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.