I possess a fondness for the annual tradition of the gift guide.
Not because I find these useful tools in purchasing gifts for those I love (or at least, in the case of the obligatory work Secret Santa, tolerate) but because I am interested in the act of curation, of what is suggested and what is abandoned.
In that spirit, please allow me to offer a scrupulous selection of items to assist in creating, if not joy, than at least quiet satisfaction for both you and the object of your generosity.
A recommendation for all
Small Victories by Julia Turshen. This remains one of my most fondly regarded cookbooks. I continue to cook from it. I continue to think it is one of the finest cookbooks I have come across. I have not yet had the opportunity to form a relationship with Ms Turshen’s new book, Feed the Resistance, but I have heard wonderful things.
A duo of recommendations for harried souls
A New Way to Dinner. This book was the thing that finally convinced me to start our meal preparations on the weekend, thus freeing up a lot of time during the week. The recipes are solid, but the real point of this book is getting you into the habit of making hay while the sun shines.
Simple by Diana Henry. This elegant, thoughtful book contains strong and rewarding recipes that reference global flavours and clever techniques. Even more pleasingly, the recipes in the book are accessible and practical, even in the context of the clutter of the midweek. Ms Henry is an excellent author, and passionate lover of food.
Resources for the vegetable focused
Power Vegetables by Peter Meehan. This book, from the now sadly extinct Lucky Peach brand, is a smart and playful way of looking at vegetable based food. It does an appealing job of recontextualizing familiar recipes. It is also quite fun, in both writing and design, and would lead to some happy gift-giving day conversations.
On the Side by Ed Smith. Ignore the suggestion to just view this book as a book of sides. Instead, treat this book as an impressive collection of vegetable focussed recipes that work as well as the star of your meal as they do in concert with something else from the book. The design of this book is exceptional.
Final areas to investigate
As much as I would like to, the barriers of reality prevent me from reviewing every cookbook I come across. There are always a few titles that I am keen to see receive some attention and support.
Allow me to highlight a few titles that while not reviewed here, are promising and worthy of further investigation.
Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh
This beautiful cookbook is completely impractical to review: we would die from sugar induced madness long before we had cooked even a fraction of recipes. The recipe we have made, and the feedback from trusted friends, allow me comfortably suggest this as an excellent addition to the library of anyone interested in baking or sweet things more generally.
Dining In by Alison Roman
Disclaimer: I have not cooked a single recipe from this book. Yet. I have, however, mentally marked almost every recipe as being worth of cooking. Were it not for this and the general vibe of the book I would not have the audacity to suggest this title to you.
But I feel very excited about this book. It excites me in the same way Small Victories excites me: it is one of those rare books which perfectly intersects a lot of modern thinking and approaches to food, and does so with style and confidence. I cannot wait to cook extensively from this book.
River Cafe 30 by Ruth Rogers et al
I rarely buy books on the sole basis of how beautiful they are. And yet I fell utterly in love with the celebratory reissue of the iconic River Cafe cookbook and could not resist. This book is an utter riot of colour, playfulness, and joy.
Imagine my delight, then, when in concordance with the impressive reputation River Cafe posses, the recipes turned out to be some of the most thoughtful, considered Italian food you are likely to come across. We cooked the baked ricotta recently and I am still, tuning fork like, vibrating with delight.
The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater
December is, despite the reality of an Australian summer, the best time of year. It is a time of celebration, of reflection, of hope and of love. Since I was a child—and one with a very serious desire to receive a briefcase as a Christmas present—it has always been my favourite time of year.
The inimitable Mr Slater agrees: The Christmas Chronicles is a resolute love letter to what is, for many, the pinnacle day of the year. I am excited to return to this book in the middle of the year for a reminder that joy is always at hand.
Diana Henry should be far more popular. I get the sense that outside of the UK, she is not as known or appreciated as she could be. This is not to say she languishes in complete obscurity outside the UK. Indeed, a glowing New York Times piece covered her output, something which is prodigious in both quantity and quality. Those that do speak of Diana Henry do so in reverent and knowing tones.
If I had to describe Diana Henry—and, I admit, writing a review does leave one with such a duty—I would liken her to another leading light of the food world: Nigella Lawson. I think both authors share a general approach and have similar writing styles. Indeed, the sticker on the cover of my copy of Simple certainly invites you to draw this parallel and make a such comparison.
I hesitate to say this because of my immense fondness and respect for Nigella, but Diana writes better recipes. And I think also has a more confident and modern palette and approach to food. I own all of Nigella’s books (perhaps when I get over my last every book from author x roundup I will do another one) and yet rarely cook from them. I only own a few of Diana’s recent books yet have cooked a fair amount from them all—and have loved everything I have made.
Simple is Diana’s 9th book and is, I think, the strongest. The focus of the book is, as the title suggests, a collection of recipes that strive for maximum flavour at minimum fuss.
This is one of the key trends in contemporary food writing. Everyone, apparently, is super busy. And no one wants to open a cookbook that is filled with labour intensive recipes (or, even worse, sub-recipes!) The result is a proliferation of books aimed at cutting down the time one spends in the kitchen.
There are two ways this trend manifests itself: One, the sacrifice approach, results in nonsense books like 15- or 30- minute meals from the once joyful Jamie Oliver. Two, the smart approach, where books try to find smart ways of creating food with minimal labour and angst. Simple, happily, takes the latter approach.
Structure and Design
Hardcover. A glorious ribbon. Given the reported size of Diana’s cookbook collection it is no surprise to see such a thoughtful inclusion.
336 pages split across the following chapters:
Pasta & Grains
Chops & Sausages
Other Sweet Things
The design of the book is simple and elegant. Generous use of white space, elegant typography and restrained photography all combine to suggest a polished, calming book.
It’s something that immediately invites confidence. Nothing in this book tries too hard—instead it is quietly confident. It is Obama, not a certain orange buffoon.
A few days ago on twitter I rallied against a trend in food photography: where a few ingredients of the dish are ‘artfully’ (read: artlessly) scattered around the workstation/bench/table to frame the finished product. So, a roast lamb on a platter might be surrounded by a few rosemary needles and garlic skins. Or an otherwise pristine photograph of a cake on a tray might be ‘enhanced’ by an oh-so-casual scattering of sugar and flour on the table.
A few photos in this book come close to this crime. However, in another demonstration of Diana’s taste, things are arranged to look more documentary than clumsily staged.
The majority of photos in this book are strong. There’s a real consistency between photographs that speaks to a single, compelling vision. The lighting and styling is consistent, but not to the point of monomania. The photos are delightful.
I do think the type sizing is slightly smaller than would be ideal—cookbook designers, I suspect, forget that cookbooks are often used at much greater distance than regular books: so while size 9 type might be perfect in a novel held close to the head, size 9 type in a cookbook is far from ideal. I tend to end up squinting a lot while trying to cook from books like these.
There is a risk that to some the design of this book might feel a little staid. Take the cover of my edition as an example: pork chops in a cream sauce on a wooden table, is a study in various browns and beiges. It is a bold choice if not a bold design. Yet writing off this book as boring or old fashioned would be a great mistake, as it is anything but!
Diana loves food. You cannot avoid that impression. I also think she has a genius approach towards the concept of simple food. Under her expert guidance, simple food is not joyless, lacking food. It is not food that has been dumbed down to the point of becoming bad airline food.
Instead, as the subtitle on the cover proclaims, the book celebrates “effortless food [and] big flavours.” At times, after eating things from this book, I was in a state of disbelief: it had not felt like I had made any obvious sacrifices or compromises, and yet I had only been cooking for a short while minutes and had produced something tremendously exciting.
Diana’s talent (or rather, one of her talents) is an ability to pick apart the core of a recipe and discard anything unnecessary. The results are full in flavour, but without the heartache you might have otherwise suffered.
Simple’s strength is that it is not trying to be a soulless “30 minute recipes” clone. The recipes do occasionally ask for chunks of your time. But rarely is this all active time: it might ask you to roast something in the oven for 45 minutes after say five quick minutes of choppin’ and slicin’. I think this is a perfect trade off.
In fact, some of the happiest hours in my week are when I have something simmering away on the stove, and I have a few minutes to read something or otherwise entertain myself. It feels like joyfully stolen time.
At the risk of pouring further fuel on the hot trash fire of a review linked above, I take exception to any argument that this book is especially British or especially fussy. Diana’s palette is admirably global. The book features recipes inspired by Japanese, Korean, Indian and Mexican cuisines. Yet, I do not feel this has resulted in inaccessible or overly broad ingredient lists.
Similarly, the food is not fussy. Anyone who writes a cookbook review website, and cooks from new recipes more nights than not, is perhaps not best qualified to make the following argument, but here I go: dumbing down food is a bad idea. Dumbing down concepts stops people from ever learning or expanding their horizons. It leads to incurious people with incurious palettes. This leads to people further considering skills in cooking to be unnecessary luxuries, which is by and large the problem we find ourselves in now. This leads to joyless “5 ingredient” cookbooks.
I think Diana’s recipes do not require anyone to be a graduate of culinary school. They do require someone who is willing to try, and to open themselves to potentially doing things in a new way. Call me a fool, but isn’t that just what we ask from our cookbooks? Or that someone more experienced than we are teaches us things?
So, no, the food is not particularly British or boring: I suspect that reviewer was using British as a code for boring. And nor are the recipes fussy. The book lives up to its claim of providing recipes for “effortless food.”
Of course, no cookbook can please everyone. I have found one or two of the recipes in Simple to not appeal to my particular tastes. Diana, it must be noted, does seem quite fond of a creamy dressing. I am a real acid-fiend, so these can feel a little tame and muted to me. However this is easily fixed, and in a way that does not suggest the underlying recipe was fundamentally incorrect.
Here is what we have made so far:
Parsi-style scrambled eggs (it is hard to go back to regular scrambled eggs after eating these, so utterly alive and vibrant)
Griddled courgettes, burrata and fregola (We cooked this quite early on, so I was a little weary, but the end result was texturally diverse and with enough interest to be far more memorable than expected)
Tomatoes, Soft Herbs & Feta with Pomegranate (A perfect dish for warmer weather: it would also make a smashing bruschetta topping.)
Root, shiitake, and noodle salad with miso dressing (an exceptional dressing and a fair salad. The dressing could become a real favourite.)
Cool Greens, Hot Asian Dressing (I am a firm believer in the life affirming powers of a gutsy nuoc cham—and Diana’s version went very well with crisp greens. The avocado was an unexpected but pleasing touch.)
Warm salad of squid, bacon, beans & tarragon (This was let down by the dressing: a muted mixture of cream, oil, tarragon and lemon.)
Mumbai Toastie (I could comfortably eat on this for the rest of my days. The ultimate toasted sandwich. I wonder if I can convince the owner of Melbourne’s best new cafe/bakery to add this to their menu?)
Simple Goan Fish Curry (I was terrified of this for some strange reason, but it turned out to be a highlight. Complex, spicy, aromatic. Very good.)
Pork chops with mustard and capers (I followed Diana’s instructions and bought the best pork I could find, so I don’t know if the recipe was exceptional or the pork was exceptional and the recipe did not get in the way of that. At any rate, I often lay awake at night and think about this.)
Spaghetti with spiced sausage & fennel sauce (There are many sausage pasta recipes out there. Some are good. Some are not. This is my new benchmark. The fennel added a sweetness that made this dish so memorable.)
Korean chicken, gochujang mayo, sweet sour cucumber (Grilled chicken thighs, spicy mayo, refreshing pickled cucumber relish. You could not ask for a more compelling package.)
Chicken with Haricots & Creamy Basil Dressing (Chicken breasts have it tough. And are often tough. However cooked carefully, lovingly, they can be quite special indeed.)
Broccoli with Harissa & Coriander Gremolata (I can always use another trick to dress up old mate broccoli and this was a good trick. Our Harissa was a little mild, so I would have liked this to have a little bit more of a kick.)
Tomatoes, Potatoes & Vermouth with Basil Creme Fraiche (I think the basil creme fraiche does not add a lot to this dish and could safely be omitted. Omitting to make this dish at all would be a shame and deny you an excellent, easy meal.)
Baby potatoes with watercress and garlic cream (Not sold on the dressing in this, I confess.)
Fragrant Sichuan aubergines (A really accessible and really bloody good version of one of the greatest Sichuan dishes: fish fragrant eggplant. I am near to drooling just thinking about how good this was. Fussy English food, indeed not!)
Why this book?
You want to make good food without diving into complex recipes
You have a global palette and get tired of eating the same sort of flavours over and over again
You want to make the best pork chop recipe you will ever come across
Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
And does it just spark joy?
Diana Henry’s work needs to receive greater attention. She has an amazing palette and produces books of quiet confidence. She understand what it is to be a modern home cook, and writes books for that market better than anyone else I know.
Fat Rice — Abraham Conlon, Adrienne Lo & Hugh Amano
Dorie’s Cookies — Dorie Greenspan
Victuals — Ronni Lundy
Taste & Technique — Naomi Pomeroy
In the lead up to this year’s competition the team at Food52 explained they were going with less obvious picks this year (hence no household name, A-list authors).
This is a worthy approach. Cookbooks from superstars sell themselves just fine, one assumes. It’s right to shine a light on authors who while less familiar are still producing wonderful cookbooks.
And yet, and yet.
Aside from one or two titles, this collection feels a little dull. The collective impression is of a group of books that simply will not pass the test of time or become beloved classics. It is trendy ephemera.
This is a major weakness of the Piglet: the books it recommends are quickly forgotten about (barring one or two from each year.) The niche titles do not seem to spark enough joy.
The other major weakness, of course, is system of putting widely divergent books head to head and then trying to determine a winner using a subjective and unreliable metric.
Rather than trying to find the best cookbooks, the real goal of the Food52’s Piglet is to find cookbooks that are most like Food52 itself. More so than ever the books featured seem to solely feature Food52’s aesthetic and approach to food (with one or two token exceptions). Given the diversity of cookbook publishing in 2017, the result is so skewed as to be not representative of what is actually happening in the world of cookbooks.
In the past I have allocated a large amount of my yearly cookbook budget on picking up the featured titles. This has resulted in a lot of unused, flash-in-the-pan books. While there are a few titles on the list above (Diana Henry’s Simple looks fantastic!), I will not be picking up many of these titles.
I will, this year, be a less active follower of the tournament and hope for a better selection next time.