At My Table — Nigella Lawson

Unlike almost every other author and book I have reviewed here, Nigella Lawson needs no introduction. She is celebrated and revered from Osaka to Oslo and everywhere in between.

She has sold millions of copies of her 12 cookbooks. These books have been translated into countless languages and been made into TV programmes. She has been called the queen of the frozen pea, of the traybake. She is casually referred to as the Domestic Goddess. She has driven food trends.

Her abiding love of food, and a certain emphasis on how sensual and evocative food can be, has made her a cultural icon. She is referenced in films and movies and podcasts and other books. She appears on TV shows, as a judge or a host, with impressive regularity.

She carries a tube of Coleman’s mustard in her bag with her at all times.

To live in 2017 is to be aware of Nigella.

Her latest book, At My Table, came out only recently. This was a happy occurrence, but especially in the context of having recently published my review of Diana Henry’s Simple. In that review I made some claims that I preferred Henry’s food. Drunk on the awesome power of semi-anonymous internet writing, I even went a bit further and accused Nigella of producing recapped that could sometimes be a little lacking in terms of flavour and excitement.

Now, like every other internet writer, I subscribe to the strictest set of ethics and principals. I could no more publish a lie as I could enjoy raw capsicum in a salad. Or cooked capsicum in a curry. Or capsicum on a pizza. Or in any other form except blitzed into a million pieces as a sauce or salsa. This statement of preference was an honest one.

And yet, reader, putting this claim out in the world niggled at me over the following weeks. It seemed to fly in the face of my professed admiration for Nigella, and all that she has done for food. It introduced an unpleasant ideological tension that threatened to remain unresolved.

When I received my copy of At My Table, I flicked through with some trepidation. I was expecting to find food similar to the clean and simple flavours of 2015’s Simply Nigella (a beautiful book with food that simply does not summon a trace of excitement in me). As I got deeper and deeper into the book something wonderful happened: my doubt faded away and I started to smile. This was the Nigella I always wanted to see. These are the recipes I want to make! Finally, I felt there was a chance to have my cake and eat it too: I could both love the idea and image of Nigella as well as love her recipes and food.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. A silver ribbon.

288 pages split across the following chapters:

Well, ahem, not this time.

In this book Nigella has abandoned all chapters and gone with a stream of consciousness freeform presentation. Recipes are roughly arranged in order of the food one would want to eat first thing in the morning and ending in what you might want to eat at the very end of a day.

I almost panicked. It sounds like such an odd, unfriendly decision that would make the cookbook impossible to navigate and to conceptualise. And yet, as begins to be the dominant theme of this book, it not only works but works quite well.

And when it occasionally feels a bit difficult to either find something specific or to maybe get some inspiration, right at the front of the book there is a contents page that gives you every recipe in a single double page spread. I applaud Nigella and her superstar designer, Caz Hildebrand for the decision.

After heaping praise on Simply Nigella’s design, I must confess I think this is an odd looking book. The cover feels old fashioned. I respect not buying into the look of every other 2017 cookbook, but I struggle to find a positive thing to say about the cover. Well, it is a wonderful photo of Nigella, I suppose, caught midway through strangling some naughty sourdough.

I am lukewarm about the design of the rest of the book. I like the continued signature use of Futura. I dislike the serif font this has been accompanied by, and the mid-grey colour used. The combination of a dusky pink and an odd grey is hard to read and unpleasant.

The photography, from the renowned Jonathan Lovekin, is also I think somewhat variable, although never quite bad, even at its least inspiring. There are a few exceptional, memorable shots, which are a delightful to see. And then there are the rest of the shots in the book which feel occasionally dated, as if they  were conceived of in a slightly different era.

I simply cannot say if the design of this book is the real Nigella, or is rather some conception of what a book about home cooking should look like. I can say that the design of this book does not speak to me, which is a pity given the recipes therein.

Thoughts

This feels like Nigella’s most personal book yet. I have no way of knowing how true this is. But between the design, the recipe selection, the headnotes and introductions, and the two episodes of the accompanying TV show I’ve sneakily managed to view, I am left with an impression of this book being a pure distillation of Nigella.

As such I am delighted to report that the recipes in this book are very good. Cookbooks are always victim to the tension between whatever is new and current on one hand and that which is familiar and reliable on the other. Generally, cookbooks that try to appease one of these polar opposites at the expense of the other do not work well.

At My Table strikes an appealing balance in this regard. Yes, we get nods at that which is au courant: coconut oil and coconut yogurt are frequent visitors, and aleppo pepper gets a big push. But at the same time, we also get a nice serve of recipes from the other side of the spectrum: a queen of puddings is straight out of a meal at Toad Hall.

Happily, a great deal of success can be found in recipes from the breadth of this spectrum. We should pause to acknowledge this achievement and indeed celebrate all those who dedicate themselves to mastery of their craft: Nigella does something very wonderful, where she improves and refines her voice and vision in a seamless way. There is no jarring ‘old’ Nigella and ‘new’ Nigella. Instead, we feel rather than notice improvement. 

I do wish there were slightly more vegetable based main dishes. Not that there are none, but those that exist do tend towards simpler flavours. We have all been spoiled by such excellent vegetable based recipes over the past few years that the ones here feel a little, well, uninspired.

This said, the bulk of recipes are interesting and compelling and delicious. It is food that lends itself to happy celebrations around a large table. Food should be this joyous and fun all the time. This feeling is At My Table’s real achievement, and I congratulate Nigella for producing something so lovely.

Here is a sample of what we have cooked so far (there is a sad omission of anything from the desserts section—our oven died at the most inopportune time.)

  • Turkish Eggs (Every book has the recipe. The one that you turn to again and again. The page that becomes dirtier than all the others. This is the recipe for this cookbook. Poached eggs on a garlic yogurt bed, topped with aleppo pepper butter.) 
  • Golden Egg Curry (Curries in past Nigella books have been somewhat less adventurous in their flavour profiles than I would prefer. This, however, was bold and aromatic and delicious.)
  • Catalan Toasts (not an improvement on my standard pan con tomate recipe. But certainly not bad.)
  • Beef and eggplant fatteh (If you like textural contrast, please make this. If you like delicious food, please make this. It is easy, it makes an excellent lunch the next day, it is delicious.)
  • Pasta with anchovies, tomatoes, mascarpone (I have long maintained that the only good tomato sauce is one that is cooked down and reduced, such that the flavour of unexceptional tomatoes becomes exceptional. This sauce was a clever way of creating a pasta dish that is savoury, rich enough and with a lot of personality without having to cook the thing for five years. I did fail in finding the nominated novel pasta shape, however. Forgive me, Signora Nigella.)
  • Capellini with Scallops (Success in finding the novelty pasta! Yet I thought this not quite the best way to showcase beautiful scallops.)
  • Radiatori with Sausage and Saffron (Another failure in the novel pasta game. And also a failure in including saffron. Despite these failures, the dish was quite delightful. The sweetness of passata is a pleasing counterpoint to the complexity of a good italian sausage.)
  • Sweet Potato Tacos (I made this almost as a joke. I thought surely it would turn out awfully. Never has the gap between my expectations and the end result been so sizeable. I want to make this again. It just works.)
  • Bashed Cucumber and Radish Salad (Simple and clean. I have, however, eaten so much of the garlic and black vinegar sichuan version of this salad that I felt this was a little too placid.)
  • Coriander and Jalapeno Salsa and Red-hot Roast Salsa (These two salsas should be in everyone’s fridge. Yes the coriander salsa quickly loses its verdant quality and becomes a more murky shade, but the flavours, oh the flavours, remain intact. The red salsa is a fantastic variation on the theme of roast tomato salsa.)
  • Coconut Shrimp (Real talk alert: You should make these. You should not, under any circumstances, make the suggested coconut yogurt dipping sauce. Serve these with some Kewpie mayonnaise or some hot sauce. Or combine kewpie, hot sauce and some yuzu juice. Just say no to the coyo in this case.)
  • Lime and coriander chicken (Okay, but in light of the other more exciting recipies in this book I am not sure why you would nesscarily bother?)
  • Cellophane Rolls (Ibid.)
  • Slow Roast 5-spice lamb pancakes (this exceeded expectations to a sizeable degree. If I could make a suggestion, make up double and eat this for twice as long. Actually, let me make a further suggestion: make some pickled radishes to go with your pancakes. While hoisin and spears of scallion and cucumber get you almost to flavour heaven, the addition of a quick pickled vegetable has a profound transformative effect.)

Why this book?

  • This is Nigella’s best book, potentially ever, but certainly since 2010’s Kitchen
  • You want a personal take on Nigella’s view of food – one that celebrates the joy of food
  • You want a collection of excellent and reliable recipes that balances the new with the familiar

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?
#KonMari ░░░░ Summer And does it just spark joy?

Nigella taught me not to be ashamed of liking food to the extent I do. Her writing has meant so much to me over the years. Her philosophy resonates with me in that it celebrates food and life and pleasure in a way that refuses to give quarter to shame.

And yet because I’ve rarely cooked from her books, I have always felt a little bit like a fraud for being such a Nigella booster. I am, then, incredibly happy to report that At My Table is not just a great Nigella cookbook, but it is a great cookbook full stop.

Simple — Diana Henry

Diana Henry should be far more popular. I get the sense that outside of the UK, she is not as known or appreciated as she could be. This is not to say she languishes in complete obscurity outside the UK. Indeed, a glowing New York Times piece covered her output, something which is prodigious in both quantity and quality. Those that do speak of Diana Henry do so in reverent and knowing tones.

If I had to describe Diana Henry—and, I admit, writing a review does leave one with such a duty—I would liken her to another leading light of the food world: Nigella Lawson. I think both authors share a general approach and have similar writing styles. Indeed, the sticker on the cover of my copy of Simple certainly invites you to draw this parallel and make a such comparison.

I hesitate to say this because of my immense fondness and respect for Nigella, but Diana writes better recipes. And I think also has a more confident and modern palette and approach to food. I own all of Nigella’s books (perhaps when I get over my last every book from author x roundup I will do another one) and yet rarely cook from them. I only own a few of Diana’s recent books yet have cooked a fair amount from them all—and have loved everything I have made.

I have wanted to review Diana’s latest book, Simple, for some time. I became convinced I had to review the book after reading this unfair train wreck of a review. After all, when someone is wrong on the internet, something must be done. Of course, Diana does not need me to rally to her defence! Nonetheless, here we are.

Simple is Diana’s 9th book and is, I think, the strongest. The focus of the book is, as the title suggests, a collection of recipes that strive for maximum flavour at minimum fuss.

This is one of the key trends in contemporary food writing. Everyone, apparently, is super busy. And no one wants to open a cookbook that is filled with labour intensive recipes (or, even worse, sub-recipes!) The result is a proliferation of books aimed at cutting down the time one spends in the kitchen.

There are two ways this trend manifests itself: One, the sacrifice approach, results in nonsense books like 15- or 30- minute meals from the once joyful Jamie Oliver. Two, the smart approach, where books try to find smart ways of creating food with minimal labour and angst. Simple, happily, takes the latter approach.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. A glorious ribbon. Given the reported size of Diana’s cookbook collection it is no surprise to see such a thoughtful inclusion.

336 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Eggs
  2. Salads
  3. Toast
  4. Pulses
  5. Pasta & Grains
  6. Fish
  7. Roasts
  8. Chops & Sausages
  9. Chicken
  10. Vegetables
  11. Fruit Puddings
  12. Other Sweet Things

The design of the book is simple and elegant. Generous use of white space, elegant typography and restrained photography all combine to suggest a polished, calming book.

It’s something that immediately invites confidence. Nothing in this book tries too hard—instead it is quietly confident. It is Obama, not a certain orange buffoon.

A few days ago on twitter I rallied against a trend in food photography: where a few ingredients of the dish are ‘artfully’ (read: artlessly) scattered around the workstation/bench/table to frame the finished product. So, a roast lamb on a platter might be surrounded by a few rosemary needles and garlic skins. Or an otherwise pristine photograph of a cake on a tray might be ‘enhanced’ by an oh-so-casual scattering of sugar and flour on the table.

A few photos in this book come close to this crime. However, in another demonstration of Diana’s taste, things are arranged to look more documentary than clumsily staged.

The majority of photos in this book are strong. There’s a real consistency between photographs that speaks to a single, compelling vision. The lighting and styling is consistent, but not to the point of monomania. The photos are delightful.

I do think the type sizing is slightly smaller than would be ideal—cookbook designers, I suspect, forget that cookbooks are often used at much greater distance than regular books: so while size 9 type might be perfect in a novel held close to the head, size 9 type in a cookbook is far from ideal. I tend to end up squinting a lot while trying to cook from books like these.

There is a risk that to some the design of this book might feel a little staid. Take the cover of my edition as an example: pork chops in a cream sauce on a wooden table, is a study in various browns and beiges. It is a bold choice if not a bold design. Yet writing off this book as boring or old fashioned would be a great mistake, as it is anything but!

Thoughts

Diana loves food. You cannot avoid that impression. I also think she has a genius approach towards the concept of simple food. Under her expert guidance, simple food is not joyless, lacking food. It is not food that has been dumbed down to the point of becoming bad airline food.

Instead, as the subtitle on the cover proclaims, the book celebrates “effortless food [and] big flavours.” At times, after eating things from this book, I was in a state of disbelief: it had not felt like I had made any obvious sacrifices or compromises, and yet I had only been cooking for a short while minutes and had produced something tremendously exciting.

Diana’s talent (or rather, one of her talents) is an ability to pick apart the core of a recipe and discard anything unnecessary. The results are full in flavour, but without the heartache you might have otherwise suffered.

Simple’s strength is that it is not trying to be a soulless “30 minute recipes” clone. The recipes do occasionally ask for chunks of your time. But rarely is this all active time: it might ask you to roast something in the oven for 45 minutes after say five quick minutes of choppin’ and slicin’. I think this is a perfect trade off.

In fact, some of the happiest hours in my week are when I have something simmering away on the stove, and I have a few minutes to read something or otherwise entertain myself. It feels like joyfully stolen time.

At the risk of pouring further fuel on the hot trash fire of a review linked above, I take exception to any argument that this book is especially British or especially fussy. Diana’s palette is admirably global. The book features recipes inspired by Japanese, Korean, Indian and Mexican cuisines. Yet, I do not feel this has resulted in inaccessible or overly broad ingredient lists.

Similarly, the food is not fussy. Anyone who writes a cookbook review website, and cooks from new recipes more nights than not, is perhaps not best qualified to make the following argument, but here I go: dumbing down food is a bad idea. Dumbing down concepts stops people from ever learning or expanding their horizons. It leads to incurious people with incurious palettes. This leads to people further considering skills in cooking to be unnecessary luxuries, which is by and large the problem we find ourselves in now. This leads to joyless “5 ingredient” cookbooks.

I think Diana’s recipes do not require anyone to be a graduate of culinary school. They do require someone who is willing to try, and to open themselves to potentially doing things in a new way. Call me a fool, but isn’t that just what we ask from our cookbooks? Or that someone more experienced than we are teaches us things?

So, no, the food is not particularly British or boring: I suspect that reviewer was using British as a code for boring. And nor are the recipes fussy. The book lives up to its claim of providing recipes for “effortless food.”

Of course, no cookbook can please everyone. I have found one or two of the recipes in Simple to not appeal to my particular tastes. Diana, it must be noted, does seem quite fond of a creamy dressing. I am a real acid-fiend, so these can feel a little tame and muted to me. However this is easily fixed, and in a way that does not suggest the underlying recipe was fundamentally incorrect.

Here is what we have made so far:

  • Parsi-style scrambled eggs (it is hard to go back to regular scrambled eggs after eating these, so utterly alive and vibrant)
  • Griddled courgettes, burrata and fregola (We cooked this quite early on, so I was a little weary, but the end result was texturally diverse and with enough interest to be far more memorable than expected)
  • Tomatoes, Soft Herbs & Feta with Pomegranate (A perfect dish for warmer weather: it would also make a smashing bruschetta topping.)
  • Root, shiitake, and noodle salad with miso dressing (an exceptional dressing and a fair salad. The dressing could become a real favourite.)
  • Cool Greens, Hot Asian Dressing (I am a firm believer in the life affirming powers of a gutsy nuoc cham—and Diana’s version went very well with crisp greens. The avocado was an unexpected but pleasing touch.)
  • Warm salad of squid, bacon, beans & tarragon (This was let down by the dressing: a muted mixture of cream, oil, tarragon and lemon.)
  • Mumbai Toastie (I could comfortably eat on this for the rest of my days. The ultimate toasted sandwich. I wonder if I can convince the owner of Melbourne’s best new cafe/bakery to add this to their menu?)
  • Simple Goan Fish Curry (I was terrified of this for some strange reason, but it turned out to be a highlight. Complex, spicy, aromatic. Very good.)
  • Pork chops with mustard and capers (I followed Diana’s instructions and bought the best pork I could find, so I don’t know if the recipe was exceptional or the pork was exceptional and the recipe did not get in the way of that. At any rate, I often lay awake at night and think about this.)
  • Spaghetti with spiced sausage & fennel sauce (There are many sausage pasta recipes out there. Some are good. Some are not. This is my new benchmark. The fennel added a sweetness that made this dish so memorable.)
  • Korean chicken, gochujang mayo, sweet sour cucumber (Grilled chicken thighs, spicy mayo, refreshing pickled cucumber relish. You could not ask for a more compelling package.)
  • Chicken with Haricots & Creamy Basil Dressing (Chicken breasts have it tough. And are often tough. However cooked carefully, lovingly, they can be quite special indeed.)
  • Broccoli with Harissa & Coriander Gremolata (I can always use another trick to dress up old mate broccoli and this was a good trick. Our Harissa was a little mild, so I would have liked this to have a little bit more of a kick.)
  • Tomatoes, Potatoes & Vermouth with Basil Creme Fraiche (I think the basil creme fraiche does not add a lot to this dish and could safely be omitted. Omitting to make this dish at all would be a shame and deny you an excellent, easy meal.)
  • Baby potatoes with watercress and garlic cream (Not sold on the dressing in this, I confess.)
  • Fragrant Sichuan aubergines (A really accessible and really bloody good version of one of the greatest Sichuan dishes: fish fragrant eggplant. I am near to drooling just thinking about how good this was. Fussy English food, indeed not!)

Why this book?

  • You want to make good food without diving into complex recipes
  • You have a global palette and get tired of eating the same sort of flavours over and over again
  • You want to make the best pork chop recipe you will ever come across

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 ░░░ Diana Henry Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░░ “Skinny Latte” And does it just spark joy?

Diana Henry’s work needs to receive greater attention. She has an amazing palette and produces books of quiet confidence. She understand what it is to be a modern home cook, and writes books for that market better than anyone else I know.

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.

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.

Flavour — Ruby Tandoh

Flavour joins the chorus of books that seeks to refute the trend towards ‘clean eating.’ Such voices seek to make food fun again, rather than a source of anxiety and fear.

Cookbooks have a lot to teach us. No, aside from the obvious mechanics of how and when to apply heat to various combinations of protein, carbohydrate and lipid.

Cookbooks are guides for different ways of living. Do we buy into a world of 15 minute meals, where food is a necessary but joyless pitstop in our otherwise busy days? Or do we invest in a world where everyone makes their own jam and knows the village vicar?

Cookbooks are inspiration for how to live, as much as they are how to eat.

In some cases this inspiration is explicit: as in Balance and Harmony, Asian cookbooks often suggest a certain way of eating: something that is highly communal and features a few dishes. This reflects a certain lifestyle and culture.

In some cases the inspiration is tacit: the many cookbooks of Bill Granger do not exactly tell you to eat the food outside with a group of friends all wearing white jeans and linen shirts, yet you begin to feel the pull of this as you read and cook from one of his books.

Yet what happens if this guidance is confused? When one recipe pulls you in one direction–of say a no fuss 15-minute meal–and the other recipe pulls you into the direction of intricate and involved baking?

The central problem of Flavour is that it simply is not sure of what it wants to be—or how it wants to guide you. After having cooked from this book for a few weeks, I now see much clearer warning signs in this paragraph from the book’s introduction:

This book is for everyone who likes to eat, whether you’re a new cook or a devoted foodie, a fast food queen or a restaurant critic, old or young.

In creating a book that she hopes is for everyone, Tandoh has created a book that will appeal to no one.

Even the central message–that we should stop demonising and elevating certain (arbitrary) food types is lost in a cookbook that consists of a confusing mishmash of cuisines, techniques and approaches.

Structure

Hardback.

368 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Vegetable and Herbs
  3. Fruit
  4. Eggs and Dairy
  5. Meat and Fish
  6. Storecupboard

Within each of these chapters are a variety of smaller sections. For instance, the Fruit chapter has sections for Apples, Pears and Rhubarb, Tropical Fruit, Citrus, Stone fruits and cherries, and Berries and Currants.

I cannot say whether or not this structure was Tandoh’s decision or her publisher’s. I can say with certainty it is a terrible system of organisation. Not being able to quickly look at similar recipes is painful. If you want to make something with chicken, you might have to look at 10 different sections under a few different chapters.

It is a hard book to browse: I have had to rely on the index to an unprecedented extent. Once you do find your way, things improve slightly. The recipe format is workable: a generous headnote (occasionally, far too generous, such that the recipe does not start until the last paragraphs on the page). The ingredients are given a column on the side, and the method is given in paragraph long chunks.

Tandoh’s writing is much stronger in the headnote than in the recipe method. This, I think, reflects the problem I have with the book: it does not know what it wants to be, so the writing is really inconsistent. It can be really chatty and go into far too much detail, yet at times glides over steps and omits helpful advice.

The photography is not bad, yet tends toward an out of focus, instragram-filter aesthetic. It is serviceable, yet you get the sense that food is rarely the hero. You can see what I am talking about on the blog for the book.

Thoughts

No cookbook is going to be perfect. Every book I have reviewed here has suffered from flaws (which I hope I have managed to convey in my reviews.)

I would be more willing to overlook some of the things that I have discussed if the food from the book was good. Instead, it ranges from fine (at best) to boring and uninspiring (at worst).

Despite the unclear focus and audience of this book, it does not seriously position itself as being something for those who are new to cooking. Yet the recipes for one dimensional, simple food often seem like they would be more suitable for a kitchen novice.

The first hints of concern started when I was flicking through the book. Normally I get quite excited by a new cookbook. It is a whole world of possibility. Within every cookbook there is the potential for a recipe that will change your life or become the one recipe. So I am often almost giddy when I flicking through a new book for the first time. And yet, I remember flicking through this one and just thinking ‘hmm’ after each page.

This, by itself, is not alarming. In fact, the opposite. The best cookbooks can turn an unlikely or underwhelming series of ingredients into something incredible.

So I persevered. We cooked from this. We gave it our best shot.

And, well, I am just glad this week is over, so I can stop cooking from this book. I have given it my all, and can conclude, sadly, it is not a good cookbook.

Here is what we have cooked:

  • Quick Broccoli satay stir fry (totally fine; something you would make, eat and never think of again.)
  • Zesty Chilli Prawn Noodles (the curious addition of orange zest does nothing for a dish that tends towards bland, stodgy, and goopy) 
  • Berbere roasted sweet potato (the spice mix is tasty and certainly enlivened the dish. While perhaps not life changing, this at least was slightly exciting to eat)
  • Korean inspired rice bowls (the recipe as it stands would have resulted in a very dull dish; I had to make substantial modifications. So the end result was actually quite nice, but that was more of a result of tricks I had learnt from Bowl then the advice from this recipe)
  • Roast garlic and goats cheese frittata (again, as the recipe stands it would have been unimpressive. For a book called Flavour, Tandoh seems so keen to avoid any accusation of that!)
  • Ghanaian groundnut chicken stew (one dimensional: if you like peanut butter and chicken I guess you will like this. If you require slightly more complex flavour profiles, you will not.)
  • Lemon Courgette Risotto with Summer Herbs (if you ignore her instruction to use arborio rice—the garbage rice—it turns out to be a fine risotto. The pine nuts do not add much.)
  • Warm Spiced Chickpea and Carrot Salad (see above: mediocre food)
  • Summer Pineapple Camomile cake (this was nice. the timing instructions were off (but given how variable ovens are, this can be expected. The pineapple curd was a treat.)

Why not this book?

  • Because it s confused – its tone, purpose and content is just all over the place
  • Because the photography is often lacklustre and sure to feel dated by year’s end
  • There are simply many other better books out there (in each of the categories that the book has a hand in)

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and easy?
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 ||||| Tax returns And does it just spark joy?

 

Notwithstanding the above, if you would still like to buy it, you can do so via Amazon.

Stirring Slowly — Georgina Hayden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure

Hardback. White placeholder ribbon—always appreciated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far:

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

Why this book?

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

Score

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

 

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

Seven Spoons — Tara O’Brady

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

Here’s what we’ve cooked:

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

Why this book?

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

Score

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

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

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