Suggestions for Giving

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.

Thank you

As a final service, I am delighted to provide bespoke recommendations. Simply contact me via the form here and I will provide some thoughts on an ideal title.

This will be the last post for 2017. I look forward to returning in 2018 with more reviews.

Until then, sincere thanks for your support and company over the past year. May you be ensconced in a sea of mince pies and champagne over the next few weeks.

EveryDayCook — Alton Brown

Alton Brown is an iconic food personality. He is deeply loved, especially in the United States. His claim to fame (although he has a few by this stage in his career) is that he brings a science orientated perspective to food and cooking.

While that is an approach many adopt these days, Alton seems to have been amongst the first to do this in a mainstream large scale way. His seminal show, Good Eats, continues to have an impact in how people think about food (and, of course, how people cook food).

While he has written quite a few cookbooks (10!) this is both marketed and (after spending some time with it) is a highly personal cookbook. It discards some of the structured and didactic approaches of his other books and is instead a collection of the food he likes to eat.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. No ribbon.

224 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Morning
  2. Coffee break
  3. Noon
  4. Afternoon
  5. Evening
  6. Any time
  7. Later

The book has an interesting gimmick (or perhaps creative design limitation): all the pictures were taken with an iPhone 6 plus.

It is testament to the iPhone (happy 10th birthday, by the way!) that the photos are remarkably fit for purpose. I suspect if you did not know you would just assume they were shot with some expensive professional digital camera. Very occasionally a shot might look slightly low resolution, or not the usual pixel perfect presentation that we normally expect from a cookbook photo in 2017, but on the whole the pictures are impressive.

It is a tremendous result, and I hope it inspires more work and more creative exploration of some of the most popular (and accessible) cameras in the world.

While I am bullish on the photography, the design of the rest of the book leaves me much less impressed. From the handwriting font of the recipe titles, to the horrendous overuse of photo background on recipe pages there is a certain lack of restraint. It’s a fun approach, arguably, but not one I get a lot of enjoyment out of.

Some of these design decisions make the book harder to use and enjoy. Unlike the iPhone photography, which is a creative gamble that pays off, the design of the book as a whole is inconsistent, difficult to use and dates the book terribly.

On a further critical note: the structure is not useful. Given Alton’s otherwise admirable propensity to eat whatever at anytime of the day, the structure he adopts in the book is close to useless.

Thoughts

I love how personal this book feels. We see a lot of tv and internet food people writing ostensibly personal and honest cookbooks and a lot of them feel cold and bland.

This book wears its heart on its sleeve, for better or worse. You get a real sense of what Alton Brown is all about as well as the food he cooks and eats for himself.

I wish more cookbook authors would adopt this personal tone. It combines biographical elements with food writing in a way that enriches both.

Of course, the more personal a book is, the riskier it becomes. If that person’s particular style or approach does not resonate with you, you are unlikely to get a lot out of the book.

And this is almost what has happened with this book. I love Alton, but the recipies in this book have left me cold and wanting more. In fact, it was hard to find recipes that appealed enough to want to make them in the first place.

The food, while certainly being the food Alton cooks for himself on a frequent basis, was not food that I wanted to cook for myself on a similar basis. Recipes tend towards being meat driven and in some cases quite time consuming to prepare. For a book titled ‘Everyday Cook’ I could not help but think the recipes were more somedays cook.

This is not to suggest that all the recipes were either unappealing or unsuccessful. Of the handful we cooked, there were a few candidates destined for the all time hall of fame.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Breakfast Carbonara (as much as I love the idea of pasta for breakfast, I am too #normcore and as a result made this for dinner. I feel pretty loyal to my own carbonara recipe, and I felt Alton’s sausage and orange zest version was not quite delicious enough to make me change my ways.)
  • Turkey sliders (I liked the approach of adding a lot of umami rich elements, but the end result was not particularly exciting.)
  • Smoky the meatloaf (This recipe highlights a consistent theme from the book: a lot of effort does not always yield satisfying results. The idea of putting BBQ flavoured potato chips inside the meatloaf was a nice touch, however.)
  • Roast Broccoli Hero (Okay, one of the really good recipes in the book. This  is the vegetarian sandwich to end all vegetarian sandwiches. The roasted broccoli goes so well with spicy pickles and ricotta salata.) 
  • Roasted Thanksgiving Salad (a quinoa and roast root vegetable salad feels so old fashioned for some reason: the end product was nice, but nothing to get excited about.)
  • Fish Sticks and Custard (I convinced my loving and patient partner to service the ‘custard’ with this: it’s really a warm tartare sauce. I hope one day she can forgive me. The fish sticks were, unlike the offensively bad custard, quite good, but again a lot of effort for only a fine result.)
  • Chicken Parmesan Balls (Nice, not great.)
  • Savoury Greek Yogurt Dip (this is a good recipe if you like dipping vegetables into the blandest yogurt based dip imaginable.)
  • Chicken Piccata (this, the roasted broccoli hero, and the flavoured oil for the next recipe, are the only three recipes from this book I was happy about. It was a really good chicken piccata, a dish that deserves to be consumed far more often.)
  • Weeknight spaghetti (the real star of this dish was an incredibly tasty herb and garlic oil. The spaghetti sauce, which you make using a few tablespoons of the oil, was quite nice in its own way.)
  • Turkey Tikka Masala (see comments about re: good but not great.)
  • Open Sesame Noodles (this recipe is poorly written and yields poor results.)

Why this book?

  • You like Alton Brown
  • You want to support to creative decision to just use an iPhone for photography
  • You feel really passionately about bringing sexy chicken piccata back

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 job interview And does it just spark joy?

I wanted to like this book. I admire parts of it: the personal tone, the photography, and three recipes. And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to love it or find much joy in cooking from it.

I could not, then, recommend it to any of you. It might be interesting to borrow from the library for a flick through, but not one to buy and keep forever.

Sorry, Alton. It’s me, not you.

Power Vegetables! — Peter Meehan

Lucky Peach—the best food magazine out there—has announced it will be closing. Little reason or explanation was given for this upsetting news, although speculation points to a fallout between Peter Meehan (editor) and Dave Chang (majority owner).

In a world of overly polished food writing and photography, Lucky Peach was a glass of cool water on a hot day. It has style, personality and something to say. It was not perfect: it sometimes could not escape its bros talking about sriracha and kewpie mayo vibe. But it was (and for a little while longer, is) a blessed relief from the same generic content.

My favourite part of the Lucky Peach brand was, of course, the cookbooks! My review of 101 Easy Asian Recipes dives deep into my love of Lucky Peach’s flavour-driven approach to food.  It’s not authentic food (whatever that is, anyway) but it is delicious, easy and memorable food. It is food that I want to eat and cook and share.

Given the sad news, and given how much I liked their first book, it was an obvious choice to review their 3rd book: Power Vegetables! This book is a spiritual successor to 101 Easy Asian Recipes (101EARs) in focus, tone and execution.

Structure and Design

Harcover. No ribbon.

272 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Starters
  2. Salads
  3. Pies & The Like
  4. Soups/Soupy
  5. Ensemble Players
  6. Mains
  7. Mainly Potatoes
  8. Bread & Cake

Like 101EARs, PV! starts with a useful guide to ingredients (called, appropriately enough, POWER PANTRY). Therein are meditations on capers, shiitakes, kombu and a recipe for miso butterscotch which is incredibly compelling when you stop and think about it.

It is interesting to see the development of the format: 101EARs was, more or less, a straight recipe book. However PV! borrows more from the magazine’s format, which is to say a handful of interviews with au currant chefs are scattered throughout the book. While these are not the difference between night or dark, they are nonetheless pleasant inclusions in that they help explain the thinking and context of the book.

As I said in my review of 101EARs, I really like the over-the-top kitschy design. It remains as refreshing as when they first attempted it, although they pleasingly have made a few different art direction decisions. This helps things feel free fresh as opposed to simply more of the same. One example is that they’ve generally scaled back on the use of props and backdrops so when they are used it is to much greater effect. It is not high concept, but I cannot help but smile at the Mexican wrestler holding the corn on page 154–55.

The book is polished: recipes are well written, photography is well executed (do not confuse style with technical proficiency!). The book is a tight and compelling physical package. The design and writing team deserve points for making sure each recipe fits within a page (and is presented in a usable and helpful format to boot!)

Thoughts

The book starts with a manifesto, of sorts. Here, Meehan declares, there will be no pasta recipes or grain bowls. There will be the use of both dairy and fish (mostly fish sauce or anchovies).

It is smart cooking with vegetables, in other words. It is an approach I admire so much. Let’s not get bound up with an argument on is it or is it not vegetarian food, and let’s not fall in the trap of a lot of other vegetable-driven books where one slaps a vegetable on a grain and calls it done.

The rule about no pasta is a really good creative limitation and stops the book from taking some easy outs. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and the book is stronger for adopting this as a principle.

The approach is essentially similar to that in 101EARs and it is what makes Lucky Peach so important in the world of food writing. It shows how joyful food is when seen through the lens of flavour rather than arbitrary rules.

The food we made from this book was, as a rule, delicious and enjoyable. It was fun food to make and fun food to eat. Perhaps it leans slightly in the direction of overly aggressive flavours and seasoning (the vegetarian chili was a knock out punch of umami) but I so favour this approach over more insipid fare.

Here is what we have cooked:

  • Saucy Fried Tofu or Vaguely Korean Watercress-Apple Salad (The recipe suggest a choice but you need to ignore that and make both together. Excellent textures and a prize winner of a salad. That said, I’m a sucker for apple in salads, so consider my obvious bias.)
  • Nam prik hed cabbage cups (Gosh this was good. A punchy assertive mushroom-y condiment is almost the essence of Thailand served simply on wombok leaves. It would be a sin against taste not to make this and make it again with rice and then again with noodles and then with some grilled meat.)
  • Chopped Cauliflower Salad (A very good chopped salad with an exceptionally good yoghurt-y garlic-y dressing. One that I think about whenever I am eating a bland salad.)
  • Pappa al pomodoro (How do the words ‘pizza soup’ sound to you? If you jump up and down with irrepressible excitement at the mere mention of it then it will be that good. If you roll your eyes and perhaps insert a finger under the neck of your cashmere turtleneck, move right along.)
  • Vichyssoise (Another example of the clever way Meehan et al approach creating recipes. A familiar if not much beloved soup is greatly improved through using dashi stock. Although the recipe suggests you serve it cold, it is of course delicious served hot. In any event, the chives and creme fraiche are mandatory.)
  • Elote (Indecently good: corn and mayonnaise and lime juice and chili powder.)
  • Roasted vegetables with fish sauce vinaigrette (I first cooked this recipe in the Momofuku cookbook. About a million times. I then cooked it from Food52’s Genius Recipes a few million times. This permutation—the most simple—is very good if only for legitimising using essentially any vegetable instead of the more common brussels sprouts.)
  • Zuni Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower (Perhaps a victim of the ‘no pasta rule.’ The original Zuni recipe, which the headnote acknowledges, serves the vegetable mess with pasta. We had this dish both ways—as a salad, per the recipe instructions, and with pasta per the original—and with pasta was clearly better.)
  • Memelitas with Vegetable Peeler Salad (We ate this three meals in a row, not because it was exceptional and amazing but it was so simply tasty and enjoyable as to provoke a state of sustained bemused desire that we could not stop eating it).
  • Roasted cabbage with banana blossom dressing (Odd but remarkable: the dressing, an enticing slurry of red curry paste, lime juice, coconut milk and fish sauce was compelling. The final dish was a masterful combination of textures. Plus I am quite bullish on any recipes that feature cabbage as the hero, as opposed to a sad supporting role.)
  • Kung Pao Celeries (This did not succeed. It was good, but clearly inferior to a chicken/prawn kung pao. It was the first, and only time, in cooking from this book that I thought the results would be much better with meat.)
  • McAloo Tikki Sandwich (Get inside me again, sweet excellent Indian potato burger).

Why this book?

  • You want to eat more exciting plant-based food
  • You love Lucky Peach or are at least Peach curious
  • For what it’s worth, you want to support Lucky Peach

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 ░░░ Rising damp And does it just spark joy?

PV! does not aim to change the world. It aims to apply the signature Lucky Peach magic to vegetable-based recipes. It succeeds more often than it fails.

I do not think I want to become a permanent resident in the world of Lucky Peach. Yet to visit is a treat and I encourage you to make the journey.

A New Way to Dinner — Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

Most cookbooks give you recipes to cook. Wait, don’t close that tab!

I mean to say, the aspiration of most cookbooks is nothing more than giving you instruction sets to make new types of food. There is only so many recipes one needs. A handful of cookbooks could give you a lifetime’s supply of how to combine ingredients. The question quickly becomes “what’s next?”

For anyone beyond the complete kitchen beginner, cookbooks with something additional to teach are more rewarding and useful. Increasingly, I’m drawn to books with a clear ambition to do something beyond the basic steps of cook, serve, delicious.

Food52’s editors (Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs) have put together a cookbook with a grand ambition: to change how we approach putting together our nightly meal.

The book’s premise is that by spending a few hours of time on the weekend you can prepare for a week’s worth of delicious meals. The trade off is clear: sacrifice a little bit of time on the weekend to gain some back during the week.

The premise is nothing new. Time management experts (carrying degrees printed on napkins from Time University) have long gotten up on their soapboxes and told us to do this. And everyday, chefs in restaurant commit themselves to the art of the mis-en-place.

The question becomes: does this book teach us something new and valuable, or is it really a tired retelling of an old idea?

Structure and Design

  • Hardcover
  • 288 pages
  • No ribbon

The core format of the book is four weekly menu plans for each season. Two menu plans are from Hesser and two from Stubbs. Each menu plan provides for five meals and gives ideas for lunch and other ways to use the leftovers.

Each plan starts with a menu of what you’ll eat in that week. The next few pages are the battle plan for your weekend day of preparation. The following pages are then the recipies for each dish in that menu.

This is a book of unremitting production values. The writing throughout the book  is uniformly polished. Written in the signature Food52 tone, it is both inviting and casual yet also suggests a certain reserve or distance.

In terms of how the recipes are written, there’s a delineation between the steps you do earlier in the week as part of the day of preparation and the steps you do on the night the dish will be eaten. This is helpful if you are following the book’s approach but I could see it might get in the way of clarity if you were using this as just another cookbook.

The production values continue with the photography. Photos are aggressively styled.  I cannot get behind the overall Food52 ashetic. It’s so polished as to be avoid of any charm or individual personality. It’s almost as if they feed the contents of pinterest into a really smart computer and it outputs these results.

Thoughts

I enjoyed this book.

But—I have reservations:

Firstly, and most trivially, it is either a sign of success or failure that the recipes and menus from the two authors are indistinguishable. I cannot distinguish the recipes or writing  of one author from the other. It’s a positive sign in that it suggests the avoidance of gimmicks just for the sake of identification (it could have easily been Hesser’s recipes are all spicy fusion food and Stubbs are all home comfort food) but at the same time, the two present as a seamless organic seasonal trend conscious monolith.

Secondly, few books seem unaware of their privilege as this one. Every week will ask you to buy near industrial quantities of certain expensive ingredients. Worse, there’s often no suggestion as to alternatives if the budget cannot quite stretch to a kilo of black raspberries. The authors seem painfully unconscious of this element to their book. It is an expressly upper middle class lifestyle cookbook.

Thirdly, I’m not sure if the authors have considered the food safety elements to some of their preparations. One recipe asks you to cook almost a kilo of rice (!!), with the last recipe using that rice six days later. All food safety advice I can find suggests three days as being the absolute maximum for storing cooked rice. And aside from issues of food safety, there’s also an important consideration. Food simply starts to taste like fridge after a few days. The book sometimes asks you to make real sacrifices in the name of indulging the conceit.

On to what works about the book.

The technique (of preparing ahead of time) is not new. Yet, the version of this idea that the book puts forth is close to brilliant. Rarely does the book ask you to complete a whole dish. Instead, you complete time consuming yet easy individual steps like pick herbs, make dressings and sauces or prepare meal components (like make meatballs or grill some flank steak).

You know those currently popular meal delivery services? You are essentially replicating what makes those services so compelling, the idea that someone else does all the boring work of cooking, leaving you to do the fun stuff. Of course in this case, it is an earlier you who is doing the boring stuff, but the initial time and effort is quickly forgotten.

It’s a fantastic and workable approach and one that has allowed us to reclaim our weeknights without making huge sacrifices as to what we are eating. The New Way to Dinner model of preparation is superior to other competing styles of preparing your meals (such as making a whole dish and reheating it or make industrial quantities of one thing and eating it again and again).

And there’s something about this focused day of preparation that makes otherwise dull tasks seem more fun. It feels like a fun-spirited race against time: how can we get through these 9 or so prep steps as quickly as possible? It’s become a part of my week that I look forward to, oddly enough.

We’ve enjoyed this approach so much we’ve continued with it despite moving on to other cookbooks. I cannot imagine it will make sense for everyone, but it is going to be useful to a lot of people.

So a tick as to the overall approach. How’s the food? It ranges from very good to almost inedible.

Very good? A Thai beef salad was rewarding and delicious. We have made the fish tacos twice. The meatballs were not as good as the meatballs from Genius Recipes (another Food52 book) but were the second best meatballs I have made. A limeade is the perfect summer drink.

Inedible? Well, there were misses in both execution and concept: a 5 day old rice salad was inedible and awful. That Thai Beef Salad was great but less so on each successive outing. Some of the recipes in a summer menu were certainly not appropriate for stinking hot summer. Some dinners consist of a lot of food (too much!) whereas others amount to just a sandwich (not enough!).

Here are the menus from the two weeks we spent with this book:

Menu One (Summer, Merrill Stubbs)

  • Limeade with basil, blistered cherry tomatoes, Thai beef steak, jasmine rice and blueberry ice. (While the combo of mediterranean roast tomatoes and Thai beef salad didn’t work for me, every component of this meal was really good. The blueberry ice was outstanding.)
  • Fish tacos with pickled onions, Spicy Peach Salad and Chocolate ice cream with cinnamon and chili ‘dust’. (As mentioned above, the fish tacos are excellent. The spicy peach salad was fantastic and elevated mediocre peaches. The cinnamon  and chili ‘dust’ is a fun way to elevate supermarket ice cream, although you’d be unlikely to do it again and again.)
  • Penne with blistered cherry tomatoes and corn; strawberry ice cream (Average pasta and yes, you have to buy both chocolate and strawberry ice cream this week.)
  • Steak and avocado salad with crisp rice and cashews, and blueberry ice (Our crisp rice failed and simply merged into an unstoppable fried monster that still threatens smaller pacific islands. The salad makes use of the last of the Thai beed Salad which is not, it must be said, a dish that holds well.)
  • Jasmine rice salad, cantaloupe with chiles, lime and salad. (Inedible. Dry after six days in the fridge. This should not exist. We skipped the cantaloupe because one of us cantaeatit.)

Menu Two (Summer, Amanda Hesser)

  • Crab and avocado salad, blistered cherry tomatoes, watermelon (I am not a big crab man, and given the sudden sky rocketing of the price of prawns here, I was forced to substitute chicken instead. Despite going off-piste, I was entirely happy with the result.)
  • Meatballs with tomato and zucchini, quick tomato sauce, spaghetti, boiled green beans with mustard dressing, black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream (The meatballs were great, as was the fantastic mustard dressing for the beans. The ice cream—this week you make your own—did not quite work out: the quantities were way too much for our ice cream maker, so it did not quite churn properly.)
  • Watermelonade, Crab toasties, Peaches with sour cream and chili (The watermelonade was perfect and just the thing for summer. On the other hand, the peaches with sour cream feels like an awful choice for summer and so we abandoned it. The toasties were smart, though (although curiously named: toasties is short for toasted sandwich and is a term mostly used in Australia, whereas Americans seem to favour the word ‘melt’ which better fits what these actually were.)
  • Pasta with garlic, tomatoes, basil and brie, beans and their dressing and some more ice cream (The authors go on this weird bit about how they seem to think they are bringing back brie to which the rest of the cheese eating world will say “huh?”).
  • Meatball sandwich with fresh mozzarella and basil, watermelon or peaches (I think a sandwich is the best thing to do with meatballs, so I had no problems with this. I like that the menu suggestion is to just eat some fruit already.)

Why this book?

  • You want to eat good food without spending hours cooking each night
  • Or, you just want a decent collection of recipes and can overlook the recipes being formatted with the assumption you will be making them ahead of time
  • You are comfortable with the Food52 brand, aesthetic and tone

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 ░░░░ Old, old cooked rice And does it just spark joy?

I can—and do—recommend this book. However, keep some of my reservations in mind. This book is not going to be for everyone.

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.

Bowl — Lukas Volger

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

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

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

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

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

Structure

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

Here’s some of what we’ve cooked:

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

 

Why this book?

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

Score

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

You should buy this book.

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

Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes — Peter Meehan

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

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

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

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

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

Structure

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

A sample of what we’ve cooked:

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

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

Why this book? 

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

Score

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

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

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