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.

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?