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.

Every Bill Granger Cookbook, Ranked

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

Ahem. Let me try again.

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

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

Bill’s Italian Food (2013)

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

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

Bill’s Open Kitchen (2003)

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

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

Bill’s Sydney Food (2000)

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

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

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

Simply Bill (2005)

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

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

Everyday (2006) 

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

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

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

Despite the regrettable gimmick, this book is solid.

Holiday (2009)

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

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

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

Feed Me Now (2009)

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

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

Bill’s Basics (2010)

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

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

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

Bill’s Everyday Asian (2011)

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

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

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

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

Easy (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Bill?

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

About Bill

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

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

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.

Cornersmith — Alex Elliott-Howery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure and Design

Hardback. No ribbon.

271 pages split across the following chapters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why this book?

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

Score

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

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

Small Victories — Julia Turshen

Anyone who is a collector is motivated by love. That once in a hundred feeling of stumbling across the one. The one that reminds you what drew you to building and maintaining this collection in the first place.

This feeling–a quickening of the pulse, a feeling of sheer luck–is exciting because of its rarity. If every new item to a collection inspired such extreme feelings, the net result would be indifference and boredom.

You have to acknowledge and accept the examples that are fine, okay, and bravely acceptable as they provide the backdrop for the truly exceptional titles to shine.

I will stop being coy and cut to the chase: I love Small Victories by Julia Turshen. It is my favourite new cookbook in a while. It does so many smart things that it makes other cookbooks seem insubstantial and superficial in comparison.

The extent to which I have fallen for this book is especially interesting when I consider that this was a title I was going to pass by. Why? Well, I know you should never judge a book by it’s cover, but I totally did with this one. The gingham trim, the sort of boring chicken soup, and my gut feeling that the small victories would really just be useless recirculated advice all lead to the conclusion that this one was safe to skip.

I am not even sure why I did actually buy it. At any rate, what matters now is that it has entered my life and I am the richer for it.

Structure and Design

Hardback. No ribbon.

303 pages across the following chapters:

  1. Foreword (by INA “USE A GOOD OLIVE OIL” GARTEN!)/Introduction
  2. Breakfast
  3. Soups + Salads
  4. Vegetables
  5. Grains, Beans + Pasta
  6. Meat + Poultry
  7. Shellfish + Fish
  8. Desserts
  9. A few drinks + some things to keep on hand
  10. Seven Lists
  11. Menu Suggestions, Give Back, Acknowledgements, Index

I have already talked a bit about the cover. Despite how much I love this book, I think the cover fails to match the tone and content of the book. The gingham spine is particularly misleading: it suggests a sort of old fashioned family classics like approach. The chicken soup, while attractive, is potentially the most boring dish from the book. The embossed titled is sort of corny. It’s just not a good cover.

Yet things improve immediately when you open the book. The end paper is this perfect cheerful yellow. Think of the yellow of a post-it note (let’s talk sponsorship, 3M?) only intensified by a hundred.  You continue to flick through the book and the impressions of the cover are quickly dispelled. This is a thoroughly modern cookbook, both in design and content. Yet the books modernity does not equal faddishness or tedious adherence to flavours-of-the-month.

The recipe format is a basic one and works reasonably well. A generous recipe headnote is a vehicle for Turshen to give a bit of context to the recipe as well as provide a series of small victories. These small victories are the central conceit behind the book: they are little juicy nuggets of advice or guidance. In an author without Turshen’s experience or passion they would be useless and a waste of time. However Turshen has been a private chef, a recipe developer for scores of cookbooks, and genuinely loves food and cooking. As a result these tips are useful, sometimes almost to the degree of being revolutionary.

Under the headnote comes the list of ingredients, split across three columns. Given that I have professed my love for this book, I feel comfortable in sharing another (minor) criticism: this way of listing ingredients is awful! The horizontal space it consumes means you cannot get an at-a-glance sense of what the recipe needs. It doesn’t allow for clustering like ingredients. It is a bad choice.

The recipe method is immediately below, and consists of paragraph long chunks split across two columns. This works much better than the ingredient list. The column size and paragraph length are perfectly calibrated to be consumable in a quick glance.

And on, say every second recipe, there is a little box that gives you a few different variations on the recipe (or in some cases a whole new mini recipe). Again, this is something that in the hands of a lesser author would be a waste of space. However these are genius and drastically increase how useful this book is. It is also a great way of teaching creativity and of building kitchen improvisation skills.

I am torn by the photography. It’s by ‘Gentl + Hyers’ which I can only assume is some sort of industrial lifestyle photography group operating out of an artisanal barn somewhere. It is often very good–the lighting is delicious–but it sometimes verges on being an unconscious parody of the Food52 style of photography.

The real weakness in the photography is that the book features a lot of photographs of ingredients rather than the finished dish itself. While I enjoy pictures of corn and of bowls of lentils, I am more curious to know what a finished dish might look like. It’s a curious choice of art direction, certainly.

Thoughts

The magic of this book was not apparent from reading it. The recipes looked, well, fine. Perhaps even a little simple. So it was with a bit of trepidation that we cooked the first few things from this book.

The results were exceptional. We were not sure what to think or to trust that something special was going on. As we ate we looked at each other and had conversations: “This is good, right? Like really good” “Can’t talk. Eating.”

So we cooked more and the good results continued time and time again. Eventually we relaxed and realised that those first few recipes weren’t a fluke, but simply characteristic of the smart way Turshen approaches recipe writing. The recipes make the most of her extensive experience in a way that not every cookbook author can manage. Quite frankly, I’m in awe of the magic she achieves with such concision, warmth and elegance.  In this book, Turshen has set a new benchmark for this style of cookbook. I really hope that she writes another.

While I could explore the catalogue of cookbooks she has worked on, I sense there’s something special and personal about this, the first cookbook published under her own name.

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far (sometimes I say so far knowing I’ll probably never come back to the book. In this case it is an accurate statement of intent):

  • with Roasted Tomato Salsa (I had chilaquiles for breakfast at a cafe once and was not too impressed. Had my first experience of the dish been with these I would have been a convert a lot quicker. The salsa that forms the base for this dish is really incredible. A small victory from me is to forego making your own tortilla chips and use some from a bag.)
  • Sour cream pancakes with roasted blueberries (I must have put slightly more baking soda than was called for because these had a faint, almost ghostly, metallic aftertaste. Still, once I get the quantities right, this will become my new go to pancake recipe. The roasted blueberries are the perfect addition.)
  • Aunt Renee’s Chicken Soup (the only clear miss from the book: this was just bland and insubstantial. Given the good rap Turshen gives it, I’m almost convinced I missed a step or my chicken was defective.) 
  • Bibb Lettuce with Garlic Dressing (an addition to my repertoire of go-to dressings. It’s essentially a basic mustard vinaigrette but with the addition of crushed garlic that gently pickles in the vinegar.) 
  • Julia’s Caesar (again, you get such a sense of Turshen’s experience and appreciation for maximal flavour with minimal effort: by using mayonnaise as the base, you get a quick tasty caesar dressing dressing without the potential concern of raw egg yolk.) 
  • Zucchini, red onion & pistachio salad (fantastic and nuanced textures combine to make a really glamorous and sophisticated salad. It is quick to make but looks and tastes much more impressive than the sum of its parts) 
  • Tin-Foil Kale & Cherry Tomatoes (potentially the stand out recipe from the book: you simply wrap kale, tomatoes and garlic into a foil parcel and then apply heat. The results are incredible and would convert anyone to kale. The perfect side dish.)
  • String Beans with Pork, Ginger & Red Chile (the culinary palette of the book stirs more to new-American, however I quite love the Asian inflections to some of the recipes. This is a fine rendition of a Chinese classic, yet one that won’t set the world on fire.) 
  • Kinda, sorta patatas bravas (see comments above about maximal flavour for minimal effort. These crispy potatoes go fantastically with a punchy tomato aioli. This would be a genius idea for a party.) 
  • Roasted Scallion + Chive Dip (I could eat a whole bowl of this. It is a super fantastic onion-y dip. And again demonstrates how well Turshen understands how to create flavour but also make food people want to eat. Oh it was good. And I got misty eyed with affection when she suggested you serve this dip with salt and vinegar crisps.) 
  • Kimchi Fried Rice with Scallion Salad (While I would have preferred this with brown rice—which stands up to the assertiveness of the kimchi better than milquetoast white rice—it was perhaps the best kimchi fried rice I have made. The scallion salad is a perfect addition and prevents the dish from being too one note.) 
  • Chopped Chickpea Salad (Simple perhaps to a fault, despite the off-piste addition of sizzled chorizo. Our go to chopped salad is slightly more involved, but more enjoyable: Neil Perry’s Rockpool Bar and Grill chopped salad)
  • Orecchiette with Spicy Sausage + Parmesan (*love heart eye emoji* forever) 
  • A Nice Lasagne (this is a smart way of making lasagne with a tenth of the overall time and effort. The result is evocative enough of the full on lasagne bolognese to be satisfying and delightful.) 
  • Greek-ish Grilled Shrimp (this is a simple recipe. In fact, I was almost tempted not to make this recipe because of how simple it seems. Not making this recipe, however, would have denied us a real treat. Elegant and robust.)
  • Cold Elixir (I unexpectedly had an opportunity to try this. I swear there’s a magic in it as it actually made me feel a better as I suffered with a summer cold.) 

Why this book?

  • You love smart, clever cookbooks that somehow pull off quick AND delicious
  • You are willing to overlook a misleading cover
  • You want a book that provides real inspiration and encourages creativity

Score

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

You must buy and cook from this brilliant book! I love it and I am sure you will too.

The Zen Kitchen — Adam Liaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure and Design

Hardback.

240 pages split across the following chapters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what we have cooked so far:

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

Why this book?

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

Score

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

 

You should probably buy this book.

Sirocco — Sabrina Ghayour

If Sirocco was a cage fighter it would be a bombastic, no-holds barred affair wearing the brightest neon leotard ever. Luckily, it is not a cage fighter and instead an exciting and flavour-driven cookbook.

Given the state of the world in early 2017, everyone should be in therapy: a mid-century couch to sit on, someone with a smart cardigan to listen, and a view over a river or lake to cover quiet moments.

Of course I imagine therapy is expensive. Cooking is however much cheaper. And, in its own way, therapeutic.

Cooking requires a certain degree of focus and concentration. A wandering mind will result in something burning, or at least an assertive char. The best food comes when you are in the kitchen, both literally and figuratively.

The more you are thinking about everything else in your life, the less likely you are to create something pleasing. The more you are focussed on the sounds and smells of the task before you, the more likely you are to both enjoy the time spent cooking and produce something good.

Of course, the therapeutic benefits of cooking are not solely from this meditative aspect. There is something special about simply creating something. For those of us with office/knowledge based jobs where we deal with abstract concepts and intangible things, it is a relief to touch and experience something real. It is a direct and simple pleasure, one that comes from turning one thing into something else through the application of creativity and care.

And then there is the obvious joy of nurturing and caring for people. Even if you are cooking for yourself (especially so, in fact!), it is an act of love to make food. It affirms our existence and acknowledges that no matter the superficial differences between two people, we share an inescapable common biology: we all need to eat. Or, more succinctly, everyone poops.

Cooking from Sirroco has been therapeutic and a treat. The resulting food has been a balm for frayed souls and a celebration of life.

Structure

Hardcover. Two jaunty ribbons to mark your place. A welcome extravagance.

240 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. My Kitchen Pantry
  3. Brilliant breakfasts & brunches
  4. Light bites & savoury snacks
  5. Spectacular Salads & sides
  6. Mouthwatering main dishes
  7. Superb bakes & sweet treats
  8. Index
  9. Acknowledgement

There’s a certain exuberance to the design of this book. Scroll up and take a second look at the cover: it’s this eye-catching whirl of colour and light.

This spirit continues within the book proper. Colourful pages and graphic elements, vibrant photography combine to suggest a sense of culinary play and fun. This is not a ponderous or sombre book, but rather a book that wants to be celebrated.

It does date the book however: even though it was produced last year, it feels much older. In an age of more minimalist approaches, the design sticks out and perhaps not in the best way. The cover for the US edition is much stronger. It conveys the book’s exuberance without being quite so overdone.

Ghayour’s writing has a certain charm and excitement to it. It does not quite match the level of exuberance suggested by the design and the photography, but that is arguably a point to be thankful for.

Occasionally, the method for individual recipes is not as clear as it needs to be. Given the informality of the food in this book this is mostly no big deal: however there are a few recipes where this lack of thought becomes a frustrating oversight.

The recipe format is workable: the usual headnote, a two column list of ingredients (sorted in use order and with accompanying preparations) and then relatively dense paragraph by paragraph methods. It does not set the world on fire, but it works well enough. A more generous line-spacing could have helped readability.

The photography speaks louder than the writing. It is enticing. There’s an immediacy to the shots that is compelling. The photography very much builds on the theme of vibrant, intense food.

Thoughts

If I am drawn to a cookbook it is because of an uncompromising appreciation for flavour. I do not want delicate hints of this or suggestions of that. I want big fat wallops of flavour. I want bright, direct flavours. I am comfortable if you take away from this I have a simple palette. I am shameless in this.

This book adopts a flavour focussed approach. While the book is heavily influenced by the flavours of the middle east, there is some fun combinations and experiments going on, rather than an attempt for strict recreations of regional fare.

If you were expecting a book with a strong and authentic coverage of say Iranian food, you might be disappointed. If you were expecting ideas for delicious and tasty food, then you will be delighted.

This is what we have made so far:

  • Bread Boats (this is one of the examples were the method is not up to scratch: there’s no advice other than make them ‘boat shaped.’ It was also difficult to stop the egg cascading down the sides and over the baking pan)
  • Bacon Pitas (the breakfast of champions. The spicy mango chutney based condiment is the thing of dreams and would make a lovely addition to any dish needing a real flavour kick)
  • Spiced beetroot yogurt (good but not great – it felt ever so slightly flat and in need of just a bit more oomph) 
  • Courgette, Saffron & Potato Kuku (again, good but not great. That said, I have a bit of a bias against kukus so, it could just be me)
  • Za’atar & Goats’ Cheese Puffs (the perfect companion to an icy cold drink. Flaky pastry, beguiling za’atar and tangy, rich goat’s cheese. Morish but tending towards a little salty, although this is obviously dependent on which goats cheese/za’atar you use) 
  • Mouthful spiced lamb kebabs (recreating the flavour profile of say a lamb schwarma in a dish that takes even a slowpoke like me half an hour is a real achievement. The accompanying harissa oil was *thumbs up emoji*. Although the recipe does not suggest this, you would be silly not to serve this with sumac marinated onions)
  • Lamb buns (this remains the best use for leftover lamb I have found. The sticky, savoury, sweet lamb goes fantastically with a cucumber and pomegranate relish)
  • Spicy Turkey Lettuce Wraps (like the lamb kebabs, this is a clever, quick and tasty idea for a midweek DIY meal)
  • Apple, sumac, red onion salad (the combination of sumac and onions is perfect. The apple adds a sweetness that brings out the natural sweetness of red onions. And the lemon in the dressing stops the whole thing from becoming one dimensional.) 
  • Prawn, broccolini, feta and almond salad (while I have mixed feelings about using ‘designer’ trademarked (and heavily litigated) vegetables, there’s no denying this salad is heavy on flavour and shows a certain textural sophistication)
  • Turmeric & spice-marinated cauliflower (the tomato sauce the recipe directs you to make with this dish elevates it from fine to very good) 
  • Crushed new potatoes with garlic, dill, grilled scallions & peas (if I have a weakness, and this is not a confession, more friendly banter, it would be for potato salad. This version skips the mayo and is the better for it. Spritely and memorable)
  • Stir-fried Tangy Prawns (it is hard to imagine I have lived a rich life without ever trying cooked cucumber. This dish is spicy and vibrant and one of the best recipies in the book)

Why This Book

  • You want a book that appreciates and chases flavour
  • You are happy to overlook a few recipes that are not quite as developed as they should be
  • You love the flavours of the Middle East

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 forgotten wallet And does it just spark joy?

 

You should buy this book. Why not buy a copy on Amazon?

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.