Every Bill Granger Cookbook, Ranked

Bill Granger is the reason this blog exists. He came to me in a dream, dressed in white denim, and after a plate of hotcakes said it would be a totally good idea for me to review cookbooks. I was all, “Thanks dream-Bill!” We high-fived before riding off into the sunset on pistachio Vespas.

Ahem. Let me try again.

Bill Granger’s cookbooks are the reason this blog exists. His collection of cookbooks were my first real cookbook loves. They impressed me with their design, their simple yet flavour-focussed food, and the lifestyle they suggest as being possible. Yes, there were other cookbooks before, and of course many, many since, but these books continue to hold a special place in my collection. Some are exceptional, some are good, and some are better not even mentioned.

Here are Bill Granger’s cookbooks in order of least essential to most essential:

Bill’s Italian Food (2013)

This is the most recent Bill book. Until this book was released in 2013, Bill produced a new book every few years. It has been complete radio silence since then. And I view this book as killing Bill. I can only assume it had mediocre sales and Bill realised he could make much more money with a slowly expanding chain of eponymous restaurants.

Put simply, it’s not very good. The recipes feel uninspired and familiar. The art direction is serviceable but feels forced. By the metric of a book’s quality being somehow proportional to the amount of recipes I have cooked from it, Bill’s Italian Food is the clear runt of the litter.

Bill’s Open Kitchen (2003)

Bill looks very happy on the cover of this book. You are unlikely to look as happy with this book. The food and photography feel ancient, like something from a lost civilisation.

Look, it’s not entirely bad. With some work and a little love, the recipes are going to be salvageable. Yet, in light of the Bill books to come, I do not know why anyone would bother with this one.

Bill’s Sydney Food (2000)

Bill’s first book, this book has a lot of the classic Bill recipes. With the distance of 17 years, I feel comfortable labelling this book as something that has not aged entirely well. There’s a lot of goats cheese and balsamic and hints at the Asian vibe that Bill will later adopt in a more committed way.

Calling it dated is almost too heavy a charge. It’s more that it is quite simple and unadventurous. Our collective culinary appetites and capabilities have improved significantly since then. No one in 2017 really wants a recipe for poached eggs with wilted spinach or a ham and cheese toasted sandwich.

And to top off my complaints with this book, all of the baking recipes feature volume measures (cup measures) instead of grams. Grr. The only redepemtion is this book gives you the recipe of many an expensive breakfast: Bill’s ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter. Yam.

Simply Bill (2005)

This book is pretty similar to Bill’s Open Kitchen yet has a slight edge: it’s hard to put my finger on it, but the food in this book starts to feel appealing and modern as opposed to dated in a sun dried tomato and balsamic drizzle sort of way.

The photography is somewhat off-putting and fussy. The cover photo, of Bill with a rictus grin, is legitimately frightening. The large format softcover presentation of the book is quite unpleasant to use. Despite these complaints you get a hint of Bill greatness: elements of this book point to what Bill is capable of.

Everyday (2006) 

Everyday continues the trend of Bill books that start to feel modern. Although dated occasionally by photography or vogue ingredients (sweet chilli sauce in this case), there’s enough here that feels familiar.

The book is organised around the conceit of providing different recipes for different days (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and so on). It would take a far more capable mind than mine to spot the differences in the recipes assigned to weekdays versus weekend days.

I have railed against this gimmicky method of recipe organisation before. I am comfortable with a book having a central theme: a central post on which to hang the book’s recipes. Yet when the gimmick gets in the way of discoverability, I think it is a real mistake.

Despite the regrettable gimmick, this book is solid.

Holiday (2009)

If you’re noticing a trend, it’s that the more recent Bill books are generally better (with an obvious exception!)

There are two components of this: the first is that the food presented in the book feels modern and aligned with the sort of food we (we here means the people who either buy cookbooks or read cookbook review websites!) actually eat. It’s food that is characterised by Asian influences, by middle-eastern flavours and techniques, and food that is often vegetarian, or at least food that uses meat as an accent. The other element is that Bill’s own creativity and writing techniques improve with each new book. It’s a privilege, borne out of the commercial success of Bill’s past books, that not all authors get: but when you compare some of the earlier books with the more recent books, the difference is clear.

I have not, I have to report, cooked a lot from this. In fact, it’s the newest addition to the Bill library. The few things I have cooked have been good, and the general feel of the book is positive.

Feed Me Now (2009)

The turning point. The books before are fairly average, and feel older than what they sometimes are. This book feels quite modern, even eight years after publication.

The photography is compelling: tight focus highlights the texture of food. The styling is restrained. The recipes featuring a compelling global mix of flavours that feels honest: miso fish, black bean quesadillas, roasted chicken curry. The book sometimes stumbles with these flavours, however: you get the sense that Bill has not mastered some of these global flavours.

Bill’s Basics (2010)

The next three books make up Bill’s best. You could forget about the proceeding titles and just pick up these three and you’d have a magnificent collection.

Bill’s Basics, seven years later, feels modern and delightful. The photography is excellent: focussing on the food and not over stylised knick-knacks. The book has loads of white space.

The recipes are also brilliant, both in terms of range and execution. I have a real fondness for cookbooks that have a breadth to their recipes. You could throw away loads of your other cookbooks and cook happily from this, eating baked orecchiette with sausage and cavolo nero one night and then tom yum the next night. Sure, some recipes need a little gentle adjustment, but never egregiously so.

Bill’s Everyday Asian (2011)

Bill certainly was firing on all cylinders in the early 2010s. Bill’s Everyday Asian digs down on an appreciation for Asian flavours in many of his earlier books.

The book represents contemporary Australian favourites: pork larb, massaman lamb curry, stir-fried prawn with tomato and chilli and so on. The recipes, as is I think will be readily apparent to anyone familiar with Bill, are not intended to be strictly authentic. They are intended to be accessible versions of familiar favourites, and the book succeeds in this.

The photography feels a little more alive and playful than the occasionally austere work in Bill’s Basics. Yet this is well balanced against a lot of white space. My only complaint is the tiny text: it looks smart, but makes cooking from the book harder than it needs to be.

Get Bill’s Basics if you want a mixture of food (Asian, Mediterranean, American-y). If you enjoy eating Asian food, than this book is the strong title. The recipes and the photography are better.

Easy (2012)

We have a winner! I am seriously impressed at the string of books Bill produced. I have cooked an enormous amount from this book, and have enjoyed almost every recipe. The recipes feel polished and honed in a way that earlier books do not feel.

I think the title is misleading: this book is not ‘easy’ in the way you would reasonably expect from the title. It’s more slightly simplified versions of quite impressive or involved dishes. Easy, in this case, is a spectrum.

The book is divided up into broad categories like Piece of chicken or Sack of potatoes. This is a smart way of diving up the book, if you’re determined to avoid a more orthodox ‘Starters, Mains, Dessert’ approach to organisation.

After the focus of Everyday Asian, this book returns to a more general focus. It does trend towards slightly more indulgent and richer fare. Our favourite recipe, one we have made at least once a winter since the book was released, is a Taleggio and Pancetta baked rigatoni. While I generally much prefer hard cheeses, I would sell my right pinky finger for a lifetime supply of Italy’s second best cheese. And this dish celebrates taleggio.

The photography and overall design of the book is compelling. Food is the star, with photos of Bill relatively few and far between. The book feels modern and I have a feeling it will for a long time yet.

I have thought about this book. It is not a book that will inspire generations of cooks. It is not a book that will teach you a lot about a particular cuisine. It is a book that you can cook from every night of the week and not get tired of. It will teach you to become a better, more confident cook. At least, it had that result on me!

Which Bill?

  1. Easy (The recipes may not be easy, but they are delicious and will help you become a better cook!)
  2. Bill’s Everyday Asian (Asian flavours through the lens of the supermarket shopper! If you’re just getting started in exploring cooking Asian food, this is a good beginning.)
  3. Bill’s Basics (like Easy, but slightly broader in recipe selection. Although those recipes are slightly less polished.)

About Bill

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 ███ Sticky floors And does it just spark joy?

(The table above shows the range. The blue block shows where the top three sit.)

Cornersmith — Alex Elliott-Howery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure and Design

Hardback. No ribbon.

271 pages split across the following chapters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why this book?

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

Score

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

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

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.

Balance and Harmony — Neil Perry

Australia has no specific cuisine: the food Australians eat is as diverse as our population. Aside from a strong European background, the food we eat is heavily influence by the varied cuisines of Asia. Balance and Harmony falls into this grand pan-Asian tradition.

I have to confess I do not like Neil Perry. I like to imagine I could be friends with many cookbook authors, but I just don’t see Neil and me getting on. So while we’re not going to be best buds, I have a begrudging respect for the man.

His restaurants are first-rate. Although, as of late 2016, they are no longer technically his restaurants. In particular Spice Temple does exciting food inspired by the bold flavours of Sichaun. Rockpool Bar and Grill is a fine place for steak in an I-wish-I-had-an-expense-account setting.

So for the longest time I had resisted buying any of his books (despite happily eating at his restaurants). I broke a few months ago and bought most of the back catalogue.

The books, which range from just-fine to exceptional, did not make me fall in love with Australia’s most famous ponytail. Yet they do provide another reason to respect Perry’s contribution to food in Australia.

While the bulk of recipes in the book are Chinese (a mixture of Cantonese and Sichuan), Perry doesn’t restrict himself: the book also draws inspiration from Thai and Vietnamese food. I confess it’s a style of cookbook I find more useful than pure country-specific works. It reflects a focus on taste and flavours rather than something more didactic.

Structure

Hardcover.

399 pages split across three main parts:

  1. Finding Balance and Harmony in the Kitchen (Equipment and Ingredients)
  2. Basic Techniques and Recipes (Sauces, Dressings, and Pickles; Stocks and Soups; Salads; Braising and Boiling; Steaming; Stir Frying; Deep Frying; Tea-Smoking; Curry and Spice Pates; The Shared Table)
  3. Advanced Recipes and Banquet Menus (Tofu and Eggs; Pork; Beef and Lamb; Poultry; Seafood; Vegetables; Noodles and Rice; Fruit and Sweet Things)

Gosh this book is impressive. Luxuriously hardcover with abundant full colour photographs. A gorgeous ribbon and these almost washi-esque chapter dividers make it a real joy to behold.

The book has the design of a high end restaurant cookbook. However unlike those more ponderous tomes, this is so clearly a cookbook designed to be heavily used. There’s almost a tension between the preciousness of the design versus the everyday recipes. Despite this, I cannot help but cradle it fondly whenever I take it off the shelf.

This book was (and remains) expensive. My copy was bought second hand from, if I can read the stamp correctly, a public library somewhere in Massachusetts. This delights me: I like to imagine everyone else who may have held it in their hands and what they may have cooked. I have mixed feelings generally about second hand books, but this one feels as if it’s been handled reverently throughout its life.

The recipe format is simple: a headnote (these are more skipable than not) and then the ingredients followed by a somewhat visually dense method. The layout and writing is not something that sparks the imagination, or pulls you into another world, but it does go back to my point that despite the shiny coat, this is a book that’s intended to be used again and again.

I have to credit Perry’s recipe writing: he has a clear and simple voice. You never get lost in what to do and when, you just get the right guidance at the right time. You can imagine Perry teaching apprentice chefs with the same language (albeit with a few more colourful words thrown in).

The photography is just perfect. From one of Australia’s (if not one of the world’s) best food photographers, Earl Carter, it both highlights the food but also makes it feel accessible and approachable. The lighting on some of the shots is just incredible.

Thoughts

The food from this book has been, without exception, enjoyable and easy to prepare. This is the single biggest surprise I had about this book: I had expected that the food would be complicated, time consuming and just unapproachable.

Instead, the recipes turn out fantastically well. I think some of the best ‘Asian’ food I’ve ever cooked has come from this book, which I never would have expected. I can’t speak to the extent to which these recipes are ‘Westernised’, and I’m not overly concerned by that question at any rate.

I can speak to the flavours and the results that Perry’s recipes produce. And the new techniques I’ve learnt as a result of cooking from this book. Other than the obvious requirement of learning new recipes, I don’t necessarily ask that cookbooks teach me how to be a better cook. Yet this book has, almost by stealth, encouraged me to grow and develop my skills.

But I keep coming back to how good the food is—and how easy and well thought out the recipes are. The ingredients lists (sometimes a source of great panic in Asian cookery) are restrained to only the essential. The techniques never feel like you’ll need a battery of sous chefs to pull off.

The central conceit of the book is that it is concerned with balance and harmony in food. Each meal should be balanced and include flavours that work together and support each other. The simplest example that proves this approach is the pleasures of plain steamed rice with a salty stir fry.

While it is nice to have that balance in a single dish, it is difficult to do. Perry’s solution, and a key part of the book, is to provide suggested menus where he has balanced salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami across a few dishes.

I love this concept. But. From the prospective of weeknight cooking, even I don’t have the time or the interest to cook three or four different dishes (as much as I agree with and respect the approach). Perhaps on a weekend, this approach is more feasible?

Yet I am happy to report that the dishes stand fantastically on their own merit. And while I don’t have time to make a few other dishes, a salad or some sort of quick vegetable dish are easier to achieve and do help provide more of a sense of balance to the meal.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Pork Wontons (juicy and plumptious and I could eat one thousand)
  • Wonton soup with noodles (we used the dumplings above in a noodle soup and it was essentially perfect)
  • Stir Fried Cabbage with Chinking Vinegar (this goes to demonstrating how Perry makes magic from a few ingredients: and it’s very similar to a dish I love at Spice Temple)
  • Sweet Black Vinegar Pork Belly (there are too many bad pork belly recipes out there: this one is an example of how to do very well: rich, luxurious and with enough pop from the vinegar so as not to be cloying)
  • Sichuan-style steamed beef (an example of the book teaching new techniques: the steamed beef becomes so soft, tasty, juicy and perfect. The rice coating traps the juices and adds another textural element).
  • Stir-fried cos lettuce (you either hate cooked lettuce or you are down with it: I don’t think this recipe will convert the haters, but it will be a delight for the rest of us)
  • Mapo tofu (maybe not the best mapo but a really good one. Anyway, mapo tofu recipes are like bolognese recipes: there is no perfect recipe)
  • Prawn Toasts (I think prawn toasts were my gateway into liking actual prawns—I know—and these are some of the more soigné PTs you will try)
  • Spicy Tofu Salad (alive with textures and bound together with a punchy dressing)
  • Fried Eggs with Spicy Tamarind Dressing (despite the fun and extensive mess of deep frying eggs, this is one of the best things I’ve eaten. Although a fun tip from me is try adding some ground roast rice to the dressing.)
  • Chicken with Snow Peas and Sichuan Pepper (10 minutes of preparing, 10 minutes of cooking for a result that is incredible—you’d be delighted by this if you received it at any Chinese restaurant)
  • Stir fried prawns with Chinese chives and chilli (see above)
  • Sesame Noodles (not to end on a low point, but this dish was an exception to my belief that dishes in this book stand well by themselves: this definitely needed to be served with something else)

Why this book?

  • You love Asian food and want to learn some new recipes and techniques
  • You want deliciousness above strictly authentic recipes
  • You can overlook the Ponytail

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?
#KonMarie ||||| Monday morning And does it just spark joy?

 

You should buy this book! How about from Amazon?

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.