Balance and Harmony — Neil Perry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure

Hardcover.

399 pages split across three main parts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what we have cooked so far:

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

Why this book?

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

Score

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

 

You should buy this book! How about from Amazon?

Stirring Slowly — Georgina Hayden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure

Hardback. White placeholder ribbon—always appreciated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far:

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

Why this book?

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

Score

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

 

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

Seven Spoons — Tara O’Brady

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

Here’s what we’ve cooked:

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

Why this book?

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

Score

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

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

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

Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes — Peter Meehan

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

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

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

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

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

Structure

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

A sample of what we’ve cooked:

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

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

Why this book? 

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

Score

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

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

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