes it easy enough to follow her instructions, although given how much white space is on each page I think the text could have been sized larger (or spaced looser). Of course, it’s almost admitting to be a philistine to say white space should ever be sacrificed.

I expect a fair bit from photography (not because I think it is easy, but because there’s so much fantastic food photography out there, so one either has to rise to the occasion or yield the floor) and this book exceeds those expectations.

The photography is gorgeous: and made even more so when you consider Tara herself took all the pictures. Her sense of composition results in quite dynamic photos; moreover she has such an appreciation for texture. She has excellent taste and the execution and design of the book is a testament to that taste.

(I did, as legally obliged, take a shot of whisky when I came across the picture above of a salad resting against some Carrara marble, the absolute shibboleth of those who write about food on the internet).

Thoughts

Were the food from Seven Spoons awful, you could almost still recommend this book: her writing, photography and design is enough to make it enjoyable. Of course, though, the food is just so good (which is another thing I like about the best internet food writers: all their recipes have a sense of being refined and improved again and again until just right.)

The tagline of the book is ‘…recipes for any and every day’ and this certainly rings true: the food feels quotidian (and not in the pejorative sense, but rather this is food for our everyday life).

I think the inclusion of a Lunch chapter is testament to this approach of creating simple yet well executed food that is suitable everyday. There is an undeniable sense that this is the food Tara herself eats and shares with her friends and family.

Here’s what we’ve cooked:

  • Messy Bistro Salad with Spanish-Fried Egg and crispy Capers: We make this every few weeks and it is almost my favourite salad: crispy, salty, oozy
  • Glazed eggplant with roasted shallots and greens: A nice take on nasu dengaku
  • Baked-Eggs, North Indian-Style: An excellent option for any meal
  • Mushrooms and greens with toast: The chilli and taleggio elevate this to almost art
  • A burger treated like a steak: A show stopper of a burger: rich, decadent and just right for when a meat-focussed burger is called for
  • Naan: Although home made naan will always be a paler shadow, this came close enough
  • Vietnamese-inspired sausage rolls: A clever way of updating the standard sausage roll with the flavours of Vietnam: lemongrass, fish sauce and chilli
  • A pot of braised vegetables: Elegant, restorative, and a clever way of combining a few vegetables
  • Lemon bucatini with roasted kale: I didn’t fall in love with this, although it had promise
  • Speciality restaurant lentil kofta curry: Even though my kofta fell apart, the flavours of this were incredible
  • A refreshing salad with charred green onion dressing: Another favourite salad: the combination of soft lettuce, apple and peppery sprouts is very nice
  • Baked Irish Mash: Open the dictionary to comfort food and you’ll see this recipe
  • Basic, Great Chocolate Chip Cookies: Not the best CC cookies, but far from being forgettable
  • Plum macaroon cake: A cake that would impress Mary and Paul
  • Blueberry poppy seed snacking cake: As delightful as it sounds
  • Blood orange stout cake: The sort of cake you dream about on a cold, wet, rainy day: perfectly dense, sticky, and sweet

Why this book?

  • You like food, or photography, or just things made with love and care
  • You like the idea of cooking flavour driven food
  • You want to spark an expensive ceramics addiction

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straightforward?
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 ||||| An old telephone book And does it just spark joy?

You should buy this book. If you’ve already bought it, buy another copy for a special someone.

Please use this Amazon link if you’d like to buy a copy. 

Bowl — Lukas Volger

In 2016 we all rediscovered that bowls are good for more than just soup, cereal and haircuts. Bowl gives you a convincing argument for throwing away your plates and embracing a bowlful lifestyle.

It can be easy to spot a cookbook that was rushed into production to take advantage of a trend. There is a lack of depth, a lack of consideration from the part of the author. The production value on these books is normally subpar and the whole thing feels a little sad.

I have to apologise to Lukas for assuming Bowl was an example of this sort of book when I first came across it. All the signs that normally make me quite weary were present: soft cover, an author I didn’t recognise, not an extensive volume of reviews on Amazon.

Yet as we’ve cooked more and more from this book I’ve come to appreciate the joy of having your expectations challenged and blown away. The recipes are often thoughtful, surprising, achievable and delicious.

Yes, it is zeitgeisty, but this is not at the expense of creating food that you’ll think about and recipes that you’ll make again and again. Your bowls will be filled with seasonal takes on bibimbap one night, to a rich wonton soup the next night. The recipes often provide for excellent leftovers, so today’s joyful dinner can become tomorrow’s pleasing lunch (spare a thought for one’s colleagues, eating the same sweaty plastic wrapped enrobed sandwich day-in, day-out).

Structure

255 pages split across the following chapters: Introduction | Tools and Ingredients | Ramen and other wheat noodle bowls | Pho, Bibimbap, and other rice noodle and rice bowls | Grain bowls | Dumpling bowls | Basics and components | Sources | Index.

Let me briefly rile against the sadly standard Sources chapter. These chapters purport to be a useful resource for finding obscure or speciality ingredients. In practice, they are manifestly useless unless you both happen to be living in the country where the book was published and don’t mind paying for $10 shipping on a $5 ingredient. It’s, I suppose, meant to be a thoughtful addition, yet is sadly a waste of space.

The recipe format is a little odd: most recipes go over multiple pages, so the photo of the dish you’re making is often 2 pages away from the start of the recipe. Each recipe has a generous headnote which are often reasonably dry, yet still provide some useful context or further instruction to the recipe. The instructions are clear and functional (albeit often split across two pages, which I find awkward to handle while cooking.

The photography is workmanlike: a few examples shine but others are far less memorable. Most photos are full-bleed and are useful for determining what the end product should (or could?) look like.

Thoughts

Bowl manages to produce bowl after bowl of excellent food. The recipes are so clearly the result of being cooked and refined by the author over a period of time.

The format of bowl food (grain/rice + a variety of toppings + sauce/garnish) is a useful one, but the sheer number of potential options can be overwhelming. It is useful to have someone else do the leg work on finding combinations that work well.

The steps are written well enough that even a beginner cook would be able to execute something pleasing. And once you build up confidence, you can begin to combine different elements of recipes to produce new and exciting bowls of food.

Here’s some of what we’ve cooked:

  • Vegetarian curry laksa
  • Black sesame noodle bowl
  • Spring bibimbap
  • Spicy tofu bibimbap
  • Roasted vegetable bibimbap
  • Ginger-scallion rice bowl
  • Spicy Carrot Dumplings
  • Savoury fall dumplings

 

Why this book?

  • You want to have an excuse to buy more ceramics
  • You want achievable, delicious bowl food
  • You appreciate no-fuss straight forward cookbooks

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Ina Garten Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straightforward?
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 ||||| An old boot And does it just spark joy?

You should buy this book.

Buy a copy of Bowl via Amazon and help me review more books! 

Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes — Peter Meehan

101 Easy Recipes is a fun collection of Asian recipes written in Lucky Peachy’s signature style.

One of the best food magazines out there, Lucky Peach, has since published a few cookbooks. 101 Easy Asian Recipes was the first and is something I’ve cooked from quite a lot since its release in September 2015. As you can tell from the cover (and if you’re familiar with the Lucky Peach schtick), this is not the book that tries to be an exhaustive study of the food of one particular region of, say, Thailand.

It is a delightful bastardisation and amalgamation of recipes from all over the Asian continent: one page will give you a recipe for a rice paper roll, the next miso baked fish and then there’ll be a delightful recipe for kung pao shrimp.

The question of authenticity in food is a complex one: this book so cheerfully side skips this debate and positions itself as being entirely concerned with what is going to be the best and tastiest combination of food you can make. It’s not nuanced food, but it is often creative, delicious and as the title suggests, simple to prepare.

The aesthetic of the book is brilliant: it recalls a style of food photography that is so long gone. Harsh studio lighting; incredibly tacky backgrounds and props out the whazoo. And I couldn’t love it more. As much as we love the modern formula of natural light + ceramics + overhead (or straight on but with ultra shallow depth of field) = food photo, there is something so freeing about going completely in the other direction.

Structure

272 pages split across the following chapters: Introduction | Cold Dishes, Apps, and Pickly Bits | Breakfast | Pancakes | Soups and Stews | Noodles | Roces | Warm Vegetables | Chicken | Meats | Seafood | Super Sauces | Desserts

The book ends with a conversion table, which would be useful if Siri is down and you need to convert something (I guess).

While I normally find the usual padding at the start of cook books to be fairly unremarkable, 101 Easy Asian Recipes features a helpful Pantry section. Broken into Basic, Intermediate and Champion these allow you to head to the Asian grocery with a little more confidence. (Lucky Peach has very helpfully replicated this on their website: Basic, Intermediate, and Champion)

There’s a degree of variation in how recipes are presented, although most are broken down into a list of ingredients, numbered paragraph method followed by a little description towards the bottom of the page. Most recipes are given generous full-bleed photos.

The instructions are clear and concise and manage to avoid being robotic: there’s a degree of personality. Thankfully, the formatting means following along as you’re cooking is quite simple.

Thoughts

I love this book, but not every recipe has been an unqualified success. Of the list below, the kimchi pancake was a complete failure (in cooking disasters it can be unclear if the fault lies with the cookbook or the cook, but reader beware).

The book bills itself as based around easy recipes, but quite a few recipes are highly technique-based. As a result the beginner (or even intermediate) cook is bound to have a few oopsa-daisies. The end product might still be tasty, but will not quite satisfy.

A sample of what we’ve cooked:

  • Summer rolls
  • Spicy celery salad
  • St Paul Sandwich
  • Kimchi Pancake (third picture below)
  • Economy Noodles
  • Jap chae
  • Pad see ew
  • Spicy mushroom ragu
  • Omurice
  • Mall Chicken (first picture below)
  • Carrot-ginger dressing

Despite these somewhat mixed feelings, I keep coming back to this book (and will be cooking from it tonight). The standard for inclusion in the classics library is whether or not one still uses it when the initial new-cookbook joy falls off. The answer in this case is yes. At its best this book is witty, tasty and does present easy Asian food.

Why this book? 

  • You like the Lucky Peach magazine
  • You don’t require strict authenticity and don’t mind the grab-bag approach to recipe curation
  • You’re willing to put up with a few mistakes here and there
  • You have a secret fondness for food court Chinese food

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Ina Garten Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straightforward?
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 ||||| An old boot And does it just spark joy?

You should buy this book: just make sure your expectations are calibrated.

Buy a copy via Amazon and add to my cookbook budget!