On the Side — Ed Smith

I confess were it not for the jaunty yellow dustcover of Ed Smith’s book, I might not have picked the book up at all. In a world of the hyper attention grabbing photo cover, the simple playfulness of this book’s cover immediately appealed.

I had never heard of Ed Smith—who must clearly be a secret agent with such an anodyne name. A review of the author blurb, and the quickest of googlings, leads to the happy discovery Agent Smith writes a food website Rocket & Squash which I had been sadly, hitherto, unaware of.

Some of the strongest cookbooks have been produced by those who run food websites. Given the ease with which anyone can start writing, there is a terrible sea of content out there. As such whenever one website emerges from the primordial muck, it is normally a reliable indicator of quality.

On The Side, Smith’s first cookbook, is billed as a wide ranging collection of side dishes, the often forgotten, yet endlessly pleasing, supporting players in our meals. It is side dishes that provide the thoughtful counterpoint to the rest of the meal and can elevate the ordinary to the realm of the exceptional.

Yet despite my love of side dishes, I cannot help but feel this nominal focus—on food that is meant to accompany other food—is a slight disservice to what is inventive, considered, and enjoyable food.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. No ribbon.

335 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Greens, leaves & herbs
  2. Vegetables, fruits, flowers & bulbs
  3. Roots, squash & potatoes
  4. Grains, pulses, pasta & rice

While we are chided not to judge a book by its cover, of course we will. I think the cover of this book is brilliantly designed and is a real rebuke to the reflective approach taken by so many other designers.

The cover—or rather, the dust jacket—of On The Side is tremendously interesting: there’s embossing, there’s debossing, there’s a cutaway corner, revealing the gorgeous red hardcover underneath. A large part of this book’s production cost must have gone to this splendid cover. And bravo to Smith and their publisher, Bloomsbury, for doing so. It would have only been too easy to produce something inane and charmless, such as the most of the books in Amazon’s bestsellers list at any one time.

The design of the rest of the book is not as bold, but is nonetheless impressive. The book commits to excellent typography in a way that few books do: after drowning in a sea of sans serif faces—including, ahem, our new logo—and after some not very pleasing serifs in some other titles this year, what they’ve gone with here is elegant, has personality and presence on the page.

Out of the cookbooks I have spent time with in 2017 this might just be one of my favourite designs: there is a sense of doing things differently, and not just doing so to be novel, but in the service of the principles of good design.

I also think the photography is exceptional: after some dreary examples—there’s a review I have been holding off on writing simply because the photography is so artificial and layered with filigree that it is terribly depressing—the photos in this book are incredibly attractive and make the food look beautiful. The book does the simple yet apparently quite elusive task of making the food the star. It is refreshing.

And, in something that has me moist-eyed with gratitude, the indexes of this book are thoughtful and useful. Stepping away from the convention of just one index, Smith provides a trio of additional indexes—or rather, to use his phrasing, directories. One is by main ingredient (so if you are making falafel for dinner you could see which sides are recommended), another is part of the kitchen needed to prepare the recipe (so if you are, say, baking bread, you can consult the stove top list) and the final is simply arranged my time.

All in all, the design of this book is beautiful and considered. It makes bold choices and those choices work. I am so happy that Smith has decided to abandon so much of the contemporary cookbook design vernacular and present something that is unique and valuable.

Thoughts

Sides are often the source of the greatest joy in a meal. And yet they are often criminally neglected. It is far from uncommon for people, when planning a meal, to pour all their time, attention and money into some elaborate piece of protein, and simply forget to give any love to the rest of the plate. Sides, if they are thought of at all, are often cursory and lacking any joy and thought.

This is a real shame. Sides give us such wonderful opportunities to show our creativity, and experiment with new flavours, approaches, techniques. In that they are usually cast in supporting roles, we should be a lot less afraid of failure and take some risks that we might not otherwise make. When I think of very good meals it is more often than not the sides I am thinking of so fondly. It is facile to create magic from a $70 piece of marbled wagyu. It takes skill and commitment as a cook to create magic from a cabbage and an onion.

This book is billed as a sourcebook for side recipes. It does not suggest to the casual reader that the book has greater potential than this. While I like the focus on sides—so few cookbooks give this area any attention—this does the book a slight disservice.

You should not think of this book as just a collection of sides: a word which, for many, might recall more the limp pub salad, with obligatory single industrial strength cherry tomato, than something of genuine excitement, than say a slow roast wedge of cabbage, stuffed with various delicious things, in the manner of Melbourne’s Town Mouse. I first ate that dish four years ago and can remember almost nothing about the meal (other than the agreeable company and my first taste of Patrick Sullivan’s wines) other than this superb cabbage. I have so many more examples.

I urge you not to view this book through a limited lens. Think of this book as a collection of excellent vegetable-focused recipes that can easily be combined for memorable, satisfying meals. The book does, almost covertly, make this much easier than you think: every recipe gives you two or three other sides that would work well together. These are in the context of providing a chorus of voices to support whatever the ‘star’ of the meal is. I encourage you to ignore any call for something else—you can, as we have done over many a night—make incredibly satisfying and wonderful meals with individual or small combinations of dishes from this book. The ‘this goes great with x, y, and z’ is a smart addition to the book.

At any rate, these recipes are often so good they would often outshine whatever you might choose to serve with them. I  struggle to imagine how anyone who cooks from this book would not, eventually, come to the same conclusion. I only wish Smith was a little more proud of his recipes and leaned a little less heavily on the ‘side’ angle.

The focus on these dishes being sides has a wonderful side (teehee) benefit: the recipes give a lot of flavour without days of faffing around.  Constraints often produce the best innovation and solutions. So, the constraint of producing food that is nominally meant to accompany other food (and thus cannot take five days to produce) has led Smith to create really enjoyable food.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Baby Pak Choi with Sticky Garlic and Ginger (a perfect simple vegetable stir fry: the garlic and ginger gives real vitality to the pak choi.)
  • Black bean, coriander and lime rice (I made this with the corn recipe below. It was a fantastic combination, and one that just demonstrates the clever way Smith thinks about food.)
  • Buttermilk, dill and soy seed wedge salad (one of the stars of this book: an incredible buttermilk dressing, pickled radishes, sticky seeds, iceberg lettuce. I want to eat this forever.)
  • Chard with chilli, shallot and cider vinaigrette (my favourite recipe of the year, I think. I have made this on so many occasions and each time I am blown away. The dressing in particular is masterful. And it has almost converted my chard-averse partner.)
  • Chicken stock and orange-braised fennel (cooked fennel is a somewhat new visitor chez nous, but it is always welcome. The orange both enhances the sweetness of the fennel but also accentuates the savoury anise notes. Delightful autumn food.)
  • Chinese cabbage with black vinegar (Outside of Asia, the wombok is criminally underappreciated. It is the most wonderful vegetable: at once deeply savoury, sweet, juicy, tender, crunchy, silky. This elegant little stir fry is rewarding.) 
  • Chorizo Roast Potatoes (How to improve a roast potato? Add chorizo it seems! Don’t eat chorizo? Investigate Julia Turschen’s kinda, sorta patas bravas.) 
  • Grilled Tenderstem Broccoli with Umami Crumbs (I challenge you to make this and not consider topping every dish with umami crumbs. It’s genius.)
  • Honey, thyme, and lime butter corn (there’s almost a south east Asian feel to this the way the sweetness of the corn and honey is contrasted with the peppy lime juice and woody notes of the thyme. Morish.)
  • Quick cucumber and daikon kimchi (I met a Korean person who was just so enthusiastic about kimchi it’s hard to eat it now without thinking of their cheerful advocacy. I think they might have been in the pocket of Big Fermented Cabbage, honestly. Whether or not they would like this quick kimchi inspired vegetable pickle I will never know, but I certainly loved it.)
  • Smacked Cucumbers (One of my favourite dishes, although I think I’m so wedded to the Fuchsia Dunlop version all others, including this variation, feel a little wan in comparison.) 

Why this book?

  • You want to improve your repertoire of sides
  • You want an excellent resource of modern vegetable-focussed dishes
  • You want to support excellent cookbook design

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?

This book, nominally a collection of side dishes, is a tremendous discovery and is a welcome addition to anyone’s everyday cookbook library.

Power Vegetables! — Peter Meehan

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

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

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

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

Structure and Design

Harcover. No ribbon.

272 pages split across the following chapters:

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what we have cooked:

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

Why this book?

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

Score

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

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

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

Neighbourhood — Hetty McKinnon

There are two sorts of people in the world: those who salad and those who do not salad. I am very much down with those salads, as is Hetty McKinnon, this year’s salad boss.

I gravitate towards generalist cookbooks: I want something that will provide inspiration for as many different moods as possible. I want the security of knowing that a cookbook will give me ideas for breakfast, lunch and yes even dinner.

This is a tension of life: the specialist versus the generalist. Or the jack of all trades (master of none) versus having knowledge a mile (kilometre) deep yet an inch (2.5cm) wide.

Science has more or less convinced me that the way the human brain is wired is to crave novelty (or rather to be aware of new threats which is a focus on what is new versus what is familiar and safe). This focus on novelty means that I, well, get a little bored with cookbooks that focus on only one thing (be it a meal type or a cuisine or particular technique).

Yet I still find some value in books which demonstrate a focus towards the one theme. I’m not talking about those weird seemingly authorless books they sell at bargain bookshops (with titles like 500 ways with broccoli stems). Books that show you a theme and then skilfully and with a great degree of originality and verve expand that theme.

Hetty’s second salad-focussed book (a follow up to 2014’s Community) shows both the joy and delight in salads and also in exploring the one thing. Not every book could (or should) follow this formula, but occasionally there is one that ticks all the boxes.

Structure

Softcover.

239 pages split across the following chapters: Dear America | So Frenchie | Into the Mediterranean | East, Meet West | To Asia, With Love | This is Australia | Just Bring Dessert

I had never considered this book (or Community) because its design sets off some alarm bells for me: softcover (ack), magazine-like format, unknown author and a sort of Kinfolk vibe that generally provokes a mild rash.

However our friend Jemma posted a review of Community and made it sound like rather a nice book indeed. And then I saw a copy of both Neighbourhood and Community in a bookshop just screaming to me I knew I had to investigate further in the name of deliciousness.

I won’t say my initial instincts were entirely wrong: the book does feel like a magazine (or one of the cookbooks produced under the delicious brand). I know this reflects a preoccupation of form rather substance, but how a book feels and looks is important.

The recipe format is simple: Hetty gives headnotes that while occasionally informative do not add much. The recipes themselves are straightforward and well edited. The language is clear and concise.

The photography is inviting: there’s a real depth to the colour and intensity of the photos which is surprising considering that the matte pages feel fairly thin. My only quibble is with the direction of photos: every second shot is of someone holding a plate or dish, or perhaps fingers draped over a eating implement. There’s a visual monotony which is either calming or slightly tired.

Thoughts

Hetty (which is possibly the most delightful name ever) really knows a thing or two (or fifty) about salads. She has a way of combining flavours that is modern and inviting.

The cafe heritage of the book is clear: these are salads you could imagine resting under gorgeous platters (perhaps from Mud?) under a glass display case in an inner city cafe. They are often incredibly hearty, with big bold flavours. To be clear, when some people think of salads they imagine what I call a pub salad: lettuce mix, a solitary cucumber slice and an industrial cherry tomato. These are salads bursting with vitality, salads that are full-on meals rather than mere set dressing.

There’s a real assertive approach to flavour in this book. The recipes encourage you to build together layers of flavour that combine to make a powerful whole. It’s a smart approach and is a world away from cutting up some ingredients and tossing them into a bowl.

Despite not cooking a lot from this book (yet!), there are some clear flavour profiles: Hetty loves a yoghurt based dressing as much as she loves a dressing with raw garlic. You can either view this as a conceptual glue or falling back on the same idea. As a family of garlic obsessives, I am entirely on board with this, and I imagine most people would be too. It is however something that stuck out to me.

I can see returning to this book a lot over the next month: as the weather warms up, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect book. While there’s some repetition in flavour profiles, this would be far less apparent when you’re not cooking every meal in a week from the same book.

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far:

  • Eggplant with haloumi, beetroot tzatziki: the tzatiki is a very smart combination of beetroots, yoghurt, herbs and lemon. The eggplant salad is also quite interesting, with a fun interplay of smooshy eggplant and crunchy/crumbly walnuts. The haloumi adds the pleasingly one-dimensional salty styrofoam note that I love on the first bite, like on the second bite and then start to turn against it by the third and fourth bite. The recipe calls for you to make yoghurt flatbreads, but even we have our limits for weeknight cooking! 
  • Chargrilled brussels sprouts and kale with crushed borlotti beans: it’s an odd combination, and the crushed bean mixture looks sort of brilliant (hot pink in a sea of beige), but it really does work. It’s also one of the simpler salads in the book yet demonstrates the DNA behind Hetty’s approach. 
  • Kinda-niçoise with fried green beans, roasted kale, lentils, steamed eggs and caper mayo: the caper mayo is genius and demonstrates what I was talking about  above (really zingy dressings that occasionally stray into the too-garlicky/assertive path). This salad was very impressive in how it made a salad that could live up to the heavy reputation of la salade niçoise yet do it’s own thing. A french person would probably not be able to handle it, but more for the rest of us, n’est-ce pas?   
  • Seedy soba with Asian herbs: I allow every cookbook a few failures. I’m always of the mind that when a recipe fails it can say as much about the person making the recipe (or eating the dish) as it does about the recipe itself. The dressing, in marked contrasted to everything else in this book, just wasn’t good. The ratio of one tablespoon of acid (here, cider vinegar) to five tablespoons of oil is off. The end product was simply not enjoyable. 
  • Roasted sweet potato with leeks and mustard croutons: Okay, another pet peeve. I do not like when the photograph used to illustrate a particular recipe was clearly cooked in a different way from what the recipe itself provides. In the photo for this dish the sweet potatoes were clearly roasted as one roasts a jacket potato (low to medium heat for a long time) whereas the recipe asks you to dice and bake for 20-25 minutes. It’s misleading. HOWEVER. This recipe, made as the recipe instructs and not as the picture suggests, was REALLY GOOD. The mustard croutons were INCREDIBLE. The mustard dressing (again, garlic and yoghurt to the rescue) was FANTASTIC. The soft sweet leeks were the perfect foil against peppery rocket.

Why this book?

  • You’re salad curious or a full on team salad
  • You don’t mind garlic and yoghurt, often forever together
  • You subscribe to the approach of ‘when in doubt, add an egg’

Score

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

 

You probably should buy this book.

A Modern Way to Eat — Anna Jones

A Modern Way to Eat is just that: plant and grain based meals that show our increased desire to eat less meat. The book features updated versions of familiar classics as well as new ideas.

Normally I’m aware of where I first had the idea to buy a certain cookbook: it could have been a recommendation from a friend, or an article online. Despite best attempts, I cannot remember where or how I first heard about A Modern Way to EatWhatever its providence, at least I have it in my life, which is a very good thing.

Growing up the food I ate fell into a banal pattern of meat ‘n’ three veg—or more likely meat ‘n’ veg. I never questioned that pattern until I moved out of home and got stuck into the first few years of being a real person.

Still, it wasn’t until I started living with Nim that I questioned and rebelled against this template. As I became more and more interested in cooking, I moved from meat as the dinner norm, to meat as a supporting player to meat one or twice a week.

Constraints are a fantastic motivator for creativity. Having to go about the task of planning our weekly menu with an eye towards maximising plant-based food forced me to pay more attention to books like Ottolenghi’s super-mega-giga hit Plenty and less to the inevitable meat-based ‘main meal’ section of a lot of other cookbooks. It’s too easy to use meat as a crutch in your cooking.

I don’t think I consciously ever needed to be convinced that a meal without meat can be as delicious and satisfying (if not more so) than something with a hunk of animal. Even so, books like A Modern Way to Eat opened my eyes to a broader world of possibilities, and I’ve never looked back.

Structure

Hardback.

352 pages split across the following chapters: A modern way to eat | What gets me up in the morning | Food for filling a gap | A bowl of broth, soup or stew | Satisfying salads | Easy lunches and laid-back suppers | Hearty dinners and food to feed a crowd | Vegetables to go with things | Sweet endings | Cakes, bread and a few other things | Things to drink | Jam, chutney, stock and other useful stuff | Index | Vegan and gluten free index.

There are some delightful ‘build your own’ recipes in this book which I quite like (despite never having used). They generally take the form of a series of lists where one is invited to pick an item from each of the lists and hey presto (pesto?), you’ve just birthed a new star. Another form of these build your own sections is a core recipe with a few variations you can make on the theme.

Despite not using these, I nonetheless enjoy them because they provide further insight into how Anna thinks about food. Plus, it’s clever to explore ways of remixing food you’ve cooked from the book already.

The design of the book is tasteful and considered: a readable yet formal font; a scattering of pale green pages (mostly for the build your own type sections talked above), and wonderful, considered photography.

In terms of the recipe format itself, Anna employs generous recipe headnotes: arguably too generous, especially with the rather generous spacing between recipe title and notes (see the picture below). The end result of this formatting is that the recipe is often split across multiple pages, which is slightly inconvenient.

However her writing is clear, and the methods she writes are often simple sentence-long paragraphs which are a real doodle to follow along with while cooking.

Thoughts

There’s a wide array of recipes in this book. Anna has chosen both the modern staples of vegetable-based eating (grain bowls, bakes, composed salads and so on) as well as turned her attention to making more familiar food (tacos, hamburgers and pies) into something with a plant-based focus.

There are some touches that reflect Anna’s clear love for cooking: savoury caramelised corn is paired with sweet, spicy popcorn on a corn tortilla for a delicious corn-on-corn-on-corn taco. Or a panzanella-inspired salad, retooled for autumn by the addition of roasted roots (and the subtraction of tomatoes).

On occasion her recipes need a bit of tweaking: a dish of noodles, tofu and vegetables neglects to apply any love or attention to the vegetables. While easily remedied, these are a sign that you cannot check out and have to be paying attention as you cook.

In terms of hits-to-misses this book knocks it out of the park. Only one dish bombed: a salad of pumpkin, raddichio with an insipid date and balsamic dressing. The majority of food we’ve cooked from this book has been deeply enjoyable. In fact, there are recipes in this book that we’ve cooked 5-10+ times, which giving our habit of not cooking the same thing even a few times is significant.

Of course, there’s some selection bias here in that we’ve avoided cooking some of the more novel recipes. A pizza with a base made from cauliflower and ground almonds sounds a little absurd, while the goodwill rainbow pie just looks like slightly too much work. And the less said about cashew and chestnut bangers the better, I believe.

The food in this is never more complicated than it should be. The results are often more impressive than you’d expect. A cookbook needs to let you create food that is more impressive than what you might otherwise be capable of. This book succeeds in that it lets you create meal after meal which just ticks all the right boxes.

A sample of what we’ve cooked:

  • Dosa-spiced potato cakes with quick cucumber pickle: comforting yet made interesting through generous indian spices and a fresh, clean pickle 
  • Killer smoked tofu club sandwich: club sandwiches are a pet obsession of mine, and while this one won’t replace my go to (inspired by Neil Perry’s Qantas First Lounge version) it does serve the same cause very well 
  • Walnut miso broth with udon noodles: elegant, with a savoury depth – Japanese but something more at the same time 
  • Sweet tomato and black bean tortilla bowls: what might otherwise be yet another vegetarian chilli is saved through the addition of roasted sweet potato and cherry tomatoes. The end result is a range of textures and is morish.
  • My ribollita: since discovering this recipe (an incredibly powerful combination of tomato, kale, bread and olive oil) I’ve pretty much never thought about my old favourite Italian soup, the minestrone
  • California miso, avocado and butter bean salad: as you eat you recognise this as being something you might have, in darker days, made fun of. The end result is delicious and again reflects the very savvy way Anna approaches texture
  • Dhal with crispy sweet potato and quick-coconut chutney: there’s a recognition in this book that you can’t be lazy in making this sort of food. While others might have been tempted to call it quits with the dhal alone, the chutney brings vitality and zing.
  • Avocado and lemon zest spaghetti: not fantastic. I remember with generous stirring the end dish became sort of spaghetti cloaked in a green mush. 
  • Kale and black sesame sushi bowl: a stand out recipe in so many ways. Easy, delicious, rewarding. I’d happily eat it again and again. The rice is dressed in a citrus soy dressing and is very good. 
  • Tomato and coconut cassoulet: comforting and rich, this cassoulet feels both exotic and familiar at the same time, which is quite the magic trick. It has the deep, sticky savouriness that you might associate with the pan juices from a roast chicken.
  • Mac and greens: the love child of pesto and mac and cheese (although without the cheese in this case). 

Why this book?

  • You want to eat more plants, less animals (but don’t want to give up big flavours and satisfying meals)
  • You want to be able to throw a bunch of virtuous hashtags on your food photos
  • You like food that borrows inspiration from a whole bunch of different sources

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 ||||| A wet dog And does it just spark joy?

This was one of the best books of 2014. You should buy it!

And consider buying a copy from Amazon using this link.

Bowl — Lukas Volger

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

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

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

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

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

Structure

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

Here’s some of what we’ve cooked:

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

 

Why this book?

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

Score

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

You should buy this book.

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

Fresh India — Meera Sodha

Fresh India features incredibly exciting vegetable-based Indian food presented in an attractive and accessible package

Meera Sodha’s new book, Fresh India, is all about vibrant, vegetable-based Indian food. All the food is far away from the image some may have of Indian vegetable dishes: nothing in the book is remotely brown, beige or taupe.

The recipes cover both vegetarian versions of familiar Indian classics (panner standing in for chicken in a butter masala, for instance) as well as dishes that will feel new and fresh to even more experienced fans of Indian food.

Meera’s writing style is immediately accessible and engaging. Her recipes are written with precision and an obvious understanding of how people are cooking (and eating) in 2016. Not all recipes are quick or easy as the cover blurb promises, but the spread covers weeknight dinners as well as things you’d want to cook when you have more time available.

The book, published by Penguin, is delightfully put together. From the shocking fuchsia which lines the front and back covers, to the charming chapter illustrations, the book is clearly the product of a lot of love and effort.

Structure

303 pages split across the following chapters: Introduction | Starters + Snacks | Roots, Squashes, Tubers + Other Things | Gloriously Green | Aubergines | Salads | Eggs + Cheese | Rice | Breads | Pickles, Chutneys + Raitas | Puddings | Drinks.

Scattered throughout the chapters are some ‘value-add’ contents like menu ideas, presentation skills and some information on pulses.

The basic recipe format is a paragraph-long introduction, which is either the context of the dish or a little vignette from Meera’s life, followed by a two column split of ingredients (broken down by ‘part’ of the recipe) and method. The method is written in rather dense paragraphs which are not always easy to follow along, especially in the heat of cooking. Still, Meera’s clear writing means it easy enough to do the needful. The majority of recipes are given a gorgeous full page bordered photo.

Thoughts

The food from the book has been incredible. The dishes walk the delicate line between familiarity and novelty: it is exciting to eat something that is simultaneously comforting and exciting in the same mouthful.

A sample of what we’ve cooked so far:

  • Shredded Roti with red cabbage + carrot
  • Pickled Cauliflower with ginger + lime
  • Courgette kofta in a ginger + tomato sauce
  • Roasted broccoli with almonds + cardamon
  • Shredded Brussels sprout thoran
  • Tamarind + caramelised red onion rice
  • Beetroot raita

Each dish has been delightful. The courgette kofta were particular incredible: alive with spice and grounded by a nutty, gingery, sauce. The beetroot raita she recommends you serve with the kofta was, if not life changing, then certainly condiment changing: grated beetroot is stir fried with sliced garlic. This is tossed through creamy, thick yoghurt before being drizzled with a mustard seed and curry leaf oil. The colour and taste are bold, confident and something you’ll think about for months.

In the few weeks since I’ve had this book I haven’t been able to put it back on the shelf. Every time I open it I find more and more things I want to make.

Meera clearly has a keen understanding of what people are looking for in an Indian cookbook published in 2016. I don’t mean to imply this book is faddish and will be forgotten in a year’s time, but rather it’s positioned to leverage off the themes we see in 2016: instagram ready, vegetable friendly food.

Why this book?

  • You love Indian food but don’t want to eat another lamb saag
  • You want to do something fresh with familiar vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, potato and zucchini
  • You want to make pretty, tasty food that you’ll think about for days

Score

Nigella | | | | | Donna Hay (attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point prose?)
Ottolenghi | | | | | Bittman (elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straightforward?)
Kondo | | | | | anti-Kondo (does it spark joy?)
Jamie Oliver | | | | | Diana Henry (photos of food or photos of the author?)

You should buy this book.