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.

The Zen Kitchen — Adam Liaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure and Design

Hardback.

240 pages split across the following chapters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what we have cooked so far:

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

Why this book?

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

Score

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

 

You should probably buy this book.

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.

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! 

Fresh India — Meera Sodha

Fresh India features incredibly exciting vegetable-based Indian food presented in an attractive and accessible package

Meera Sodha’s new book, Fresh India, is all about vibrant, vegetable-based Indian food. All the food is far away from the image some may have of Indian vegetable dishes: nothing in the book is remotely brown, beige or taupe.

The recipes cover both vegetarian versions of familiar Indian classics (panner standing in for chicken in a butter masala, for instance) as well as dishes that will feel new and fresh to even more experienced fans of Indian food.

Meera’s writing style is immediately accessible and engaging. Her recipes are written with precision and an obvious understanding of how people are cooking (and eating) in 2016. Not all recipes are quick or easy as the cover blurb promises, but the spread covers weeknight dinners as well as things you’d want to cook when you have more time available.

The book, published by Penguin, is delightfully put together. From the shocking fuchsia which lines the front and back covers, to the charming chapter illustrations, the book is clearly the product of a lot of love and effort.

Structure

303 pages split across the following chapters: Introduction | Starters + Snacks | Roots, Squashes, Tubers + Other Things | Gloriously Green | Aubergines | Salads | Eggs + Cheese | Rice | Breads | Pickles, Chutneys + Raitas | Puddings | Drinks.

Scattered throughout the chapters are some ‘value-add’ contents like menu ideas, presentation skills and some information on pulses.

The basic recipe format is a paragraph-long introduction, which is either the context of the dish or a little vignette from Meera’s life, followed by a two column split of ingredients (broken down by ‘part’ of the recipe) and method. The method is written in rather dense paragraphs which are not always easy to follow along, especially in the heat of cooking. Still, Meera’s clear writing means it easy enough to do the needful. The majority of recipes are given a gorgeous full page bordered photo.

Thoughts

The food from the book has been incredible. The dishes walk the delicate line between familiarity and novelty: it is exciting to eat something that is simultaneously comforting and exciting in the same mouthful.

A sample of what we’ve cooked so far:

  • Shredded Roti with red cabbage + carrot
  • Pickled Cauliflower with ginger + lime
  • Courgette kofta in a ginger + tomato sauce
  • Roasted broccoli with almonds + cardamon
  • Shredded Brussels sprout thoran
  • Tamarind + caramelised red onion rice
  • Beetroot raita

Each dish has been delightful. The courgette kofta were particular incredible: alive with spice and grounded by a nutty, gingery, sauce. The beetroot raita she recommends you serve with the kofta was, if not life changing, then certainly condiment changing: grated beetroot is stir fried with sliced garlic. This is tossed through creamy, thick yoghurt before being drizzled with a mustard seed and curry leaf oil. The colour and taste are bold, confident and something you’ll think about for months.

In the few weeks since I’ve had this book I haven’t been able to put it back on the shelf. Every time I open it I find more and more things I want to make.

Meera clearly has a keen understanding of what people are looking for in an Indian cookbook published in 2016. I don’t mean to imply this book is faddish and will be forgotten in a year’s time, but rather it’s positioned to leverage off the themes we see in 2016: instagram ready, vegetable friendly food.

Why this book?

  • You love Indian food but don’t want to eat another lamb saag
  • You want to do something fresh with familiar vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, potato and zucchini
  • You want to make pretty, tasty food that you’ll think about for days

Score

Nigella | | | | | Donna Hay (attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point prose?)
Ottolenghi | | | | | Bittman (elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straightforward?)
Kondo | | | | | anti-Kondo (does it spark joy?)
Jamie Oliver | | | | | Diana Henry (photos of food or photos of the author?)

You should buy this book.